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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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“Brother, that Ain’t Imaginary!”

“Brother, that Ain’t Imaginary!”

Billy Batson and World War II

(p.73) Chapter 3 “Brother, that Ain’t Imaginary!”
Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia

Brian Cremins

University Press of Mississippi

Abstract and Keywords

Billy Batson and his alter ego Captain Marvel reached the height of their popularity during World War II. This chapter studies several of Billy’s wartime adventures, stories that artist C. C Beck often dismissed later in his career. In these narratives, Captain Marvel embodies aspects of the ideal American soldier figured as an innocent boy whose courage all but guarantees a victory over the Axis powers. The chapter also examines the social and cultural consequences of this idealized figure, especially on returning soldiers and their families.

Keywords:   Billy Batson, Captain Marvel, Comic books and soldiers, Comic books and World War II, Nostalgia and World War II

In November of 1945, the members of the Captain Marvel Club received a letter of thanks and celebration from Captain Marvel himself. At last, the war, now over, was set to become another page in a history book, a memory, and there was plenty of good news for Captain Marvel fans. With the end of wartime paper shortages, Fawcett could return its entire comics line to a monthly publication schedule. “Dear Pal,” begins the letter, which includes a list of Captain Marvel merchandise,

Now that the great struggle of World War II is over, all of the Fawcett comic book characters want to join me in a salute to you and all the rest of [your] fellow-club members in appreciation of the fine job you did to help win this epic victory. Maybe you think that buying War Stamps and War Bonds, saving scrap metal and waste paper were of minor importance, but all those little things put together by a lot of people like you working in cooperation add up to a tremendous contribution.1

The letter assures Captain Marvel’s loyal readers that their efforts were essential and decisive for the Allied cause. As soldiers returned home, a new era of abundance was just around the corner; it would be a kind of paradise, with an endless supply of new comics, not to mention Captain Marvel-approved clothes, toys, and hats. Taking a cue from his alter ego, Billy Batson, the skilled radio reporter, Captain Marvel pauses for a commercial break, reminding club members about “Captain Marvel’s dandy new suspenders,” available at department stores like J. C. Penney’s and Grant’s. If you already have a belt or a favorite hat, the Captain adds, you might consider the “lovely dresses, bags, sweaters, [and] skating cap and scarf combinations” designed by Billy’s sister, (p.74) Mary (also known as Mary Marvel). Any of these items would “make ideal Christmas gifts for your sisters or girl friends!”2

Beck hated these toys so much that, in his first essay for the Critical Circle, he suggested a link between Captain Marvel’s role in the war effort, the marketing of these products, and the hero’s eventual decline. As Fawcett “insisted that he be made more convincingly real,” Beck wrote, the less appealing he became (Beck, “What Really”). This push for greater realism began when Billy’s alter ego started “visiting the front lines and leading bayonet charges,” but things only got worse when Captain Marvel appeared on mobiles, shirts, hats, pins, and pennants. “The merchandising of Captain Marvel was awful,” Beck wrote, in part because of “ads drawn by artists who distorted him all out of shape”(Beck, “What Really”). From Beck’s perspective, Fawcett’s legal battle was only one of the many factors that brought Captain Marvel’s career to an end. His discomfort with these “realistic” depictions of the hero—in World War II adventures, for example, or as a pitchman for various toys, games, and clothing—provides a test case on Beck’s theories of comic art. If, as Beck explained to the Critical Circle, “comic strip characters can’t appear in real life and be convincing”(“What Really”), why did readers by the millions flock to newsstands in the 1940s to read Billy’s stories, imaginary or otherwise?

Don Maris, for example, includes “Captain Marvel in the World of If,” one of Billy’s many encounters with Adolf Hitler, in the same 1970s “best of” collection that includes the fan club letter advertising various Captain Marvel toys. “Millions of kids like myself felt that we knew and lived with the Big Red Cheese,” Maris recalled of his experience reading these stories in the early 1940s.3 For Beck, however, only a veiled realism, like the kind on display in Binder’s autobiographical Mr. Tawny stories, had a place in comic book art.

The three stories I discuss in this chapter, Beck would no doubt agree, lack the innovative quality of those postwar narratives. Nonetheless, as scholars including Bradford Wright and Christopher Murray have argued, the superheroes that appeared in comic books in the early 1940s no doubt filled a psychological need for some readers, especially children terrified by the war and its impact on their families and communities.4 These works of the imagination, even deeply flawed ones like “Capt. Marvel and the Mark of the Black Swastika”—in which Billy takes on both Hitler and Satan—are easy to dismiss because of their crudeness, predictability, and sentimentality, but they provide points of access for historians studying the social and psychological impact of the war on soldiers and on civilians. Beck later remembered comics like these with skepticism and even disdain. “Real life problems have no simple solutions and cannot be solved as neatly as comic book situations can be solved,” Beck argued in “Good Taste in Comic Art,” the second of the Critical Circle essays. What Beck failed to understand is that, for many readers, even the (p.75) idea of another world in which good guys like Captain Marvel always win is satisfying and often reassuring, especially in the midst of upheaval and chaos. As Maris pointed out, he and the other “kids” who read these stories looked forward with great “anticipation” to “seeing [Captain Marvel] each month.”5

In the stories I discuss in this chapter, Captain Marvel is often more childlike—prone to mistakes, silly, and immature—than Billy Batson is. I would argue that Billy does not transform into “an adult superhero”(Murray 28); rather, Shazam’s magic enables him to revert to a more innocent state of being. As Bradford Wright puts it, the hero often behaves “like a bumbling overgrown child”(19), one still trying to come to terms with his powers. Then again, if the adult world is filled with villains like Hitler, Goebbels, and Göring, all of whom Billy encountered during World War II, what good is a magic word that forces him to grow up? Captain Marvel, that descendant of King Arthur, behaves more like J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the little boy free from the vanity, petty hatreds, and the evil of adults. Captain Marvel’s popularity, I suspect, was a function of a form of “innocence” historian Michael C. C. Adams describes in his book The Best War Ever. American soldiers during World War II, he writes, especially those “who had not been in combat,” often “seemed immature because they had not grown up amid war and because their parents had worked to prolong in them the sheltered innocence that Americans feel is a part of their national dream”(Adams 91). Although Beck attributed Captain Marvel’s “success” to Billy’s skills as a storyteller (“Real Facts”), this “sheltered innocence” no doubt played a role in the character’s popularity. Put more simply, Billy and the Captain offered a measure of hope. The war would end and, once concluded, the United States would return to that earlier state of being. That’s Billy’s story. He’s in no rush to become an adult; he just wants to go home. Of all the powers that Shazam grants Billy, the greatest is the ability to rebuild the comfortable life that his greedy uncle had destroyed.

The story of Captain Marvel, and the nostalgia for the character expressed so poignantly in the fanzines of the 1960s and 1970s, might be understood in the context of how American soldiers were trained during World War II. Captain Marvel, whose innocence all but guaranteed his success over numerous Axis villains, would later become the perfect spokesman for those Captain Marvel Club toys, games, and clothes. After all, he’d had plenty of practice during the war. “The infantilized soldier was utterly independent of his family,” writes historian Susan J. Matt, and, now “utterly dependent on the army,” would therefore be “willing to subordinate his own needs to ‘institutional ends’”(Matt 202). Matt describes the essential role that consumer goods played in this process of infantilization, as “nearly 8 million soldiers who flocked to the PX” bought everything “from soft drinks and candy bars to Time magazine,” and, of course, large numbers of comic books and other (p.76) “potent reminders of home”(Matt 208; see also Murray 112).6 The military hoped that these “commercial comforts” would appeal to soldiers and “assuage their homesickness”(Matt 208). By the time fans like Richard Lupoff and Don Maris began writing about their memories of the hero in the 1960s and 1970s, Captain Marvel already had plenty of experience as a focal point for nostalgia. The soldiers who’d read these comic books in the early 1940s had gotten there first.

