I have never been a huge fan of the Captain Marvel series. The art style given by creator C. C. Beck is very simplistic, almost childish. That being said, it is executed with remarkable skill, and I fully understand why so many collectors value his work. The Captain Marvel stories that are not drawn by him usually look insultingly childish. Reading the whole run for the first time, I realized how strongly Beck was influenced by Herge, the creator of Tintin. Both series are very much in the Boys Own Adventure genre, with deceptively clean and bright art that looks so much more basic than it really is.
Captain Marvel’s origin could be quite terrifying, instead of being almost romantically magical. Billy Batson is a young orphan, selling newspapers on the street. A mysterious man with a hat pulled low over his face lures Billy into an abandoned subway station, in which Billy finds a huge train with elaborate art deco designs on it. He rides this deeper into the tunnel, and debarks to find a long passageway with grotesque statues depicting the Seven Deadly Sins. At the end of the passage is a chamber, and an old man with long white hair and beard on a throne beneath a massive block of stone dangling by a thread.
This is the wizard Shazam, who endows Billy with the powers of the gods when he speaks the wizard’s name. It’s even done acrostically, so that Billy gains the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. Greek, Roman and Jewish all mixed together. He can also fly, though that is not credited to anyone. Billy says Shazam, changing into a robust adult as the block of stone falls, seemingly crushing the old wizard (though Billy would shortly discover this was not the case).
He then proceeds to stop the mad scientist Sivana from taking control of the radio waves, and nets himself, as Billy, a job as a reporter on WHIZ radio. The fact that Billy appears only 12 or 13, but has a job and apparently lives on his own is never an issue in this series. This is not reality, not even approaching it. This is wish-fulfillment fantasy at its purest, the hard done by child speaking the magic word and becoming an all-powerful adult.
It takes quite a while for a supporting cast to build up. Station owner Sterling Morris, and his secretary Miss Dalshaw appear in most stories, but aside from being periodically captured, we learn little about them. Sterling Morris seems to have some from a large family, as we meet his brother Cuthbert and his overbearing wife Priscilla in Whiz Comics 36, obnoxious nephew Percy Discord in Captain Marvel Adventures 35, and another niece and nephew, Cissie and Pete Sumerly, in Captain Marvel Adventures 12. These two are the only ones to make a second appearance in this era, returning in CMA 13, as Billy and Cissie go on a date, and he refrains from changing to Captain Marvel, to impress her as himself. Billy gets his first kiss at the end of the story.
Sivana is the most frequent character after this, at least for the first two years of the run. He appears in about 80% of the stories before 1943. A short, bald and consumately evil inventor, he is accompanied and assisted by the lovely Beautia. She is introduced in Whiz Comics 4 as the Empress of Venus, as Sivana plots to have her elected president of the US. Beautia falls for Captain Marvel immediately, and then constantly wavers between helping him, and helping Sivana. His hold over her is unclear until Whiz Comics 15, when Sivana captures Billy, attaching a device to his neck to prevent him from saying Shazam, and then taking him to Venus as his prisoner. We learn that Sivana was a ridiculed scientist, far ahead of his time, who abandoned his home world and moved to Venus, raising his two children, Beautia and Magnificus. Beautia continues to appear in most of the Sivana stories until 1943, and despite Sivana figuring out Billy is Captain Marvel fairly quickly, Beautia never clues in. Magnificus does not appear again in this era – he may not appear again until the 70s.
Spy Smasher crosses over into the Captain Marvel series through issues 16 – 18, and Captain Marvel appears in the Spy Smasher chapters of Whiz in those issues as well. Spy Smasher has been mind-controlled, and is on a dangerous, traitorous rampage. Captain Marvel tries to reverse the mind control, but Spy Smasher destroys the Hypno-Chair. Cap relies simply on the force of his will power to restore Spy Smasher’s sanity.
Spy Smasher teams up with Captain Marvel again in Whiz 33 to protect the USS Alaskizona from foreign spies, but Spy Smasher also cameos alongside Ibis the Invincible, Lance O’Casey and Golden Arrow in America’s Greatest Comics 4, at a movie screening, joined by Taia, in issue 43’s “Sabotage at the Printing Plant”, at the offices of Whiz Comics, trying to make sure that Nazis do not prevent the next issue from coming out, and at “Captain Marvel’s Birthday” in Whiz 47, where they are joined by Bulletman.
