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Boppin'

My Serial Thrillers

When I was an adolescent and young teen in the early ’70s, the past became a source of fascination for me. Movies, old radio, and especially comic books captured my attention. My favorite movie stars were Charlie Chaplin and The Marx Brothers. In addition to the great rockin’ pop music I absorbed on AM radio, I also tuned in to the public station’s Radio Rides Again! to hear affirmation that The Shadow knew what evil lurked in the hearts of men. And comics…! Reprints of superhero adventures from the ’30s and ’40s were becoming increasingly accessible—DC Comics publisher Carmine Infantino was especially keen on using reprints—and other resources even went back as far as 1929 for the debut of Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, reprised in a hardcover collection that I received as a gift. The ’70s were a golden age of appreciating the pop culture Golden Age of before, during, and just after World War II.

My discovery of movie serials was part of that. Sort of. Eventually. I kinda fell into digging the chapter plays of the ’30s and ’40s. Prior to the ’70s, I had seen chapters of the 1930s Flash Gordon serials on the afternoon kiddie TV show hosted by Syracuse’s local TV vampire Baron Daemon. I was dimly aware of the silent-movie cliffhanger style of The Perils Of Pauline, though strictly as a tangent; the style manifested in the faux melodramatic Tune in tomorrow, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel! of the campy Batman TV series when I was six, and inspired the late ’60s Saturday morning cartoon series The Perils Of Penelope Pitstop.

Somewhere around 1971 to ’73, I found a Super 8 movie projector in our attic. These artifacts were among the earlier examples of home video, short and silent little flicks to enjoy in one’s own private Bijou. We had, I think, a single Super 8 in our stash, an absurdly short edit of Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein

I was riveted.

Pretty quickly after that, I noticed Super 8 films for sale at both K-Mart and White-Modell. Prying myself away from stealing surreptitious peaks at Vampirella and Penthouse in White-Modell’s smoke shop, I was drawn to Super 8s featuring Batman and the original Captain Marvel. My parents ultimately bought me two of each hero’s Super 8 adventures, plus a couple of shorter Chaplin reels. More Super-8s would follow, but the format faded away soon thereafter. I never saw any additional superhero Super 8s.

The little Batman and Captain Marvel reels were taken from the characters’ movie serial adventures, 1943’s Batman starring Lewis Wilson and 1941’s The Adventures Of Captain Marvel starring Tom Tyler. My Super 8s began to dovetail with my dawning awareness of superhero movie serials, courtesy of a chapter in All In Color For A Dime, a book collection of essays about comic books, and in On The Scene Presents Superheroes, a one-shot magazine about superhero movies, published in 1966 but still kickin’ around used bookstores in the early ’70s. 

In ’73 or so, I attended The Syracuse Cinephile Society‘s screening of the entire 12-chapter Adventures Of Captain Marvel serial–with sound and everything! The first chapter of Batman (its virulent wartime anti-Japanese racism intact) was included in a film compilation called Three Stooges Follies, which I saw twice in movie theaters (at Fayetteville Mall and at The Hollywood). The Hollywood also showed the first Flash Gordon serial from 1936 over the course of two separate Saturday matinees. Vacationing at my grandparents’ house in Southwest Missouri, I managed to stay up and watch two or three chapters of the 1944 Captain America serial, broadcast in their original once-a-week increments during the wee, wee weekend hours by a TV station in Pittsburg, Kansas. I also picked up a copy of To Be Continued, a hardcover history of the serials; I wish I had retained ownership of hat book, but it found a new home somewhere, victim of a purge to gather rent money circa 1980.

In February of 1976, I attended the Super DC Con sponsored by DC Comics in NYC. The film presentations at the con included some DC-affiliated serial footage, though my memory struggles to recreate the specifics. There was probably a Captain Marvel chapter, a chapter from 1949’s Batman And Robin, and I think an original coming-attractions trailer for The Vigilante. I do remember that there was a fragment of a chapter from 1948’s Superman; the two serials actor Kirk Alyn made as the Man of Steel were then presumed to be lost, though both were recovered in later years.