While comics, as reminders of home or as entry points to a world of fantasy and power, often brought relief to these soldiers, comic book heroes and their exploits could also be painful reminders of what had been left behind or destroyed.7 In his 1989 book Wartime, Paul Fussell highlights a passage from Barry Broadfoot’s Six War Years, 1939–1945: Memories of Canadians at Home and Abroad. Here, a Canadian soldier who saw combat in Normandy and in Holland recalls his return following the end of the war. Volunteers for “the Red Cross or the Sally Ann, some girls,” he remembers, met him as he disembarked from his ship (qtd. in Broadfoot 392). To mark the occasion, the young women offered each soldier “a little bag” filled with “a couple of chocolate bars in it and a comic book.” Rather than taking comfort from these items, the solider found them strange and unnerving: “Here, we had gone overseas not much more than children but we were coming back, sure, let’s face it, as killers. And they were still treating us as children. Candy and comic books”(Broadfoot 392; qtd. in Fussell 288). In this passage, “candy and comic books” are markers of a disconnect between the returning soldiers and the Red Cross volunteers. It’s a sad, almost meaningless gesture that is nonetheless poignant, one that appears to ignore the trauma and the horror these veterans experienced overseas. But what choice do the volunteers have? This scene encapsulates the compelling power of nostalgia and of memory. The bag filled with candy and comic books, the young women hope, will serve as a welcome for these soldiers. It is an act of faith, an assurance that things will return to normal; it is a promise of renewal and stability, reminders of a time before the war. The returning soldier, puzzled and rendered speechless, glimpses, for a second, the boy he was before he entered the service. Unlike Billy, he has no magic word that will restore to him everything that he, and the Red Cross workers, have lost.8

Captain Marvel reached the height of his popularity at a time when, as Michael C. C. Adams points out, the American public consumed a wide variety of media, from radio shows and movies to magazines and comic books—forms that anticipated the explosion of mass popular culture in the mid-to-late twentieth century: “The public’s concentration span and ability to tolerate any but optimistic messages were being eroded,” Adams writes of the war, especially in its final stages. And it was this “media age,” Adams continues, that (p.77) “also spawned comic books, whose superheroes further simplified the issues and made them black or white”(Adams 10–11). Like Beck, I’m not certain that placing a fantasy character such as Captain Marvel in the middle of a combat zone makes for good comics. Nonetheless, the terrible contrast between Billy’s fantasy life and the terror of the war itself—the fear of sabotage, the bloody reality of combat, the horror of the concentration camps—challenges us to remember and to articulate the complexities of an era that, despite its continued presence in popular culture, remains as vexing as those “candy and comic books.”

In the closing pages of Wartime, Fussell expresses his dissatisfaction even with his own account of World War II and with his writing about his experiences as a veteran. He argues that “the enormousness of the war and the unmanageable copiousness of its verbal and visual residue” leave “the revisitor of this imagery” with no choice other than “to indicate a few components of the scene”(296). In Captain Marvel’s battles with Hitler, readers will discover fragments or, to borrow Binder’s phrase once again, “tiny flashes”(“Special” 112) of the war itself,9 one imagined by artists like Beck and Marc Swayze and their other colleagues at Fawcett. In Billy’s fantasy world, home is never very far away. All it takes for him is a magic word and he’s back with his sister, or with the wizard Shazam, or even with his friend Steamboat. That is Billy’s greatest talent: to imagine himself as a being more innocent and childlike than he, or his readers, can ever hope to be.

“By Gosh! I’ll go with you! I’m Patriotic, Too!”

Billy Batson and Captain Marvel volunteered for the US Army in June 1942. Just six months after Pearl Harbor, the United States military, already at war in the Pacific, had not yet finalized its plans for Europe. One of the government’s goals was to prepare American citizens for the demands of wartime. In the summer of 1942, as Billy volunteered for service, the army introduced the Army War Show, an exhibition designed to boost support for the war effort (Banas 31). The War Show, which performed at stadiums across the East Coast, Midwest, and South, including cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, and Atlanta, offered audiences a means of imagining what the war might look like and what America’s soldiers would face when they ventured overseas. The show featured new recruits, many of whose battalions eventually saw combat in North Africa and in Europe in 1943.

In the summer and fall of 1942, however, these newly recruited and trained soldiers toured the country, performing mock battles and showing off the new (p.78)

“Brother, that Ain’t Imaginary!”Billy Batson and World War II

3.1 The cover of Attack: The Story of the United States Army, a souvenir booklet that documents the 1942 Army War Show performances.

From the author’s archive.

technology of war in the form of machine guns, flamethrowers, jeeps, and tanks. Major General A. D. Surles, in a memo on the War Show dated April 22, 1942, explained the purpose of these public spectacles: “The expositions will not only raise large sums for Army Emergency Relief, but they will enable our people to see their Army at first hand and thereby be inspired to greater effort in supporting it with full confidence in its leadership and purposes.”10 The War Show made its debut at Municipal Stadium in Baltimore on June 12–15, 1942 (fig. 3.1), around the same time that Captain Marvel Adventures no. 12, dated June 26, first hit the newsstands.11

Like “Captain Marvel Joins the Army,” the first story in Captain Marvel Adventures no. 12, a souvenir booklet from the War Show seeks to inspire and to comfort readers uncertain about what the war might bring. The booklet, Attack: The Story of the United States Army, appeals, like the War Show performance itself, to the imagination of the reader. What is the military? Its (p.79)

“Brother, that Ain’t Imaginary!”Billy Batson and World War II

3.2 A War Show ticket from the Soldier Field performances held in Chicago in September 1942.

From the author’s archive.

history? What will soldiers experience once they’ve completed their training? In a section of the program titled “Here’s YOUR Army!” we learn that these young soldiers

have been gathered together from the North, the South, the East, and the West to present to you not a circus—not a light-hearted display of touring troupers—but a glimpse here, and a picture there, of the battle-bound millions of American youth. These particular men of the Task Force of the Army War Show have been chosen to represent a cross-section of the Army, and they present this action tonight with a deep sense of serious responsibility to their country and to you.12

While the War Show, according to newspaper accounts of the era, was indeed a circus-like spectacle, despite what the anonymous writer of the program might claim, it did not entirely shy away from depicting the inevitable consequences of combat. Every night, as an article in the Chicago Daily Tribune from September 2, 1942, describes, Private Teddy Tedesco from Brooklyn was killed in a mock battle (“City Gets Taste”).13 In a ticket issued for the War Show performance at Soldier Field in Chicago in early September 1942, we see a soldier wearing combat fatigues and carrying a rifle. Grim but determined, he is a man of action. In the other corner of the red, rectangular ticket (fig. 3.2), we see an image of home as a dark-haired young woman cradles a baby in her arms.

Next to her, in blue letters, the ticket tells us to “Take the load off his HEART!” Buying this ticket to attend a performance of the Army War Show will assist the soldier as he fights for freedom and defends the US and the rest (p.80)

“Brother, that Ain’t Imaginary!”Billy Batson and World War II

3.3 Captain Marvel takes action in Marc Swayze’s cover for Captain Marvel Adventures no. 12 (June 26, 1942).

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

of the world against the evil of the Axis powers. The show is a spectacle but, like Marc Swayze’s drawing of Captain Marvel leading a line of soldiers into battle on the cover of Captain Marvel Adventures no. 12, it’s a necessary fiction, one that transforms the energy, enthusiasm, wonder, and concern of the audience into a shared sense of urgency and action.

