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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: Doc Savage, Man of Bronze!

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

This was originally posted as part of a longer piece covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.
I wish I could remember where or how I first heard of Doc Savage. In the early ’70s, even before reading about The Man of Bronze in Steranko‘s History Of The Comics, I somehow already knew Doc was a precursor to Superman. But I hadn’t had any exposure to the character, and I knew nothing at all about him.

When I was 11 or 12, maybe as old as 13 or thereabouts, I would occasionally help my Dad when he worked in the visitors’ clubhouse at MacArthur Stadium. MacArthur was the home of our AAA baseball team the Syracuse Chiefs, and Dad ran the clubhouse for the visiting team’s players. Dad was responsible for keeping the place clean and stocked, unpacking the players’ uniforms and arranging their individual lockers, and making sure there was an ample supply of food and beverage. Dad did this for years and years, and it was something he loved doing. This connection also gave me an opportunity to meet Mickey MantleJoe DiMaggio, and Whitey Ford, among others. My older brothers had helped Dad at the clubhouse in previous years, so I also gave it a shot when I grew old enough to try.

God. I was inept.

My recollection is that Dad was pretty patient with my woeful efforts to do the damned job. I tried, but I was just too slow. Still, I spent a lot of time at the ballpark, and I unearthed a few treasures in my spare moments. I found an old Detroit Tigers uniform, which I combined with a skull mask one year to create a Halloween costume as The Ghost Of Ty Cobb. And one day, I found a paperback novel: specifically, a Doc Savage novel, The Land Of Terror by Kenneth Robeson.

I had never read a pulp novel before. My heroes were the heroes of comic books, with strict codes against killing. So I was surprised to read this early Doc Savage adventure, and to see our hero Doc dispense with a bad guy. Permanently. Clearly, this was not how The Justice League of America would handle things!

Subsequently, I learned that the character of Doc Savage would himself regret this early use of fatal force, and would later eschew killing entirely. This copy of The Land Of Terror was missing a page, but it served as my initiation into a whole new world of heroic fiction, a world in which I would immerse myself through much of the ’70s.

Doc Savage had flourished originally in the 1930s and ’40s, the star of his own pulp magazine. Each issue of Doc Savage featured a complete purple-prose pulp adventure novel, credited to the Kenneth Robeson pseudonym, and usually written by main Doc Savage scribe Lester Dent. In the ’60s, Bantam Books began a very successful line of Doc Savage paperback novels, each book reprinting one of Doc’s old pulp adventures, generally wrapped in a stunning new cover painted by James Bama. Bama’s chiseled, gritty rendition of Doc looked nothing like Doc’s original likeness in the pulps, but it was irresistible, and it sold a lot of paperbacks.


I couldn’t tell you the name of my second Doc Savage novel, but I sure read a bunch of ’em. My parents even got me a box of them as my Christmas gift one year, and that was really cool. As noted above, I read more about the history of pulp magazines in Steranko’s History Of The Comics, and learned about just how much Doc Savage influenced the creation of Superman, right down to both characters having the same first name (“Clark Savage, Jr., meet Clark Kent. Kent, Savage. Savage, Kent.”). The Man of Bronze and the Man of Steel even shared a fondness for Arctic retreats, which they both referred to as a Fortress of Solitude. Doc’s fightin’ entourage, which Bantam hype referred to as “The Fabulous Five,” was also a big influence on both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, especially on their earliest work with The Fantastic Four.

Given how much Superman and Batman lifted from Doc Savage and The Shadow, it’s amazing Street & Smith never sued DC Comics  for copyright infringement. I mean, DC sued Fawcett Comics with less justification, claiming Fawcett’s hero Captain Marvel copied Superman.

Doc Savage’s paperback success was sufficient to prompt Marvel Comics to license the character for his own comic book series in 1972, and a feature film, Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze, was released in 1975. I liked the comic books, and really wanted to see the movie (starring Ron Ely, who had been TV’s Tarzan in the ’60s), but I don’t know if it even played in Syracuse. My cousins in Florida saw it and loved it, but reports that it was a campy take on the character dimmed my enthusiasm. I have yet to be able to sit through the film in its entirety.

I never exactly lost interest in Doc Savage, but I did kind of move on. The Shadow became my favorite pulp character, manifested in a terrific DC Comics series and some paperback pulp reprints courtesy of Pyramid Books. Bantam’s Doc Savage books had those gorgeous James Bama covers, but Pyramid’s Shadow books offered equally eye-popping cover paintings by Steranko. The ’70s were a golden age of vintage paperback pulp, with Doc and The Shadow joined on drugstore spinner racks by the likes of The AvengerTarzan(with cover art by my then-favorite comics artist, Neal Adams), The PhantomFlash GordonThe Lone RangerOperator 5, and G-8 And His Battle Aces. I can’t tell you how much I loved this stuff at the age of 15. I wanted there to be new Batman pulp novels, and I wanted to write pulp novels. In high school, I wrote two short stories starring The Shadow for publication in The NorthCaster, and I even started writing a pulp novel called The Snowman. (The only decent, original pulp work I ever finished writing remains The Undersea World Of Mr. Freeze, which was completed for this blog.)

