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Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia$

Brian Cremins

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781496808769

Published to University Press of Mississippi: May 2018

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781496808769.001.0001

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Otto Binder and the Secret Life of Mr. Tawny, the Talking Tiger

Otto Binder and the Secret Life of Mr. Tawny, the Talking Tiger

(p.48) Chapter 2 Otto Binder and the Secret Life of Mr. Tawny, the Talking Tiger
Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia

Brian Cremins

University Press of Mississippi

Abstract and Keywords

Although he did not create Captain Marvel, Otto Binder wrote most of the stories featuring the character in the 1940s and early 1950s. Binder got his start as a literary agent and science fiction writer. Under the name Eando Binder, he and his brother Earl began publishing in the science fiction pulps of the 1930s. The Mr. Tawny stories about a talking tiger who becomes friends with Billy Batson are Binder and artist C. C. Beck’s most accomplished work, filled with autobiographical traces of Binder’s life as a freelance writer. This chapter draws on theories from the disciplines of animal studies and comics scholarship to examine these narratives, which remain some of the most compelling comics published during the Golden Age of comics in the U. S.

Keywords:   Animal studies, C. C. Beck, Comic books and autobiography, Otto Binder, Golden Age comics

Even a talking tiger gets writer’s block sometimes. For Mr. Tawny, Billy Batson’s good friend, it happened at the worst possible moment, just as Captain Marvel Adventures was celebrating its 100th issue in 1949. In “Captain Marvel Battles the Plot Against the Universe,” Mr. Tawny, who first appeared in Captain Marvel Adventures in 1947, is hard at work on his autobiography. Sitting at a writing desk in his “modest home,” dressed in a green sports coat, Mr. Tawny stumbles as he writes about his “great friend,” Captain Marvel.1 Startled, Tawny, holding his pen in his right paw, exclaims, “Dear me! I can’t finish!” Billy has never told Mr. Tawny of that first meeting with Shazam—the mysterious stranger, the subway tunnel, the gallery of statues. When Billy comes to visit, Tawny asks for help: “I’m stuck, Billy! Tell me, when, where, and how did Captain Marvel come into existence?” Mr. Tawny at his side, Billy returns to the tunnel, where Shazam is waiting to provide the details the tiger needs to finish his memoir. Later, Dr. Sivana shows up with a spider gun and a time ship, but that’s another story.

Mr. Tawny, a character Martin Williams once described as “a sports-jacketed American suburbanite”(Williams 79), was a favorite of Beck and Binder’s.2 Although Mary Marvel, Billy’s sister, was Binder’s “pride and joy”(Binder qtd. in Lage 60), Mr. Tawny was no doubt a close second. But not all of Captain Marvel’s readers shared this fondness for Billy’s furry friend. What was a talking tiger doing in a superhero comic book?3 With a touch of self-deprecating humor, Richard Lupoff, in “The Big Red Cheese,” writes that he “never warmed to Mr. Tawny” perhaps “because he seemed unrealistic”(91). Jokes aside, Lupoff is right—Mr. Tawny does seem out of place in Billy’s dreamworld. The tiger is too ordinary, too flawed, too dull. He’s more of an adult than Captain Marvel and spends most of his time fretting about his job or worrying about his (p.49) legacy. Most of all, he’s afraid of getting old, a concern that never enters Billy’s mind. For John G. Pierce, the well-dressed and sophisticated tiger, whom he compares to Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge, “was one of the most real characters ever to appear in comic books”(Pierce, “‘One of the Most’” 31).

The “realness” of Mr. Tawny was no accident. As Bill Schelly, Binder’s biographer, and Beck have noted, Billy’s melancholy friend was a comic book version of the writer himself. Mr. Tawny was no idealized version of Binder, however. Tawny did not possess a magic word that would make him stronger, smarter, or invulnerable. Tawny’s adventures, among the most appealing of those produced by Binder, Beck, and Costanza in the late 1940s and early 1950s, are the writer’s cartoon diary, a record of his hopes and his frustrations as a freelancer working anonymously in a popular medium which prized action, thrills, and spectacle over emotional honesty, directness, and intimacy. The Tawny stories should be read not as superhero narratives but instead as cartoon fables in the same tradition as Walt Kelly’s Pogo.4 The autobiographical traces in Tawny’s adventures also mark them as early, indirect precursors of contemporary graphic narratives that employ talking animals as vehicles of expression and truth-telling.

Schelly describes the twenty-three Tawny stories, which appeared between 1947 and the end of Captain Marvel Adventures in 1953, as “burlesques of Binder himself,” narratives whose themes the writer first explored in his science fiction work of the 1930s (Schelly, Words 99–100). Binder and Beck had such faith in Tawny that they hoped he might star in his own comic strip, but the samples they produced did not attract the interest of any of the syndicates (Binder, “Special” 111; Schelly, Words 100–101).5

The Tawny stories published in Captain Marvel Adventures reveal the nature of Binder and Beck’s working relationship. Beck, the trained illustrator, was the theorist, the technician, working with what he called a “blueprint”(Hamilton n.p.) to bring narratives to life. Beck understood, as he once wrote, that Binder “had a lot of fun laughing at himself in the Mr. Tawny stories”(Beck, “The Human Quality” 29). This fact might explain why he took such care with the character, as he noted in the 1977 interview with Chris Padovano: “I always tried to draw Tawny’s adventures myself, as nobody else managed to make him believable”(Beck qtd. in Padovano). Tawny’s “believable” qualities, which so endeared him to some readers, are the direct result of the experiment in autobiography that Binder was conducting with these scripts.

Tawny even dressed like Binder. “Otto in Binderland,” a feature included in the fanzine Alter Ego from the summer of 1965, includes a photograph from 1944 of the writer in his home office. In the photo, he is leaning against a bookshelf filled with what appear to be pulp magazines. To Binder’s left is a drawing of Captain Marvel and a skull. “Pajamas and a robe represent (p.50)

Otto Binder and the Secret Life of Mr. Tawny, the Talking Tiger

2.1 Mr. Tawny works diligently on his book in a panel from “Mr. Tawny’s Fight for Fame” from Captain Marvel Adventures no. 126 (Nov. 1951).

Reprinted in Shazam! no. 14 (September–October 1974): 54. Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

‘working clothes,’” Binder explains in the caption that accompanies the photo (qtd. in Thomas and Schelly 142). In “Mr. Tawny’s Fight for Fame” from Captain Marvel Adventures no. 126 (November 1951),6 Tawny wears these same “working clothes” as he writes his “dry old book!”(fig. 2.1).7 The tiger is now writing a scientific dissertation called Homing Habits of Hibernating Animals. But he’s had no more luck with this project than he did with his tale of Billy’s first meeting with Shazam. “I live in obscurity. Like a hermit! Nobody ever hears of me,” he complains.

Comics scholar Michael Chaney has argued that “the animal referenced in comics is” often “a ludic cipher of otherness” whose “appearance almost always accompanies the strategic and parodic veiling of the human”(Chaney 130). For Binder, the animal enabled and inspired an openness and emotional honesty, one not available to him in his other writing for comics or for the science fiction market. “He always had his great dreams,” Binder explained to Matt Lage, “with unfortunate results”(Binder qtd. in Lage 64). Mr. Tawny’s failed dreams reflect Binder’s own uneasiness and anxiety, especially as he wrote his way through what Bill Schelly has described as one of the lowest points of his career in comic books. By the late 1940s, as he set his sights again on writing science fiction, Binder “was both physically and creatively burned out”(Schelly, Words 118). That sense of fatigue permeates many of the Tawny stories.