Swayze’s iconic drawing served the same purpose as these War Show performances—and the tickets, booklets, and other souvenirs that accompanied them. This is what the war might look like: the sky behind Captain Marvel is the color of a bruise, but, in the lower left-hand corner, there is daylight. While the cover might at first appear absurd, it embodies the hopes and fears of its readers and of its creators. There’s only one problem. As Swayze himself later (p.81) pointed out, Captain Marvel and the soldiers look like they’re still fighting World War I (fig. 3.3).

In an article written for the Fawcett Collectors of America in 1997,14 Swayze recalls the atmosphere in the Fawcett offices in early 1942. “Fawcett, like most publishers, jumped onto the war stories without delay,” Swayze explains. “After all, the comic book super-heroes were out there scrambling to be the first to be involved in the US effort”(75). The heroic cover of Captain Marvel Adventures no. 12, Swayze points out, is filled with anachronisms. “I was assigned a wartime cover so early on that the US infantrymen Captain Marvel was leading over a battlefield wore World War I helmets!”(75). The soldiers-in-training in this issue’s title story wear the same uniforms.15 If a being like Captain Marvel joined the army, he would of course become an officer because of his superior strength and intellect, not to mention his boyish exuberance. The other soldiers would look up to him as their leader, and the enemy wouldn’t have much of a chance. But, as Beck argued in his first Critical Circle essay from 1988 (“What Really”), once Captain Marvel is placed within a realistic setting, writers and artists face the challenge of blending cartoon fantasy with an uncertain, terrifying, and bloody reality.

The cover of the War Show booklet, the drawing on the ticket from the Soldier Field performance, and Swayze’s image for Captain Marvel Adventures no. 12 provide us with a constellation of iconic figures: the soldiers in battle, the brightly costumed hero in action, the mother caring for her child. These examples, taken one at a time, are meaningless without context, but, when viewed together, allow access to a community that shared and celebrated these images in the first place. In this case, to borrow a phrase from Guy Debord, the “spectacle” here is the idea of the war, and all the fear and anxiety that accompany it. Each one of these drawings, from the painted cover of the souvenir booklet to the sketch on the back of the ticket to Swayze’s dramatic (if speculative) image, as Debord might have argued, are not in themselves interesting or compelling: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images”(Debord n.p.).16 Each drawing asks, What will this war look like? and, more important, Who will fight it? By mixing reality and fantasy, each artist, from the illustrators who worked on the War Show materials to Swayze and his colleagues at Fawcett, reveals the limits of popular culture in responding to rapid historical change.

Following the dramatic, two-page spread that opens “Captain Marvel Joins the Army,” the first story in Captain Marvel Adventures no. 12, the reader sees Billy Batson at his desk, a line of skyscrapers visible through the window behind him (fig. 3.4).

Billy’s friend Whitey Murphy is planning “to enlist in the Army and smash the Axis!” Inspired, Billy replies, “By gosh! I’ll go with you! I’m patriotic, too!” (p.82)

“Brother, that Ain’t Imaginary!”Billy Batson and World War II

3.4 Billy sits at his desk before following his friend Whitey Murphy to the US Army recruiting office. From page 4 of Captain Marvel Adventures no. 12 (June 26, 1942).

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

Billy, the sergeant explains, is too young to join: “We’ll take you, buddy,” he explains to Whitey, “but the other kid better go home and grow up a little!”(4).17 On the window behind Whitey and Billy is a sign that reads, “Men Wanted for U.S. Army.” It appears again in two of the next three panels. Billy, however, can only grow up by speaking his magic word and even then, as I’ve argued, he remains a kid, albeit one with impossible strength and invulnerability. He calls on his magic powers, as he explains it, to “show that overgrown sergeant!”(5). I read the image at the top of the page as another of Billy’s fantasies, one in which the exact details of the war are not yet known. In this daydream, Captain Marvel leads a line of soldiers across an expanse of barbed wire, a scene from no man’s land. The sky is filled with explosions and dark clouds of smoke and fire. One of the Nazi planes has been hit and plummets to the ground. As we can see from the first narrative panel on the story’s opening page, Billy is an upstanding member of society, successful and respected. We know this because of the items on his desk and the file cabinets that line the walls of his office. But to prove himself as a man, he must do more than sit behind a desk. He must spring into action and use his gifts to fight an enemy that threatens the life he has created since that first meeting with Shazam.

On the next page, Captain Marvel enters the recruiting office and, under the name M. R. Vell, volunteers for duty along with Whitey (6). He soon (p.83)

“Brother, that Ain’t Imaginary!”Billy Batson and World War II

3.5 Billy inspires a group of new recruits in a scene from page 9 of “Captain Marvel Joins the Army”(June 26, 1942).

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

discovers that his drill sergeant is in fact a German spy sent to undermine the confidence of these newly recruited soldiers. In a meeting with other “enemy aliens,” a mug of beer in his hand, the evil sergeant explains his intentions: “I am busy convincing the men they cannot become good soldiers! For instance, today I made fools of two privates—Vell and Murphy!”(8). These saboteurs kidnap Billy after he speaks to an assembly of newly recruited soldiers. The spies attempt to coerce the star reporter into broadcasting propaganda for them, but he eventually manages to speak his magic word. In a single-page fight scene, Captain Marvel easily clobbers the villains (15).

Early on, Billy reminds readers that he’s a magical storyteller. His narratives, he hopes, will counteract the negative propaganda of America’s enemies. As the duplicitous sergeant attempts to undermine these new recruits, Billy’s words offer comfort and inspiration. In the final panel on page nine, a caption informs us that “Billy, always a forceful speaker, pleases his audience immensely!”(fig. 3.5).

At the start of his speech, he admits that it is not his place to dictate how the war will be fought or won: “I’m not going to tell you how to do it … Americans learned to fight and win wars long ago!” After references to “big bad Nazis” and “little yellow Japs,” Batson urges the soldiers to “teach them a lesson they won’t forget for centuries!” In this horizontal panel that closes page nine, he speaks to a room filled with young, white, uniformed soldiers, all of them grinning and ecstatic. “You said it, Billy!” “That’s the talk!”

A few pages later, after Captain Marvel has defeated the saboteurs, and soldiers have arrived to take them into custody, Captain Marvel learns that even his mentor, the wizard Shazam, has joined the fight. Billy is shocked to see the old man wearing a general’s uniform. “I, too,” Shazam explains, “am in the (p.84)

“Brother, that Ain’t Imaginary!”Billy Batson and World War II

3.6 Shazam explains his wartime “plans for Captain Marvel” on page 19 of “Captain Marvel Joins the Army.”

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

service of the greatest country in the world! I’ve arranged for Private Vell’s transfer to special service—out of uniform!”(19). Puzzled and disappointed, Billy says, “Captain Marvel wanted to fight the Axis!” In the next panel, Shazam, his long white beard covering his uniform, explains his intentions in more detail: “I have plans for Captain Marvel that extend even beyond the armed forces of the United States! He’ll see more action than any soldier possibly could!”(19). This explanation seems reasonable enough to Billy, who replies, “I see what you mean now!”(fig. 3.6).