Whiz Comics 21 sees three other boys named Billy Batson come together to visit their famous namesake, and he decides to share his identity, and then his powers, with them. Nicknamed Tall Billy Batson, Fat Billy Batson and Hillbilly Batson, they are referred to on the cover of Whiz 21 as the Squadron of Justice, but when they return in issue 29 they are called the Billy Batsons of America. Deciding that that was a sucky name, in their third appearance, in issue 34, they are called the Lieutenant Marvels, the name that would stick. Of their four appearances in this era, only the last one, in issue 40, grabs my interest at all, as a dying pilot gives the longitude and latitude of a secret Axis meeting, but not the directional co-ordinates, so the four Billys each head to different locales – Canada, Russia, Africa and South America – to seek out the real location.
Whitey Murphy is introduced as a sort of sidekick for Billy, though a few years older than him, in Whiz Comics 22, but does not appear very often, and lacks any sort of distinct personality. Whitey joins the army in CMA 12, and Captain Marvel enlists as well, until Shazam convinces him he is needed on the home front. Whitey does not appear again in this era, but does return eventually.
Captain Marvel Junior gets introduced in Whiz Comics 25, in a story that continues from (and continues in) the Bulletman series in Master Comics. Freddy Freeman is fishing in a rowboat with his grandfather as Captain Nazi comes hurtling through the air, crashing in the water next to them. They rescue him, which turns out to be a big mistake as Captain Nazi promptly kills Freddy’s grandfather, and attempts to kill Freddy as well. Freddy is left crippled, but Captain Marvel saves him, and shares his power with him. Unlike the Lieutenant Marvels, Freddy says Captain Marvel to change (which means he cannot say his own superhero name without changing form one to the other). He has the same powers as Captain Marvel, but does not get older. He is lame, and requires a crutch as Freddy, but not as Captain Marvel Junior. Oh and his suit is blue instead of red. He heads off to Master Comics to help Bulletman against Captain Nazi, and then moves directly into his own series in that book. He makes only two other appearance in the Captain Marvel series in this era, one being the birthday story, and the other in the story that introduces Mary Marvel.
Mary is indirectly set-up in Captain Marvel Adventures 10, as Billy’s wealthy grandfather dies. Some con men pass Billy off as the long-lost grandchild, but once Billy discovers they are out for his money, he ceases to believe he really was the man’s grandson. CMA 18 fills in the rest of the story. Billy is hosting a radio quiz show, and Freddy is one of the contestants, along with Percival Pill an Mary Bromfield. Billy admires Mary, and wishes she was his sister. Then, while the radio show is still going on, he gets a note from dying Miss Primm, who was the governess for the Batsons. She tells him of his parents death, and that he had a sister. He returns to the show, which Mary wins, and tells Freddy of the news of his sister. Mary gets kidnapped, and Billy and Freddy rescue her. They determine she is his sister, but then Billy and Freddy get captured and gagged. Mary says Shazam, and changes into Mary Marvel. Actually, all that changes is her dress, but she gains what appear to be the same powers. They visit Shazam, who explains that he knew of Mary all along, but also that Billy would find her on his own, and that Mary’s powers derive from a different pantheon.
From Selena she gets grace, the strength of Hippolyta, the skill of Ariadne, the fleetness of Zephyrus, the beauty of Aurora and the wisdom of Minerva. Once again, where she gets the flying power from is unstated. Unlike Freddy, Mary trains with Billy, though only for CMA 19, at the end of which she gets a telegram informing her that she now has her very own series in Wow Comics. Mary guests in two more Captain Marvel stories: the birthday story, and CMA 37’s “Visitors from Space”.
Professor Edgewise, an absent-minded scientist who causes as much mayhem with his inventions as Sivana, but is far from malicious, is introduced in the story “The Realm of the Subconscious” in CMA 9, and returns in America’s Greatest Comics 4, as Sivana mind controls him and makes him look young and robust, hoping to marry him off to Beautia.