In his interviews with Jim Steranko and with Matt Lage, Binder often spoke about the literary figures that inspired his work on Captain Marvel, including Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll: “I always felt I was exploring and exploiting human nature too, digging out its zany aspects to show that much of life was a joke and full of craziness”(Binder qtd. in Lage 64). Locked into his daily routines, Tawny again and again attempts to dream his way out of loneliness and (p.51) boredom. Although Captain Marvel often comes to his rescue, Billy’s alter ego, as Binder explained to Lage, “was really just a minor character” in Tawny’s narratives, a “sidekick”(Binder qtd. in Lage 64). While most of the Tawny stories, as Pierce has pointed out, convey a moral or lesson to Captain Marvel’s readers (Pierce, “‘One of the Most’” 31), the character never finds peace and happiness.

Mr. Tawny also inspired Binder to reflect on the act of writing itself. Aside from his letters to fans in the 1960s and “Memoirs of a Nobody,” written in 1948 but not published until recently in Fawcett Collectors of America, the Mr. Tawny stories are as close as Binder got to writing an autobiography. “Mr. Tawny’s Fight for Fame”(1951) and “Captain Marvel and Mr. Tawny’s Quest for Youth”(1952), for example, both reflect Binder’s struggle to change direction and to return to the science fiction market where he had begun his career in the 1930s under the pen name Eando Binder (initially in collaboration with Earl, his older brother, the E of “E and O” Binder). Perhaps Tawny “just didn’t fit,” as Lupoff puts it (“Big Red” 91), because Binder, an early and influential innovator in comic book storytelling, was entering a largely unexplored territory.

The autobiographical elements in the Tawny narratives make them strong candidates for the kind of analysis that comics scholars have provided in their studies of talking and funny animal comics. Aside from their historical interest, this “non-serial succession of sequels,” as Binder described the Tawny narratives (Binder, “Special” 111), will no doubt attract contemporary readers, young and old, because of the quality of the artwork and the self-referential humor of the scripts. Just as Captain Marvel is Billy’s dream self, Mr. Tawny plays the same role for Binder, but, rather than “veiling”(to borrow Michael Chaney’s phrase) Binder’s flaws and anxieties, Tawny highlights them. As a result, the Tawny stories are a counter-narrative to Billy’s. At the end of a Tawny adventure, there is often a lingering sense of doubt, even dread, especially in “Captain Marvel and Mr. Tawny’s Quest for Youth.” Like other talking animal narratives, the Tawny stories lend themselves to complex readings, but they also posses a quality that even the most sophisticated literary theory would be at a loss to explain: filled with meditations on friendship, compassion, and mortality, Tawny’s adventures are a lot of fun.

Funny Animals and Autobiography

When I teach Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, often with Peter Kuper’s black-and-white comic book adaptation, I can anticipate the questions students will ask: Is he really a bug? What kind? What happened? Is it all a dream? The animal as a figure that expresses a shadow self, one hidden from (p.52) the world, has its roots in traditions much older than Kafka’s short stories and his moles, mice, apes, insects, and other unclassifiable creatures. Nevertheless, Kafka is an important figure to consider when thinking about talking animals because of his indirect influence on Art Spiegelman’s Maus.8

Over the course of his interview with Hillary Chute in MetaMaus, Spiegelman identifies the various sources that shaped the telling of his father’s story. Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” was part of the mix, but, Spiegelman explains, “I don’t think I’d even focused on it specifically as a metaphor for the Jewish people back then. It was just one more Kafka fable I’d absorbed”(Spiegelman 113–14). Just as meaningful for Spiegelman were the comics he’d read as a child, including the work of Carl Barks. “Whatever the funny animal surface was,” Spiegelman remembered, “I could climb way further behind that surface than I could when trying to identify with, say, Peter Parker’s problems”(Spiegelman 193). That “surface” has long fascinated both cartoonists and comics scholars and critics. In studies of talking animals, many scholars describe the strange and compelling hold characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, or Pogo, to name just a few examples, have had on the imagination of readers. The act that Spiegelman describes, that of a bottomless search for meaning, is one of the qualities Kim Thompson once identified as a key component of the funny animal genre. “The inherent irreality of the concept gives them an instant fantastical quality,” Thompson argued in a 1986 essay, “and, paradoxically, a reality that far exceeds the dulled naturalism of ‘realistic’ comics”(Thompson 32).

In his assessment of Spiegelman’s use of cats and mice (and dogs and frogs and other creatures) in Maus, Joseph Witek echoes Thompson’s sentiments as he describes the “magical, or at least mysterious” characteristics of these creatures and their ability “to open a generic space into a precivilized innocence”(Witek 111) that has fascinated cartoonists from George Herriman and Walt Kelly to Spiegelman and, more recently, Sam Sharpe and Edie Fake. In his analysis of talking animals in animation, comic strips, and comic books, Les Daniels argues that characters like Donald Duck and Pogo enabled their creators to imagine or recall a lost innocence, a kind of preindustrial wonderland (like the one Superman and Captain Marvel defended, perhaps, on the covers of Action Comics no. 1 and Whiz Comics no. 2, respectively). These “dumb animals,” as Daniels calls them, “were echoes of the collective past” that some cartoonists “had left behind”(Daniels 53). More recently, in “Animal Subjects of the Graphic Novel,” Chaney writes that a “process of defamiliarization” is at work in these comics, as readers laugh at the antics of these all-too-human beasts while reflecting on questions of identity and mortality (Chaney 130). But the use of animals as embodiments of human fears and anxieties is not unique to comics. As Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman point out in their (p.53)

Otto Binder and the Secret Life of Mr. Tawny, the Talking Tiger

2.2 Captain Marvel and Mr. Tawny take a stroll on the cover of Captain Marvel Adventures no. 82 (March 1948).

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

introduction to the 2005 collection Thinking with Animals, “humans past and present, hither and yon, think they know how animals think, and they habitually use animals to help them do their thinking about themselves”(1–2). Mr. Tawny’s first appearance on the cover of Captain Marvel Adventures, from issue no. 82 (dated March 1948, just a few months after his debut in 1947),9 provides a telling example of that “defamiliarization,” as the tiger, arm-in-arm with Captain Marvel, walks past a group of startled onlookers (fig. 2.2).

“It’s good to see you again, Mr. Tawny!” says Captain Marvel, who, as always, looks cheerful and welcoming. The tiger is dressed elegantly, a green fedora perched between his ears. The yellow-and-orange pattern of his sports coat matches the color of his fur. Walking stick in hand, Mr. Tawny enjoys (p.54) a cigar. To the tiger’s left is a newsstand with copies of Captain Marvel Adventures no. 82. There’s the cover image again, repeated three times in miniature. The vendor, like the pedestrians who stare in amazement, looks terrified. Even cartoon people don’t know what to make of a tiger who walks, talks, and dresses like a man (Tawny, however, never wears shoes). What distinguished Captain Marvel from Superman, Binder once pointed out, was that Clark Kent’s alter ego never took the time “to lounge around and relax”(Binder qtd. in Steranko 14). This cover is an example of Captain Marvel’s more “relaxed,” casual persona. Unlike Superman, Batman, or Captain America, Captain Marvel is always up for a stroll.

The cover, which advertises an issue that will at last reveal how the tiger first learned to speak, also signals the difference between Tawny’s stories and Captain Marvel’s typical adventures. There are no time ships here, no evil scientists, no spider guns or Historamas. This image exhibits one of the qualities critic Jeet Heer attributes to children’s comics. Comics for children, like the bulk of the stories Binder and Beck produced for Fawcett, “tend to be quieter, more relaxed and funnier,” Heer points out, than “teenage comics” which are often “more frantic[,] detailed, and earnest”(Heer, “A Colloquy” 244).10 “Captain Marvel and the Return of Mr. Tawny,” in which the tiger defends his friend Tom Todd against a charge of murder, is a story with hints of Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Burroughs’s Tarzan novels (the tiger gains his ability to speak thanks to a serum provided by a hermit who looks a little like C. C. Beck himself). At the end of the story, once he’s cleared Todd’s name, the tiger embraces his friend and, behaving like a house cat, licks his face. In that final frame of the story, Tawny is wearing Binder’s “working clothes” again: a robe and polka-dot pajamas. Even while lounging at home, the tiger is impeccably dressed. Despite these human characteristics, Tawny has an uncanny presence. He might dress and behave like a human being, but he is still a tiger, and his friend is still a Fred MacMurray look-alike wearing a bright red costume. These images, then, are uncanny in the Freudian sense—that is, they are familiar but reveal what otherwise might “remain secret” or “hidden away”(Freud 132), those fears and anxieties we recognize even as the unconscious attempts to suppress them.

