Maggie’s World 026: Strength Health Aptitude Zeal …
A character whose adventures launched 75 years ago is back in the news again, and I’m guessing that the impact could be interesting—both on those who loved the stories then and on those who look around now to find “hot” sensations of the future.
Here’s the background: In 1919, former World War I Army Captain Wilford Fawcett founded Fawcett Publications. That company expanded and expanded and expanded, until its output included magazines (Mechanix Illustrated, True Confessions, Family Circle, True) and paperbacks (importantly, Gold Medal, which influenced paperback publishing with its original novels, Crest, and more). In addition, Fawcett owned a distribution company that helped to support its business as a publishing company.
But what I’m talking about happened in 1940. On February 7 of that month, “Captain Billy” Fawcett died at the age of 54. That month is also the cover date of Whiz Comics #2, the first newsstand issue of his company’s entry into the comic-book field. (Where the heck did the anthology series get its oddball title? Clearly in tribute to Wilford Fawcett’s bawdy gag mag Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, begun in 1919 and best known from a song in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man.)
The new comic-book line grew, as the company experimented with price, size, and focus of its four-color releases. It tested with the initially enormous Master Comics (“World’s Biggest Comics Book” at 15 cents). It tested with Nickel Comics. Heck, Fawcett’s paperback Gold Medal line even included John Millard’s Mansion of Evil, a 1950 color comic book paperback, promising “A thrill on every page.”) Eventually, Fawcett had experimented with a variety of genres—with more or less success. Skimming the series (and not even attempting a comprehensive list), we find titles aimed at readers looking for:
- Romance (such titles as Exciting Romances, Life Stories, Love Memories, Romantic Secrets)
- Licensed spin-offs (among them, Captain Midnight, Captain Video, Don Winslow of the Navy, George Pal’s Puppetoons, Nyoka the Jungle Girl)
- Black content (Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Negro Romances, Roy Campanella)
- Slapstick (Fawcett’s Funny Animals, Ozzie and Babs)
- Westerns, including many licensed spin-offs, most focusing on the actors themselves (Andy Devine Western, Bill Boyd Western, Bob Steele Western, Gabby Hayes Western, Ken Maynard Western, Lash LaRue Western, Monte Hale Western, Rocky Lane Western, Smiley Burnette Western, Tex Ritter Western, Tom Mix Western)
Oh—and then there were the super-heroes. (Did you think I’d forgotten?) Such characters as Spy Smasher, Ibis, Bulletman: They were popular, indeed.
And most popular of the popular? That’d almost certainly be Captain Marvel and the characters associated with his adventures.
Heck, he was well enough known that, in E.C.’s Mad #4 (Apr-May 1953) super-hero spoof, it was Captain Marbles who confronted Superduperman. In place of the acronymic powers granted to Captain Marvel when the boy Billy Batson said, “Shazam!” (wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus, courage of Achilles, and speed of Mercury), the powers Captain Marbles gained by saying, “Shazoom!” were Strength, Health, Aptitude, Zeal, Ox (power of), Ox (power of another), and Money.
Mind you, the satiric conflict between Superman and Captain Marvel was a comedic view of a darker reality. The company we know today as DC Comics was understandably fiercely protective of its star superhero, Superman. One of the results was a lawsuit that lasted years, during which DC argued that Captain Marvel had infringed on its character, what with the super-powers, the alter ego bit, etc. With the comic-book market coming under increasing negative commercial pressures and the lawsuit and so on, Fawcett eventually agreed to give up its Marvels in an arrangement that meant that only DC would ever be able to publish more comic-book tales of the Captain Marvel family of characters.
Since it was for what the villainous Sivana termed “The Big Red Cheese” that Fawcett was best known, his kid readers grew up with nostalgia for what was no longer on their newsstands. Heck, one of the earliest comics nostalgia articles in fanzines was Dick Lupoff’s “The Big Red Cheese” in the science-fiction fanzine Xero. And Dick and Pat Lupoff’s appearance as Captain and Mary Marvel at the costume competition at the 1960 World Science Fiction Convention led Don Thompson and me to consider creating a fanzine solely focused on the comic art we’d grown up loving.
Clearly, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the importance of Fawcett’s comics here. Heck, the FCA (Fawcett Collectors of America) produced years and years of a newsletter for devotees of that comics line. (There was enough cool content to pack TwoMorrows’ publication full in 2001: Fawcett Companion: The Best of FCA, edited by P.C. Hamerlinck, and FCA continues in TwoMorrows’ Alter Ego.)
Nor was Captain Marvel’s influence limited to America. Following reprints of some Fawcett material in England, Mick Anglo began a series about amended characters for L. Miller & Son, starting with Marvelman #25 (Feb 3, 1954).
More than two decades later, the cover tease of Warrior #1 (March 1982) showed a silhouette and the text “From present-day Britain A Hero Reborn.” And it turned out that the story—“A Dream of Flying” by Alan Moore and Garry Leach—was a second-generation spin-off of Marvelman. (It was even accompanied by an article, “The Mightiest Man in the Universe,” by Dez Skinn providing the background of the British character born from the U.S. Captain Marvel world.)
At any rate, most comics fans by the mid-1960s were focused on super-heroes, given that comics fandom in general ended up devoting most of its attention to characters wearing masks, capes, or masks and capes. In fact, some reports to this day say that Fawcett published no comic books after 1953, even though its licensed Dennis the Menace series continued into the late 1970s.
But Whiz Comics, begun in 1940, had had #155 as its last issue; it was dated June 1953.
So what’s the deal?
Yes, it’s Whiz that brings me to that possible “hot” sensation of the future, 75 years after its inception.
The deal is that these days on IMDb, there’s a listing for a film scripted by Bill Birch, Geoff Johns, and Darren Lemke that will be released on April 5, 2019. Produced by Michael Uslan and co-produced by F.J. DeSanto (just to name-drop some buddies), the story of Shazam! will (judging from the only casting info so far) star Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam.
Cap’s existence as a comic-book character was even involved in some sort of arrangement with Columbia as a plot element in The Good Humor Man (1950)—and the filming of that movie was then the basis of an Otto Binder Captain Marvel comic-book story.
As years went by, Marvel Comics trademarked the name “Captain Marvel,” while The Big Red Cheese was off the newsstands. That meant that the Fawcett character’s return in February 1973 had to be titled Shazam! But you knew all that, so let’s barrel past TV shows and animated appearances and go directly to that 2019 film.
Black Adam, huh?
At a guess, then, interest in a Near Mint copy of The Marvel Family #1 (Dec 1945), in which “Mighty Marvel Family joins forces vs. Black Adam!” (which introduced that villain) will begin to intensify. After years of weak back-issue sales for Fawcett’s superheroes, buyers seem to be more intrigued these days. A look at auction prices realized indicates things have begun to heat up already, so I’m not exactly talking insider trading. At Heritage, for example, a CGC 8.0 went for $657.25 in 2010, while last September saw one in CGC 2.0 going for $2,510.10.
Investment considerations aside, and back to the story itself: Will we see Mary, Junior, and Uncle Marvel in the 2019 project?
After all, it was Uncle—Wups, never mind. I don’t do Spoilers, even for a 1945 comic book.
And, in any case, more speculation about the movie’s story will have to wait for a while.
But as for the speculators … Well, I think they’ve already begun to pay attention.
Maggie's World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!