Captain Marvel: The Big Red Rip-off?
Was Captain Marvel, the famed Big Red Cheese of the 1940s, concocted in deliberate imitation of Superman? That plaguey old question. I had occasion to ponder it again a few years ago when writing the Foreword to Volume 2 of DC’s Archive Edition of Shazam! In years past, I had resolved the issue to my satisfaction, I felt, and I have been answering the question ringingly in the negative ever since. And in that self-same Volume 2, I found additional evidence to support my cranky contention.
Therein, for example, is the picture of Captain Marvel on the opening page of the first story in the book. It’s a picture that appears frequently in the Captain Marvel canon: it depicts our hero holding a plaque upon which are engraved the names and attributes of the personages whose initials comprise the magic word Shazam, the word that young Billy Batson invokes to summon the bolt of lightning that brings the stalwart Captain. In this portrait of the good Captain, his cape is sort of hanging over one shoulder. We see Captain Marvel like this pretty often. The cape-over-the-shoulder pose is, in fact, a habitual one.
It is not only habitual, it’s distinctive. Superman never appeared with his cape falling, casual-like, over his shoulder like this. Not back in those halcyon days of yore anyhow. The cape-over-the-shoulder thing was Captain Marvel’s and his alone. With the archival evidence now available to us, we are in a position to know, with certainty, that Captain Marvel was not an imitation Superman. And yet, one of the most celebrated episodes in the history of American comic books involves the law suit brought by Superman’s publishers against Captain Marvel’s publishers, a suit alleging that Captain Marvel was a blatant copy of Superman.
Some of us have always scoffed at the idea that Captain Marvel was a knock-off of Superman. Superman was science fiction, we always said; Captain Marvel was science fantasy, as confused a gallimaufry of pseudo-science and magic as the roster of heroes whose initials comprise the word Shazam was of history (the Biblical character, Solomon) and legend (which compounded the confusion by mixing four characters from Greek myth—Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles—with one, Mercury, from the Romans).
Moreover, we railed away, the personalities of the two characters—the ambiance of their books—were quite different. Superman gave us serious, straight-faced fiction. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, was more humorous. His stories were invested with a whimsical almost fairy-tale quality. Captain Marvel, said comics historian Ron Goulart, “refused to take his profession too seriously.” According to Jim Steranko in his History of Comics (Volume 2), “Captain Marvel always played it strictly for laughs.” Not at first, Steranko admits, but shortly after his debut, the red-clad superhero’s stories embraced humor—“irreverent, outrageous humor that seemed to make the antics of the ‘World’s Mightiest Mortal’ a satire of the super-straight adventures of the ‘Man of Steel.’” Finally, the two characters were drawn quite differently: Superman was rendered realistically while Captain Marvel was drawn simply, in an almost cartoony manner.
If this is so, how, then, could Superman’s publishers be so obtuse as to see in Captain Marvel an infringement of their copyright on Superman, as was alleged in the letter they filed in 1941?
With the factual evidence of DC’s archival Captain Marvel in front of us, we can answer that question: quite simply, Captain Marvel wasn’t, at first, as cartoony and whimsical as all of us remember him. Even as late as the summer of 1941, a good eighteen months after Captain Marvel’s inauguration in Whiz Comics No. 2, dated February 1940, most of Captain Marvel’s adventures were told pretty straight. Certainly the earlier stories were.
Granted, a couple of comedic elements infiltrate the stories of the comic book’s second year—a cartoony gorilla and a fanciful spider; and fantasy seeps in now and again. But there’s no outright hilarity. Sivana is the stock evil scientist; and he hasn’t begun, yet, to refer to Captain Marvel as “the Big Red Cheese,” an ear-mark of the humorous treatment of later years.
It isn’t until Whiz Comics No. 20 (August 1941) that we glimpse the kind of story and treatment that would distinguish most of the Captain Marvel oeuvre in the years to come. To put Sivana’s scientific laboratory behind doors bearing the name “Nefarious Research, Inc.” is the sort of sidelong wink-and-nudge drollery we would grow to expect. And when Captain Marvel discovers that Sivana’s new body is just “machinery,” his eyes become cartoony black dots in surprised reaction, another convention that signals a somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach to superheroing, an approach that would increasingly shape Captain Marvel’s adventures—but which is mostly missing from almost all the stories in the first two years of the character’s life.