Although Billy might understand what Shazam intends to do, the inability of the hero’s editors, writers, and artists to predict what the future will hold is made clear in this clumsy, inconclusive ending. Captain Marvel, of course, cannot leap from the panel and join the US Army. By introducing this note of uncertainty, Beck’s “fabric of illusion” begins to unravel. Captain Marvel is a creature of the imagination, a being of possibility. The war in Europe and the Pacific is a sign of the limits of human imagination, a perversion of this faculty for destructive ends. The problem here is not so much, as Beck might have argued, that a cartoon character like Captain Marvel is about to confront a real-life menace like Hitler (he’ll do that in the next story I discuss, as Billy takes on the Devil with the help of a few spirited French children). Rather, in these last few panels, Shazam speaks for Fawcett’s writers, artists, and editors; (p.85) this is not an easy story to tell, they seem to say, since the war itself, as it takes shape, remains a mystery.

Shazam’s explanation fills a word balloon that dominates the second-to-last panel of the page. In fact, there’s a lot more talk than action as the story comes to a close. The balloon fills a space that Fawcett’s artists would otherwise have left blank. Since the wizard does not reveal all of his “plans” for Captain Marvel, he leaves it up to Billy, and to the reader, to imagine what kinds of “action” the hero will see. The advertisement at the bottom of the page is an example of Billy’s only viable mission, as a mouthpiece for war bonds and stamps, the role of salesman that he will take up again after the war. The soldiers in that advertisement, like the ones lined up behind Captain Marvel on the issue’s cover, look like extras left over from World War I.

Billy’s magic word allows him to exist in a permanent, idyllic, carefree state of wonder and innocence. The orphan newsboy, now a respected and successful broadcaster and a minor celebrity, is more worldly and sophisticated than his godlike counterpart. The alluring dream at the heart of Captain Marvel’s origin is very American: Billy, despite his age, is a hero driven by his rich fantasy life. In that sense, he is a harbinger of an obsession with youth and vitality that will continue to define American culture for the rest of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, “Capt. Marvel and the Mark of the Black Swastika,” dated January 22, 1943, might be read as a variation on Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster”(1937), another popular short story that, like James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” explored notions of heroism at the close of the 1930s.

“What Manner of Man is He?”

The first page of Captain Marvel Adventures no. 20 includes a text box that names the “Editorial Advisory Board of Captain Marvel Adventures.”18 The board includes Eleanor B. Roosevelt, “Past President, Girl Scouts Council of Greater New York”; Richard E. Byrd, “Noted Explorer, Aviator, and Author”; Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, “The famous Quintuplet doctor”; and the Reverend John W. Tynan, a member of the “Fordham University Faculty.” Fawcett’s president, W. H. Fawcett, Jr., assures readers that these advisors have helped the publisher “maintain high standards of wholesome entertainment”(4).19 The list draws on the social and moral authority of the medical profession, academia, and the clergy.

This authorization reflects the standards of conduct that governed Fawcett publications. Chip Kidd and Geoff Spear include a copy of the company’s “Code of Ethics” in their recent book Shazam! The Golden Age of the World’s (p.86) Mightiest Mortal. These 1942 guidelines include injunctions against “scenes of actual sadistic torture”; “[v]ulgar language”; “a humorous or glamorous treatment” of divorce; or “dialects and devices” used “to indicate ridicule or intolerance of racial groups”(although, as Kidd and Spear point out, this last stipulation did not prevent Billy’s friend Steamboat from appearing in the comics until finally being removed in 1945). The first in these guidelines is a rule against any depiction of a challenge to the existing power structure:

Policemen, judges, officials, and respected institutions must not be portrayed as stupid or ineffective in such a way as to weaken respect for established authority. Crimes against the law shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with the desire for imitation.20

Captain Marvel is a force for good. That goodness, in fact, blinds him to the being who, in the first story of Captain Marvel Adventures no. 20,21 grants Hitler evil powers for the first time. In this narrative, Captain Marvel’s childlike nature makes him immune to the Devil’s evil ways. Here is a version of the infantilization described by Susan Matt: Captain Marvel’s victory, like that of the United States, is assured because of this innocence, an unwillingness to engage with an adult world filled with cruelty, brutality, and corruption. Unlike the villains in the story, as we shall see, Billy and Captain Marvel have a sense of humor. As readers, we laugh with Billy and the Captain, but we spend most of the story laughing at Hitler and his henchmen. By the end, even the Devil seems to find the Nazis and their vanity a little silly and tiresome.

“Capt. Marvel and the Mark of the Black Swastika” begins with images of the Blitz. Nazi airpower attacks London as Captain Marvel arrives to aid the British forces (4–5). The opening pages of the story feature a dramatic image of Captain Marvel flying over a burning city: in the distance, spotlights, antiaircraft fire, and explosions frame an image of Big Ben (fig. 3.7). On the devastated street below, small figures struggle to douse the flames as a crew of ambulance workers point to the familiar red-costumed figure: “Wot’s that flyin’ up there, a man?” one shouts. Another, pointing to the incoming Nazi bomb, replies, “Duck, ’arry! That bomb’s gonna hit ’im!” The last figure, standing over a wounded civilian lying on a stretcher, reminds his fellows that they have no need to fear, as the “flyin’” man has arrived to rescue them: “Don’t worry. That’s Captain Marvel!”(4).

Captain Marvel’s presence in the foreground of the image highlights the hellish landscape looming before him. The artists and letterers have arranged the title of the story in such a way that the reader must scan the accumulated horror of the flames, the demolished buildings, and the falling bombs. (p.87)

“Brother, that Ain’t Imaginary!”Billy Batson and World War II

3.7 Captain Marvel arrives to help British soldiers and medical personnel on pages 4 and 5 of “Capt. Marvel and the Mark of the Black Swastika” from Captain Marvel Adventures no. 20 (January 22, 1943).

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

First, on the left-hand side of the spread, “Capt. Marvel” appears in bold letters; then, in the lower right-hand corner of the next page, the words “and the Mark of the Black Swastika” complete the title. Above this yellow caption there appears a solitary, cloaked figure on the roof of the only building still standing. Although he remains in shadow, his clawed hands and horned head suggest that supernatural forces are at work.

As readers open Captain Marvel Adventures no. 20, they are no longer in a world of imagination. This opening shot of London in flames is not a memory of World War I or an illustration of how the war might look. This is a hellish vision of the city, complete with falling bombs, burned buildings, and clouds of toxic orange smoke. The presence of Captain Marvel and the Devil adds a touch of fantasy to an otherwise grisly and largely realistic landscape. These panels provide a test case not only for Beck’s resistance to realism in comic art, then, but also for Scott McCloud’s discussion in Understanding Comics of the relationship between comic book characters and the spaces they inhabit.

McCloud argues that characters drawn in an “iconic” style sometimes inhabit “unusually realistic backgrounds” and, as a result, promise a unique sensory experience (42). This “combination” provides readers with an opportunity to “mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually (p.88) stimulating world”(McCloud 43; emphasis in the original). In this case, Captain Marvel guides his readers through this terrifying depiction of London in flames. Captain Marvel’s colorful presence offers security and assurance in two different forms.

First, Fawcett’s writers and artists have transformed the horrors of the war into cartoon images, promising a kind of mastery over this violence and destruction that, as Beck argued, is not possible in real life. Drawing the Nazi leaders as caricatures serves the same purpose, as readers laugh at their absurd and self-serving behavior. Secondly, Captain Marvel’s presence is a dreamlike inversion of these terrors and anxieties. The “mask” the story offers the reader is one of ease and control. The panels at the bottom of these two pages, complete with the origin stories of Hitler and Goebbels, suggest that these men were never innocent, even as children. As boys they dreamed of violence and world domination. To return to McCloud’s argument, a “cartoony” figure with a “realistic” background results in a complex reading experience: “One set of lines to see. Another set of lines to be”(43). As the reader observes these evil figures, and witnesses the aftermath of the Blitz, the fantasy of Captain Marvel suggests another way of being: one in which lies, physical violence, and the pursuit of material wealth are desires and fantasies best left to adults. The Nazis, after all, are only thinking of themselves, whereas Captain Marvel—the boy whose magic word guarantees that he’ll never grow up—acts selflessly, offering support to these British soldiers and to the medical personnel.

