Billy Batson was a heroic kid with plenty of magical powers, but he also had a lot of friends: his sister Mary, his buddy Freddy Freeman (also known as Captain Marvel, Jr.), Uncle Marvel, Mr. Tawny, and, of course, the mysterious wizard Shazam. In writing this book, I’ve followed Billy’s example, as I’ve reached out to colleagues, friends, and strangers for help and insights. Any errors, of course, are mine. I’d like to welcome all the folks I list here as honorary members of the Captain Marvel Club. Without their generosity and support, the book you are now holding, about a little boy and his comic book daydreams, would not exist.
I like to think of Billy’s subway tunnel, the place where he first meets Shazam, as a magical archive, one founded, of course, on the wisdom of Solomon. About fifteen years ago, I first got the idea for this book after discovering a batch of cheap Shazam! comics from the 1970s at one of Hal Kinney’s comic book conventions at the Elks Hall in East Hartford, Connecticut. I started attending those conventions in the 1980s. Those shows, and my early experiences at Jim’s Comic Book Shop on East Main Street in Waterbury, laid the foundation for the research that made this study possible.
I began more formal work on Captain Marvel at the Comic Art Collection curated by Randall Scott at Michigan State University. Thanks to Randy and his staff for tracking down obscure clippings and fanzines devoted to C. C. Beck (and thanks also to Randy for inviting me to play drums with him in his office after a long day of archival work).
A number of other librarians and archivists assisted me as I searched for material on Beck, Otto Binder, and Fawcett. I would like to thank Susan Kurzmann at the George T. Potter Library at Ramapo College of New Jersey; Greg Plunges, Trina Yeckley, and Kevin Reilly at the National Archives in lower Manhattan; April Pittman at the University of Illinois Chicago’s Richard J. Daley Library; Jenny Reibenspies at Texas A&M University’s Cushing Memorial Library; the archivists at the National Records and Archives Administration in Washington, DC, for their assistance in locating the Army War Show records from 1942; and Tim Philbin, our interlibrary loan wizard at the (p.x) Harper College Library. When I told Tim that I was working on a project about Billy Batson, he replied, “That’s the kid who’s friends with the talking tiger, right?” I knew I’d be in good hands.
Given the ephemeral nature of many of the texts that form the basis of my research, I must also thank the small bookstores and comic book shops that provided me with materials and expertise on all things Captain Marvel and Fawcett. Jack Delaney at My Mother Threw Mine Away in Torrington, Connecticut, always had a box of Fawcett comics waiting for me when I’d visit. Craig Ferguson at Legends of Superheros [sic] in Middlebury answered my questions about The Shadow and The Avenger. Many of the Otto/Eando Binder books listed in the Works Cited come from William Fiedler at the Gallery Bookstore on Clark and Belmont in Chicago. Alli Alleman at Graham Cracker Comics shared her memories of the character and located some essential but hard-to-find back issues.
My students and colleagues at Harper College have offered enthusiastic support for my research on comics and popular culture. Thank you to Jennifer Berne, Kurt Hemmer, Rich Johnson, Greg Herriges, Richard Middleton-Kaplan, Meg King, Brian Knetl, Lisa Larsen, Tara Mister, Judi Nitsch, Sue Borchek Smith, and Pearl Ratunil (who once pointed out a few similarities between Beck’s Captain Marvel and Seth’s Palookaville that got me thinking). Lisa Larsen put me in touch with Betty Hull, Emeritus Professor of English at Harper and a science fiction scholar. She and her late husband, Frederik Pohl, kindly answered my questions about Otto Binder.
The Sabbatical Committee and the Harper College Board of Trustees granted me the gift of time—more valuable, I think, than any magic word—in the summer and fall of 2015. Kurt Neumann, Chris Padgett, Jeff Przybylo, Dr. Judy Marwick, and Dr. Kenneth Ender all offered advice on my sabbatical application.
Along the way, several other writers and scholars generously took the time to speak with me about Captain Marvel, comics, memory, and nostalgia: Jake Austen, my cousin Patty Budris, Michael Chaney, John Cochran, Doug Ellis, Bob Ingersoll, Denis Kitchen, Laurie Lindeen, Alan Moore, Denny O’Neil, Enrico Riley, Bill Schelly, Kerry Soper, Tom Spurgeon, Carol Tilley, James Vance, and Dan Yezbick. Dr. Gloria Arfelis provided invaluable assistance and advice on the World War II chapter, as did the late Emil A. Petke, who once told me to write carefully about my surroundings and the history that had shaped them.