There is one more supporting character in this period, someone I never knew existed until this read, Steamboat. He is a black man who works at first as a janitor at WHIZ, but then moves in with Billy, seemingly working as his servant. This is never overtly stated, but he waits on Billy, who he calls “Mistah Billy.” Steamboat is drawn in that horrific style that is so prevalent in this period, not even looking human, and speaking in a broad, racist dialect. He was clearly a popular character, he appears in almost every story in 1942 and 43, and even gets a leading role in two of them. One reunites him with his long-lost grandmother, Showboat Mammy, who happens to be working as a cleaning lady for Sivana. She has voodoo powers – she can mind control people just by talking to them over the telephone, and helps Sivana take control of Captain Marvel until Steamboat convinces her that Sivana is evil. In the only appearance of Steamboat that I even mildly enjoy, ‘The World’s Mightiest Mistake,” in CMA 16, he goes on a date with Elocutia Jones (who is drawn as a very attractive black woman). They go to a Harlem nightclub, and as part of the show Steamboat gets hypnotized into thinking he has great strength. His clothes wind up getting torn off, and he is wearing long red underwear beneath, and the shards of his shirt like a cape, making him resemble Captain Marvel. Despite the dialect, I did enjoy him declaring “Yippee!! For de Hahlem Mahvel! Take dat an dat, bank robbers!”
As one might expect in a very childlike series, there are no villains with any shades of grey, and the crimes are all fairly straightforward, even if the plans are world shattering. Captain Nazi debuted in the Bulletman series, so I will be discussing him further in that entry, but Captain Marvel managed to acquire some decent villains before this era ended.
The Arson Fiend is the earliest of the numerous bad guys Captain Marvel would fight who would have two physically distinct identities. Meek George Tweedle rubbed a mysterious lotion on himself that caused his entire body to change before beginning his arson spree. He dies at the end of his first appearance, in CMA 2, but returns in the 70s.
Another meek and nondescript man, Stinky Printwhistle, gets endowed by Lucifer with the terror of Ivan the Terrible, the cunning of Borgia, the fierceness of Atilla and the cruelty of Caligula to become Ibac. Intended to be Captain Marvel’s equal, he gets defeated relatively easily in his first appearance, “The Curse of Ibac,” in CMA 8, just getting punched so hard he loses his powers, but from his second appearance on, he usually has to be tricked into saying his name to lose his powers. In his debut, as Ibac, he wore a green top with gold shorts, but from CMA 9 on as Ibac he would be shirtless, showing off his brawny, hairy chest.
Mr. Banjo also makes his first appearance in CMA 8, passing information to German agents through music. Not a particularly fearful foe.
Nippo debuts in CMA 9, a Japanese agent out to destroy America, and the vast racism inherent in the character can sort of be excused by the ongoing war.
Captain Marvel Adventures 22 begins a serial that runs past the end of this era, “The Monster Society of Evil.” An unseen alien, Mr. Mind, recruits Sivana, Captain Nazi, Ibac, Mr. Banjo and Nippo to work together to defeat Captain Marvel. The first few chapters of this serial are the best. Captain Marvel faces off against Captain Nazi in the first chapter, then Ibac, followed by Nippo and Sivana, before heading to Mr. Mind’s homeworld to confront him. Once there, he engages all sorts of monstrous beings, but none are Mr. Mind. Billy completely overlooks the little caterpillar wearing glasses until it is too late, and Mr. Mind heads to Earth, joining forces, if temporarily, with the Nazis and then the Japanese as part of his plans for world conquest. He has his own army of worms, and a battery of fantastic weapons, but the series devolves into Captain Marvel ruining one plan after another as Mr. Mind keeps escaping, the Monster Society itself forgotten despite being the title.
There is another linked story idea, though not a serial. Beginning with CMA 24, Billy starts a Tour of Cities, and every issue of the series from this point on contains a tale set in some specific locale, starting with Minneapolis. This one, and the Detroit story in 25, both contain excellent renderings of aerial views of the city. Local landmarks are used, though often only really in the first page or two of the story. Airports and football stadiums usually make the cut, as well as monuments and notable buildings. The Los Angeles story in 27 is the weakest, as it all takes place in a fictional film studio, but the giant swastika flag flying atop Coit Tower in the San Francisco story in CMA 28 is pretty powerful. Foreign agents are the villains in all the “city stories” in this era. With CMA 32’ s “Deep in the Heart of Dallas,” city officials, sports figures, reporters and such also start having cameos in the tales; again, usually just at the beginning, and it is rare for them to be central to the plot.
Captain Marvel continues in the Late Golden Age
Captain Marvel: Whiz Comics 2 – 56 (Feb 40 – July 44)
Captain Marvel Special Edition 1 (Dec 40)
Captain Marvel Adventures 1 – 37 (Spring 41 – July 44)
America’s Greatest Comics 1 – 8 (Fall 41 – July 43)