On the lower portion of these split pages, Captain Marvel’s alter ego, Billy Batson, introduces the flashback sequence featuring the two Nazi leaders. Standing before the microphone at WHIZ, Billy explains, “Folks, this is a strange story whose real beginning was way back 30 or 40 years ago, and whose real ending is not yet in sight”(4). The subsequent panels illustrate parallel incidents in Germany and in Austria. Two young boys named Joseph and Adolph make deals with a red-cloaked, pointy-eared figure who promises them power and prestige. The first one, Joseph, who later in the story is revealed as Goebbels, expresses his ambition to become “der biggest liar in der vorld!”(4). Off-panel, the Devil, his words framed in a floating, disembodied word balloon, replies: “Excellent, my boy! A commendable ambition!”

In the next panel, the demon places a mark on Joseph’s chest, promising, “There! I have put my mark on you! You will go a long way, now, my young friend! Someday you will be the greatest liar in the world!”(5). The devil then pursues the young Adolph Hitler, who has just beaten up another boy half his size. After being shamed by his fellow villagers, Adolph wanders off and, beneath a dead tree and its bare, skeletal branches, he swears, “Bah! Phooey! Someday I kill dem all! Someday I vill be boss uf der whole world, den I show them!” On the next page, as he places another mark on the boy’s chest, the (p.89)

“Brother, that Ain’t Imaginary!”Billy Batson and World War II

3.8 Captain Marvel struggles to figure out the identity of his adversary from page 9 of Captain Marvel Adventures no. 20.

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

Devil predicts the future: “You will go a long way now, young Adolph! A 1-o-o-on-n-gg way!”(5). These panels indirectly refer to Billy’s origin story from 1940. In contrast to these young men, Billy, with every right to be bitter and angry after being swindled and disowned by his uncle, is a practical, hardworking, and honest kid, whose only ambition, until he meets Shazam, is to make a living and survive as best he can.22 In “Capt. Marvel and the Mark of the Black Swastika,” Billy’s first encounter with the Devil also illustrates his essential goodness.

In his zeal to rescue the citizens of London, and because of his innocent nature, Captain Marvel fails to recognize the Devil, who plays coy with the befuddled hero: “Well, let’s just say that I’m … er … director of the underground heating system!”(8). After being struck by a bomb, Captain Marvel turns to the reader and appears to ask for help (he might also be talking to himself): “He—he really can change the course of a bomb! What manner of man is he?”(9) (fig. 3.8).

A few pages later, the Nazis once again capture Billy, but soon find themselves fighting Captain Marvel (apparently the saboteurs from Captain Marvel Adventures no. 12 were unable to send word back to their colleagues in Europe about Billy’s talent as an escape artist). Just as he is about to destroy the Nazis’ radio equipment in the same dramatic fashion that he destroyed Sivana’s radio-silencer just a few years earlier, Captain Marvel flies to France at the Devil’s request (15). There, the hero finds Hitler squabbling with his subordinates. The bomb he drops on them seems to have had no effect because, (p.90)

“Brother, that Ain’t Imaginary!”Billy Batson and World War II

3.9 Captain Marvel and his French allies have some fun with Satan on page 18 of Captain Marvel Adventures no. 20.

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

as the Devil explains, “[t]hey belong to me, and cannot be killed until I order it!”(17). In the last two pages of the story, three French children notice that Old Scratch is on fire and try to put out the flames (fig. 3.9). Screaming, “Don’t be good to me—I can’t stand it!”(18), the Devil, like Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz, slowly melts, then disappears. Why? Captain Marvel, a child himself, explains, “You children killed him with kindness!”(18).

As this summary of the story suggests, all of the characters are ridiculous. The hero cannot identify the villain. Captain Marvel’s confusion, however, serves an important function: his ignorance allows readers to identify the source of this evil and destruction for themselves. So, the Devil himself is behind this! Captain Marvel, like the French children at the end of the story, cannot fathom or even recognize pure evil. He has no name for it, no language with which to express it. When he finally confronts the Devil, he asks, “Who are you? And what are you doing here?”23 Although the villain’s true identity remains something of a mystery, the French children have no trouble identifying the story’s hero: “You know who zat was? Eet was ze American Capitaine Marvel!”(19).

The defeat of the Axis, the narrative implies, is inevitable. Those in charge would rather fight amongst themselves and serve their evil master than pursue a path to victory. As they argue, Hitler shouts, “Am I not der boss—der Fuehrer? Does not efferyt’ing belong to me? Haff I not told you so a million times?” Joseph replies, “Yah-h! Ve know, Adolph! Ve let you think so, because you are der biggest stuffed shirt of us all!”(15). Not only are the Nazis narcissistic fools, but they are also, Goebbels must admit, a little stuffy. They lack the humor and good will of Captain Marvel and his three French allies, a girl and two boys so kind and naïve that they’ll offer a helping hand to Satan himself.

(p.91) Captain Marvel embodies an innocence that has lost its resonance and appeal for contemporary readers. While in the last decade Hollywood has produced a series of financial and sometimes critically successful superhero films, including Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Joss Whedon’s big-screen reinvention of The Avengers, it has yet to produce a Captain Marvel movie, although, as of this writing, one starring Dwayne Johnson as Captain Marvel’s nemesis Black Adam appears to be on the horizon.24 Most recent Hollywood adaptations of popular superhero characters attempt to reinvent these heroes for a more adult audience—that is, for filmgoers already familiar with and nostalgic for these existing properties.25 The essence of the Captain Marvel myth, the boy who turns into a man who is more boyish and innocent than the child himself, is perhaps a remnant of that era of “candy and comic books.”

Attributing Captain Marvel’s popularity during the war years solely to this dream of innocence would be too easy, and perhaps misleading. But the hero’s adventures, despite their frequent absurdity, might reveal the workings of that dream. After the death of his parents, Batman seeks revenge. When Superman’s planet explodes and his rocket ship finds its way to Earth, the child eventually seeks opportunity and fame in his new home. Unlike these heroes, when Billy Batson discovers the underground subway tunnel, he finds the strength to rebuild what’s been taken from him, to return to the world of comfort on display in the Historama.26 His reward for discovering that lost, secret self lies in the infinite possibility offered by childhood play.

“And as Long as there is Captain Marvel Around, Things Just Can’t Go Wrong!”

In January 1945, the unthinkable happened: Captain Marvel turned traitor and joined forces with Adolph Hitler. Old Scratch had nothing to do with this lapse in the hero’s judgment. Rather, Captain Marvel’s simplicity and good humor, which had served him so well in his battle with the Devil, almost thwarted the Allies and their cause. The story appeared in Captain Marvel Adventures no. 42 (January 1945),27 a holiday issue with a message of “Season’s Greetings” from the hero on its cover. The first page of the comic, which names Beck as the magazine’s “Chief Artist,”28 includes another advertisement for war bonds and stamps. It also urges Captain Marvel’s young fans to “Order in Advance!” as paper shortages will result in Fawcett printing fewer copies of each issue. “Every now and then a magazine will be late, even though we’ll do our best to avoid it. We’re cooperating! Will you?”29 Even the full-color advertisement for Wheaties that appears on the inside front cover reminds readers of what is at stake: four soldiers, three of them with helmets, are grappling (p.92) with a coconut tree because, as one remarks, “Milton likes milk on his Wheaties,” that “Breakfast of Champions.” As the war rages on, commerce and patriotism intersect. The reader might show his or her loyalty to the cause by purchasing bonds or by requesting copies of Captain Marvel Adventures.