But it all started with a Doc Savage paperback, a battered little book I discovered when I probably should have been cleaning or sweeping or unpacking a visiting player’s bag. That was my Fortress of Solitude.

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Buying Comic Books Since 1966

Except for a brief pause when I was in college, I have been buying comic books since I was six years old in 1966. Over 55 years! I’d read comic books before that–older siblings, don’tcha know, armed with issues of Metal MenTales To AstonishOur Army At WarSuperman, and an 80-Page Giant starring Superman’s girlfriend Lois Lane–but in ’66 the Batman TV series inspired an obsession with superheroes, an obsession I’ve never seen any need to outgrow. And that interest manifested in a need to own superhero comic books.

As a kid in the ’60s, my “buying” of comic books generally meant I would pick a four-color prize off the spinner rack and either Mom or Dad would supply the twelve cents necessary to complete the transaction. The earliest specific purchase I can identify is Batman # 184, plucked from the rack at a grocery store in Aurora, Missouri while on vacation in the summer of ’66. Tales To Astonish # 84 followed in short order, located and acquired at (I think) a feed store in Verona, MO, with a copy of Superboy # 132 purchased in there somewhere, from the same store that sold us the above-mentioned Batman. It’s possible I got the Superboy before I got the Batman. Six-year-old me was less than exhaustive in keeping records of this stuff. Slacker.

I don’t know if these were my first comics purchases–and, as noted, they definitely weren’t my first comic books–but they are the first two I can ID with certainty as books I selected myself. (My 1966 Signet Batman paperback may have been my first comic book purchase, though it wasn’t technically a comic book. I scored that one at either Switz’s variety store or J.M. Fields department store back home in North Syracuse, NY, presumably prior to the summer visit to grandparents in Missouri. Unless it was after that, in which case it wasn’t first. Damn my record-keeping skills at six!) 

In North Syracuse, my go-to purveyor of funnybooks was Sweethearts Corner on Route 11. A (very) partial list of comics I got at Sweetheart includes Justice League Of America # 55-56, Fantastic Four # 73, Not Brand Echh # 4, The Spectre # 1, The Avengers # 42, Judo Master # 96, Teen Titans # 11, X-Men # 36, World’s Finest Comics # 162, Wonder Woman # 175, Inferior 5 #1, Doom Patrol # 115, Metamorpho  # 15, Spyman # 1, Green Lantern # 57, House Of Mystery # 173, and JLA # 61 (with “Operation: Jail The Justice League!”). My Aunt Rose bought me a copy of JLA # 57 at a drugstore in Liverpool, the next suburb over from North Syracuse. Every grocery store, drugstore, or other retail outlet with comics on display became a destination for me to increase my stash o’ treasures. Adventure Comics # 368. The Amazing Spider-Man # 48. Action Comics # 356. Aquaman #  30. Dell Comics‘ oddball Super Heroes # 4. A three-pack of King Comics titles at Clancy’s Silver Star. MORE! 

A cover-compromised copy of Superboy # 129 (my favorite individual issue of any comic book when I was a kid) was my introduction to coverless comic books (and yet another possible candidate for my first comic book). Many, many more examples of such contraband would follow. In the late ’60s and well into the ’70s, and even the ’80s, I grabbed these illegal, discounted comics as often as I could, with VanPatten’s Grocery in North Syracuse my biggest supplier.

Summers were a fantastic time for kids who loved comics. The annual team-ups of the Justice League of America and the Justice Society of America were obvious highlights. A 1967 trip to Vermont netted me World’s Finest Comics # 168. Before traveling (usually to Missouri again), Mom and Dad would let me pick out a stack of new comics to read on the trip. During an extended time away from Syracuse in the summer of 1968, that same Missouri grocery store took in my 12- and 25-cent payments in exchange for  Marvel Super Heroes # 15-16, Not Brand Echh # 10, Avengers # 56, Avengers King-Size Special # 2, Sub-Mariner # 7, Superman # 207, and DC Special # 1. Extending the ’68 vacation’s route to a California visit, I picked up Adventure Comics # 384 and Aquaman # 41, the latter over the objections of a female second- or third-cousin who didn’t want me to buy a comic book in her presence. (This was an early step in my long history of being occasionally puzzled by the opposite sex. And by, y’know, people. Of any gender.)

Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, summer vacations offered a seemingly endless bounty of comic book purchases, from Astonishing Tales # 2 and a giant-sized issue of The Brave And The Bold in Florida in 1970 through Show-Me State acquisitions of Secret Origins # 5, JLA # 107, and…it’s a long list.  A rest stop at the Greyhound station in Cleveland got me Marvel Feature # 1, the first official appearance of the Defenders. The Springfield, MO bus depot provided DC’s The Shadow # 1. I loved ’em all.

