The first Captain Marvel was designed in response to the success of Superman. He belonged to Fawcett Publishing, made his debut in 1940 (Whiz Comics #1) and was so commercially popular that DC made a copyright claim on him, even though, in the words of Christopher Knowles, he ‘played the role of pagan Sun God to Superman’s more traditional Davidic Messiah’ (Our Gods Wear Spandex, 2007:124). It’s a shame that Knowles wasn’t around to explain this nuance in 1953, when Fawcett cancelled the character after thirteen years of DC’s infringement lawsuits.
The good captain is currently better known as SHAZAMand has one of the more interesting publication histories. After his cancellation, a British magazine, which had been reprinting his adventures, asked Mike Anglo to create an expy– Marvel Man. In 1972, he was licensed to DC, who now own the character and his extended character. Having been one of the most popular Golden Age protagonists, he recently had a film made about him and he appeared in the cartoon Young Justice (2010 – 2019).
Captain Marvel is a ‘flying brick‘. Superman is the archetype for this type of hero, and it means he had a relatively undefined powerset but is pretty impressive and always offering additional abilities to smash that difficult villain. He also has a family – his sister, Mary, Captain Marvel Jr (no relation), a talking Tiger called Tawky Tawny (funny animals being the other staple of the Golden Age) a bunch of foster siblings and an uncle Dudley.
Although I think that DC were on dodgy ground when they claimed that the Big Red Cheese was based on Big Blue, the expansion of the cast through family members, a distaff counterpart and, inevitably, a big talking rabbit (Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny), I am not sure that Bill Parker, CC Beck and Otto Binder (the originating writer and artist, and the subsequent writer) were always guilty of excessive imagination. Having said that, Mary Marvel is the first distaff, and it is Binder who would create Supergirl in 1958… wait, isn’t he repeating himself there? And given the production-line process of Golden Age comics, what does ‘originality’ mean? Do different brands of corn flakes sue each other?
Anyway, it is complex enough to try to explain the origin of a superhero once I have added in details of the publishing company, the creators and the historical context. but Captain Marvel is interesting because of his subsequent influence as much as for anything he did – or, according to Knowles, represents. He gets parodied or subverted or adapted on the regular (Morrison borrowed his magic word SHAZAM in Flex Mentallo and included versions of him in The Multiversity: Alan Moore got hold of his expy Marvel Man and began the work that would later be called the ‘deconstruction of the superhero’, before using him as a template for Supreme). He sits at the centre of a copyright conflict that reached in the 1970s and became ironic and post-modern when DC got ownership and had him fighting Superman. And, with a writer in Bill Parker who studied classics at college and a artist, Beck, who was the son of a Lutheran pastor, he is pretty much the most ‘Western’ superhero ever conceived.
Did I mention that his nemesis (just above Hitler) is called Black Adam? And while the captain has the powers of ‘six “immortal elders”: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury‘ (spelling out SHAZAM, the special codeword), Adam gets his powers off Egyptian gods (Shu, Heru, Amon, Zehuti, Aton and Mehen). And he is going to get played by the Rock in the movie, apparently.
For Christopher Knowles, Captain Marvel is evidence of how superheroes express a secret, occult tradition – the way in which Billy Batson becomes Captain Marvel is ‘strongly resembles a Masonic , or secret society, initiation’ (2007:124). Given that it involves a child being ‘led by a mysterious stranger into an abandoned subway’ (ibid.), I can think of more sinister interpretations, but Knowles is more concerned with twisting information to fit his agenda. I’d prefer to follow the idea of Marvel’s ‘western’ identity. More than Superman, who is an alien, Marvel embodies a conservative ideal of the superhero. His enemy is ‘Black’ (and Egyptian), although Adam’s skin-tone tends to be more middle-eastern than African. He invokes the heritage of both Judaism and Greco- Roman mythology.
If I dig deep enough, maybe I can convince myself that the conflict between Black Adam and Captain Marvel (even though they only fought once in the Golden Age) symbolically represents the war between Rome and Egypt that climaxed at the battle of Actium. Then I could convince myself that Actium was one of those important moments when the West won over Africa, and claim that Captain Marvel is a colonial allegory (which makes the Talking Tiger something to do with slavery and the disparaging of non-white cultures).
But I know that Actium was really part of a Roman civil war between two Romans (Octavian and Anthony) and the ruler of Egypt was Cleopatra, a Greek and that Octavian, after he won, promoted propaganda to distract from the internecine nature of the war to suggest that he was standing for Roman culture against an alien and tyrannical Egypt (not least through the description of Aeneas’ shield in The Aeneid). It is possible that these events are echoed in Marvel’s narrative, but that would be a misreading of history.
This is what happens when the agenda pre-exists the analysis. Besides, Captain Marvel wore red, which probably would have earned him a trip to the Un-American Activities Committee with Uncle Joe McCarthy. I don’t really doubt that simplistic, patriotic and conservative senses of identity and heroism inform Captain Marvel, but I need to take a step back from pushing it too literally, or precisely.
His whole deal with his secret identity is more interesting, anyway. His alter-ego is Billy Batson, who is a kid. Depending on the era, Batson’s childish personality is either contained with Captain Marvel or subsumed, but the idealism, and what Eco calls ‘Parsifalism’ (a gentle, shy attitude to members of the opposite sex) reflects elegantly a child’s vision of what a superhero would be like. The challenge of the Golden Age, which offers full-grown heroic men for an audience of children (and soldiers, but I’ll ignore that for a moment), makes the relationship between Batson and his heroic persona expressive of the relationship between the child reader and the comic book. Batson enters a magic world by saying a magic word, and enters into the body of an adult, and does adult things.
Later on, another Captain Marvel would echo this relationship.