Svetlana Boym’s reading of Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of ostranenie is useful in a discussion of the uncanny aspects of funny animals. The “defamiliarization” that Michael Chaney refers to suggests a connection to Shklovsky’s theories as defined in the groundbreaking essay “Art as Technique.” In her analysis of Shklovsky’s ideas on art and literature, Boym writes that he employs the term ostranenie “to suggest both distancing” as well as “making strange”(Architecture 18). For Binder, that “making strange” involves introducing ordinary, often unremarkable daily setbacks or challenges into (p.55)

Otto Binder and the Secret Life of Mr. Tawny, the Talking Tiger

2.3 Mr. Tawny leads another group of visitors through the museum in an opening scene from “Mr. Tawny’s Fight for Fame” in Captain Marvel Adventures no. 126 (November 1951).

Reprinted in Shazam! no. 14 (September–October 1974): 53. Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

an otherwise fantastic narrative of super-beings and talking jungle cats. “Estrangement is what makes art artistic; but by the same token,” Boym writes of Shklovsky’s theory, “it makes life lively, or worth living”(Boym, Architecture 18–19). Mr. Tawny, as the fictional stand-in for Otto Binder, takes part in the adventures that the writer himself, sitting in his “working clothes” at his manual typewriter day after day, will never experience. As Boym points out, the “making strange” at the heart of artistic expression is often playful and joyous (Architecture 18–19).

Given his ability to guide readers through the struggles and setbacks of day-to-day life, Tawny’s job should come as no surprise. When he is not at home, Kafka-like, spending sleepless nights working on his writing, he is a docent in a natural history museum (fig. 2.3).

One of the more bizarre images in “Mr. Tawny’s Fight for Fame” from 1951 appears on the first page of the story. “We all have disgruntled moods at times,” declares the caption in the upper left-hand corner of the story’s first panel, “and Mr. Tawny is no exception!” The skeleton of a dinosaur looms as a glass display case obscures its legs and torso. Tawny thinks to himself, “Day after day I conduct these museum tours! I know my spiel by heart! I’ve given it 999 times!” An animal stares back at him from the display, and in that moment an otherwise familiar image—a museum filled with visitors and a guide leading them from one exhibit to the next—is also “made strange”: a talking animal lectures cartoon human beings about other “wild animals” and “their natural habitats!” There’s a joke here, too—a wink at the reader. What else would a talking tiger be qualified to do? In the next panel, as he walks home, the sun setting behind him, the tiger thinks, “Time after time I plod my weary (p.56) way home to my quiet cottage and unlock the door!” Tawny, like his creator, is successful but not content with his lack of fame. The details in these panels are commonplace: museumgoers with tweed suits and glasses; a two-storey suburban home surrounded by tall trees and a well-kept lawn. What hope do the rest of us have if Mr. Tawny—that time traveler, crime buster, cat of letters—can’t find happiness?

Although Binder did not identify Franz Kafka’s work as an influence on his science fiction or on his comics, the parallels between Mr. Tawny’s literary ambitions and the academic standing of the narrator in “A Report to an Academy” are difficult to ignore. Walter Benjamin’s commentary on the relationship between historical memory and Kafka’s animal characters is also worth considering in a study of comic books and nostalgia. Just as Billy Batson represents a kind of absence—a fiction of lost innocence, a marker of the idealized notions of boyhood and masculinity in American in the 1940s—Mr. Tawny might be read as a character that embodies a form of amnesia that Benjamin describes in his analysis of stories like “The Burrow.” For Kafka, Benjamin explains, “animals are the receptacles of the forgotten”(Illuminations 132). In reading about an animal, we are invited to consider our own animal nature.11 Benjamin points out that if “the most forgotten alien land is one’s own body, one can understand why Kafka called the cough that erupted from within him ‘the animal’”(Benjamin, Illuminations 132). Like the cartoonists described by Les Daniels—those who looked back with a sense of longing at an inaccessible “collective past”—Kafka, writes Benjamin, sought to locate a history that was beyond his reach, a “prehistoric world” that could be imagined but was almost impossible to describe (Illuminations 131). Understood in this light, “making strange” becomes a strategy to locate these “prehistoric” spaces, ones that can only be reclaimed through imagination but not with memory.12 Our animal past is too distant and obscure. This private, intimate history, one that will lead us back to a point of origin, is something that we carry with us, like the body itself, that “heavy bear” of Delmore Schwartz’s poem (74).13 Given that “the most forgotten alien land is one’s own body,” as Benjamin argues in his notes on Kafka, it is no wonder that Mr. Tawny held so much appeal for Binder, the one-time science fiction writer who had explored so many “alien” territories in his fiction. Even as he found ways to address private concerns in the Mr. Tawny stories, however, Binder never lost sight of his audience and their desires. As Beck argued, young readers don’t have much time for “soul-searching”(“Man of Steel” 7), let alone philosophy and metaphysics.

Tawny’s adventures, light comedies written for an audience of young readers, do not have the same emotional heft as Spiegelman’s harrowing Maus or Sam Sharpe’s recent, critically acclaimed short story “Mom.” What the Binder (p.57) and Beck stories share with those two examples of comics autobiography is an attempt to invent another self, a storyteller, one whose status as a “ludic cipher of otherness,” as Chaney describes these talking animals (130), grants the writer, the artist, and the reader the ability to observe human behavior with a detachment that encourages self-reflection. In Sharpe’s recent narrative, he tells the story of his mother’s mental illness with a cast of dogs, rabbits, elephants, ducks, and even a giraffe. Towards the end of the story, as his mother grows more unstable and delusional, the narrator, in a caption, describes his inability to see as his mother does, to enter the world of shadows and paranoia she inhabits due to her condition: “Our realities had finally drifted so far apart that we could no longer understand each other”(Sharpe n.p.).14 While Tawny is not a tragic figure like the title character in “Mom,” he remains a startling creature, especially as he strolls about with Captain Marvel or guides tourists through the museum. Despite his anxieties, he remains poised and elegant. We sympathize with him because, unlike Billy, he is at the mercy of time just as we are. The tiger understands how it feels to age and to remember (and to long for) the past.

Writing these stories almost two decades before Justin Green published Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary—the comic that inspired other artists, like Spiegelman, to tell their own life stories—Binder did not inaugurate a tradition of autobiographical comics. Readers in the early 1950s had no idea that the tiger was Binder’s alter ego. The Tawny stories, however, though long neglected or dismissed as simple children’s fables, provide an example of the value and the flexibility of the funny animal genre. A brief detour into Binder’s life and times will help to explain why the writer felt the need to express himself more directly in these stories. While Binder was a gracious, witty, and playful figure, he also took his craft seriously, and found in comics a new medium that was at times frustrating but also exciting and filled with promise (Steranko 17; Schelly, Words 77–78).

“I know a Writer When I See One. You Have It in You.”