And that was probably it for my serial thrillers for a good while thereafter. Off to college in ’77, graduation in ’80, apartment living in Brockport and then Buffalo until the spring of ’87. I bought my first VCR in December of ’86. I got a VHS copy of Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe at some point, but never quite got around to watching it. When I moved back to Syracuse in ’87, Twilight Book And Game Emporium offered rentals of vintage serials. The Superman serials had been recovered by then, so I borrowed and watched Superman as well as The Green Hornet and the 1943 Batman. I bought budget VHS issues of both Batman and Batman And Robin, the former with some dubbed dialogue to tone down its overt racism. I eventually added Captain America and 1950’s Atom Man Versus Superman. As VHS was replaced by DVD, I got shiny serial discs of The Adventures Of Captain MarvelThe PhantomBatman, and Batman And Robin. I also watched Atom Man Versus Superman on TV when TCM serialized it over the course of fifteen Saturdays, and a feature-film edit of the great Spy Smasher serial on Netflix.

I have to admit that I have lost most of my young passion for movie serials. TCM has been running Terry And The Pirates on recent Saturdays, and I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to watch it. Between YouTube and streaming options, I can access chapters of BlackhawkBuck RogersThe Spider’s WebDick TracyThe Green ArcherZorro’s Black WhipThe New Adventures Of TarzanThe Shadow, and many more. But the urge ain’t there anymore. I loved serials when I loved them. 


I’m still fond of ’em anyway. If I’m in the right mood, they all remain a mere click away. And with sound! The Golden Age of Comics, brought to life in sparkling (and occasionally scratchy) black and white. To be continued? Well…why not?

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Boppin'

SHAZAM! My Secret Origin As A Captain Marvel Fan

With one magic word:  SHAZAM!

Although the super-hero boom in comics of the 1940s was undeniably started by the incredible popularity of Superman, and manifested in countless attempts to copy/capture/re-create/steal the Man of Steel’s successful model, Superman wasn’t necessarily the best-selling superdoer in the funny-book business.  For a time in the ’40s, Superman was outsold by his biggest rival, the original Captain Marvel.

For those who don’t know this original Captain Marvel, lemme give you the brief.  A young, orphaned newsboy named Billy Batson is granted secret, fantastic power by the ancient wizard Shazam; whenever our Billy speaks the wizard’s name, he is magically transformed into the World’s Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name is itself an anagram of the wonderful abilities Billy can access when he calls on the power of Shazam: The wisdom of Solomon! The strength of Hercules! The courage of Atlas! The power of Zeus! The skill of Achilles! The speed of Mercury! If you are a mad scientist like Dr. Sivana, or an evil tyrant (and literal worm) like Mr. Mind, or just another nogoodnik in The Monster Society Of Evil, get set to get your ass kicked by Captain Marvel!

I’ve been trying to remember when and how I first got hooked on Captain Marvel, who would ultimately become my all-time second favorite comic book hero (after The Batman). As a kid in the ’60s and early ’70s, I had heard of Captain Marvel, even though Cap was long gone by that point. The first Captain Marvel I ever saw was a Marvel Comics character who’d usurped the name from its rightful owner. Even as a stupid kid, I eventually figured out that Mar-Vell of the Kree couldn’t be the same Captain Marvel referenced on TV shows like The Good Guys and The Monkees.

(Digression: one of my many favorite moments on The Monkees was when Peter Tork had been kidnapped and tied to a chair. Left alone, still bound to the chair, our brave Peter shook ‘n’ shimmied his way in front of a mirror, squared his shoulders, and cried out with a defiant, “SHAZAM!” And the mirror shattered, prompting Peter to say, “Well, that’s seven years’ bad luck for Captain Marvel!”)