In appearance, Captain Marvel in the first couple years could certainly qualify as a rip-off of Superman. The drawing style deployed by Captain Marvel’s visual interpreter, C. C. Beck, was not, at first, cartoony at all. Although somewhat less embellished with cross-hatching than other artwork of the period, the pictures on the pages of the early Captain Marvel books did not look as distinctively different from the pictures in Superman comics as they would a few years later. In short, to the editorial satraps at the Superman shop, Captain Marvel looked suspiciously like another attempt to cash in on Superman’s immense popularity.
The first such attempt had occurred before Superman was a year old. In the spring of 1939, Victor S. Fox, one-time accountant at Detective Comics (as DC Comics was known at the time), had realized how successful Superman was and had left to set up his own rival funnybook publishing firm. Fox promptly commissioned Will Eisner to produce a comic book about a superhero to be called Wonder Man. Fox specified that Wonder Man was to have a red costume but, otherwise, was to be a pretty exact duplicate of Superman except that he would be blond. Wonder Man could leap tall buildings with a single bound, was superhumanly strong and virtually invulnerable. Just like Superman. When the first issue of Wonder Comics appeared in May 1939, Harry Donenfeld, then the chief executive at Detective Comics, quickly brought suit for copyright infringement, and Fox, caught with his hand in the copyright cookie jar, stopped producing Wonder Man immediately.
This episode had barely concluded when Captain Marvel burst onto the newsstands in early 1940. Another superhero in red longjohns. And he had dark hair just like Superman. Is it any wonder that Detective Comics filed a “cease and desist” letter almost right away? The legal struggle went on for the rest of the decade, with judges ruling first for Superman’s publisher, then for Captain Marvel’s Fawcett Publications. Finally, Fawcett abandoned the fight and settled out of court. It was 1953, and superhero comic books were fading fast. As circulation dropped, Fawcett decided to get out of the comic book business. So Captain Marvel disappeared until 1972, when DC Comics, having negotiated the publication rights for the character, brought him back to life. But for a complex of legal reasons, DC could not use the name of the character in the title of the comic book, so the book was christened Shazam, and it has been by that name that most of the subsequent attempts at rejuvenating the character have appeared, albeit with today’s personality-driven superhero formula.
Fawcett’s “Marvel family” of comic books in the 1940s were immensely popular. Captain Marvel appeared in several titles, one of which came out every three weeks. In other titles, we enjoyed Captain Marvel Junior, Mary Marvel, and others of the family. Captain Marvel outsold Superman. Naturally, those of us who fondly recall his adventures resent the law suit that put him out of business. But that fondness should not blind us to the fact that Fawcett’s superhero looked, at first, remarkably like another Wonder Man. And with the Archive Edition books at hand, we have the evidence. The early Captain Marvel was at least as serious and straight-forward a flying superhero as Superman was. On the basis of the character’s attributes alone, DC was thoroughly justified in looking askance at Fawcett’s enterprise.
What’s more, Fawcett had a rip-off reputation. The company was constantly aping the efforts of other publishers. In this practice, it was not markedly different from other publishers at the pulp-end of the periodical industry. But Fawcett was notably successful at it.
Fawcett’s first publication, however, was, as nearly as I can tell, an original conception.
The founder of the Fawcett publishing empire was a one-time newspaperman and soldier, Wilford Hamilton Fawcett. Young Wilford had run away from home at sixteen to join the Army, and he found himself in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. Steranko says the youth was wounded in the knee and almost lost his leg, but he sought out a specialist in Mexico, and when he returned to his hometown of Minneapolis, he was ambulatory on both feet.
He worked for awhile as a railway mail clerk but soon gravitated into journalism, eventually becoming police reporter for the Minneapolis Journal. Then along came World War I. Fawcett went back to the battlefield, this time as a captain, but when he returned to civilian life in Minneapolis after the hostilities, he found himself in the ranks of the unemployed. Nothing daunted, he opened a tavern for ex-servicemen that he called the Army and Navy Club. Alas, it failed almost immediately, thanks to Prohibition.
Whether Fawcett thought that his next endeavor would actually make him some money or not, we can’t say. But what the Fawcett Legend asserts is that sometime in 1919 (possibly in May) he borrowed a typewriter and typed up several pages of “hot” jokes and “spicy” doggerel that he had heard hither and yon while on active duty in the military. He mimeographed these pages and distributed them among his ex-soldier friends in hospitals and roadhouses. The demand for more of the same was immediate. And before long, Fawcett was churning out a monthly joke book, which he christened Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang. The last two words evoked memories of a WWI artillery shell, which, as it passed overhead, went “whiz,” and when it landed, went “bang.”