Born to Austro-Hungarian immigrants in Bessemer, Michigan, in 1911, Binder and his family lived in Randolph, Nebraska, before relocating to Chicago in 1922 (Schelly, Words 23–27).15 The young Binder, like Beck, adored the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs and later discovered the work of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard in the pages of Weird Tales (Words 29). Although he began college with the hope of becoming a scientist, his life took a different and unexpected direction when he and his older brother Earl wrote and submitted “The First Martian” to Amazing Stories (Words 33–35). The magazine published (p.58) the story in 1932; it was the first work of fiction by Eando Binder. Although Earl and Otto’s collaboration only lasted until 1936, Binder would continue to use the pseudonym for his science fiction work for the rest of his career.16

As his reputation grew in the close-knit science fiction fan circles of the 1930s, Binder eventually found work as an agent for writer Otis Adelbert Kline’s literary agency, a firm that represented pulp writers who have now become legendary, including Lovecraft and Howard. When Binder met Lovecraft in New York, the creator of the Cthulhu mythos, according to a letter Otto mailed to Earl in the winter of 1936, remarked, “You’re half of one of my favorite authors!” In another letter from June of that year, Binder, impressed with Howard’s output, describes Conan’s creator as “a rough and ready Texan” who “claims he wears no underwear because there’s no sense to it!”17 In response to these letters from Otto, Earl, back in the Portage Park neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago, was both protective and encouraging: “I have read a lot, Otto, perhaps more than you would give me credit for. I know a writer when I see one. You have it in you. It may be the pulps for some years yet but you will emerge from that, take my word for it.”18 Through the science fiction fan circles, Binder met two other young men, Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger, who would become lifelong friends. In the 1950s and 1960s, after the demise of Captain Marvel, Binder wrote scripts for the Weisinger-edited Superman comics at National. A study of Binder’s critical role in shaping the Superman mythos in the 1950s and in the 1960s would require its own book.19

Binder’s most enduring and best known science fiction stories are the Adam Link series, the first of which appeared in the January 1939 issue of Amazing Stories (Words 59–62). “Binder was always a great, iconic, early tech days science fiction name,” remembered Harlan Ellison, who compared him to such obscure figures as Ed Earl Repp and Stanton A. Coblentz.20 “I, Robot,” Adam Link’s first appearance, along with Lester del Rey’s 1938 story “Helen O’Loy,” inspired Isaac Asimov’s “Robbie.” In 1950, Asimov was about to publish a collection of his popular and celebrated robot stories under the title Mind and Iron when his publisher suggested they change the title to I, Robot (Asimov, The Caves of Steel xi). Asimov, recalling the first Adam Link story, was initially uncomfortable with the switch, but Binder, according to Schelly’s biography, asked only that Asimov send him a signed copy (Schelly, Words 121). Asimov was always quick to credit Binder’s narrative as a precursor to his robot tales and later included Adam Link’s first appearance in a collection of significant science fiction from 1939. “My book is now the more famous,” Asimov wrote in his introduction, “but Otto’s story was there first”(Asimov, The Great SF Stories 11).21

According to his 1964 Alter Ego letter, Binder wrote “some two million words of science fiction pulps published between 1932 and 1945”( (p.59) Binder, “Special!” 111). He began writing comics in 1939 for Harry “A” Chesler and wrote his first Captain Marvel story in 1941 (Steranko 12; Schelly, Words 67, 78). In Beck’s fictional account of their first meeting from “The World’s Mightiest Fat Head,” artist Wally Baker is a huge fan of Landro, the legendary science fiction writer (Beck, “Fat Head” 1, 42). When Baker asks the veteran writer if he’s looking forward to writing for comic books, Landro responds, “Well—it’s a job,” one that pays pretty well: “Two bucks a page is better than nothing. I figure I can turn out two or three stories a week, eight to ten pages per story … it’ll keep me from starving”(Beck, “Fat Head” 1, 42). By 1953, Binder, who kept a careful record of his published work, had written 529 stories featuring Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, or the Marvel Family. “My present-day home in Englewood, New Jersey,” he noted, “was dedicated at a Fawcett party as being ‘The House That Captain Marvel Built’”(Binder “Special!” 111).

An essay Binder published in 1941, around the same time that he began writing for Fawcett, suggests that, even early in his comics career, he sensed great possibilities for this new form of storytelling. In “A New Medium for Fantasy?”, Binder refers to comics as “an intriguing new medium of writing,” one that might eventually attract older, more sophisticated readers (Binder qtd. in Schelly, Words 78). “Admittedly, the comics appeal to a very juvenile audience, but gradually they are growing up, I believe. The possibility is that eventually the picture-medium may be used to tell far better stories—even good science fiction!”(78). In the early 1950s, Binder began writing scripts for EC Comics based on his earlier fiction. In a 1952 letter to fan and editor Sam Moskowitz, he echoes the sentiments of this 1941 essay as he praises EC’s science fiction titles. Binder urges Moskowitz to “pick up a copy of Weird Fantasy or Weird Science comics sometime and read them” because “the comics are not too far behind the pulps in well-plotted stories, believe it or not!”22

While Binder is best remembered for the work he did at Fawcett and later at National, he produced scripts for a variety of other publishers over the course of his long career. “If you like indigestible facts,” Binder noted, reflecting on his work from 1941 until the late 1950s, “my total comics output—all publishers and all characters—up to the end of 1957 was 2,227 stories for 18,100 pages, or approximately 100,000 panels”(Binder, “Special!” 112). Binder wrote prolifically for National until 1960, when he focused his attention on editing Space World (Binder, “Special” 112). By the mid-1960s, he was writing comics again, including the post-apocalyptic Mighty Samson for Gold Key, as well as the short-lived Fatman and Super Green Beret for Milson (Schelly, Words 195). In the 1960s and early 1970s, he also wrote nonfiction books that owed a debt to his earlier science fiction work, most notably What We Really Know About Flying Saucers, which he dedicated to his late daughter Mary, who died in 1967 at the age of fourteen after being struck by a car outside her (p.60) school (Words 198–99; Uslan, Batman 88–89). He and his wife, Ione, had a second child, Robert, who was born in 1955 with Down syndrome (Words 140).

According to Schelly, the trauma of Mary’s death was one of the factors that brought Binder’s comics career to an end. Roy Thomas remembers speaking with Binder not long after the accident. Binder had lost “the enthusiasm” and “hinted that with his daughter’s death, it was a little too painful, and he would just as soon forget about comics”(Thomas qtd. in Schelly, Words 205). In Steranko’s History of Comics, Binder confesses that, by the 1960s, writing for comics “was tough sledding,” in part because of endless rewrites and revisions, especially for Weisinger (Steranko 21). At the end of Steranko’s chapter on Captain Marvel, Binder also makes a poignant reference to Mary’s death, a tragedy that prompted him and Ione to relocate from Englewood to Chestertown, New York (see also Schelly, Words 206).

In the epilogue to Words of Wonder, Bill Schelly describes Binder’s tremendous impact on comics fandom in the 1960s and early 1970s (234). As I mention in the introduction, Richard Lupoff and Don Thompson dedicated the 1970 collection All in Color for a Dime to Binder. Sam Moskowitz had already dedicated The Coming of the Robots, a 1963 anthology that also features Lester del Rey and Isaac Asimov, to him, calling Binder the “[p]opularizer of the ‘modern’ robot”(Moskowitz, Robots 5). Even after the tragic loss of his daughter, Binder continued to share his memories with comic book fans, including, in the early 1970s, an aspiring artist named Frank Miller (Words 218). Binder’s generosity to fans, even those that criticized his work, no doubt was rooted in his experience with science fiction fandom in the 1930s.

