1. "Where Are We Going?"
Of all the classic origin stories of the greatest super-heroes of the Golden Age, that of Fawcett Comic's Captain Marvel is, I'd suggest, the very strangest. In fact, it's stranger in many ways than even Dr William Moulton Marston's origin for Wonder Woman, and if that's so, then I think we'd all agree that Captain Marvel's first appearance must be exceptionally strange indeed.
However, it's not on the surface of things that the initial appearance of Billy Batson, the good Captain, Shazam and Dr Sivana displays its essential strangeness, and in fact that strangeness quite disappears from view after the first five-and-a-half pages, and just thirty-one panels, of "Whiz Comics Proudly Presents ... Captain Marvel". The remaining seven-and-a-half pages of the origin story are, in truth, absolutely standard-issue, somewhat dull and slightly charming early-Golden Age material, notable only for the facts that, firstly, Captain Marvel would go on to become the best-selling super-hero of the age, and, secondly, his alter-ego Billy Batson was just a boy, a unique genre-inflection at the time of publication.
But. But that first act of the origin tale is remarkable. It's so charged with the symbols of both fairy tale and initiation ceremony that it generates a level of power quite separate to the effect of the visible events on the surface of the tale. And so, when, for example, Jim Steranko said of "Whiz Comics" # 2, in his "History Of Comics" volume 2, that "... even the youngest comic book reader could have no trouble understanding the story", he wasn't quite succeeding in explaining how this tale actually worked, and what still underpins a great part of its appeal. For, yes, any reader could follow and enjoy the elegant simplicity of writer Bill Parker and artist C. C. Beck's story, but understanding a story is of course a quite a different thing to comprehending its effect. In fact, I really don't think that I truly understand the first five and so pages of the tale myself, though I've read it time and time and time again over the past forty or so years. Studying it still gives me the sense of being a swimmer on the surface of a very big ocean who's faintly aware that far, far below him are huge and otherwise unknown, and perhaps unknowable, creatures. And though that may sound - indeed cannot help but sound - like the ramblings of a blogger caught up in the self-importance of his own opinion, I do think that there's far more going on in those 31 panels than can often be perceived in some entire runs of many contemporary superhero titles.
2. "An Old, Old Man On A Marble Throne ... "
A substantial degree of Captain Marvel's appeal before Fawcett ceased publication of its comics in 1953 can of course be ascribed to the template laid down by C. C. Beck's gentle and precise skills in presenting a fantasy world that's both recognisably mundane and yet thrilling, comforting and still exciting, to the young readers of the period. And it's that "straightforward" style of Mr Beck's, as Steranko calls it, that so effectively sugars the pill of the strangeness that's saturated through Bill Parker's script for the 31 panels we're discussing here. Mr Parker might have been delivering up some rather odd fare indeed for the kids of the winter of 1940, but Mr Beck was making sure that nothing out of place and edgy at all got between comic book and consumer, coating the elements of myth cast by Bill Parker with the familiar surface appeal of popular fairy stories mixed with the developing traditions of the newfangled superhero. And, whether he was aware of the strangeness of Mr Parker's script or not, that manipulation of the popular understanding of fairy tales was something that Mr Beck himself intended from the time he began his designs for "Whiz Comics" # 2, as he himself explained in "Captain Marvel & The Wonderful Golden Age Of Comics" (*1);
"Billy Batson was the standard penniless boy hero of all children's stories; Sivana was the evil sorcerer of folk tales, now wearing a white laboratory jacket instead of a long robe and pointed hat: Shazam was the ancient keeper of hidden lore that has appeared in stories all over the world for thousands of years. I drew Shazam to look like Moses or some Old Testament figure on purpose, knowing that he would be instantly recognized by readers everywhere as a kindly guardian of mankind."
