This week’s PopCulteer is an example of the concept of mixed feelings. I finally got the chance to read a series of comic book stories that I’ve wanted to experience for over four decades…and they have major moral and ethical issues.
I have made no secret of the fact that my all-time favorite super hero is Captain Marvel. I’m talking about the original Captain Marvel, the one known as “Shazam” by the uneducated masses. Created for Fawcett Comics in 1940 by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck, Captain Marvel quickly surpassed Superman and Batman to become the best-selling superhero of the 1940s.
This did not go unnoticed by the folks at Detective Comics Inc. (then the name of what is now DC Entertainment), so they started filing lawsuits against Fawcett just a year or two after he debuted. In the early 1950s, with the entire comic book industry in decline, and Fawcett an established publishing house that only dabbled in comics, they decided to cut their losses and get out of the comics business, settling their lawsuit with DC and agreeing never to publish the character again without DC’s permission. With no book being published, the trademark on the name “Captain Marvel” expired, and it was eventually picked up by Marvel Comics.
That’s the Cliff Notes version, which sort of has to precede any discussion of Captain Marvel, and explain why the first superhero on film, who was a merchandising juggernaut and the most popular superhero in the world in the 1940s, had disappeared from view by the middle of the next decade, and now doesn’t even get to use his real name.
DC leased the rights to Captain Marvel from Fawcett in 1972, and purchased them outright sometime later from CBS (after CBS acquired Fawcett Publications). While they had a lot of success with TV and merchandising in the 1970s, DC struggled to find a way to do Captain Marvel comics in more modern times. There were a few times they got it right, like when the characters were handled by creators who understood them like Jerry Ordway, E. Nelson Bridwell, or Jeff Smith, but there were also some disastrous attempts at modernizing the Captain and his crew, and among the worst of those is the current incarnation, which sees Captain Marvel renamed as “Shazam,” and really screws up the entire mythos for us long-time fans.
It’s telling that, since DC made those major changes to Captain Marvel in 2011 and told an initial set of stories, the only two major appearances by the character have been out-of-canon reversions back to the classic character and name during DC’s Multiversity and Convergence events.
That’s all going to change with the release of the Shazam movie next year, which is based on the “New Coke” version of the character that Geoff Johns is responsible for. Johns will be writing a new mini-series to coincide with the movie, and DC is going to be looking for all sorts of good publishing tie-ins to cash in on the increased visibility of the character.
The first of those was going to be a deluxe hardback collection to be called Shazam vs. The Monster Society of Evil. This collection of stories has been a holy grail of mine for years. The very first long-form superhero story (well over two hundred pages), this tale was serialized in Captain Marvel Adventures over the course of two years, from 1943 to 1945. It’s not considered the best of Captain Marvel’s adventures, but it is historically important as the introduction of a major villain (Mr. Mind) and as the longest superhero story from the Golden Age of comics. Plus, even an average Captain Marvel story from the Golden age is head and shoulders above most superhero comics of the day.
However, there are major issues with these stories. Mainly the racist depictions of African-Americans and Japanese characters. It was thought that DC was going to address this like their sister company, Warner Brothers, did when they collected Tom and Jerry cartoons with racist content on DVD, by tackling the issue head-on. What apparently happened was, the book was put on the schedule and solicited, and then, when the racist content was pointed out to someone in charge, they panicked and cancelled the book because they did not want to engender any bad publicity right before the movie was due to be released.
Cancelling the book was the right business move. The fact that they even solicited it shows how little thought DC puts into how they handle the Marvel Family characters. It was like someobdy knew that they had a book ready to go to press, but had no idea what was in it. For me this was yet another Lucy Van Pelt football moment. I’d already ordered and paid for the book (it’s been refunded) and this was not the first time I missed out on my chance to read this comic (it’s been online for free for years, but I hate to read comics online). DC comics had announced plans to reprint it at least twice before, reversing themselves before the book was printed.
A French publisher released a high-end limited-edition slipcased hardcover of this book back in 1989 (seen right). At the time I was working in radio, making radio money, and the high price tag of $125 meant I could never afford it. That edition now sells for six hundred bucks or more.
I understood the business decision, and the moral decision not to reprint the racist elements of the story, but it still stung to miss out on being able to read it myself.
Then I found out that, since the original chapters of the story are in the public domain, there are publishers who had made it available on Amazon via print-on-demand. It wasn’t cheap– I paid more for the paperback than I would have for the new hardcover edition, but I could finally get to see the story for myself.
I ordered the version offered by GwandanaLand, who specialize in reprinting public domain comics, because it was complete (other versions on Amazon are missing chapters), and spent a weekend immersing myself in this story that I’ve been wanting to read since I found out it existed over forty years ago.
I have to admit, I had more fun reading this than I have since I first discovered the joys of Golden Age Captain Marvel comics forty-five years ago. I also have to admit that the racist elements are extremely troubling. I don’t want this to seem like i’m endorsing or apologizing for them, but they do make up only a small part of this story, and this long story really takes off once you get past them.