While working in comics, Binder sometimes longed for the closer relationship between writers and readers fostered by the science fiction fan community where he had begun his career. In “Memoirs of a Nobody” and in letters to Moskowitz from the early 1950s, Binder nostalgically recalls those years. By the early 1950s, Binder found himself writing for a different audience than the one that had read his work in the 1930s. As a result, editor Horace Gold from Galaxy Science Fiction and Oscar J. Friend, Binder’s agent, offered him advice on how to transition back to writing prose for a new generation of science fiction fans. Binder’s responses to these letters, and his correspondence with Moskowitz, suggest that the scenes of a frustrated Mr. Tawny laboring fruitlessly at his desk were glimpses of Binder’s struggle to adapt to a marketplace that had changed enormously in the years since he’d made the jump to comics in the 1940s.

(p.61) “You’ve Got a Lot of splash Panels and Captions to Get Out of Your System”

Tawny might have struggled with writer’s block, but at least he didn’t know the agony of rejection slips. In 1953, H. L. Gold responded to Binder’s new fiction with advice on how to transition back to prose after a decade primarily devoted to comics. “It’s good hearing from you again,” Gold wrote, “but it’s also disturbing to see what writing comics has done to your style, characterization, and dialogue.” Gold concedes that the story’s concept “is all right”(Gold does not name the Binder story in question in the letter). The writing and “execution,” however, are “hysterical, overdrawn, grotesquely characterized, and blatantly melodramatic.” In closing, Gold reassures Binder and offers encouragement: “You’ve got a lot of splash panels and captions to get out of your system—a painful [process].”23 In a letter of response dated less than a week later, on February 21, 1953, Binder writes, “Ouch! Too bad you haven’t got a comics book [sic] you could have used that last ms in. Didn’t think my slip showed that much.”

Binder faced a couple of obstacles. First, he was accustomed to working in a hybrid medium in which “captions” work in tandem with visuals provided by an artist or a team of artists. Binder enjoyed working collaboratively. In a 1952 letter, he even invites Moskowitz to send him ideas or pitches. “Now I have no prima-donna qualms about accepting ideas from an editor[,]” he explains. Doing so, he noted, would not “violate” his “lone-wolf sensibilities.”24 To prove his point, he offers an example from his experience in comic books, where the “editor and writer often whip up ideas between them.” A sudden return to “lone-wolf” status must have been jarring for Binder, especially after so many successful years writing for Fawcett.

Binder faced another more serious challenge, one also reflected in the Tawny stories. Styles and tastes had changed. A new generation of writers was now producing a more stylish, and, in some cases, more experimental and self-consciously literary form of science fiction.25 Like Gold, Binder’s agent, Oscar J. Friend, suspected that the “juvenile” quality of one of Binder’s new stories could be attributed to all those years of writing comic book scripts: “Hold it, pal!” Friend wrote in a letter to Binder dated July 6, 1953. “No criticism of comics is meant; just the frank statement that such work naturally affects your serious and adult science fiction output.”26

Always persistent, Binder responded with two other stories in August. While Friend sensed some “improvement,” Binder still had a lot of work to do. In reference to “Where Is Thy Sting?” and “Memory World,” Friend wrote, “The ideas are clever enough, but your quality of actual writing needs toning or tooling up.” Just as Earl had encouraged his younger brother almost twenty (p.62) years earlier, Friend had faith that Binder could make the necessary changes to meet the market’s demands, but the writer would have to do his homework. “Study a few Bradbury, Sturgeon, Kuttner, and Leinster shorts for sheer quality of writing style and you will see what I mean,” Friend suggested. “Their stuff is no better than yours, but their writing is more polished and adult.”27

Gold, Friend, and J. Francis McComas from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction all agreed that Binder’s ideas were strong and worth developing. By the end of 1953, he reported a few sales to Oswald Train, who had published Binder’s pulp serial Lords of Creation as a book in 1949 (Schelly, Words 119–20).28 “Comics still occupy most of my time,” Binder wrote to Train, noting that “good old Captain Marvel was finally sued out of existence by the Superman people,” which enabled him to write for Mort Weisinger’s Superman titles. Despite the setbacks and rejections in the summer of 1953, he managed to place stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Universe Science Fiction.29 “I intend to keep writing and selling (I hope) at a modest pace,” Binder confided to Train. “Fun to be back at it.”30

Based on letters from 1952, however, it is not entirely clear that Binder ever intended to write what Friend called “serious and adult science fiction,” the kind being produced by Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, or Alfred Bester. In an exchange with Moskowitz, Binder wondered if the readers who enjoyed Captain Marvel might also develop an interest in science fiction. Why not publish a science fiction magazine for those young fans? Binder had a specific age range in mind, too, one based on Fawcett’s “statistical tabulation” of its readership. After conducting research on those fans, Fawcett, according to Binder, had discovered that their comics attracted readers “from 6 to 18,” with most of those boys and girls falling into the “9 to 14” range, what Binder then describes to Moskowitz as “a big pit into which you can pour endless comics and never fill it up.”31 Why spend so much time worrying about older fans when most editors ignored this large demographic of younger readers? The following passage from this letter offers an insight into how Binder understood that audience. He had no intention to simplify his writing. Rather, he sought ways to engage the interest and attention of readers who were young but hardly ignorant or unsophisticated:

I may be wrong, but don’t most stf [science fiction] mags and editors always strive to reach an “older” reading group? Thus hoping to jack up circulation. Maybe a better answer is to reach “down”—toward those avid kids of 9 to 14.

Anyway, Binder argued, “what’s wrong with entertaining kids? (And also thereby ‘training’ them to buy ‘adult-type’ stf as they grow older?)” As Binder stressed several times in this letter, he was not suggesting that a magazine for (p.63) this age group should be “‘written down’ or corned up,” but instead offered some of Robert Heinlein’s fiction as a model. Read in the context of these letters, the Tawny stories provide an example of the kind of fiction that Binder hoped to produce: stories that would appeal, like some of Heinlein’s writing, “to many an adult as well as [a] kid.”

Binder’s emphasis on characterization, especially in Tawny’s adventures, might be traced back to a suggestion the writer received early in his career. In 1938, John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science-Fiction, offered Binder advice on how to write a story that would sell. In response to one of Binder’s submissions, Campbell wrote, “Every time your people have life and reality, you’ll have a check from Street & Smith [Astounding’s publisher, perhaps best known in the pulp market for The Shadow and Doc Savage]. But I’m going to ask for more character in characters in the future—more than heretofore—in every story.”32 Anticipating some of the comments from Gold and Friend in the early 1950s, Campbell admits that he’s concerned that Binder’s work “may be getting a little wooden,” as tastes began to change even in the late 1930s. As a freelance writer, Binder could not afford to disappoint his editors or his readers.

Binder’s introduction to “The Teacher from Mars,” a story first published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1944 and included, along with fiction from Murray Leinster and Henry Kuttner, in the 1949 anthology My Best Science Fiction Story, suggests that he took Campbell’s advice seriously. “Too many science fiction stories overplay cold science and underplay human characters,” writes Binder (“Teacher” 19). When he created Mun Zeerohs, the Martian teacher bullied by his human students, he “wanted to break away from this restriction and produce a living, breathing character. One whose emotions and innermost thoughts you could follow and sympathize with”(19). In order to do this, he established an affinity with this creature of his imagination: “At least, while writing the story, I was a Martian,” Binder writes, “and I was beginning to hate the whole human race for mistreating ‘my people!’”(“Teacher” 19).33 In the Tawny stories, Binder performs this same experiment, as the tiger expresses those frustrations that Binder was unable to voice in his other writing. With Tawny as his voice, Binder experienced the freedom not available to him in his fiction or in his other comic book scripts.