And so, there we have it, proof that long before the bowdlerisation of Campbell's anthropological research that's become hardened into the dogmas of dubious story-telling "experts" such as Vogler, everyday folks that'd never come near a "creative writing" course could recognise that there were familiar and useful aspects of fairy stories that could be productively transferred to other genres. Which was very useful where the nascent Captain Marvel and his soon-to-be franchise was concerned, because any attempt to represent Mr Parker's disturbing, dynamic and intense script where the origin tale was concerned in any more literal form than Mr Beck's amiable style would perhaps have killed the world's mightiest mortal stone dead in his tracks.
(*1) You can find it on the Twomorrows site.
3. " ... From The Moment You Were Born ... "
I. Long derided by many aspects of fandom in his later years as something of a crackpot, as an old man way out of his age who'd quite failed to understand how times had changed and he hadn't, C. C. Beck was in truth something of a wise old coot whose thoughts on superhero comic books are well worth the reading now. As a prophet too, he can today be seen to have scored pretty highly with his foresight, for he understood how the superheroes' domination of the market was heading with the force of a disastrous industrial process to exactly what we have today, a great sea of muscle-bound power fantasies too-often presented with a fetish for "realism" and an obsession with "continuity". That Mr Beck was also often something of a puritan, and a know-nothing where the idea of mainstream comics for anyone that's not a child, is true, of course, but few prophets are efficient at disentangling their vision from their preferences.
II. One of the most endearing qualities of C. C. Beck was his refusal to take credit for anything beyond his own artwork. He emphasised time and time again how he wasn't the creator of Captain Marvel, for example, but merely the artist that first brought the concept of the Big Red Cheese to life on the page. (*2) And Mr Beck was similarly plain and modest on what his job had actually involved, namely, to his mind, merely illustrating the scripts placed before him with as much charm and efficiency and as little individual pretension as possible. Once and only once did he write a Captain Marvel story, and the origin tale that we're concerned with here wasn't that. Which means that all the words and much of the story-structure in the first five-and-a-half pages of Billy Batson's first story are Bill Parkers, and on that evidence alone, Mr Parker must have had a mind well-worth paying attention to. For where other creators were as a matter-of-course tapping into the myths and legends that were enmeshed in the popular culture of the time, none of them did so with such fidelity and effect as Mr Parker did with Captain Marvel's origin. In truth, the remarkable trick of presenting Billy Batson's journey from homeless newspaperboy to mighty superhero within the structure of a traditional ritual of initiation was so clever and quietly audacious that it's hard to imagine it being pulled off so apparently effortlessly even today. And it's that fusion of Mr Parker and Mr Beck, of fairy-story and myth, that accounts for the utter strangeness of the 31 panels I'll be discussing here.
III. Perhaps Mr Parker was a Freemason, or knew of the initiatory rites of Freemasonry, though even if he did, that wouldn't mean that he consciously used that knowledge to structure his work. Maybe he'd read of the Eleusian mysteries at college or night-school, or deduced the structure of traditional rites of passage from an experience of the Jewish or Christian religion. Or perhaps, given what an evidently bright man he was, Bill Parker had simply absorbed all the traces of mythic structure and content that saturated what even in 1940 was for some folks the Godless world of New York City. It'd certainly be interesting to know if Mr Parker had lifted the stages of any particular initiation ceremony for Captain Marvel's origin story, because a precise fit between any of those I know of and this narrative quite escapes me. But the comparative anthropology of esoteric traditions isn't the business of this blog. What I'm inspired by and moved to do is discuss how Mr Parker with Mr Beck took the raw material of mythic tradition, coated it in the cartoon-frosting of contemporary representations of fairy tale characters, and offered it up to a mass audience without anyone noticing too much what was going on. Or: what I want to do is celebrate Mr Beck and Mr Parker's achievement, rather than place their work in any specific mythic tradition. (*3)
(*2) Captain Marvel's origin really was the rare case of the committee creating a horse rather than a camel, though Bill Parker is undoubtedly the central intelligence in the process, and I am being unfair to the wonderful creature that is a camel too. I do, however, wonder how Mr Beck would have felt about the issue of who is the creator and who isn't had he had the same relation Steve Ditko had to the creation of Spider-Man.