A superhero needs a dramatic origin story, but a writer needs a good editor. I’ve been lucky to work with John Lent at the International Journal of Comic Art; Anne Elizabeth Moore at the Los Angeles Review of Books; Frank Bramlett, Roy T. Cook, and Aaron Meskin from The Routledge Companion (p.xi) to Comics; Roy Thomas and P. C. Hamerlinck at Alter Ego/Fawcett Collectors of America; and Ed Piacentino, Judith Yaross Lee, and John Bird at Studies in American Humor. An earlier version of a portion of Chapter 3 appeared 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.
I’d like to single out Roy and Paul for special mention here. Both have encouraged me to find my voice in the numerous essays I’ve written for them over the last few years. My articles in Fawcett Collectors of America provided a starting point for ideas I develop throughout the book, especially in Chapters 2 and 3. Paul has generously shared memories of his friend C. C. Beck and copies of the essays he’s written about Captain Marvel and the history of Fawcett. As you will find in reading this book, Roy and Paul’s work, which has kept the memories of Captain Marvel, Otto Binder, and C. C. Beck alive, is a cornerstone of my research.
If reading this book inspires you to learn more about Billy Batson and those who created him, you’ll find a treasure of other texts waiting for you. My study builds on the scholarly example set by Bill Schelly, Richard Lupoff, John G. Pierce, and Trina Robbins. Captain Marvel’s story, like Billy’s subway tunnel, has many corridors, each filled with fascinating articles, essays, and books about the character and his long history.
At the 2012 Louisiana Book Festival, Steve Yates asked if I had anything I’d like to pitch. Working with the University Press of Mississippi has been a pleasure. Thank you to Walter Biggins, Kristi Ezernack, Katie Keene, John Langston, Courtney McCreary, and my excellent and supportive editor, Craig Gill. The anonymous readers at Studies in American Humor and at the Press responded to the early drafts of what you are now holding and made suggestions that have shaped its final form. I would also like to thank copyeditor (and fellow Orson Welles fan) Peter Tonguette for his meticulous and thoughtful copyedits.
I wouldn’t have been at the Louisiana Book Festival in 2012 talking about Walt Kelly if it weren’t for Brannon Costello, who got me writing again when he and Qiana Whitted asked for a contribution to Comics and the U.S. South. Brannon, Gina, Nora, and Josie always make us feel welcome when we visit Baton Rouge. When I put another band together, I’m calling on Brannon and Qiana to get in the van with me. Randy Scott can bring his guitar. Be ready for it.
In my second year of grad school at the University of Connecticut, I met two fellow students whose writing and comradeship changed the course of my academic life. Thank you to Charles Hatfield and to Gene Kannenberg, Jr., for their continued friendship and support. At UConn, I studied with Clare (p.xii) Eby, who continues to support my work and kindly offered suggestions on this book when it was still in the proposal stage. Two of my former University of Connecticut office mates, Richard Hodge and Barbara Campbell, also deserve thanks for the (typewritten) letters, phone calls, holiday zines, and texts about prog rock and doom metal. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth, I was privileged to study with Melissa Zeiger, Peter A. Bien, and William W. Cook, all of whom encouraged me to keep writing even when I was turning in messy, off-topic papers about punk rock and comic books. At Dartmouth, I also met Shiamin Kwa, my friend and fellow comics scholar, who has been encouraging me as a writer since our first-year undergrad seminar course.
In early 2014, Harlan Ellison and I talked for an hour about Beck, Binder, and Captain Marvel. He then carefully edited the transcript of that interview, later published in Alter Ego. That experience was a miniature seminar in creative writing. Thank you, Mr. Ellison, for those phone calls, for your writing, and for your kindness. Thanks also to Jason Davis at Harlan Ellison Books and to Susan Ellison for facilitating that interview.
At a conference in St. Louis, Trina Robbins reminded me that, although the magic word Shazam, as Jules Feiffer once put it, only seems to work for Billy, we each have one of our own. We just need to search for it. I’d like to thank Trina for sharing her memories of and correspondence with her friend C. C. Beck. She’s been a champion of this research from the start.
I often joke that, while I like comics a lot, I love music, and I’ve been blessed with bandmates who’ve taken an interest in my academic work. As any musician will tell you, it’s tough to find a good rhythm section, but I’ve been lucky, and without the love and friendship of my late drummer and friend Andy Cayon, I wouldn’t have made it through grad school or developed the confidence I needed to tackle this project. Meanwhile, Tris Carpenter and I still trade secrets about old Sunn amps and slide guitars. Poet, drummer, and teacher Tony Trigilio keeps weekly tabs on my progress and, at every stage of this project, has offered his help and his advice (as well as his incandescent Jaki Liebezeit-like beats). Wayne Sefton, Rich Hay, and Jack Mohr at Midwest Buy & Sell have kept me supplied with Fenders, Gretsches, Guilds, and Rickenbackers, while never failing to ask, “How’s the book going? Aren’t you done yet?”