Beck believed that “anonymity” was one of the strengths of those working in comics in the 1940s because, like a ventriloquist, “you can say a lot of things under a dummy’s name that you could never say yourself”(Beck qtd. in Groth 61). The Tawny stories are among the highlights of Binder and Beck’s work because they represent a fusion of their artistic sensibilities. As he noted in the essay that accompanies “The Teacher from Mars,” Binder valued “‘human interest’” in his fiction (19). By using himself as model for Tawny, (p.64) Binder humanized what otherwise could have been a faceless, mechanical, or “anonymous” work of popular fiction. Binder’s is the still, quiet voice calling out from beneath Tawny’s mask. Once Tawny passed through Beck’s “fabric of illusion,” the character began to take on a life of his own, one grounded in the quotidian details of Binder’s otherwise unremarkable routine but suddenly transformed into something strange, other, and mysterious. In a 1953 interview with Gerry De La Ree for the Bergen Evening Record, Binder explained the challenge of coming up with so many “unusual plots or situations,” a “gimmick or twist” that readers would not expect (De La Ree 3). The “gimmick” in “Mr. Tawny’s Quest for Youth” is a simple one: even though his best friend is a superhero, and despite the fact that he has a good (if boring) job and a nice home, Tawny discovers that he cannot, like Dr. Sivana, travel through time. No matter the intensity of his desire to relive the past, his body will not allow him to forget that he, unlike Billy, has grown old. The “gimmick”? The kids in the story, like the reader, learn that, one day, they’ll grow old, too. And it will hurt.

“A Regular Fellow”

It’s a figure of pure joy: Tawny, arms outstretched, eyes closed, paws firmly planted on a carpet of green grass. The figures behind him stand in silhouette against a clear, bright, yellow sky. Tawny, a canteen hanging on his (prominent) waist, a pack on his shoulders, wears a white Captain Marvel Club turtleneck. The tiger, no longer trapped in his study, lifts his face to the sun. “Already I feel ten years younger!” he exclaims (fig. 2.4).

This panel from “Captain Marvel and Mr. Tawny’s Quest for Youth”(from Captain Marvel Adventures no. 131, dated April 1952)34 appears not long after a thought balloon in which the tiger recalls the circumstances that led to his membership in the club.35 His goal? To feel young again, to “recapture youth!” In the second panel on the second page of the story, Tawny conjures an image of himself from only “a few days ago,” as the tiger, dressed in his green sports coat, walks with his back bent, weighted down by his briefcase. He narrates that image for Billy and for readers: “I was gloomy and tired, not getting any fun out of life!” Worst of all, he explains, he “felt old!”(fig. 2.5).

In this story, feelings of nostalgia result in a series of setbacks and comic failures. “Oh, to be young again!” reads the caption that introduces the story. “Such is the cry of many an older person, dreaming fondly of his childhood days!” In the splash page that opens the story, Captain Marvel is critical of Mr. Tawny’s fixation on youth. Tied to a tree, a toy arrow jutting from his forehead, Billy’s alter ego asks a question that the reader would no doubt like (p.65)

Otto Binder and the Secret Life of Mr. Tawny, the Talking Tiger

2.4 In an early panel from “Captain Marvel and Mr. Tawny’s Quest for Youth,” the talking tiger joins the other members of the Captain Marvel Club on a hike. From Captain Marvel Adventures no. 131 (April 1952).

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

answered, too: “What’s this, Mr. Tawny? Your second childhood?”(figure 2.6). In the panel, the tiger is dressed as a “big Indian chief” with a headdress and a bow and arrow. He is partaking of one of the rituals of a 1950s suburban childhood, dressed as a nightmarish pulp-fiction parody of a Native American. His costume makes the panel doubly strange, a talking animal disguised as a Tonto-like fantasy, or a cartoon image crossed with a page from The Boy Scout Handbook. “The animal has been emptied of experience and secrets,” John Berger writes in a discussion of Buffon and eighteenth-century zoology, “and this new invented ‘innocence’ begins to provoke in man a kind of nostalgia”(Berger 10). The headdress and the bow and arrows might be read as part of the same “receding past” that Berger describes, a perceived oneness with nature associated with stereotypical images of Native Americans. An allusion to Tarzan later in the story reinforces these notions of an ideal, exuberant, and youthful past.

How would Captain Marvel’s readers, those kids between the ages of nine and fourteen that Binder described to Moskowitz, have responded to Mr. Tawny’s lament over his lost youth? Binder is inviting those readers to imagine what middle age might be like and how they might respond to it. “Can Mr. Tawny, the Talking Tiger, recapture the joy of the days when he was a carefree (p.66)

Otto Binder and the Secret Life of Mr. Tawny, the Talking Tiger

2.5 Mr. Tawny dreams of a life beyond the museum in a panel from “Captain Marvel and Mr. Tawny’s Quest for Youth.” Captain Marvel Adventures no. 131 (April 1952).

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

cub?” The caption implies that the tiger, as his behavior indicates, has lost “his sanity.” Captain Marvel’s mission is to bring Mr. Tawny back to his senses.

The backgrounds of the panels in “Quest for Youth” reinforce questions about youthful idealism, middle age, and pending mortality. For every lush evergreen, there is a barren and skeletal tree filling the horizon. On his first outing with the club, its members vote Tawny as their leader. Like the school children in “The Teacher from Mars,” two of them set out to ridicule and sabotage him. They fill his knapsack with rocks and tie his striped tail to a tent that almost carries him away in a strong wind. Captain Marvel knows the kids are up to something and spends most of the narrative saving Mr. Tawny’s life and trying to figure out which of the boys is making trouble.

The story is filled with images of both youth and decay. On page four, Captain Marvel warns Tawny against racing the kids. “Oh, pish posh, Captain Marvel!” says the tiger. “Youthful energy surges within me!” Mr. Tawny is the first in a line of silhouettes. Like the fifth panel on page two, it’s a joyous, almost manic image (fig. 2.7). Only two panels later, he’s flat on his back and unable to move. “He’s just winded!” Captain Marvel assures the boys. Later, (p.67)

Otto Binder and the Secret Life of Mr. Tawny, the Talking Tiger

2.6 Captain Marvel appears skeptical of his friend’s nostalgia on the first page of “Captain Marvel and Mr. Tawny’s Quest for Youth” from Captain Marvel Adventures no. 131 (April 1952).

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

things get worse when Tawny goes swimming and lands in a pool of mud. At least Captain Marvel takes care of the hornets.

Tawny slowly realizes that he’s better off living in the present. His home study might be dull, but at least it’s free of bugs, storms, and mean little kids. “Oh, me!” he sighs. “I’ve had all the joys of youth I can stand!” It turns out that two kids named Red and Freckles did all the “hazing”: “We can’t let two other guys take the blame!” says Freckles. When it comes time for Mr. Tawny to pass judgment on the troublemakers, he instead predicts their future. No path, no matter how sunny and green, will lead back to the wonders of childhood, he warns. The boys will learn that soon enough. “Someday you’ll grow up and try to recapture your youth!” declares Tawny. “That’ll be punishment enough! (p.68)

Otto Binder and the Secret Life of Mr. Tawny, the Talking Tiger

2.7 Despite his enthusiasm, Mr. Tawny tires quickly in these panels from “Captain Marvel and Mr. Tawny’s Quest for Youth” in Captain Marvel Adventures no. 131 (April 1952).

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

Otto Binder and the Secret Life of Mr. Tawny, the Talking Tiger

2.8 Mr. Tawny is satisfied to be “a regular fellow” in the conclusion of “Captain Marvel and Mr. Tawny’s Quest for Youth” from Captain Marvel Adventures no. 131 (April 1952).

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

No matter how dangerous the predicament he finds himself in, Tawny always ends up safe and sound. Maybe that’s the curse of the life he leads, another part of his routine. In the final two panels of the story, home at last, he walks with a cane and rubs his back (fig. 2.8). A photo of two real boys, not much older than those in the story, appears on the opposite page in an advertisement for a Handbook for Model Builders. Like the children in the story, the two boys in the photograph sit outside in the sun. The story has already given readers a warning: this summer day—the leaves, the grass, the sunlight—won’t last either.