Most troubling is the character, Steamboat. I’m not going to post an image of Steamboat here. It is a typical, racist, cartoon stereotype of a Stepin Fetchit like character who was around as a comic relief sidekick for a while in Captain Marvel stories. In 1945 a group called Youth Builders presented Fawcett Comics editor Will Lieberson with a petition signed by 11,000 school kids asking that the character be removed because he was so racially offensive. To his credit, Lieberson agreed, and the character was not seen in Fawcett comics again.
The problem is that there were dozens of stories featuring Steamboat, and they were mostly drawn by C.C. Beck, one of the most talented cartoonists of the era. It is disturbing to see such talent applied to such racist stereotypes, and it’s understandable why DC comics has gone out of their way to avoid reprinting those, or trying to profit off of them in any way.
Steamboat only appears in two chapters of the 25-part Monster Society of Evil storyline, but he is key to the plot and the unveiling of the true nature of Mr. Mind, so simply elminating those chapters would punch huge holes in the story.
Also, Steamboat is not the only racist element in these comics. In two very early chapters Captain Marvel encounters African cannibals, who are drawn in the same, thick-lipped racist cartooning style. Then, when the story moves to Asia (remember this is set during WWII, so war propaganda is in full force), the Japanese are depicted as slant-eyed, buck-toothed, fanged monsters with pop-bottle glasses. Interestingly enough, the Chinese, who were our allies at the time, are drawn in a dignified, non-racist manner, as seen to the left, showing that Beck was capable of rising above the stereotypes when he wanted to.
The cannibals are in chapters two and three. Steamboat is in chapter six, and one panel of chapter seven, and the Japanese characters are in chapter nine. Every panel that includes the racist caricatures is cringe-worthy, and impossible to defend.
You can say that it was of its time, and that is true, but that’s stuff that has been left in the past for a reason. When something wrong is being done, the first thing you have to do is to stop doing it. That’s why I’m not posting any images of the offending characters along with this piece. They should only be seen when set in a proper historical context, and posting them here would just circulate them further.
The racism does present a real problem because the rest of this story is so much fun. It’s an attempt to recreate the experience of a weekly movie serial, with each chapter ending in a cliffhanger, and enough action and intrigue to keep you on the edge of your seat, waiting for the next installment.
We get to see Captain Marvel at his best, battling larger-than-life challenges, like a reanimated Wooly Mammoth (seen right). He also battles Dr. Sivana, Ibac, Captain Nazi and Hitler, among other members of his rogues gallery. It would easy to dismiss the entire series if it were sub-par work with no value, but this is really well-crafted, but seriously-flawed work.
I’m glad that I finally got to read this in full because it not only scratched that itch that I’ve had to read this since I first found out about it, but also because it demonstrated to me why it probably should not be presented as-is to a mass audience as simple entertainment. The racist elements are too toxic, especially in today’s environment.
There are ways around this. DC could commission a new creative team to adapt the story, eliminating the politically incorrect elements along the way. The trouble with that approach is that it’s hard to top the work that Otto Binder and C.C. Beck did on the original stories, and DC would probably update the character to the current, awful, version.
I think a better way to present this to a modern audience would be to find an artist who can imitate Beck (there are several out there) and hire a writer/editor to fix the stereotypical dialogue, and simply re-write and re-draw the offensive panels. Steamboat could be drawn in a realistic and non-offensive manner, and he could speak like a normal adult, instead of a cartoon. Likewise, the Japanese scientists and the cannibals could be redrawn and the dialogue tweaked to tone down the then-acceptable anti-Japanese hatred other cultural ignorance. This has been standard practice in Tin Tin albums in Europe, which have been consistently altered to adhere to more evolved cultural standards over the years.
One thing to note about Steamboat is that, while the character is a completely offensive racial stereotype in the Stepin Fetchit mold, he was never treated in an oppressive or abusive manner by Billy Batson. Billy saw him as a friend, and no reference to color was made (that I am aware of–remember the stories with Steamboat are rarely reprinted). It was one baby step forward in conception to have Billy have a black friend that he treated as an equal, and about a hundred steps back in execution.
Re-drawing him and fixing his dialogue would allow Billy’s African-American friend to retain his brief, but important role in the story without offending so many people. Publishing it unaltered in today’s climate, where the alt-right looks for any excuse to justify and celebrate white supremecy, would be irresponsible. The offending elements have to be altered in order for this to be acceptable as entertainment.
That’s the only way I can see DC Comics ever reprinting Captain Marvel vs. The Monster Society of Evil. They wouldn’t be doing this to preserve an important historical event. They’d be doing this to make money off of a big Hollywood movie tie-in. It is a great story that sees Mr. Mind, originally just a disembodied voice, gathering together all of Captain Marvel’s greatest enemies, to wreak havoc on the Earth. After he’s revealed to be an actual worm, the story kicks into high gear. The action takes place all over the globe in into outer space, and there are elements of pathos and comedy mixed in to create a wondefully-balanced story (with some absolutely reprehensible segments).
I’m glad this entire serial is available, but I can’t recommend it to anyone who is offended by outright racism. I will recommend other collections by Gwandanaland, available from Amazon, which collect thousands of great Golden Age comics, including a ton of Captain Marvel and Marvel Family stories, along with great stuff from Quality Comics and other cream of the crop publishers.
And that is this week’s PopCulteer. Remember to check back for our regular features.