Thursday, September 14, 2006

Oh Captain, my Captain

If you held a gun to my head and asked my to tell you my 5 favorite comic characters, I’d probably list the following in some order: Captain Marvel (the original), Plastic Man, The Spirit, Batman and the Joker. (Actually, first I’d probably make some remark about how putting the gun to my head was not, technically, making me give you the names- that I was doing it of my own free will.*)

Looking at the list, something interesting sticks out about the first three characters- they’re all classic Golden Agers that really don’t translate too well to modern day comics. All three are, for lack of a better word, innocent. They’re funny, they can be goofy, they tend to have odd rogues galleries- all characteristics that put them at odds with present-day comics.

Of those three, Captain Marvel is by far my favorite, and he is the one that has the biggest injustice being done to him. He started out around 1939/1940 in the wake of the success of Superman. His alter ego is a young boy- Billy Batson- who one day was taken to meet a mysterious wizard named Shazam. When Billy says the wizard’s name, he is transformed into Captain Marvel, a superstrong, invulnerable, flying hero.

Cap’s adventures were much lighter than Superman’s and (especially) Batman’s. Cap always smiled. Where Superman’s evil genius nemesis Lex Luthor was devising deadly schemes to kill him, Cap’s evil genius nemesis, Dr. Sivana, had schemes that resembled those of The Brain (from “Pinky and the Brain.”) Where Batman’s foes were the Joker and Two-Face, Cap had to battle Mr. Mind, a super-intelligent worm (!) (although, to me, he looked more like a caterpillar).

As time went on, the Marvel Family grew to include Billy’s sister, Mary Marvel, Freddy Freeman (who became Captain Marvel, Jr.), Uncle Dudley (who had no superpowers, but pretended he did, and everyone played along), the Lieutenant Marvels (Fat Billy, Tall Billy and Hill Billy), Talky Tawny (a tiger who was given a serum to allow him to talk and walk upright, and was often seen around Fawcett City in his dapper suit and hat), all the way down to Hoppy the Marvel Bunny.

You can easily see these people were not living in the same universe as the Punisher and Wolverine.

At their peak, Captain Marvel comics were the highest-selling comics in the country, with sales surpassing those of "The Big Three"- Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. DC comics (Superman’s publisher), started a lawsuit, claiming Cap was ripping off Superman. The suit dragged on into the 50s, with Fawcett (Cap’s publishers) eventually agreeing to stop publishing the adventures of the Marvel Family.

Ironically, some time later, when Fawcett went out of business, DC bought the rights to all of their characters and decided it was time to re-introduce Captain Marvel to the masses. In 1972, DC put out the comic “Shazam!”, featuring art by Cap’s original artist, CC Beck, and stories that attempted to recapture the spirit of the old books. By now, however, comic readers were older and used to more “realistic” characters like The Fantastic Four, or Spider-Man- characters with flaws and foibles. Despite also having a popular live-action Saturday morning TV show, Captain Marvel never really approached his old levels of popularity, and the comic was eventually cancelled.

Cap became a back-up character for a while- doing guest appearances in other books. In the late 80s, another attempt was made to bring back “The Big Red Cheese,” but this also never really caught on, and was cancelled after a couple years.

So where am I going with this?

Well, three words- Captain Marvel’s back! Or is he?

DC Comics recently had huge cross-over event called “Infinite Crisis”, which affected all of the characters DC publishes, and launched a mini-series called “The Trials of Shazam!”. One of the results is that magic doesn’t work like it used to, and the old wizard, Shazam, who gave Billy Batson his powers, is dead. Which means that Captain Marvel is the new Shazam. And he’s been driven crazy by the responsibility. In the beginning of issue #1, he seriously wounds a couple of bad guys, just because he can.

Why? Why in the comics world is it assumed that in order for a character to be “good” or “relevant”, he has to become The Dark Knight? It worked for Batman (to a point) because that was always part of his character, but this is should be a light-hearted book.

This is Captain Marvel:

This is not:

Would “All in the Family 2006” feature an Archie Bunker who’s a member of the KKK? Would a modern “My Favorite Martian” have Uncle Martin secretly trying to pave the way for a takeover of Earth? I shudder to think at what “Hogan’s Heroes” would be like if it were written as a modern comic.

If you have to change a character so much that he’s the antithesis of what he used to be, just give up. Let him fade away and write a new character. The fans will appreciate it more, I’m sure.

*Inside Joke


The Edward said...

I have to agree with you in some ways... some. But first, you are correct, if someone put a gun to your head and you gave up some information, you would have had to have believed that it was a credible threat that someone was going to take your life if you didn't give it up, and you believed that your life was worth more than the information requested, so you would have "complied." But, if they requested information that would have hurt a large group of people you cared about, you might not, showing that you had a choice in the matter, and based on the information requested, might chose differently. Therefore, there was no forcing you because of a gun - just your choice!

I like you idea of "My Favorite Martian" being here to pave the way for an invasion! You should really write a script for that one - I truly believe that could be a winner! Or I might do that one...

I agree with your general argument, that the original should be left alone and that it was sad what they did to the Golden Agers. But, by leaving alone, I would mean to not re-issue with changes. I not only have no problem with people reinventing characters, but I actually enjoy them! I'm a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, and I love reading parodies of him. I liked the original Battlestar Galactica, but I like the new one better. But that is only true if I separate them in my mind - I keep the original story associated with the original character, and think of the new one as standing or failing on its own merits. Can you think of the new ones as parodies or pastiches? Thereby, enjoying the tribute to the old characters/memories, but knowing that this is an alternate version? Like Good Spock, bad Spock? Good Willow and bad Willow? Sherlock Holmes and Solar Pons?

madpuppy said...

It would be nice to think of them as alternate versions- in the old DC universe, there was an "Earth-U" (I think it was) where Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were evil, and the only true hero was Lex Luthor. DC also has a bunch of "Elseworlds" stories where we see variations of their characters.

If this Captain Marvel were an "elseworlds" Marvel, then I would let it stand or fall on its own merits.

However, this is now the canonical Marvel, meaning that future versions will have to take this story into account as part of continuity.

Frankly, I don't mind different writers adding their own takes on characters. When it's done well, like in "All-Star Superman", it's great. (See also Alan Moore's "Marvelman" for a wonderful updating of the British Captain Marvel). However, Judd Winick, the guy who's writing the new Cap. Marvel, is pretty much a hack who never seems to understand any of his characters, and substitutes violence for character development and plotting.