(*3) I did start to justify each link to the lore of initiation ceremonies with a reference to this historical example and that interpretation, but it turned this entry into an academic/fortean piece, which I think was a bad idea for a comic book blog. I'm very happy to discuss anyone's concerns about how I've represented initiation ceremonies in the comments, however. Please do contact me there.
4. " ... Your Sacred Duty ... "
I. At the beginning of the good Captain's origin, Billy Batson is already in the kind of vulnerable state of fear and loss which most initiation ceremonies seek to impose or emphasise, literally or metaphorically, upon the truth-seeker at the beginning of the initiation process. A tiny alienated figure in a dark and utterly unwelcoming urban landscape, poor Billy Batson, as we discussed in the last entry on this blog, is already something of a lost soul. As he tells the "Phantom Companion" sent by Shazam to summon him to the wizard's side, in response to the question "Why aren't you in bed, son?";
"I have no home, sir. I sleep in the subway station. It's warm there."
Billy is therefore already living in the world of obvious loss and misery, of impermanence and fear, which supposedly characterises the life of the uninitiated individual. And that certainly helps to speed along the proceedings of the origin, having Billy so manifestly ready to abandon his old life for the promise of a new and better one. There's no need to show him progressing in detail through rituals which disconcert him and alienate him from his everyday existence. That's already been done to him, meaning that the arrival of the presumably already-initiated Phantom Companion has come at just the right time for the boy, at the moment where the meaninglessness of ordinary existence has become apparent, but before the absurdity of persevering with life has overcome him. (Which is presumably why old Shazam, who's "watched" Billy "from the moment" he was born, has held off helping the boy even as Billy's been persecuted and reduced to penury; the magician was waiting for Billy to reach the point where he could wholeheartedly embrace wisdom and transformation.)
And Mr Beck's representation of Billy pulls no punches where the facts of the boy's everyday existence is concerned, if the reader cares to look closely enough. In 1:4, for example, Billy is clearly soaking, his hair sodden with rain, despite his plucky refusal to beg for sympathy or appeal for help. And yet the trembling lower lip and the despairing expression which belies Billy's declaration of sufficiency touches us without appalling us, as a more literal representation of a boy living as Billy has been would.
II. And so down we go into that darkness which is already known to Billy as containing something of the warmth and light he craves, and which been beckoning the reader just as it has been Billy since the very first panel of the story proper. Real life is already something Billy's learnt to hide from, so he's got no problems trusting to the faint hope that a mysterious stranger might be able to offer him a better fate far underground. (*4) Not for Billy the reluctance of many initiates to proceed into the darkness and depths, if not the desert or the mountainside.
Following the Phantom Companion down the subway's many stairs to the great deserted cavern of a railway platform, Billy is eventually presented with the wonder of the " ... strange subway car, with headlights gleaming like a dragon's eyes .... No-one is driving it!" And as Billy enters into this utterly familiar and yet quite magically-transformed evocation of the everyday, he's told "Have no fear. Everything has been arranged." Committed to his journey despite his natural reservations, Billy has thereby accepted the veracity of this world beyond his own, where different rules apply, and where even the symbols on and within subway trains are written in a quite different language from his own.
Mr Beck's train is something of an art-deco wonder from a transport poster of the '30s, and the conjunction of its "dragon" eyes with the smile its front bumper forms makes it both strange and yet friendly. Of course Billy would get on this deserted train. Wouldn't you? And wouldn't you be unsurprised that it hurtled "... through the pitch-dark tunnel at tremendous speed."? (This is, after all, to be necessarily the world's fastest initiation ceremony ever.)
(*4) It must be said that this scene would be quite impossible to represent in this fashion today. Our society is far too conscious of the danger that mysterious strangers pose helpless small boys to permit such a narrative to play out in this fashion.
