By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
March 22, 2011 -- I didn’t think I’d enjoy SHAZAM! The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal (Abrams ComicArts, $35), but one look at the cover told me otherwise.
Abrams has been publishing various comics projects in extremely attractive packages lately, and none more so than Shazam! The cover is a shot of Captain Marvel from his 1940s heyday, with a die-cut lightning bolt revealing the meaning of the acronym “SHAZAM” on an interior page.
And if you thought Gomer Pyle invented the word, go to the back of the class. Here’s the scoop: “SHAZAM” was the magic word that boy radio reporter Billy Batson said to become Captain Marvel, beginning in Whiz Comics in 1940. Marvel, “The World’s Mightiest Mortal,” was a happy-go-lucky superhero whose powers were similar to Superman’s, but whose goofy charm made him a better seller.
Which, ironically, was the good Captain’s undoing. The publishers of Superman allowed many fairly obvious rip-offs of the Man of Steel to go by in those heady days of million-copy sellers, but not a competitor who outsold their star attraction! National Publications – now called DC Comics – launched a lawsuit against the publishers of Captain Marvel, which ended in 1953 with Fawcett Publications not conceding the merits, but throwing in the towel anyway.
But for those 13 years, Captain Marvel was a sensation – not just in comics, but in toys, fan clubs, radio, and even a 1941 Republic movie serial (the first based on a comic book). “The Big Red Cheese,” as his enemy Dr. Sivana called him, is perhaps the most famous superhero nobody remembers.
Which this book goes a long way to correct. Created by award-winning designer Chip Kidd and photographer Geoff Spear, I thought it would be nothing but page after page of spiffy photos of Captain Marvel gimcracks arranged in a pleasing design. Which, of course, it is. But it turns out that perusing the charming toys of yesteryear – ones that probably amused our grandparents – is a lot of fun!
In addition, Kidd & Spear reveal choice tidbits of Captain Marvel lore. Like that line above about The Adventures of Captain Marvel being the first serial based on a comic book. Or what inspired Captain Marvel’s costume (think Pirates of Penzance). Also, there are some classic reprints, including the entirety of the only Captain Marvel story written and drawn by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the creators of Captain America.
If you’re a comics fan or just interested in pop-culture history, this gorgeous book comes highly recommended. If nothing else, buy it for someone you know who was born before 1940, and watch their eyes light up.
* I always brag on the Graphic Classics anthologies, but Western Classics: Graphic Classics Volume Twenty (Eureka, $17.95) may be the best yet. Maybe that’s because I’ve never read much Western fiction, and was delighted to be educated by comics adaptations of Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage,” Robert E. Howard’s “Knife River Prodigal,” Bret Harte’s “The Right Eye of the Commander” and other rip-snortin’, leather-slappin’ barn-burners. As ever in Graphics Classics, the artists range from anywhere from cartoony to photo-realism, from line art to watercolor, but never disappoint. Even this big-city tinhorn managed to stay straight in the saddle to the very end.
* Neil Gaiman created such a wealth of material in his legendary Sandman series that it has been mined for all sorts of stories since. But it took the peculiar genius of writer/artist Jill Thompson (Scary Godmother) to turn the scary Endless siblings into children.
Delirium’s Party: A Little Endless Storybook (DC, $14.99) tells of a gathering of five of the frightening, immortal, anthropomorphic concepts at the heart of the Sandman mythology – Death, Desire, Destiny, Destruction and Dream – at the behest of Delirium, in order to force the dour Despair to smile. As babies.
OK, that’s easy to do with Delirium, as she is always childlike, which is her nature. But infantilizing Death and the other Endless … ? Well, I called it a peculiar genius, didn’t I?
This is Thompson’s second Little Endless Storybook, which matches deceptively simple text and spot illustrations on left-hand pages with full-page illustrations on the right. A child could easily read Delirium’s Party and simply enjoy the sing-song silliness. An adult can enjoy that aspect as well … but will find a chill behind this children’s party that leaves you thinking.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.