Thanks to Melanie Mitchell for screenshot

My first exposure to Cap was second-hand, in the letters page for a Lois Lane Giant. The letter-writer complained of a scene in a previous Giant where Superman fended off a number of super-powered suitors vying for Lois’ fickle affection; one of the defeated suitors, lying dazed on the floor, was Captain Marvel. The fan took issue with this, saying something like, “I know you put Captain Marvel out of business in the ’50s, but there’s no need to gloat over it!” The editor, E. Nelson Bridwell, replied that it was meant in fun; Lois Lane artist Kurt Schaffenberger had previously been one of the main Captain Marvel artists, and had included Cap’s image as a joke. Bridwell further commented something to the effect that Captain Marvel had been one of his own favorites as a young comics fan, and that he’d never wish to be disrespectful toward the World’s Mightiest Mortal.

I dug out that previous Lois Lane Giant, and I found the page and panel in question. There he was. So that was Captain Marvel! And now, I wanted to know more.

Coincidentally–but relevantly–I found a Super-8 movie projector in the attic. On subsequent visits to K-Mart and White-Modell, I saw Super-8 movies for sale, including Super-8 movies starring Charlie Chaplin, Super-8 movies starring Batman…and Super-8 movies starring Captain Marvel! I acquired them all in short order.

Long before the home-entertainment Utopia delivered by Betamax, laser discs, VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, and on-line streaming, 8mm and Super-8 films were short, silent movies made for home consumption. My two Captain Marvel Super-8s were twelve-minute distillations of the first and the final chapters of the 1941 movie serial The Adventures Of Captain Marvel.

The chronology of my Captain Marvel fandom gets a little confusing; so much happened either all at once or in short order, and I have difficulty putting it all together 45 years later.  But figure we’re in a rough timeline of 1972 to ’73 or so.  I watched my Captain Marvel Super-8s over and over. I read a single page of the first Captain Marvel comic book story, reprinted in Jules Feiffer‘s book The Great Comic Book Heroes (which contained just that one page of Cap, for legal reasons we’ll touch on in a few paragraphs). I was getting well hooked on Captain Marvel, albeit with relatively little to go on.

But two events kicked my Shazam mania into overdrive. In this time frame, it became clear that my teeth were a mess, and that I would need braces. One evening, following an early (and physically uncomfortable) consultation with the orthodontist, my parents decided to treat me to an evening with the Syracuse Cinephile Society.  The Syracuse Cinephile Society was a monthly (I think) gathering of film buffs, who would convene upstairs at a downtown bar called The Firebarn to screen vintage films. This was not my first visit to the Syracuse Cinephile Society; my cousin Maryann had already taken me to The Firebarn to see Humphrey Bogart in Dead End, and she also took me to see Errol Flynn in The Adventures Of Robin Hood, though I don’t recall for sure whether that was before or after Mom and Dad took me to see….

Tom Tyler as CAPTAIN MARVEL!

…Well, they took me to The Firebarn to see the Syracuse Cinephile Society’s screening of the complete twelve-chapter movie serial, The Adventures Of Captain Marvel.  The whole thing! With sound, unlike my silent little Super-8s! Mind you, this was over three and a half hours of serial action, three and a half hours originally intended to be enjoyed over the course of three months in twenty-minute weekly installments, not in a single evening as your butt hurt from sitting and your teeth ached from orthodontic invasion.  But it didn’t matter. I was captivated. SHAZAM!

By this time, I probably knew a little bit about what had driven the World’s Mightiest Mortal off the newsstands decades ago.  The folks in charge of DC Comics were none too thrilled about the success of Captain Marvel, a character published by Fawcett Comics. DC sued, claiming that Captain Marvel was a copy of Superman, and a violation of DC’s copyright on mighty caped guys who could fly.  Fawcett eventually capitulated, and agreed to retire Captain Marvel permanently. Captain Marvel and the rest of The Marvel Family (his sister Mary Marvel and their pal Captain Marvel, Junior) disappeared–seemingly forever–following their final appearance in The Marvel Family # 89, cover-dated January 1954.