III. "Mustering his courage ... ", and thereby establishing again that he's worthy of initiation, Billy is taken by the Phantom Companion (*5) through the "... ancient underground hall, carved out of solid rock ... ", in whose apparent permanence he faces up to the representations of the temptations which blight our everyday experiences, the very evils which the freedom from fear promised by initiation should liberate his weary soul from. Those seven sins are the Great Architect's tools, the cave paintings of Altamira, they're the symbols that represent key elements of the wisdom that Billy must master and accept, just as he established his worthiness by bravely stepping into the "strange subway car".
It's a long trudge past the statues of "The Seven Deadly Sins Of Man" for the determined Billy, but I do find it impressive how Mr Beck has made each sin both alien and unappealing without rendering them too fearsome for his young audience. When I was myself barely a teenager, I was contemptuous of Mr Beck's statues. They seemed banal in their cartoon simplicity, but back then I thought of evil as something remarkable which came wrapped in a costume and marked by the obvious consequences of its perfidiousness. Now, having seen how all of us, in our ordinary and unremarkable ways, are capable of committing the seven deadly sins, Mr Beck's statues seem quite appropriate where the banality of evil is concerned.
(*5) - I always thought that the Phantom Companion could be the Phantom Stranger without affecting any of the mystery of the story. And although I appreciate Jerry Ordway's decision to make the Companion Billy's lost father, I do prefer a truth that's less literal.
IV. And finally Billy reaches the old magician Shazam. How concisely and evocatively Mr Beck presents Billy's liberator. Of course the old man's " ... sitting on a marble throne ... "; what else would so emphasise his power and majesty? There's the brazier, traditional symbol of fire and the knowledge that comes from fire, and a grand book of magic, a huge globe to indicate the universality of the wizard's mission, and that too-easy to disregard block of stone hanging above Shazam's head, which we'll come to soon.
On a second reading, the reader will notice that Shazam himself is an ancient doppelganger of Captain Marvel. In such a way does Mr Beck's use of fairy-story motifs interact with the esoteric cribs of Mr Parker's script. As Mr Beck said in an interview given to Hogan's Alley (*5);
"When drawn by other artists, (Shazam) sometimes appeared evil and threatening, or like a madman. Nobody seemed to realise that I had drawn him as Captain Marvel as an old man. He had the same features, just altered by old age."
And so here, on the level of symbols, quite undiscussed in the script itself, is the hidden evidence of how life continues despite the apparent inevitability of death, from Shazam to Billy to Captain Marvel and onwards after an age to Shazam again. And so the ancient magician is of course the possessor of the great revelations of the mysteries, the gatekeeper who'll provide Billy with the wisdom to recast his life as a worthwhile existence untrammeled by the fear of suffering and death. Shazam has, pretty much, seen it all.
(*6) Find it at http://cagle.msnbc/hogan/interviews/beck/home.asp
V. The penultimate stage of the initiation ceremony occurs as Billy receives the sacred teachings from Shazam, who in his three thousand years of life has apparently " ... seen everything -- known everything -- that happened throughout the world from the highest to the lowest". And what can Billy do but accept the truth when faced with that force of experience and authority, especially when Shazam reveals the source of the evil in the world which has so benighted Billy's life? By displaying visions of the past using his "Historama" to show how Billy's "wicked Uncle" stole his inheritance and left him homeless, Shazam is establishing once again that there are secrets which Billy could never grasp without the magician's wisdom.
Of course, so many rites of initiation have by design contained within their proceedings remarkable and frightening events which the rational mind struggles to assimilate. I'm quite in love with C. C. Beck's drawing at 3:5 of Shazam calling down the lightening with a simple cry of his own name. At first glance, it's a fairly unremarkable panel, but on closer inspection it's something of a masterpiece. Shazam has been rendered as a tiny figure relative to the dark stormclouds generating the lightening, and his reduced size in 3:5 will have been all the more affecting after his panel-filling appearance in 3:4. This emphasises the power of his magic without indulging in excesses of fearsome effect; this is a comicbook for children, after all. And I so admire the care with which Mr Beck has shown the shadow of Shazam's hand on the wall behind him, and how his eyes are half-shut before the lightning's fierce glare, and how the brazier's flame is being blown panel-right by the sheer force of the bolt.