In the opening panels of “Captain Marvel in the World of If,” a scientist named I. Q. Putter discusses his most recent invention, a nickelodeon-like machine that produces short movies of alternate histories. What the professor doesn’t suspect is that his assistant, Carl, is another Nazi saboteur. Professor Putter, it appears, is not a regular Fawcett reader. Otherwise, he would know that most assistants with German names in World War II-era Captain Marvel stories turn out to be spies, with the remarkable exception in this story of a few brave resistance fighters. Putter explains that his fantastic machine “shows, mathematically, two or more ways for any event to happen, each of which might produce a different kind of future! There is the normal world—and then there is the world of if—the world that might be!” Carl wants to learn what might happen if “the famous Captain Marvel joined the Nazis!” Once he learns of how those events unfold in that alternate timeline, the spy will bring that terrible reality here to our reality, the one in which Captain Marvel and the Allies will eventually defeat the Axis.

Several pages later, Carl, posing as a fan seeking Captain Marvel’s autograph, tricks the hero into signing a pledge that reads, “I, Captain Marvel, here by [sic] agree to denounce America and help Hitler!” Feeling bound by the document, Marvel flies to Berlin, where he meets with Hitler, Goebbels, and Göring, the cartoon villains from “Capt. Marvel and the Mark of the Black Swastika.” Goebbels and Göring are just as petty and narcissistic in this story as they were in Captain Marvel Adventures no. 20. The Devil, perhaps still under the watchful eyes of those plucky French children, is nowhere to be seen. This time, robbing Göring of his medals, Hitler offers Captain Marvel a promotion. As second-in-command of the German forces, the hero will now be known as Field Marshal Marvel. “Thank you, mein generous Fuehrer,” replies the former Captain, still honoring his pledge.

Despite the hero’s behavior, Billy Batson, the narrator assures us, “has not turned Nazi, along with his counterpart!” Instead, once he discovers what Captain Marvel has agreed to, he throws himself on the bed in his quarters and begins sobbing: “Oh, this is terrible! Just because he signed that paper, he thinks he has to go through with it! And I can’t do a thing myself!” In the next panel, Billy plots his escape: “Suddenly the brave boy sits up in determination!” reads the caption in the second-to-last panel of the story’s eighth page. “I know what I’ll do! I’ll get that paper and tear it up! Then Captain Marvel will come to his senses!”(fig. 3.10). On the next page, Hitler, confident in Field (p.93)

“Brother, that Ain’t Imaginary!”Billy Batson and World War II

3.10 Billy is determined to break Captain Marvel’s pact with Hitler in a scene from “Captain Marvel in the World of If” from Captain Marvel Adventures no. 42 (January 1945).

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

Marshal Marvel’s loyalty, tears up the document before Billy has a chance to do so. Released from his obligations, Captain Marvel socks Hitler on the jaw and takes the tyrant into custody.

We soon learn that these panels are merely images generated by Professor Putter’s machine. With the action of the story now safely back in our reality, the hero rescues Putter from Carl, just before the machine, short-circuited by “the strain of showing Captain Marvel as a Nazi,” explodes with a “Poof!” While the professor does not explain why, even in an alternate universe, Captain Marvel would ever agree to join forces with the Nazis—unless, of course, we are meant to understand that he is always as good as his word, even when he’s been duped—he does offer words of advice and assurance to Captain Marvel’s readers.

The machine’s sudden inability to project anything other than an Allied victory suggests, just as Billy promised at the start of the war, that the eventual defeat of the Axis is inevitable. Even a work of science fiction—a fantasy of other possible realities—folds in on itself when faced with Captain Marvel’s role in the Allied cause. Just before his machine explodes, Putter insists that the device has already “made the greatest and most wonderful prediction in the world! It shows that no matter which way the world goes—into no matter what kind of world of if—there can be no if world that goes bad! Not while (p.94) there is a Captain Marvel!” In the final panel of the story, just before an ad for the Captain Marvel Club, Billy, with the same storytelling skills that inspired those young recruits in 1942, reiterates Putter’s optimistic message:

Yes, folks! There are many possible branches of if worlds! But in all of them, no matter which one fate chooses to follow, there is always Captain Marvel! And as long as there is Captain Marvel around, things just can’t go wrong!

Billy’s closing thoughts echo the rhetoric of victory popular in the United States and in England in the first months of 1945. As Paul Fussell points out, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” was a hit for Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters “in the early spring of 1945,” a time “when everyone’s ‘morale’ needed a special boost, the war having gone on months (or even years) longer than expected”(Fussell 143).

Perhaps Beck’s claim that a character like Captain Marvel, a being that exists in the realm of fantasy, has no role to play in fighting real-life forces like those of the Nazis is too sweeping a generalization. Rather, a character like Captain Marvel might be understood as an essential figure in the “ideology” Fussell describes, one that grew even more pervasive after the war.30 This desire, as Johnny Mercer’s lyrics put it, to “latch on to the affirmative” lost none of its appeal after the Allied victory. In fact, the ascendancy of American consumer culture in the late 1940s and early 1950s might be traced in part, according to Fussell, back to the Allied propaganda machine (164).31 As Fussell notes, even by the late 1980s, the United States had “not yet understood what the Second World War was like and” as a result was “unable to use such understanding to re-interpret and re-define the national reality to arrive at something like public maturity”(Fussell 268). American popular culture’s continued fascination with superheroes from the 1940s might be read as a symptom of this inability to confront the nature of a war that, seventy years after its conclusion, continues to shape our national discourse. Its true violence and trauma, Samuel R. Delany writes, “circulated as an unstated and inarticulate horror whose lessons were supposed to be brought back to the States while their specificity was, in any collective narrativity, unspeakable, left in the foreign outside, safely beyond the pale”(Delany 186). Those who returned from combat, like those who mourned the dead, had to invent a new language to record and to express what had been lost.32

As far as Beck was concerned, of course, Captain Marvel had no business taking part in combat, and he dismissed Billy’s participation in the war effort in the same way that he criticized those “tie clips, whistles,” and other products (“What Really”). When meeting “various mayors, magazine distributors,” as well as other “local celebrities,” Captain Marvel, Beck believed, was not (p.95)

“Brother, that Ain’t Imaginary!”Billy Batson and World War II

3.11 In an alternate reality, Field Marshal Marvel captures a couple of German resistance fighters in a panel from “Captain Marvel in the World of If.”

Captain Marvel and related characters © 2016 DC Comics.