One of my favorite comic books in the early ’70s was a reprint title called Wanted: The World’s Most Dangerous Villains, a DC book that usually featured stories from comics’ Golden Age, the ’40s. The fourth issue of Wanted was a particular favorite, with a lead story reprinting the original Green Lantern‘s first encounter with Solomon Grundy, and a back-up of Kid Eternity (another of my faves!) facing his evil opposite number, Master Man.  But, for all that, the one thing in this issue that just ’bout made my head explode was this one-page house ad:

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!

Captain Marvel was coming back?! At DC??! Not even world peace or a Beatles reunion could have been more welcome news to me at the time.  Well, maybe a Beatles reunion. World peace is nice, too. But I could barely contain my glee at this announcement.  Captain Marvel was coming back!

The new comic book was called Shazam! During Captain Marvel’s nearly two-decade absence from newsstands, Marvel Comics had claimed the Captain Marvel name as a trademark, preventing DC from ever using that name as a comic book title. Curses! But I loved the new stories at the time, and I really loved the fact that DC was including a Golden Age Cap reprint in each issue. I figured this was the start of a new Golden Age!

But DC couldn’t quite get a handle on what to do with the World’s Mightiest Mortal. The scripts aimed to be charming, but usually settled for silly instead. Even with a new Saturday morning live-action Shazam! TV series, the character just never really caught on in a big way. Matters weren’t helped by the then-unknown fact that DC hadn’t actually purchased the rights to Captain Marvel; it was merely a licensing deal with Fawcett; that meant there was a limit to how much exposure Cap could get at DC, at least without DC having to pay additional fees that, frankly, wouldn’t have been worth it, given Captain Marvel’s lack of blockbuster sales appeal.

In the decades since, DC did eventually assume full ownership of Captain Marvel, and the character has appeared as a member of the Justice League of America and the Justice Society of America, and on animated TV shows including Justice League Unlimited and Batman: The Brave And The Bold. There is a Shazam! feature film in development, with Dwayne Johnson signed to play one of Captain Marvel’s enemies, the mighty Black Adam. So the World’s Mightiest Mortal lives on.

Unfortunately, DC doesn’t call him Captain Marvel anymore; now, the character is just called Shazam. Marvel Comics owns the original name, and has its own Captain Marvel movie coming, with Brie Larson in the title role. It bugs me a little that the original Captain Marvel can’t use his own name, but that battle was lost a long time ago. I read Marvel’s Captain Marvel comic book regularly, and I’ll see Marvel’s Captain Marvel movie when it’s released. That’s the way it is, and I accept it.  I’ll even enjoy it, I betcha.

Marvel Comics’ Captain Marvel

But, in my heart, I know who the real Captain Marvel is: a little kid with the biggest, best secret in the world; a kid who can move mountains, and fly around the world, and shrug off bullets and bad guys with a smile and a twinkle in his eye; a kid who can shed the troubles and limitations of frail humanity, and become a champion like no other; a kid who can become, at will, the World’s Mightiest Mortal.

It’s a pretty good deal. All it takes is one magic word.

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Boppin'

This Mask, This Candy Bar

I don’t remember all of my Halloween costumes. My trick-or-treat years began some time in the early to mid ‘60s, and I retired from door-to-door costumed begging around November 1st of 1972, by then an eighth grader and forced by societal expectations to give up this annual grab for free candy. Stupid societal expectations.

The earliest costume I can remember wearing was my Ben Cooper Superman suit, probably in either ‘65 or ‘66. The costume puzzled me. What was with the eye mask? Superman doesn’t wear a mask! And how come the costume didn’t have red shorts over blue tights, like the Man of Steel wore? Whoever this Ben Cooper guy was, he clearly had no proper eye for detail.

The next year, I was Batman. Of course. My Dad tried to talk me into being The Green Hornet instead, trying to tell me that there’d be tons of Batman wannabes prowling North Syracuse that Halloween night, but The Green Hornet would be unique. I would not be dissuaded; years before Michael Keaton or Christian Bale made it a catchphrase, I was already insisting, “I’M BATMAN!”

