Holy Moley! Let's Save the Big Red Cheese
(This Stripped column originally appeared in the December 18-24, 1997, Long Island Voice. Click on the artwork for a larger image.)
by Beth Hannan Rimmels
For a wholesome as milk character, Captain Marvel has had more than his share of trouble with DC Comics. Originally created by artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker in 1940 for Whiz Comics, the "Shazam!" shouting hero was one of many created in the wake of Superman and Batman’s success. But unlike those characters, he was created with a decidedly humorous bent. How else can you explain the hero being dubbed a "Big Red Cheese" and a cast of supporting players that included Mr. Mind, a genius worm, and Mr. Tawny, a talking tiger who walks on two legs and wears clothing?
Alas, corporate litigation was not invented in the ’80s, so DC sued publisher Fawcett Publications for ripping off Superman. The suit dragged on for years with various rulings, dismissals and reversals until Fawcett finally decided to settle in 1953 and stop publishing Captain Marvel.
Ironically, DC Comics purchased the Fawcett stable of characters in 1973. By this time, Marvel had its own, totally different character named Captain Marvel so DC called the book Shazam. Talent like editor Julius Schwartz, writer Denny O’Neil and original artist Beck worked hard to revive it, but it didn’t catch on until 1974 when a Saturday morning live action version debuted. When the TV show folded in 1977, the book followed in 1978.
Captain Marvel floated around the edges of the DC universe until he was revamped and revived in 1994 with a painted hardcover graphic novel by Jerry Ordway. Don’t roll your eyes at "revamped." I’m the first one to bitch when a character is revamped badly or needlessly. This one is totally different.
Ordway has done what I thought would be impossible — while smoothing out some inconsistencies, clarifying other points and tying the whole cast of characters together coherently and lovingly, he has instilled a Golden Age tone into a totally ’90s book. OK, maybe not totally ’90s. Billy Batson, Captain Marvel’s alter ego, is still a good kid who isn’t into gangs or drugs. No angst or dark edges for these characters, no limb-ripping violence or thong-wearing, helium-chested babes are in these pages. Hmm, maybe that’s why sales are so bad.
One of the worst kept secrets is that The Power of Shazam is not selling well, which is a shame for this charming book. While it’s not gritty, it is rather realistic for a superhero book. Billy gets in trouble for cutting class when he has to change into Captain Marvel in an emergency. Freddy Freeman was angry to find that while Cap saved his life, he couldn’t save his legs. Then when he borrowed some of Cap’s power to become Captain Marvel Jr., he didn’t want to change back to his crippled form, even when Captain Marvel needed to be full strength to face Captain Nazi.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that The Power of Shazam will catch on after the "Lightning and Stars" crossover with Starman. If ever two books were perfect for each other, it’s these. The crossover’s been in the works for some time with Jack, the latest Starman and son of the Golden Age Ted Knight version, getting ominous hints about something involving "they of thunder and lightning" [as in the lightning bolt that transforms Billy into Captain Marvel, if you, like my husband, didn’t get the reference]. James Robinson, writer of Starman and the Elseworlds miniseries, The Golden Age, is a HUGE Golden Age fan who has blended the two comics styles into a perfect, savvy potion. I’ve only seen highlights of the four-part story, but I saw was tantalizing, particularly since it also works in the old Fawcett character, Bulletman. If you like either Starman or Captain Marvel, or just want something entertaining and compelling, do yourself a favor and pick it up. Starman #39 and The Power of Shazam #35 arrive Dec. 3 with the last two parts of the crossover appearing Jan. 7.
Column © 1997 Long Island Voice. Artwork © 1998 DC Comics.