VI. But of course, Billy is still a young boy, and, at least by the lights of Western Society, he's rather young to yet acquiesce to Shazam's authority and contract himself to the lifelong and demanding service the wizard is describing. But in a clever innovation, Billy is given the power to become the adult and perfectly wise version of himself that's Captain Marvel by speaking the magic word "Shazam!". And so, informed with the wisdom of Soloman, he's able to legitimately submit to the meaning of the teaching he's been exposed to and accept the privilege and sacrifice of battling " ... the forces of evil which every day threaten to extinguish man from the face of the Earth.", a rather substantial obligation to contract into by anyone's lights.
Shazam: "Captain Marvel, I salute you. Henceforth it shall be your sacred duty to defend the poor and helpless, right wrongs and crush evil everywhere."
Cpt. Marvel: "Yes, sire."
And with that acceptance of his duty, which is of course in effect a "sacred" oath for a "sacred duty", Billy Batson in the guise of Captain Marvel becomes an initiated one himself.
And just look and wonder at how Mr Beck did make master and initiate superhero one and the same man, give or take a slightly less sharp nose on the old man's face, no doubt the result of generations of punching evil and getting punched back by evil in return.
VII: But though the initiation itself is over, there's a still the quite unexpected reversal that marks the proceedings as something of an atavistic blood ceremony, for Shazam's final demand is that Captain Marvel effectively kill him. (*6) And kill Shazam our good Captain does, as the lightning caused by Marvel speaking the magician's name severs the thread holding the granite block above the wizard's head. Poor old Shazam, another hero figure unable to enter the promised land of the future, but fully capable of anointing the leader of the folks who will see those splendours before passing on themselves. And beyond declaring " ... and now I must go.", we never learn why Shazam has Captain Marvel kill him. Is it a necessary component of the transferal of power between the two, or some ancient ritual? Does it serve to remind the good Captain of his ultimate fate, or of the terrible decisions he'll be required to make during his long mission? Well, we're never told, though of course the tradition tells us that it illustrates how death is not a force to be scared of, but rather an intrinsic and meaningful part of the process of everyday life. Yet that particular unrevealed mystery hangs over proceedings, adding the weight of unresolved mystery to the tale.
And how cleverly Shazam's death leaves Billy free of any supervising adult authority beyond Captain Marvel himself. How effectively, if considerably less gracefully than when facing previous problems of design, has Mr Beck hidden the rather gruesome fate of the three thousand year old man. There nearly always needs to be a sacrifice of some sort at the climax of a rite of initiation, afreedom or a foreskin or whatever, but the flattening of a very old man was obviously not a sight that the youthful consumers of "Whiz Comics" needed to be concerned with. Yet, the force of the old magician's death must have inspired at least a few childhood cogs to start turning, and it lends some small measure of gravitas, some little dread and confusion, to the conclusion of Billy Batson's initiation. Something of importance and mystery has indeed occurred here, because old men don't submit to being squashed to death without good cause. The brazier has been blown over, the granite block has squashed the magician quite flat, and time starts again for this very different Billy Batson.
VIII. And then Billy is immediately returned to his station at the top of the stairs down to the subway. Just an hour has passed, by the clock in the background, but a lifetime of change has occurred for Billy. And no-one's walking past him and ignoring him anymore, and by the next morning, the once-dark skyscrapers are golden in the sunlight and Billy can re-enter "real" life exactly as the initiated should, freed from fear, possessed of a fortifying mission and liberated from the cycle of life and death by the knowledge of a world beyond the world we know. So it goes. Captain Marvel defeats Sivana, innocents are rescued, and Billy himself has a new existence as a "radio reporter".
Nothing looks different, but everything has changed.
