Rudy Panucci On Pop Culture

A Tepid “Celebration” of Captain Marvel

The PopCult Bookshelf

51dwIIXW19LShazam!: A Celebration of 75 Years
Various writers and artists
DC Comics
ISBN-13: 978-1401255381
$39.99

The original Captain Marvel is my favorite superhero. He has been since I stumbled into an obscure newsstand on Chestnut Street in South Charleston in 1973 and found a giant comic book that reprinted some of his best stories. I became an avid fan. I eagerly watched the Saturday morning show when it debuted on CBS the next year, and I bought up every comic book and reprint collection and even books that just had essays about The Big Red Cheese (as his enemies called him). It’s a little sad to realize that this book only exists because DC Comics felt that it was the least they could do to observe the character’s 75th anniversary. It seems that they were intent on doing so as “least” as possible.

The story behind Captain Marvel’s publishing history is unique. Created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck for Fawcett in the superhero boom that followed the creation of Supermanm Captain Marvel went on to become the best-selling superhero of all time, at one point selling several million copies every three weeks. The fact that his book was outselling Superman’s led to a lawsuit from Superman’s publisher, National Periodical Publications.

As the case slogged through the courts for years and the litigation proved to be more costly than Fawcett wanted, they settled the case and ceased publishing Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family books in late 1953. In just under fourteen years, Fawcett had published hundreds of the greatest superhero comics of all time. Now they agreed never to publish the good Captain again without the permission of National Periodical Pubications.

In the ensuing two decades, the trademark on the name “Captain Marvel” had lapsed and it was eventually snapped up by Marvel Comics, who created their own character with that name so they could protect their trademark on the word “Marvel.”

To cut this story short, in 1973, National Periodical Publications, desperately trying anything to deal with a huge slump in comic book sales,  negotiated a deal to start publishing new Captain Marvel comic books. Originally they leased the rights from Fawcett, then later they bought the character outright.

Since that happened, there have been a few hardcover collections of Captain Marvel stories. Many of the newly-created stories over the last forty-plus years have been pale imitations of the original Fawcett comic books. Except for the TV show and its sizable merchandising boom the character never caught on in the modern world. Two decades out of the limelight, coupled with the inability to use the character’s name in the title of a comic book, kept him from catching on.

The comic book was revived as “Shazam,” and the name stuck to the point where, in the latest reboot from DC Comics, the hero is simply called “Shazam,” instead of “Captain Marvel.” This is a bit sad to see.

Anyway, with good collections few and far between, it’s really disappointing to see the assortment of stories in this collection. It’s far superior to The Greatest Shazam Stories Ever Told, but it also shares many of the flaws of that collection from 2008. It also has seven full stories in common with that book.

First of all, with 400 pages to fill, this book only devotes 120 pages to the golden age Captain Marvel stories. Of those 120 pages, 99 have been reprinted in previous collections. The next section of the book presents 110 pages from 1973 to 1991. This is really disappointing because many of the really good solo Captain Marvel stories from that time are ignored in favor or stories that either appeared in the 2008 collection, or the Superman vs Shazam collection from two years ago. With there being so few reprint editions of Captain Marvel stories, it’s a shame to see so much repetition among them. More than half the stories in this book have been included in other Shazam collections over the past ten years.

Making matters worse is the inclusion of “Make Way For Captain Thunder,” a Superman story from 1974. It’s a beautiful homage to Captain Marvel, but it is a Superman story, and shows a little disrespect for the character to include this in a book that’s supposed to be dedicated to Captain Marvel. Of course, this story is also in the 2008  Greatest Shazam Stories book.

There’s also a Superman story from the 1990s when his book was drawn in a bizarre bigfoot/anime style that’s fascinating to see, but not in a good way. The book wraps up with a story from the recent reboot that sports beautiful artwork, but is sort of soul-crushing for fans of Captain Marvel.

It’s a shame because there are dozens of terrific Golden Age Captain Marvel and Marvel Family stories that have either not been reprinted ever, or haven’t seen print in over forty years. Plus there are some great stories from the 1970s run that have never been reprinted in color before. “The Strange and Terrible Disappearance of Maxwell Zodiac” is one of my favorite comic book stories of all time. It’d be nice to see it included in a hardcover collection someday. It’s certainly more deserving of space in a Shazam collection than the second reprint of his battle with Lobo.

Sadly, they didn’t even put much effort into the text pieces. Two of them are reprinted from other books. DC Comics has never treated Captain Marvel with the respect he deserves, and even with a movie coming out in a few years, I don’t see that trend changing.

Shazam!: A Celebration of 75 Years is a decent collection if you don’t have any of the other Shazam collections. If you do, you might want to wait until you can pick it up cheap.

1 Comment

  1. Thomas Wheeler

    “Soul-crushing” pretty much describes the entire New 52, really, and calling Cap “Shazam” is just a disgrace. As far as this book goes — I’m shocked they did anything at all, really. Maybe the movie will do something for him, but I’m not holding my breath.

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