“convincing”: “The contrast between a normal human and a cartoon character is too great; one or the other will always look phony”(“What Really”). One of these unsettling “phony” moments takes place in the middle of “Captain Marvel in the World of If,” in which Field Marshal Marvel, wearing his medals, captures two “free Germans of the underground movement” who are trying to assassinate Hitler. When the fighters question Captain Marvel’s loyalty, and accuse him of being a traitor to the American cause, this alternate-universe version of the hero shouts, “Shut up, dogs! America is no longer my country! I hate America!” On the next page, holding the two men by the backs of their necks, he offers them to Hitler, who commands, “To der concentration camp mit dem!” This panel echoes the collision of fantasy and realism in that two-page opening sequence from “Capt. Marvel and the Mark of the Black Swastika”; in both examples, the writers and artists introduce a comic book hero to mitigate the true horror that inspired each image—the bombing of London or, in this case, the reality of the camps (fig. 3.11). The look on one of the conspirator’s faces—stiff and wide-eyed, drops of sweat spilling from his forehead—creates a rupture or a crack in Billy’s world. This scene undermines the story’s neat, predictable conclusion. Meant to illustrate just how far Field Marshal Marvel has fallen, the reference to the concentration camp alludes to the unspoken and to the unknown, to a violence that reduces everything in its path to silence and anonymity.33

Why, then, should we read these stories today, decades after the historical moment that produced them has passed? Their Chief Artist, after all, found (p.96) narratives like these unsatisfying and even distasteful, as they tended to violate his rules of effective and appealing comic book art and storytelling. As records of the war, they also come up short, remnants of that “realm of myth”(Murray 101) also inhabited by Captain America, Superman, and the other comic book heroes who fought against Germany, Italy, and Japan.34 Accounts of the war fill bookstores, libraries, and digital archives. Why spend any time on these comics and what Beck described as these “phony” scenarios, absurd and impossible meetings between Captain Marvel, a being who never existed, and cartoon versions of historical figures? These comic books, like a box of photographs, or a stack of postcards, or a dress uniform tucked away in the back of a closet, serve as reminders of what still remains unsaid, not only by those who lived through these years in the first place, but for those of us who have inherited a legacy not only of victory and abundance but also of shame and uncertainty.

“An Imaginary River”

I am looking at three relics from the past arrayed before me on my desk: first, a photograph of my grandfather standing with another soldier, Private K. L. Brodeur, on a street outside the YMCA in Pittsburgh in June 1942. Members of the Coast Artillery Battery, they’ve just spent a few days with the War Show at Franklin Field in Philadelphia. They’ll celebrate July 4th with a performance at the University of Pittsburgh. I’ve opened my grandfather’s Army War Show yearbook to a list of dates and locations of the eighteen stops on the tour, from Baltimore in early June to Atlanta just before the Christmas holidays. Next to the photograph and the yearbook lies a brittle, coverless copy of Captain Marvel Adventures no. 20, which I found on eBay a few years ago as I started working on this book. By February 1943, not long after Billy first met Old Scratch and those French children, my grandfather and the rest of his battalion were in North Africa, where he would be stationed until the spring of 1944, according to his service records. Having survived the war, he died in January 1960, thirteen years before I was born. I know him only through photographs, newspaper articles, war records, and family stories. As I look at the photo, the yearbook, and the comic book, I am searching for the links between family narrative, United States military history, and popular culture.

Unable to feel nostalgia for any of these items, I wonder how I might arrange them to recognize a pattern or to communicate, somehow, with the dead. It’s impossible, of course, and foolish. Then again, that’s also part of Billy’s story—his ability to reclaim and to understand the past. Here, again, Captain Marvel serves as a “companion”(Lupoff, “Big Red” 68), a guide to these (p.97) forgotten spaces. Like Shazam’s room of wonders, they’ve been here all along, waiting to be discovered. Still, I have to wonder what my grandfather would have made of this conversation between the two of us, his small but essential role in this book, as I tell a story that once belonged only to him.

On Wednesday, September 2, 1942, he was one of the soldiers performing in the rain at Soldier Field in Chicago. In a program booklet for the show, I notice that they’ve misspelled his last name, adding an e where the o should be at the end of Stango. Even now, as I write this, I am trying to correct a small piece of history that no one outside my family would notice. In an article published in the Chicago Herald-American, David Camelon describes a few of the highlights of that September 2 performance. The engineers, he writes, were a hit: “The announcer said they would erect a pontoon bridge across an imaginary river,” a display of their readiness for combat and of the Army’s sophisticated new weapons and equipment (Camelon 6). Before they could do so, however, “a voice cried: ‘Brother, that ain’t imaginary!’” Like a superhero, of course, Private Tedesco would return for the next night’s performance. Eventually, all of the soldiers, Camelon writes, would pack up and “put their show on in other cities. And then, some day, they’ll put it on in earnest on some battlefield”(6).

Swayze’s cover for Captain Marvel Adventures no. 12, the records of the War Show, these comic books, Beck’s essays, even this chapter—each one, I think, is an attempt to build that “bridge across an imaginary river” of time and history.35 Or maybe, like that care package of candy bars and comic books, each one is nothing more than another gesture, an offering to those men and women whose absence—like their hopes, fears, and desires—still shapes our present.


(1.) Don Maris includes a copy of this Captain Marvel Club letter in his 1975 reprint collection The Best of. Maris’s collection also includes black-and-white reprints of four World War II-era Captain Marvel stories as well as advertising materials from Fawcett. Like other early fan magazines, Maris’s does not have page numbers. Maris’s collection has long been out of print, but copies do sometimes appear on eBay and other online comics websites.

(2.) For these advertisements, see Maris’s “best of” collection.

(3.) See the introduction to Maris’s “best of” collection for his memories of the character. “Captain Marvel in the World of If” first appeared in Captain Marvel Adventures no. 42 (January 1945).

(p.165) (4.) For Wright’s description of Captain Marvel’s personality traits, see Chapter 1 of Comic Book Nation: “Whereas Superman evinced self-assuredness and control, Captain Marvel seemed more like a bumbling overgrown child, and his adventures had a distinctively whimsical quality about them”(18–19). In Champions of the Oppressed (28, 155–56), Murray also discusses the character and his impact on young children.

(5.) See the introduction to Maris’s “best of” collection.

(6.) For other discussions of American soldiers’ appetite for comic book heroes, see Schelly’s discussion of Otto Binder’s success at Fawcett Publications. Binder, Schelly points out, “found himself writing for a vast audience: millions of children and teenagers, as well as large numbers of servicemen who were within reach of a PX”(Schelly, Words 87). Michael C. C. Adams describes “a media generation” that “had come of age with talking pictures and radio.” Adams also points out that “[b]y 1942, twelve million comic books a month were sold, one-third to people over eighteen. They were the favorite reading of the private soldier”(Adams 10–11). For more details on the soldiers who read these comics, also refer to Robert G. Weiner’s “‘Okay, Axis, Here We Come!’ Captain America and the Superhero Teams from World War II and the Cold War” in B. J. Oropeza’s The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture (83–101). In addition to Susan J. Matt’s work, for more about the training of US soldiers during the war, consult August B. Hollingshead’s “Adjustment to Military Life” and Thomas E. Rodgers’s “Billy Yank and G. I. Joe.” For more about the Marvel Family and masculinity in the 1950s, as well as about superheroes and postwar consumer culture, read Mark Best’s “Domesticity, Homosociality, and Male Power in Superhero Comics of the 1950s.”

(7.) In his essay on the air campaign over Nazi Germany, W. G. Sebald describes “the rather unreal effect of the eyewitness reports,” a consequence of “the clichés” that are inevitable in the face of “total destruction, incomprehensible in its extremity,” as writers attempt to describe the devastating effects of combat on both soldiers and civilians (24–25). These phrases, he writes, serve “to cover up and neutralize experiences beyond our ability to comprehend”(25).

(8.) For a more detailed discussion of World War II as imagined and understood by popular culture, read Edward Wood, Jr., Worshipping the Myths of World War II: Reflections on America’s Dedication to War; Michael C. C. Adams’s The Best War Ever: America and World War II; and Paul Fussell’s work, especially Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in World War II. In Up Front (1944), a collection of World War II cartoons featuring the iconic characters Willie and Joe, cartoonist Bill Mauldin describes the social and psychological impact of the myth of the ideal soldier (8).