At least there’s some good news. The boys, guilty, have a gift for the tiger, a plaque that declares him “A Game Guy and a Regular Fellow.” Tawny smiles, and calls this award “one of the real joys of all life—to be called a regular (p.69) fellow!” There’s no glory for Mr. Tawny, no magic powers or eternal youth. For the tiger, there’s only the promise of home, the quiet of his room, and the comfort of his dressing gown. To be “a regular fellow” is to contend with time, which inevitably leads to loss and often to loneliness. The resolution of Tawny’s “quest” is not especially comforting. Even the image in the final panel is flat and unremarkable. Billy, holding the plaque, stands with Mr. Tawny in a circle of light. Is this really all these kids can hope for? If the boys in the story, and Mr. Tawny’s readers, are lucky, maybe one day they’ll grow up and become “regular fellows,” too.

“Important and Worthwhile Things”

The Tawny stories are a living archive of Binder’s fears and doubts. They also provide a record of his humor, his optimism, and his pride. Binder, in a note included with his papers at Texas A&M University, makes clear the seriousness with which he and Beck took their work on Captain Marvel Adventures. A memo labeled “Questionson what to do about CMA from now on….” includes a list of ideas for his editors and for Beck.36 Someone, presumably Binder, has drawn a large X in pencil on the page. It is unclear whether or not the writer ever shared these notes, but the memo remains an important record of his approach to writing these comics, especially during Captain Marvel’s final years in the early 1950s. While Binder advises that the team include “Korean war and horror stories” in order to remain competitive, he also makes clear his and Beck’s affection for the series. In a “Note to editors,” he writes, “It may be redundant to say it, but writers and artists, if they have any pride, want to give their best work. I believe Beck and I have always had pride in CMA.” One of Binder’s strategies for countering the title’s decline in popularity and sales is an emphasis on more realistic stories: “I think on this point we can all agree—the stories should have more of Billy Batson and his doings and problems. I’m trying to get more BB in.” Binder’s desire to feature Billy more prominently in Captain Marvel Adventures is another example of his philosophy of generating “human interest,” of writing what he once called “a ‘tear jerker’”(“Teacher” 19) in order to move an audience.

As these notes indicate, Binder had a sense of the lasting significance of the work he and Beck had produced. Those images of a frustrated Tawny working in his study also hold the promise of eventual praise and recognition. “Mr. Tawny’s Fight for Fame” ends not with the gloom of the tiger’s “Quest for Youth” but with a fantasy as compelling as Billy’s first visit with Shazam—at least for a writer. At the end of the story, Tawny learns that readers have begun to take notice. His dissertation on hibernating animals, it turns out, is filled (p.70)

Otto Binder and the Secret Life of Mr. Tawny, the Talking Tiger

2.9 Mr. Tawny’s dreams come true in the final panel of “Mr. Tawny’s Fight for Fame” from Captain Marvel Adventures no. 126 (November 1951).

Reprinted in Shazam! no. 14 (September–October 1974): 58. Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

with “patient, plodding genius!” A group of scientists promise to publish it. Once it appears in print, “Mr. Tawny’s fame will never tarnish for a thousand years!” His research, and the hard work that went into it, are “important and worthwhile”: “This book was my claim to fame all the time and I didn’t know it!” he tells Billy. In the final panel of the story, Tawny looks very pleased as he holds the manuscript in his paws (fig. 2.9).

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Binder expressed his hope that science fiction readers would enjoy and respond to his work. One of the things he missed most about the pulps were the fans, those dedicated readers who wrote in response to his fiction. Although the name Eando Binder appeared as a byline for the Jon Jarl backup stories in Captain Marvel Adventures, Binder, unlike Beck, was not credited on Billy’s adventures. As a pulp writer, Binder had thrived on his interaction with readers, the give and take that let him know he was not alone: “But as I say,” he writes in “Memoirs of a Nobody,” “letters like that kept me in a warm glow. They hadn’t forgotten me, those loyal fans! They hadn’t ignored me and left me shivering out in the cold.” Binder repeated this sentiment in one of his letters to Moskowitz in the fall of 1952, where he again mentions the “rosy glow” that accompanies a response, good or bad, from a reader. “Ah, those letters…. favorable or otherwise…. how I miss them …”37 Just as Binder depended on those letters for inspiration, Tawny, in the character’s final Fawcett appearance in 1953, eventually learned that a solitary life, especially for a “regular fellow,” will never be rewarding or complete.

In “Mr. Tawny … Hermit,” published in the second-to-last issue of Captain Marvel Adventures (no. 149, October 1953),38 Tawny, at last, acts as the narrator. “Hello folks!” he says on the first page as he stares back at the reader. “This (p.71)

Otto Binder and the Secret Life of Mr. Tawny, the Talking Tiger

2.10 Mr. Tawny offers one final lesson for his and Billy’s readers in “Captain Marvel in Mr. Tawny … Hermit.” Captain Marvel Adventures no. 149 (October 1953). Scan from an UberScans CD-ROM of the complete Captain Marvel Adventures.

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

is my story, told in my own words!”39 Tired of his notoriety, the tiger makes his way to the forest where, no longer able to live in the wild, he accidentally causes a wildfire to burn out of control. Captain Marvel once again comes to his rescue. On the last page, after Tawny is nearly trampled by a bull, he makes up his mind to return once again to his home. This is the tiger, after all, who made a name for himself by writing a book about hibernation.

In the final two panels, Tawny is back in his “working clothes”—his robe—as he stands and talks with Captain Marvel. The setting is familiar: a mirror on the wall behind him, yellow curtains on the window. Mr. Tawny’s forgotten just one thing, his birthday, but his friends have a cake for him. Although it is not clear whether or not Binder knew that this would be Tawny’s final appearance in Captain Marvel Adventures (like the other Marvel Family characters, the tiger would return in Shazam! in the early 1970s),40 the tiger’s closing thoughts bring his journey to an end. His final lesson for Captain Marvel’s young readers? It might be an obvious one, maybe even a little “corned up,” to borrow Binder’s phrase, but it’s worth considering: “People are more fun than anybody!” he exclaims. “Why try to avoid them? Might as well have a good time and live a little!”(fig. 2.10).

The Tawny stories are a remarkable record of Binder’s life as a writer. Not strict autobiographies, they are instead a series of sense impressions that provide indirect access to the man who wrote them. Just as Walt Kelly used his hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, as a model for Pogo’s Okefenokee Swamp,41 Binder documented the ups and downs of his life and his career as a writer in many of Tawny’s adventures. As a result, he explored the potential of comics as a medium for meditations on the self. By the 1960s and 1970s, (p.72) Binder, through his contact with comics fandom, had a sense that his writing might outlive him, but Mr. Tawny’s creator would never be entirely free of doubt and a certain longing for what he’d left behind.42

In a letter published in DC’s Shazam! no. 4 (dated July 1973), a little over a year before he died at age sixty-three, Binder thanked editor Julie Schwartz for getting him a copy of the first issue, the one that includes the writer’s brief encounter with Billy Batson. Just as he had a decade earlier in the pages of Alter Ego, Binder wistfully writes about his career: “The comics seem like some longago dream and I have no slightest hankering to go back to them, in case you’re wondering.” The next line of the letter suggests that Binder, like Beck, looked back on those days with sadness, wonder, and resignation: “I see that C. C. Beck has the same old ‘magic’ touch he used to have with the Big Red Cheese,” Binder writes. After decades of work in the pulps and in comics, Binder’s legacy was secure. Like Tawny, however, he must have known that youth, like the bag of rocks on Tawny’s back, is too heavy a burden to carry into adulthood. A record of the multiple intersections between the popular and the personal, the Tawny stories are examples of those “important and worthwhile things” that persist, and inspire, long after the dream has ended.


