Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Let's Talk About Captain Marvel

  Anyone who reads enough of my stuff about comics will learn that I am a huge fan of Captain Marvel, that iconic superhero that was part of what made comics such a Big Deal. Captain Marvel appeals to me for all of the usual reasons guys like superheroes, but he also appeals to me as a writer and as an ethicist.
  And I think the difficulty many writers have in portraying Captain Marvel is a symptom of weakness in the comics industry.

Concept
  Captain Marvel appeared in February 1939, just 8 months after Superman's first publication. Now, Captain Marvel took a while to get approved by Fawcett comics because of how much the character changed before being printed. The original idea was he would be Captain Thunder and would have lieutenants, each of whom had specific powers (the captain would have them all). But after a lot of wrangling they settled on having a 10 year old boy who uses a special word to become Captain Marvel.
  Captain Marvel's powers (and his magic word, 'shazam', were based upon what would now be considered archetypes:

S = the wisdom of Solomon. This has been revealed to give him three major 'abilities': access to, essentially, all of human knowledge; a brilliant intellect with near total recall; objective, nearly perfect, wisdom, especially on matters of morals and ethics.

H = the strength of Hercules. While originally in Fawcett comics this meant he was always at least slightly stronger than anything else (and stated once in 1942 that he was mystically' strong enough to do whatever he needed to do to beat evil), in the revivals it means he is effectively equal to Superman in strength.

A = the stamina of Atlas. Captain Marvel doesn't need to eat, drink, or even breathe. He also never gets tired. He is immune to poison and disease. If he is injured he heals very rapidly.

Z = the power of Zeus. In addition to boosting all of his other abilities, this makes him as invulnerable as Superman. It is also the source of his lightning. Captain Marvel can use the lightning as a weapon, as a method of instantly healing injuries that the stamina of Atlas can't, boost the magical spells of good mages, and even do things like make simple machines.

A = the courage of Achilles. This one is interesting. While the most 'RPG-like' element is that it makes him very resistant to things like mind control it is stated specifically that it also means he never gives in to despair, hopelessness, or self-doubt; he remains positive, cheerful, of good will and able to clearly discern good from evil. It also gives him the combat skills (melee and strategy/tactics) of one of the greatest warriors in history.

M = the speed of Mercury. This allows Captain Marvel to fly and move at incredible speeds, including easily travelling faster than light.

  It is notable that some of his powers are specifically about knowledge, wisdom, and emotions.

  While the exact relationship between Captain Marvel and Billy was never that clear, it was very interesting. Each referred tot he other as 'the same person' yet they had different personalities and could keep secrets from each other. They got each other presents at Christmas, for example, and the presents were a surprise. Captain Marvel was immortal and impervious to aging, Billy was not. The most consistent explanation for what happened was that when Billy said 'shazam!' he was transformed into a different, independent, person.

Impact
  The first comic to show Captain Marvel, Whiz Comics #2, sold 500,000 copies. For perspective, that is more than the March 2016 sales of Batman, Superman, Amazing Spiderman, Extraordinary X-Men, and Mighty Thor put together. When comics are popular. And the national population is three times larger. At his height of popularity Captain Marvel was selling 1.8 million comics every 2 weeks.
  One comics historian thinks for at least one month Captain Marvel was outselling every other comic put together.
  Captain Marvel had a huge impact on Superman, too. As many know, at first Superman could only leap great distances. He flew a little in 1941 (which was a one-off) and didn't regularly fly until 1943 and then only because he flew in the famous Cartoons! In contrast Captain Marvel was flying, and routinely, by issue #5 in 1940. With the Wisdom of Solomon Captain Marvel could solve math equations instantly, build complex machines, etc., all decades before Silver Age Superman did similar things. Captain Marvel, jr., a teen version of Cap, beat Superboy by 4 years and Mary Marvel, the girl version, beat Supergirl by 13 years.
  But one of the most important influences Captain Marvel had on Superman was tone and morality.

  Early Superman tales were fairly dark - domestic violence, corrupt politicians, war profiteers, etc. were all common. And while Captain Marvel fought things like the ruler of a pre-human civilization or a villain empowered by evil the stories were whimsical and designed to appeal to children, as well. The shift in tone of Superman was a direct reaction to how the lighter tone of Captain Marvel sold so much better.

  But the most profound shift may have been in tone. Early superman was truly a vigilante: he beat men unconscious, he tricked villains into turning death rays upon their allies or themselves; in at least one instance he flat-out did his best to murder the Ultra-Humanite.


  Not the Big Blue Boy Scout we are all used to, is it?
  The reality is that Captain Marvel was a model of morality with his opposition to immorality and his championing of morality part and parcel of his origin and his characterization.


  This morality, and the Wisdom of Solomon, meant that Captain Marvel's morality was always positive and clear. This was so much more popular with readers that Superman became the 'Boy Scout' in imitation of Captain Marvel.

Today
  While Jeff Smith's Shazam!:The Monster Society of Evil nails the tone and outlook of original Captain Marvel (remember, kids - the world is saved because Billy Batson is a good, kind little boy!) far too often contemporary writers seem to flat-out not grasp the concept of Captain Marvel. Geoff Johns made Billy Batson selfish and mean; in Justice League: War they made Billy a thief and Captain Marvel a juvenile buffoon; etc.

  This is a shame: as Smith proved in S!tMSoE, an accurate version of the Marvel family is simply good comics and can attract a lot of readers. It seems that this is filtering into many more peoples' awareness and, hopefully, we can get more great Captain Marvel goodness in the future!