(9.) In his discussion of the futility of trying to document that “real war” in books, movies, or other forms of media, Fussell cites another American writer who found it impossible to convey the scope and the aftermath of modern warfare: “After scrutinizing closely the facts of the American Civil War, after seeing and listening to hundreds of the wounded, Walt Whitman declared: ‘The real war will never get in the books.’ Nor will the Second World War, and ‘books’ includes this one”(Fussell 290).

(10.) I first wrote about comic books and the Army War Show in my article “‘Join the Parade to Victory!’ Captain Marvel and the Army War Show—June 1942.” Thanks again to P. C. Hamerlinck for giving me the opportunity to write about those performances, Swayze’s cover, and Captain Marvel. Very little has been written about the War Show itself. My quotations from the War Department memos come from the National Archives in Washington, DC, which houses several months’ worth of planning memos and correspondence related to these exhibitions. Newspaper accounts about the shows are also very common, especially for performances in major cities like Chicago. For other details, read Kimberly Guise’s short post about the Show at the National (p.166) WWII Museum website. See also Gary Banas’s article “Army War Show—Provisional Task Force 1942.” I have drawn on the Army War Show 1942 Provisional Task Force yearbook for more information about these performances. Copy of the yearbook courtesy of the late Nunzio and Patricia Stango.

(11.) The Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1942 lists May 29 as the copyright date for CMA no. 12.

(12.) Text from “Here’s YOUR Army!” from Attack: The Story of the United States Army, a souvenir program sold at the War Show performances in the summer and fall of 1942. Like the shows themselves, profits for this booklet benefited Army Emergency Relief.

(13.) The Chicago Daily Tribune for Wednesday, September 2, 1942, includes a preview of the War Show’s first performance in the city: “City Gets Taste of War in Army Show’s Preview”(2, 10).

(15.) The Grand Comics Database speculates that C. C. Beck drew the story with assistance from Pete Costanza, but its entry for this issue does not list a writer.

(16.) In his discussion of comic books and the “mediated war”(100), Christopher Murray argues that “the mass media offered fantasies that responded to and negotiated anxieties created by the war”(101). As a result, he writes, “these narratives moved the war into the realm of myth, a battle against evil”(101).

(17.) Like other early issues of Captain Marvel Adventures, no. 12 has page numbers. I have included these page references after my citations. The title page of this issue does not list the names of Fawcett’s editors but does mention the members of Fawcett’s Editorial Advisory Board along with the company’s president, W. H. Fawcett, Jr.

(18.) Portions of this section of the chapter about “Capt. Marvel and the Mark of the Black Swastika” first appeared in an earlier form as “‘What Manner of Man Is He?’: Humor and Masculine Identity in Captain Marvel’s World War II Adventures” in Studies in American Humor, new series 3, no. 27 (2013): 33–62. Thanks to editor Ed Piacentino and to the anonymous peer reviewers for their guidance and suggestions on that article.

(19.) Like Captain Marvel Adventures no. 12, CMA no. 20 includes page numbers.

(20.) Kidd and Spear’s photographic history of Captain Marvel does not include page numbers. A copy of this “Code of Ethics” appears later in the book. Kidd and Spear note that this memo details “the 1942 writing guidelines for all of the Fawcett titles.” Amy Kiste Nyberg briefly discusses Fawcett’s “Code” in Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code (107).

(21.) The Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1943 lists January 1 as the copyright date for CMA no. 20.

(22.) In his description of “the everyman hero” during World War II, Murray notes that, “According to this rhetoric, unlike the brainwashed masses of the enemy, the average American soldier fought for his family or for apple pie and Hollywood movies—in short, for home and a simple love of life and liberty, not a specific ideology”(Murray 111–12).

(23.) Captain Marvel’s reference to the Devil as “Old Scratch” suggests links to Benét’s popular short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” which was first published in 1937. The film version, directed by William Dieterle from a screenplay co-written by Benét himself (Singer 265; Cooksey 20), was released in the autumn of 1941. When asked his name, the Devil replies, “‘I’ve gone by a good many,’ said the stranger carelessly. ‘Perhaps Scratch will do for the evening. I’m often called that in these regions’”(Benét 37). See Robert Singer’s “One Against All: The New England Past and Present Responsibilities in The Devil and Daniel Webster and Thomas L. Cooksey’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster, Cabin in the Sky, and Damn Yankees—American Contributions to the Faust Legend” for discussions of the cultural significance of the film as the US entered (p.167) World War II. As Cooksey argues, “Webster and Scratch embody two conflicting interpretations of America and American history, a dichotomy that took on special significance when the movie appeared in 1941, during the dark days of the Second World War”(21).

(24.) During coverage of the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con, Brandon Schatz at Heidi MacDonald’s website The Beat posted a story about Dwayne Johnson’s involvement with the project. Schatz includes a link to a video from the website Total Film in which Johnson discusses possible roles in an upcoming summer blockbuster: “There’s a character out there that we’re going to announce very soon that I’m going to play.” He then pauses before he explains that this character has “the power of Superman” and “can throw down.” After another brief pause, Johnson looks again at the interviewer: “Just say the word. That’s all I’m going to say.” In subsequent discussions of the film, now slated for release in 2019, Johnson confirmed that he would play Black Adam, but as of this writing there has been no further discussion of who will play the film’s title role.

(25.) In a criticism of Roy Thomas and Jerry Bingham’s adaptation of Billy’s origin story in Secret Origins no. 3 (June 1986), Beck argues that DC revived the character once again to “recoup the money they’ve been losing by aiming their comic books at nostalgia-haunted adults instead of at children”(Beck, “The Man of Steel” 7).

(26.) Steranko points out, for example, that the “folksy, low-key” quality of Binder’s scripts might be “contrasted” with the atmosphere in the comics published by Fawcett’s competitors, notably “Timely’s pervasive climate of fear or National’s focus on ultimate power”(Steranko 15).

(27.) The Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1945 lists November 24, 1944, as the copyright date for CMA no. 42.

(28.) The Grand Comics Database attributes the story’s script to Binder. For more information, see the entry for Captain Marvel Adventures no. 42.

(29.) Unlike the other issues I discuss in this chapter, Captain Marvel Adventures no. 42 does not include page numbers.

(30.) For more on comic books, wartime propaganda, and “ideology,” see Murray 100–103.

(31.) Writing in 1989, Fussell argues that “[t]he postwar power of ‘the media’” and its ability “to determine what shall be embraced as reality is in large part due to the success of the morale culture in wartime. It represents, indeed, its continuation”(164).

(32.) For more about how writers attempt to address and to narrate these tragedies, read Sebald’s essay “Air War and Literature” from On the Natural History of Destruction.

(33.) In the last year of the war, Fussell writes, when “almost everyone had had a relative killed or wounded or knew someone who had,” most Americans understood too well “that the war had something very gruesome about it”(Fussell 143).

(34.) In his discussion of the history of Coney Island in the book Delirious New York, architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas argues that “entertainment,” especially under industrial capitalism, “can only skirt the surface of myth, only hint at the anxieties accumulated in the collective unconscious”(Koolhaas 42).

(35.) Is World War II as distant from us as we’d like to believe? Writing about history, of course, always poses challenges, and often calls for the kind of imaginative thinking that Beck so often celebrated. “For a historian of Middle Kingdom Egypt,” Edward Said writes in Orientalism, “‘long ago’ will have a very clear sort of meaning, but even this meaning does not totally dissipate the imaginative, quasi-fictional quality one senses lurking in a time very different and distant from our own”(55).