I. Let's leave the degree of chance and design, precision and inspired mix'n'matching, in Mr Parker's application of the lore of initiation ceremonies to the experts of the Golden Age and the esoteric. In fact, I'll have to leave it to those who know better, because I don't have the knowledge to contribute to the matter. But the fact that I can testify to is that this is, in its design and execution, a quite brilliant and yet modest piece of work. Mr Parker was concerned, it seems from the perspective of today, merely to power the origin tale of what was then just another one of Superman's illegitimate children. There was no intention to show off in these pages, for there was really nobody to notice what was going on. This was "merely" an example of harnessing symbols and their diffuse-and-yet still powerful meanings to the proceedings of a children's comic. Unpretentious it certainly was, but also, in its own way, a powerful and moving example of what can be done when the restraint and craft of a cartoonist such as Mr Beck is harnessed to the intelligence and the unobtrusive sense of purpose of a writer like Mr Parker.
II. Of all the Golden Age creators who sought to put to use the kind of material which Charles Fort delighted in, or which "The Golden Bough" discussed in great detail to tortuous effect, Bill Parker's brief-lasting fusing of the traditions of initiation rituals with the superhero narrative was the most powerful and, ultimately, the most commercial successful too. For while, for example, Jerry Seigel had the Spectre undergo his own existential trial, his own journey through darkness back to life, or something like "life", the traditions of initiation there are so darkly inverted that the symbols can't function with the force that they should, and the Spectre becomes a creature of death rather than life, a symbol of death's prevalence rather than its' impermanence, and poor Joe Corrigan stands as little more than a zombie for God. And that was a status quo for the Spectre which had none of the intuitive appeal which empowers other more successful characters who have undergone their own trials and emerged with greater knowledge and responsibilities than before. (And here I'm not just thinking of sunny Captain Marvel. The tradition can be maintained through the far darker processes applied by, for example, Alan Moore to the Swamp Thing of "The Anatomy Lesson".)
6. "But You've Got To Promise That You Won't Tell Anybody ... "
My quite unprovable suspicion is that Bill Parker and C C Beck's origin for the original Captain Marvel has in a sense damned the character where the modern-era and its violently prosaic super-hero universes are concerned. For the story of Captain Marvel was in one sense quite over within 31 panels of his first story, and within four panels of his first appearance. By the time Billy Batson has woken up to a golden new rainless day, he has already passed through all the depths of trial that a superhero must face. His mission is complete in that he never need fear again. He's passed metaphorically from mortal to effective immortal, and it's absolutely no surprise to me that today the good Captain refuses to "take" as either a darker, "contemporary" superhero or as something of a figure of fun. And this is because, I can only suspect, the symbols which informed his creation in comic book fact so long ago won't let Billy be either of these things, be either tragically violent or golly-gee-whiz foolish. Consequently, it can be no surprise to this reader that Captain Marvel quite refuses to be anything other than a happy, well-balanced character. He's gone through the fire, and he doesn't need to go through it again. That's the truth of what his origin tells us, and he is, in his classic incarnation, free of fear and death, and happily part of the world rather than separate to it.
And if DC Comics can't attend to that fact, then the character isn't going anywhere. There's no point playing with the surface characteristics of Bill Parker and C C Beck's great superhero, because underneath all that surface of comic-book corporation ambition and DCU continuity is one of the most solid and yet intensely strange fictional foundations of all the most successful characters in that first wave of super-powered adventurers. Either DC needs to fundamentally rewire that initiation ceremony which is Billy's first experience of superhero life, or they need to let the character be what he's designed to be. Not a children's character, for surely the very first Captain Marvel is no confection solely for children, but a character who's already a god of sorts, living in a sunlit world where anything is possible, because the wisdom which permits that has passed into his hands.
That's why all those talking tigers and the costumed bunny super-heroes, all those fiendish worms and Lieutenant Marvels. For that's what the world is like when the wizard takes you through the stages of the initiation rites and you get to see the world as it really is. And that's why the reality of Captain Marvel's world is the "happy violence" which Jules Feiffer wrote about when discussing Billy and his alter-ego in "The Great Comic Book Heroes".
Didn't you know that? Of course you did. Talking tigers, I kid you not. And Hoppy the Marvel Bunny too.