Golden Age Comics Characters: Captain Marvel

Whiz Comics 002
Captain Marvel first appeared back in February 1940, in the classic Golden Age comic Whiz Comics #2, published by Fawcett Comics. The Captain Marvel character was created by artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker, and was the most popular superhero character of the 1940s (going by sales alone).

The character may seem quaint by modern standards, but he was hugely popular in the 1940s, a much simpler, more innocent era (at least when it comes to comics). Thirteen year-old newsboy Billy Batson is given incredible powers by an old wizard, and whenever he says the magic word Shazam! he is struck by a bolt of lightning, transforming him into Captain Marvel (saying Shazam! again changes him back into Billy Batson). Shazam! is an acronym for the first letter of each name of the six gods and legendary heroes from whom Captain Marvel gets his powers – the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the invulnerability of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. That’s quite a powerful mix!

Captain Marvel later acquired two super-powered sidekicks, Captain Marvel Jr and Mary Marvel, the three being known collectively as The Marvel Family. There were also later additions, both human and animal, all non-super powered. And there was also a retinue of nasty villains – Black Adam, an evil Captain Marvel analogue, Captain Nazi, Adolf Hitler’s champion, mad scientist Doctor Sivana, and, worst of all, Mister Mind and his Monster Society of Evil, which provided his longest running and most deadly adversaries.

Captain Marvel continued in Whiz Comics until #155 (June 1953), when the strip was forced to stop publication due to legal action initiated by National Comics, now DC Comics, who claimed that the character was too similar to Superman. That may have been technically true, but the lawsuit was quite cheeky and, in my opinion, ridiculous, as Superman himself was a blatant copy of earlier heroes such as Hercules, Samson, and even the character Gladiator, created by science fiction writer Philip Wylie in 1930, less than a decade before the creation of Superman. The influence of the Gladiator character on Siegal and Schuster in their creation of Superman is well known. After a couple of legal decisions in favour of, firstly, Fawcett, and then DC, Fawcett Publications finally settled out of court, Fawcett Comics ceased operating and stopped publishing all of their superhero comics, including the entire Captain Marvel stable of characters from 1953 onwards.

This legal nonsense was quite obviously an opportunistic act by National/DC to snuff out a more successful competitor, a perfect example of a large company using its greater legal muscle to bully a much smaller company into submission. More than any supposed legal objections, the major motivating factor in DC taking legal action against Fawcett was almost certainly financial, because Captain Marvel had been consistently outselling Superman and DC’s other titles by a considerable margin during that era.

I find it ironic that, in a nation which supposedly prizes competition, big companies prefer to use legal muscle to put dangerous competitors out of business, rather than take the more moral and logical route of trying to out-compete their adversaries in the marketplace. Even more ironic is that DC licensed the Captain Marvel stable of characters from Fawcett in 1972, and bought the rights to the characters outright from Fawcett Publications in 1980. As most DC comics fans are aware, Captain Marvel and Fawcett’s other characters live on to this day, and are now integrated into the DC Universe.

Some of the best battles in the DC Universe have featured Superman vs Captain Marvel, as both characters are so similar and equal in strength, one born of science and the other born of magic. There aren’t many characters in DC’s stable who can fight Superman to a standstill, but the Big Red Cheese is one of them!

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Comic Books In The Movies – The Purist Conundrum

I’m a life-long geek, and, like most other hardcore geeks, I’m a huge fan not only of comics, but of films based on comics. I really enjoy most modern superhero films, and I’m obviously also a huge fan of many of the original comics that these films are based on, particularly those based on characters created by Marvel Comics.

However, this love of superheroes in both the comics medium and the cinema poses a major problem for some of those more “die hard” fans watching films based on their favourite comics. Hardcore comics fans tend to be extreme purists, who can’t abide even the slightest changes to their favourite comics and characters. These people are almost impossible to please when it comes to any kind of movie adaption of their favourite comic books.

I myself used to be like that, totally obsessed with films being “exact reproductions” of my favourite comics or books, but I’ve wised up over the years and long ago given up any hope of ever seeing any direct translations from comic books to screen. Nowadays all I hope for is to get a decent, fun film.

I still have a few purist tendencies of my own, especially when it comes to my favourite comics. Hell, I’m almost guaranteed to moan incessantly about any reboot of one of my old classic comics favourites (the Legion of Super-Heroes being a perfect example), let alone a loosely-based movie version. But, in general, these days I’ve chilled greatly and now I do tend to be a bit more compromising than many of my more “fanatical” brothers and sisters.