Keiler Roberts drew and designed this book’s beautiful cover, an image that introduces many of the themes I explore in the following pages. She also contributed the pencil sketch that appears as the frontispiece and the drawing of my grandmother on the dedication page. I can’t thank Keiler enough for her comics, her art, and her friendship.
My father, the Honorable William T. Cremins, has been my research assistant on this comic book adventure for four decades now. When writing about a complex case like the National v. Fawcett battle, it helps to have an attorney (p.xiii) and a judge in the family. But he was there long before that trip to the National Archives in the summer of 2014. Loving and steadfast, he’s been with me from those walks to the spinner-rack at the 7–11 on Davis Street in Oakville to the Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference at Dartmouth (“Comics are pretty big now, aren’t they?” he asked). When I was a kid, my mom, Nancy Cremins, wrote and drew little stories that I’d try to copy. I learned to love reading and writing from her, especially when she’d play Cat Stevens, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, or Donna Summer records and insist that I listen carefully to the words. She and my sister Alison are the other scholars in the family, the keepers of our history, the oracles. Chapter 3, as I mention later, is a conversation of sorts with my maternal grandparents, Nunzio Stango and Patricia Stango, and with other members of my family who lived through World War II, especially my great uncle, Vincent J. Budris, and my great aunts, Annie Grigoraitis and Julia Budris.
Allison Felus read and edited every word of this book before I even knew it was a book. She also made sure that I ate, wrote songs, and went to the record store after I’d been staring at the computer screen too long. Her love, and her magic, are at the heart of what I do.
And what would a day of writing and listening to Brian Eno be without my two furry friends, Rocky and Rosie, and their silent companionship? (Well, they’re mostly silent, except when they’re hungry.)
I wrote this book because of my admiration and affection for the comics of Otto Binder and C. C. Beck. I hope that, after reading it, you seek out their work, and that you find it as wonderfully strange, compelling, and complex as I do.
And that magic word? Well, as Trina Robbins has said, you’ll have to discover that for yourself.
A Note on Authorship
Like other publishers in the 1940s and early 1950s, Fawcett rarely included credits for their writers and artists in their comic books. C. C. Beck was a notable exception, as he sometimes received a byline as “Chief Artist” on the comics he drew with his assistants. Otto Binder, writing under his pseudonym Eando Binder, also received credit for the Jon Jarl text pieces that appeared in Captain Marvel Adventures, but he did not receive billing as one of Captain Marvel’s writers. In Chapter 1, I focus on two stories that Beck, as he noted in later essays and interviews, wrote and drew on his own. In order to discuss how Beck applied his theories of comic art, I felt it necessary to focus on narratives where he was responsible for the complete work of bringing a script to (p.xiv) life—that is, providing the layouts, pencils, inks, and, often, even the letters. Chapter 2 includes an analysis of Otto Binder’s Mr. Tawny stories, a series that he discusses in his letter to Alter Ego in 1964 (“Special!” 111). According to Beck’s 1977 interview with Chris Padovano, he provided the art for the majority of those stories, most likely with his longtime collaborator Pete Costanza. In Chapters 3 and 4, I shift my focus from Beck and Binder and the personal touches in their work to an analysis of the themes and the cultural impact of Captain Marvel’s wartime adventures. In order to meet the demand for the character, Fawcett, as I discuss in Chapter 1, employed art studios like the one founded by Beck and Costanza. Read Beck’s “Shop Talk” interview with Will Eisner or “What’s Behind That Comic Cover?” in Don Maris’s “best of” collection for information on the assembly-line-like system used to produce those comics. Where possible, I have included footnotes with information on the writers and artists that might have worked on those comics from the early 1940s. For more information on story credits for those issues, visit the Grand Comics Database online. DC’s Shazam! Archives, and the company’s various reprint collections of Fawcett’s stories, also include credits for some of Captain Marvel’s early adventures.
A Note on Citations and Image Scans
Fawcett was inconsistent in their use of page numbers in their comics. Where possible, I have included citations with page numbers from the stories I analyze. Stories from the late 1940s and into the 1950s, however, like the Mr. Tawny ones, are not paginated. Meanwhile, some of the scans, especially those for hard-to-find (or prohibitively expensive) comics from the early 1940s, come from various reprint editions and collections. Unless otherwise noted, however, I have scanned all of the images in this book from the original comics. Now several decades old, these books are often delicate and brittle, so you may notice flaws in some of those images, including rips and tears, marks left by those who read and enjoyed these comics in the first place. (p.xv)