The first issue of Whiz Bang had an initial press run of 5,000 and was priced at two-bits. Sold at first in the hotel lobbies around Minneapolis, it grew quickly as its reputation spread. Ex-soldiers, traveling salesmen, sporting men, bellhops and curious schoolboys gobbled up each issue. Captain Billy hired joke-writers, and the circulation soared. In 1923, Whiz Bang claimed 425,000 readers.
Subtitled “Explosion of a Pedigreed Bull,” the pocket-sized periodical aimed at a vaguely rural readership. Editorially, it was built around the escapades and epigrams of the characters at Whiz Bang Farm (ostensibly in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis). The cast included Gus, the hired man; Olaf, another; Deacon Callahan; his toothsome daughter, Lizzie, whose virtue every male had designs upon; and Pedro, a bull. (Rejection slips sent to those who submitted material explained that “Pedro, the Whiz Bang bull, didn’t like this one.”)
For the day, the Whiz Bang content was untrammeled smut. Bawdy stories, ribald verse, titillating pictures and cartoons, and double entendre galore. By present-day standards (assuming we have any at all), this stuff was pretty tame withal. On its pages, “hell” was usually represented by “h—“ or “heck.” Here’s a sample of the poetry:
I had a flower garden,
But my love for it is dead,
‘Cause I found a bachelor’s button
In my black-eyed susan’s bed.
The jokes weren’t much more daring:
“Why, hello,” said the first poor working girl; “you must have struck it rich since I saw you last. Them jools, them furs, them everything!”
“Oh, haven’t you heard?” said the second poor working girl. “I’ve got a new position!”
You have to look pretty deep in that one, and you have to start with prurient expectations.
Captain Billy himself was exactly what you might expect to find in a fellow who told dirty stories and recited racy poetry. According to report, he was a hearty man, full of rough humor and bluff good fellowship. Once his magazine began generating a substantial income, he started traveling, and wherever he went, he collected jokes and snatches of poetry, which he shipped back to the home office.
Every month, he contributed his own editorial, “Drippings from the Fawcett.” Referring to himself as “this bristle-whiskered old sodbuster,” he championed “the common people,” liquor consumption, and the “pleasures of living.” And he attacked Prohibition, reformers, censors, and all their blue-nosed ilk, reveling in his reputation as a benevolent reprobate.
Tame though it may seem today, Whiz Bang was nonetheless the cutting edge of social revolution in its heyday. To some, the magazine represented the decline in morality and the increase of sexual immodesty that seemed to characterize the Roaring Twenties; to others, Whiz Bang was the emblem of openness and freedom of expression. It was unquestionably the dominant comic magazine of the decade. And it may be likened handily to Playboy as an agent of change or as a reflection of that change in sexual mores among the nation’s adolescent males.
With the success of Whiz Bang, Captain Billy realized he was a publisher, and he began producing other magazines. By 1930, Fawcett Publications had twelve monthly magazines; by the end of that decade, the count was up to sixty-three. And most of them were clones of other magazines that had demonstrated appeal on the newsstand.
Fawcett’s first offering after Whiz Bang was True Confessions, an imitation of Bernarr Macfadden’s True Story, which debuted in 1922. Capitalizing on the pulp fiction fad of the day, Fawcett next brought out Triple-X, a magazine that varied its title to reflect whatever was selling that year--Triple-X Western, Triple-X Mystery, Triple-X Aviation. In 1926, he launched Battle Stories and Screen Secrets, which became Screen Play. The same year, Fawcett started Smokehouse Monthly, imitating his own flagship. In 1927, indulging his interest in sports and his brother’s in golf, he bought Amateur Golfer and Sportsman. (His brother Roscoe had left a job as sports editor on the Portland Oregonian to join what had become the family business.) And in 1928, Captain Billy bought yet another naughty joke book, Jim Jam Jems. Then came the flood of imitations. Seeing the success of Popular Mechanics, Fawcett started Modern Mechanics (which was forced to change its name to Mechanix Illustrated when Popular Mechanics objected to the initial title because it was so similar to its own). And when Dell Publishing introduced its briefly successful humor magazine, Ballyhoo, in 1931, Fawcett produced its copy in Hooey within the year. Seeing the success of Esquire, Captain Billy ginned up For Men Only in 1936. And with Spot, he endeavored to hitch his wagon to the success of Henry Luce’s Life. And so it went.
Over at DC, publisher Donenfeld, himself a veteran of the copycat pulp industry, would have recognized immediately that with Captain Marvel, Fawcett was doing again what he had always done in creating his empire, imitating proven success. Fawcett Publications had moved to New York in 1939 and had begun to formulate plans to invade the comic book market shortly after its arrival.