(1.) These quotations are from Captain Marvel Adventures no. 100, which does not include page numbers. Barrier and Williams include a reprint of the story in A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics (81–113).

(2.) I discuss Tawny’s literary precedents in “The Secret Life of Mr. Tawny: Captain Marvel Adventures #102 & James Thurber’s Walter Mitty.”

(3.) In The Rocket’s Blast Special no. 8, an issue dedicated to Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family, Gene Arnold notes that Tawny, although popular, was a character he “did not care for.” When I mentioned to Harlan Ellison that I would be devoting a chapter to the talking tiger, he asked why I’d decided to spend so much time on the “worst” of all the Captain Marvel serials, then changed the subject.

(4.) For the allegorical qualities in Kelly’s work, read Edward Mendelson’s “Possum Pastoral.”

(5.) Roy Thomas printed the six sample strips in Alter Ego in 1965. See Thomas and Schelly (144–46) to read the strips. Schelly also includes them in Words of Wonder (101).

(6.) The Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1951 lists September 5, 1951, as the copyright date for CMA no. 126, which is cover-dated November 1951.

(7.) CMA no. 126 does not include page numbers.

(8.) I discuss the history of these sorts of characters in more detail in my essay “Funny Animals” in The Routledge Companion to Comics, edited by Frank Bramlett, Roy T. Cook, and Aaron Meskin.

(9.) Tawny first appears in “Captain Marvel and the Talking Tiger” in Captain Marvel Adventures no. 79 (December 1947). The title page lists Beck as the “Chief Artist” of the issue. The copyright date for CMA no. 82 is December 31, 1947, according to the Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1948. For a list of Mr. Tawny’s adventures, refer to the “Tawky Tawny Chronology” on the Unofficial Guide to the DC Universe website.

(10.) Spiegelman and other other members of the group, including Heer, discuss Beck and Captain Marvel in “Colloquy”(240–46). Later, Spiegelman also discusses “Captain Marvel in the Land of Surrealism,” the story he and Françoise Mouly eventually selected for inclusion in The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics. See “Colloquy”(335–36) and The TOON Treasury (274–81).

(12.) For a discussion of the relationship between memory and imagination, see Edward Casey’s “The World of Nostalgia”(366–68). I also discuss Casey’s essay, and its analysis of Hofer’s dissertation, in Chapter 5.

(13.) Schwartz’s “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me” appears in his Selected Poems (74–75).

(14.) On the Radiator Comics website, Sharpe’s co-publisher, Neil Brideau, writes that Sharpe’s “choice to draw everyone as anthropomorphic animals actually humanizes the story more.” This (p.163) is so, he argues, because realism might “have created a barrier between the reader and the subjects”(Brideau).

(15.) For a detailed account of Binder’s life and times, read Schelly’s definitive biography, Words of Wonder. Hamerlinck’s Fawcett Companion includes Matt Lage’s interview with Binder. Recently, Hamerlinck has also been serializing portions of Binder’s “Memoirs of a Nobody” in Fawcett Collectors of America. That manuscript, along with all of the material Binder left to Sam Moskowitz, is housed at the Cushing Memorial Library at Texas A&M University.

(16.) For more on Binder’s Jon Jarl series, see Schelly, Words of Wonder (102).

(17.) Binder includes this reference to Lovecraft in a letter to Earl dated January 20, 1936. He refers to Howard in another letter to Earl dated June 7, 1936. Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University.

(18.) Earl Binder letter to Otto Binder, April 6, 1936. Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University.

(19.) For details on Binder’s work at National, refer to Chapters 12 and 13 of Schelly’s Words of Wonder.

(20.) From Ellison, interview with the author, January 2014. As this book was about to go to press, Roy Thomas and P. C. Hamerlinck published this interview as “‘Nay, Never Will I Serve Thee, Mr. Mind!’ Or, ‘I Think I was Always a Fawcett Kid” in Alter Ego no. 138/Fawcett Collectors of America no. 197 (March 2016), 4–16. Any citations from the interview that appear in this book are from the original manuscript of the interview, which Ellison edited and revised in the summer of 2014.

(21.) Asimov writes about Binder’s influence in the introduction to the paperback edition of The Caves of Steel (vii–xi).

(22.) Otto Binder letter to Sam Moskowitz, October 4, 1952. Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University.

(23.) H. L. Gold letter to Otto Binder, February 17, 1953. Binder’s response to Gold is dated February 21, 1953. Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University.

(24.) Otto Binder letter to Sam Moskowitz, October 4, 1952. Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University.

(25.) In researching Binder, I asked science fiction historian Betty Hull if her husband, Frederik Pohl, had any memories of the writer. Pohl began his career in the late 1930s and was a prolific writer and editor until his death in 2013. Through Hull, Pohl responded that Binder was “before his time.” As Hull pointed out to me, this was quite a statement, given that Pohl, although a decade younger than Binder, began his career in the 1930s.

(26.) Oscar J. Friend letter to Otto Binder, dated July 6, 1953. Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University. For more about Binder’s struggle to return to science fiction, see also Words of Wonder (119–22).

(27.) Oscar J. Friend letter to Otto Binder, dated August 8, 1953. Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University.

Friend and his co-editor Leo Margulies included Binder’s “The Teacher from Mars” in the collection My Best Science Fiction Story, first published in 1949 and reissued in paperback by Pocket Books early in 1954. Some of the writers Friend praises in this 1953 letter are included in the book, notably Henry Kuttner and Murray Leinster. Manly Wade Wellman, a friend from Binder’s pulp days and another writer who made the transition from science fiction to comics, also makes an appearance.

(28.) Argosy serialized Lords of Creation in 1939.

(p.164) (29.) Binder’s “Testing, Testing” appears in Universe Science Fiction no. 5 (May 1954): 114–24.

(30.) Otto Binder letter to Oswald Train, dated November 7, 1953. Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University.

(31.) Otto Binder letter to Sam Moskowitz, dated October 15, 1952. Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University.

(32.) John W. Campbell, Jr., letter to Otto Binder, dated February 15, 1938. Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University.

(33.) Binder adapted “The Teacher from Mars” for EC Comics. Drawn by Joe Orlando with colors by Marie Severin, it appeared in Weird Science-Fantasy no. 24 (June 1954). I write briefly about this adaptation in “Is Otto Binder and Joe Orlando’s ‘I, Robot’ a Protest Novel?” For more about Binder’s work for EC, refer to Chapter 11 of Words of Wonder.

(34.) The Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1952 lists February 6 as the copyright date for CMA no. 131.

(35.) CMA no. 131 does not include page numbers.

(36.) I discuss Binder’s memo in more detail in “Otto Binder’s Magic Words: The Writer’s Plan to Save Captain Marvel Adventures.” This article includes the full text of Binder’s notes. Although it does not include a date, the note probably dates from 1952, as it appears in the same portion of the Binder archive as his two letters to Sam Moskowitz from the fall of that year.

(37.) Otto Binder letter to Sam Moskowitz, dated October 4, 1952. Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University.

(38.) The Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1953 lists July 10, 1953, as the copyright date for CMA no. 149.

(39.) CMA no. 149 does not include page numbers.

(40.) Most notable of these appearances is “The Troubles of the Talking Tiger,” written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by C. C. Beck, in Shazam! no. 7 (cover-dated November 1973). Mr. Tawny even appears on the cover.

(41.) Kerry Soper discusses Walt Kelly’s affection for Bridgeport, Connecticut, in We Go Pogo (20–21). I also discuss Kelly’s Connecticut background in “Bumbazine, Blackness, and the Myth of the Redemptive South in Pogo”(33–34). For more about Kelly’s hometown and its impact on his work, read Eric Jarvis’s “The Comic Strip Pogo and the Issue of Race.”

(42.) Read Chapter 14 of Schelly’s Words of Wonder for more about Binder’s relationship to comic book fandom in the United States in the 1960s.