Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Captain Marvel: The Best Superhero Comic of it's Time? An Essay

A while back, a friend of mine who is a big comics enthusiast, but not necessarily of superheroes (apart from some old favorites) asked me what I would consider the “definitive” super hero comics from the Golden and Silver Ages. He didn’t want something groundbreaking that changed the entire industry, but he didn’t want to wade through garbage either. He wanted something somewhere in-between that could still be called definitive.
 My friend knew I had a big collection of archives and even a few original 40’s comics featuring the Golden Age Captain Marvel, and he had heard good things about the series from nostalgia books on comics like All in Color for A Dime and Captain Marvel co-creator C.C Beck’s own legendary rants. Even today, many call the series “the superhero concept in it’s purest form”. Another friend also chimed in and re-assured him that yes, as far as retro super heroes go, Captain Marvel is the one to read. I was a little conflicted about giving him those archives though, because on one hand I thought my friend would be surprised to get such a huge gift, cause I have a shitload of those comics. On the other, I wanted to get rid of those archives for a good reason! You see, I really don’t care for Captain Marvel.
 I know, I know it’s a series usually held up as the pinnacle of Golden Age superhero comics and the epitome of superheroes as whimsical, innocent escapist figures for children. It’s a series praised across the board for engaging in gentle, thought-provoking fantasy instead of the fisticuffs and repetitive plots featuring Nazis, gangsters, and recurring super villains that dominated other comics of the era. It also didn’t take itself seriously, as if a humorous attitude in of itself makes something an instant classic.
Want the truth? Except for a handful of stories near the very end of the strip’s run, the series was dominated by…. Fisticuffs, repetitive plots featuring Nazis, gangsters and recurring super villains, and it was all played fairly seriously. Captain Marvel racked up a body count in some stories that would put the early Batman to shame, and horror elements dominated the book, violence was often bloody. Was there whimsy in the stories? Well, yes, but pretty much only in two respects. One was the basic concept of just having to say a magic word to become a superhero, which is definitely more appealing to your average kid than being an alien or using a vast fortune to train for years after seeing your parents murdered before your eyes. But apart from that, most of the whimsy came from one other aspect of the series: comedy sidekicks like Steamboat, Tawky Tawny, Uncle Dudley, Freckles, etc. Not to say those characters weren’t charming and funny (sometimes), but they were hardly unique in a genre that had characters like Doiby Dickles (who had a magic anthropomorphic cab named Gertrude), Chop-Chop, Winky, Blinky and Noddy, Etta Candy, Mr. Mxyzptlk (who was more of a friendly nuisance than an actual villain back then) Woozy Winks, and yes, Batman's butler Alfred in the early years before he was presented as a father figure.
 So really, the Marvel stories were hardly more humorous and whimsical than anything else of the time. It’s kinda expected that comedy relief characters provide, well, comedy. That in itself does not a whimsical series make. I mean, is a talking tiger any more or less "whimsical" than a talking cab? “But the art was cartoony!” the fans shout. True, but that apparently had more to do with Beck’s belief in minimalism than anything else.
 Oh, and just to be a dick, pretty much all of the artwork back then was similarly cartoony or simplistic.

 I guess it all depends how well the humor is executed, of course. For example, compare Jack Cole's brilliant and still hilarious to this day Plastic Man stories to the lackluster revivals of the character, or the unreadable Elongated Man backups in Detective Comics. But in all honesty, I haven't seen anything in any of the Captain Marvel stories I've read that's any more sophisticted than the "comedy relief" bits of other superhero comics of the time.
 As for holding up better in the race relations department, well, the depiction of comedy relief character Steamboat; a black chauffeur, puts Ebony White from The Spirit and Chop-Chop from Blackhawk to shame in terms of tastelessness, and supposedly led to real life protest (though this may be another of C.C. Beck’s tall tales). One Captain Marvel story was so infamous for it’s racism it was recounted by no less than American ambassador Chester Bowles in his book Ambassador’s Report after it horrified a young foreign friend’s son, and the 1950's anti-comics witch-hunts got a lot of mileage out of it. It remains infamous to this day. Me, personally, I’m not bothered by things like that (one of my favorite writers is H.P. Lovecraft). I judge old school racial insensitivity as being a product of it's time, and I know for certain there was worse stuff out there, but still, when one story becomes a legend for it's racial insensitivity, it hardly reflects well on a series praised for being better than anything else of its era, including depictions of minorities. In fact, for all of his cringe-worthy dialogue, I've always been proud of Will Eisner's portrayal of Ebony. He was depicted as having his own supporting cast and being a fairly competent (if often goofy) crime fighter in his own right.
 And as far as featuring a better variety of stories and not cramming them with repetitive recurring villains (something which really pisses some people off) ? Well, I have no idea what Captain Marvel fans are talking about when they make that claim, especially when they attack other comics of the time. Dr. Sivana, Captain Marvel’s archenemy, appeared, almost consecutively, in well over 90% (no shit! ) of the original stories and often made cameos in others. Those that didn’t feature him generally featured his family, or other arch villains like Mr. Mind or Kull. Even Wikipedia mentions his overexposure. In comparison, The Flash’s arch foes, the Thinker & the Fiddler, each rated less than 10 appearances during the same era. Dr. Fate’s foe Wotan, dredged up for every Dr. Fate flashback or cameo in a cartoon despite being reformed for years, only appeared in three of the original stories, one of which was a two-parter. This blog’s own mascot, the legendary Solomon Grundy (who before being reintroduced to comics in 1965, was already a legend among comics fans) only rated four appearances during the Golden Age. Even the Joker (47 stories) and Luthor (22 stories) themselves were sparsely used in comparison, though to be fair, they did appear in a shit-load of consecutive issues.
 Not that this was bad, per se, but to say that the Captain Marvel stories didn’t re-use villains monotonously while other series did is a grand case of the pot calling the kettle black. Hell, recurring villains were actually quite a rarity during the 40s. It’s possible to mention a whole roster of superheroes, many of them surprisingly prominent, who never acquired an archenemy, or even encountered a non-mundane foe. I think the only villains who actually appeared more than Sivana during the 40's (and this is counting all companies) were the Claw and Frankenstein's Monster, who had their own series. Hitler appeared a lot too, through various companies books.
 So basically, the Captain Marvel stories share all the same flaws other series of the time did, some in fact are even worse. And really, I don't see much that elevates it besides some nice art and an instantly appealing origin story.
 I guess that part of my dislike for the character is just that years of hype and overzealous fans led to my inevitable disappointment. I mean, it’s not like I expected these stories to hold up 100%, and again, I couldn’t care less about dated elements like racial stereotyping. I’d understand if Captain Marvel was one of those series which didn't really become good until fairly recently, but most fans still agree that the best Captain Marvel is the original. If it was just treated as what it is, an okay series with a cute concept and better-than-average art that’s a product of it's time and no more, and not proclaimed as the be-all-and-end-all of Golden Age superhero comics (in some peoples opinions, of superhero comics period) then I would probably enjoy it more. I’m honestly more satisfied when I read some Timely Human Torch story where he melts nazi’s jaws off than by any Captain Marvel stories I’ve encountered from this “classic” period. 
  So you’re probably thinking, "if you don't like Captain Marvel, what did you recommend to your friend?" Tune in next time.


  1. IMO most Cap stories I've encountered (and I'm including his two spin-offs) almost always have a solid level of craftsmanship that beat out a lot of the DC and Timely stuff (though maybe not the Quality line). However, there's rarely any real passion in the stories, which I found more often at the other publishers. So, no, I wouldn't consider Cap Marvel the quintessential superhero.

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