Before the appearance of the first newsstand issue of Whiz Comics (numbered “2”), the Captain Marvel concept evolved through several permutations. The initial inspiration of Bill Parker, then editor of Mechanix Illustrated, was for a team of heroes, each possessing one of the attributes later combined in Shazam, commanded by Captain Thunder. The team notion was soon abandoned, though—perhaps because of its inherent cumbersomeness—and by the end of the year, Captain Thunder embodied all the traits of his erstwhile lieutenants.
Captain Thunder was to debut in Flash Comics, but another publisher, the Detective Comics ally All-American Comics, had just launched a comic book with that title, so the Fawcett editors tried again with Thrill Comics. That title, unhappily, was too close to another rival publisher’s Thrilling Comics. (Is this a pattern that we see emerging?) By the time they resorted to Whiz Comics, Captain Thunder had been re-christened Captain Marvel. (He had appeared as Captain Thunder only in the “ashcan edition,” which, as I said, was entitled Flash Comics, published in-house to establish copyright; but that book was never circulated until DC’s publication in 1992 of the first volume of the Archive Edition Shazam, which reprints the entire Captain Thunder story. The ashcan Flash Comics supplies the reason for the first issue of Whiz Comics being numbered “2”: for the Fawcett folks, it was the second issue of their magazine even though it had a different title.)
The fast footwork in these matters was a company trait. Fawcett Publications concentrated on making money, and it acted promptly to minimize losses. Any magazine that didn’t prove to be a money-maker quickly, Fawcett killed without a second thought and devoted its resources to promoting the magazines that demonstrated their appeal almost at once.
In what proved to be the most inspired aspect of the Captain Marvel ethos, the good Captain had acquired an alter-ego—the youth Billy Batson, who, by invoking the name of the old wizard he meets in an abandoned subway station (“Shazam!”) transforms himself into a super-powered adult. (The linguistic hopscotch evident in all these names is amusing to contemplate: Captain Marvel evokes Captain Billy, which name, in turn, suggests Billy Batson; Whiz Comics is clearly an echo of Whiz Bang, and Thunder and “flashes” of lightning seem to originate in the same explosion of that WWI artillery shell.) Young male readers would identify with Billy, who was the actual protagonist in the Captain Marvel stories: a smart, inquisitive and precocious orphan boy (who works like an adult as a radio reporter), he gets himself into trouble by investigating mysteries, and then he summons a grown-up version of himself who gets him out of trouble. For any boy reading these comics, it was a dream come beautifully, simply, true.
The uniqueness of this concept, however, was not as obvious as Captain Marvel’s superpowers—in particular, his ability to fly unaided. This was Superman’s ability, too. Fawcett’s lawyers established later that Captain Marvel flew before Superman did; at first, remember, Superman got airborne by leaping super leaps. But this is litigious hair-splitting. Fact is, none of the other longjohn legions of the day were at all self-propelled flyers. Just Superman. And Captain Marvel.
All the archival and historical evidence brings us to our conclusion: if Fawcett didn’t set out deliberately to produce an imitation Superman, it sure looked like it had. And so DC, scarcely the villain in the piece (despite the sentiments of all us Captain Marvel fans), seems entirely justified in bringing the law suit that hovered over both publishing houses for more than a decade. DC’s lawyers were never able to find a witness who would testify that anyone at Fawcett had been instructed to copy Superman (as Fox had instructed Eisner), but probably—given the task: create a superhero—no one needed the instruction. Everyone knew what the comic book trend was on the newsstand.
Later, of course—about the time we get to Whiz Comics No. 20 in August 1941—Beck and writer Otto Binder shifted the character off the center of gravity and started doing more whimsical stories. Before long, the light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek treatment prevailed. And once that set in, the similarities between the two characters ebbed away into near non-existence, and Captain Marvel emerged as a unique creation, scarcely a copy. So unique that no one has since been able to satisfactorily bring him back to life. But they keep trying.
Fawcett Gallery: And before we leave the topic, here is a short gallery of Captain Marvel pictures, all made by me in my first foray into fandom, a quarter century ago. Zero Hero was a character of my own invention; ditto his side-kick, the toothsome Starbright. This exhibition includes my caricature of C.C. Beck and of movie actor Fred McMurray, upon whose physiognomy Captain Marvel’s was said to be based. Here McMurray plays the part of the Big Red Cheese, and Zero comes to naught, as was his wont.
Footnit: An earlier version of this essay, including a review of Volume 2 of the DC Shazam Archive, appeared in The Comics Journal.