I’m also very lucky in that I have a really strong ability to compartmentalize, which means that I can still sit and enjoy a film, even if I spend most of the time criticizing the changes and omissions compared to the comic. If the film is a good FILM in itself, even if it’s NOT a good adaption of the original comic, I’ll probably still like it. Sure, I’ll nitpick about all the continuity errors and differences, the little (and large) inconsistencies and the seemingly gratuitous and unnecessary changes made to the characters, continuity and story (hell, let’s be honest, all geeks love to nitpick and complain). But if the film is a fun FILM, I’ll still give it a thumbs-up.

Unfortunately, most of the hardcore purists are much harder to please. They want nothing but a direct translation of their favourite comics to the big screen, and no changes, however small, to the characters, story, continuity and history of the comic concerned are permitted. Well, listen guys, if that’s what you expect from Hollywood, then you’re living in cloud cuckoo land. IT AIN’T EVER GONNA HAPPEN! Hollywood has always done things their own way, and they use comics and books as a vague basis for their films, rather than doing inch-by-inch faithful adaptions (only the “classics” get the premium “don’t mess with the story” treatment, and I’m not referring to classic comics here either).

Add to this the fact that these films are NOT aimed at hardcore comic book geeks at all, but at a completely different, more general cinema audience, and the reality is that you have to accept that superhero films will be completely different beasts to the original comics, with characters and plot ideas cherry-picked from all over the place, rather than from one story.

There are also a few other practicalities which make faithful adaptions a definite no-no. Comics and film are completely different mediums, and direct translations are often simply not possible. What might look or sound great in a comic might definitely NOT look or sound so good in a live action film. A perfect example of something that doesn’t work at all in movies is comic book characterization and dialogue. It simply does NOT translate well to film. People just do NOT talk and behave in “real life” like they do in superhero comics, and anything like that appearing on film either has to be a crazy pastiche, or a comedy, otherwise it just won’t work at all.

An even more perfect, and more visual example of this failure to translate across media is superhero costumes – the guys and gals wearing their underclothes on the outside. They look great in comics and animation, but my own strongly held opinion (and I’m far from being on my own here) is that they almost always look ABSOLUTELY pathetic, stupid and laughable in live action movies. With the exception of a handful of “iconic” characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and a few others) who should NOT have their costumes messed with under any circumstances (do ya hear that Man of Steel? Damned flyin’ condom…), it’s almost always better to get rid of the silly “men in tights” costumes in movies if you want to be taken seriously. The X-Men films are a perfect example of how to do it right – those padded leather uniforms looked really slick and functional, and were much, much better onscreen than the original costumes. Wolverine definitely looked a heckuva lot better than he would have if he’d appeared in the silly yellow or brown costume that he wears in the comics.

But let’s face it, none of the above comments will sway purists at all. No matter what anybody says or does, the purists will never be happy. There’s always gonna be someone who has to moan, and there’s absolutely no pleasing these people. Look, all I have to add (aside from “Chill, and get a life!”) is this: if you’re a die-hard purist, and you absolutely CANNOT abide these movies because they dare to alter some of your sacred comic book texts, then ignore them. Don’t watch them at all. Go down the pub instead and relax with a nice, cool brewski.

Why put yourselves through all the soaring blood pressure, hair pulling, the swearing and frustration? Why do you continue to go to these films if you know you’ll hate them so much? Do you enjoy torturing yourselves or what? Or is it that you’re a bunch of drama queens and just LIKE to complain and kick up a fuss so you can get some attention? Y’know what? Either judge the film as a FILM, not a comic book, because it ISN’T a damned comic book, it’s a M-O-V-I-E, or quit yer endless griping and don’t bother watching the darned thing in the first place.

Or why don’t you do something really smart and just go away and read some comic books instead? If you want the Real Thing, then read the real thing. Ignore the films altogether and go out and buy all those lovely trade paperbacks and hardback Marvel Masterworks or DC Archives, and other collections of classic Silver and Bronze Age Marvel and DC comics, and drift off into comic book nirvana. The originals will ALWAYS be out there if you want them.

Whether they were good adaptions of the comics, or not, recent years have given us a raft of truly classic superhero films, including the most recent Avengers film, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, X-Men: First Class, The Dark Knight, and Watchmen, among others. There have also been some truly excellent films based on non-superhero comics – the first Hellboy film and the absolutely brilliant Dredd, for example – both of them not only two darned good films, but two of the very best comic book-based films EVER.

If Hollywood keeps dishing out quality comic book films like this, I’ll be more than happy, as will most fans. And sod the purists. 🙂