The third and final store-bought costume I remember is Birdman, a Hanna-Barbera cartoon hero later subverted into a comedy figure as Harvey Birdman. Hmf. I take my superheroes seriously, thankyouverymuch. And never mind that my Birdman garb was supplemented by a less-than-intimidating pair of cardboard wings I made; criminals may be a superstitious and cowardly lot, but I think my disguise would only strike scornful laughter in their hearts.

I remember three subsequent homemade costumes. One may have just been used for a Cub Scout party rather than actual trick-or-treating. That was my get up as Dworn, the super-weakling from space. I remembered ol’ Dworn from a cherished Superboy 80-Page Giant a few years back, though my look was my own, accomplished with a torn ‘n’ tattered cape and a pretend barbell marked “10 LBS.,” with super-weakling me bent over struggling to carry it. Like Jon Lovitz, I was ACTING…!

Dworn, we hardly knew ye

I did go out one Halloween as the ghost of Ty Cobb. Yeah, top that, you poseurs. I got an old Detroit Tigers uniform from my Dad, and I added a skull mask to make it special. No one was impressed with my creative ingenuity, but I liked me. The costume for my farewell Halloween rounds in ‘72 was Charlie Chaplin. I was a huge Chaplin fan when I was 12, and I was SO proud of that costume. It was a triumphant end to my career as a trick-or-treater.

Although I was now done with soliciting candy from friends, neighbors, strangers, and assorted riff raff, I still wanted to get dressed up the next couple of years, as I took over the role of handing out the sweet treats to the masked kids knocking at our door. As The Shadow, I accidentally terrified one youngster (who got extra candy as compensation for his trauma), but no one knew what to make of me as Groucho Marx.

(Wait. Come to think of it, no one ever knew what to make of me as myself either.)

My interest in Halloween kinda faded away. As a freshman in college, I went to a costume party as a generic glitter rocker I called Satan Starr, Superstar. As a senior, I slapped together a decent Supergirl costume. I wound up reprising that one for two subsequent Halloweens.

For God’s sake, put your red shorts on, buddy!

And I only remember three more Halloween costumes, worn to parties hosted by co-workers. In the late ‘80s, I finally took Dad’s suggestion and became The Green Hornet, with lovely wife Brenda poised to kick ass as Kato. There was also a party where Brenda wore my old McDonald’s uniform, and I have no recollection of what I wore. And finally, one Halloween night in the ‘90s, I raided my knickknack drawer for props and tchotchkes to throw together an impromptu disguise as Freelance Generic Batguy (Not Affiliated With DC Comics, A Time-Warner  Company). I slay me.

Now, all of my costumes have been permanently relegated to storage. I mean that figuratively; the costumes themselves are long, long gone. I won’t say I outgrew the urge to play dress-up–I’ve never shown any evidence of outgrowing anything–but really, the only thing I miss about Halloweens of the past is all that free candy. I do dig free candy.

I betcha that Ben Cooper still gets free candy, damn him. Even if his Superman doesn’t wear his red shorts on the outside, where they belong.

Wait…what?!

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Hey, Carl’s writin’ a book! The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1) will contain 100 essays (and then some) about 100 tracks, plus two bonus instrumentals, each one of ’em THE greatest record ever made. An infinite number of records can each be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Updated initial information can be seen here: THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE! (Volume 1).

Categories
Birthdays

Gloria DeHaven

Born on this day in 1953, in Los Angeles, California, actress Gloria DeHaven. DeHaven appeared with Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936), with Frank Sinatra in Step Lively (1944), and opposite Myrna Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man Goes Home (1944).

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Birthdays

Stan Laurel

Stan Laurel, circa 1920s

On this day in 1890, in Ulverston, Lancashire, comedian and writer Stan Laurel was born. One half of the Laurel and Hardy comedy team, his contribution to film history is immeasurable.

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Uncategorized

Charlie Chaplin

Happy birthday to Charlie Chaplin, born on this day in 1889.