Other than trades with comics-collecting pals, and a bounty of tattered ’60s books passed on to me from my sister’s boyfriend, I don’t remember the what or where of my first back issue purchases. Mighta been at the flea market in Syracuse, or at North Syracuse’s wonderful World Of Books. I was an old hand at back issues by the time I got to the Super DC Con in New York City in 1976. Among other dealers’-room transactions at Super DC Con, I picked up Funnyman # 5, which was one of the oldest complete (i.e., not coverless) comic books in my collection at the time. I still have that one.

Throughout all of this, I continued to buy both new and coverless comics at various stores in the Syracuse area. Page counts varied, prices increased. The familiar 12-cent cost became 15 cents by the end of the ’60s. 15 cents became 25 cents, then slid down to 20 cents before resuming the 25-cent level. Onward and upward. DC had 100-Page Super Spectaculars for 50 cents, later for 60 cents, before that format collapsed. 

I kept on buying comics through high school, and into my freshman year of college in 1977-78. Writer Steve Englehart‘s run on Batman in Detective Comics # 469-476 (which I purchased in installments at Gold Star Pharmacy in North Syracuse and at Liftbridge Bookstore in my college town of Brockport, NY) knocked me out, but it spoiled me for everything that came after that. I hadn’t outgrown comic books. I had just moved on.

I came back to comics after graduating in 1980. It wasn’t an immediate resumption of superdoer fandom, but I’d retained my interest in superheroes (manifested in exulting in Christopher Reeve‘s portrayal of Superman on screen). I stayed in Brockport for a couple of years after attaching the B.A. to my name, and I started visiting a new local store called Comic Book Heaven, “Where Fantasy Reigns But You Never Get Wet.” Frank Miller‘s work on Daredevil and Marv Wolfman and George Perez‘s revival of The New Teen Titans hooked me anew, and I’ve been buying my comic books again ever since.

Living in Buffalo from 1982 to 1987, I was within walking distance of the fabulous Queen City Bookstore, where I regularly stocked up on new issues, and scored a ton of coverless and/or crappy condition ’60s DCs out of the bulk bin. Returning to Syracuse in ’87, I became a regular patron of Twilight Book And Game Emporium, owned by Bob Gray, one of my old comics-trading pals from the early ’70s. When Twilight closed at the turn of the century, I switched to Comix Zone in North Syracuse. I pick up new comics at Comix Zone every week.

A few recent acquisitions from Comix Zone.

What do I buy at Comix Zone? Well! My current pull list includes all of the AHOY Comics titles, plus BatmanThe Amazing Spider-ManBuffy The Vampire SlayerSupermanJustice LeagueAction ComicsDetective ComicsThe Other History Of The DC UniverseMoney ShotFantastic FourFantastic Four Life StoryGroo Meets TarzanThe MarvelsCheckmateShazam!Superman BatmanAmazing FantasyInfinite Frontier, and more. I’m way behind in reading them–I have two very tall stacks of comics awaiting my attention–but I keep getting them, and I enjoy most of them.

I rarely buy comics from any resource other than Comix Zone. Other than the (very) occasional eBay purchase, the only notable recent exception was when DC published a line of 100-page comic books for sale exclusively at Wal-Mart. Hadda have some of those, and it was kind of a kick to buy comic books from a mass-market retailer, just like when I plucked comics off the rack at Sweetheart in the ’60s and ’70s…

…or grabbed an 80-Page Giant (featuring Tales Of The Bizarro World) at the grocery store in Aurora in 1968…

…or snapped up The Brave And The Bold # 78 at a Piggly Wiggly in Kansas…

…and The Brave And The Bold # 91 (featuring artist Nick Cardy‘s absolutely gorgeous rendition of the Black Canary) at the GEM store (Government Employees’ Market) in Syracuse…

…or discovered the Golden Age Plastic Man via DC Special # 15 at a drugstore in the Northern Lights shopping center… 

…or badgered Mom to take me to Carl’s Drugs in Liverpool, for the specific drugs this Carl craved, like Adventure Comics # 428…

…or bought the sultry Vampirella (while also sneaking peeks at Penthouse) at White-Modell…

I actually got this one at World Of Books, but…close enough!

…or E-Man # 10 at a pit stop in Arkansas…

…or The Joker # 1 and an issue of Charlton Comics‘ Yang at a convenience store in Clifton Park, NY…

…or Shazam! # 1 and Howard The Duck # 1, both hoarded by deluded speculators across the country, both purchased by me off the rack, both at Gold Star Pharmacy, the former in 1972 (when Gold Star was still Henry & Hines) and the latter in 1976. Speculation? Comic books are for reading and cherishing, you fools…

…or Detective Comics # 438 from the literal stack of Detective Comics # 438s at Two Guys department store… 

…or Doctor Strange # 50, with art by Steve Englehart’s former Detective Comics collaborator Marshall Rogers, discovered at a candy shop on Victory Boulevard while visiting my girlfriend on Staten Island…

…or my truly crappy-condition Batman # 100, courtesy of an antique shop in Brockport.

The comic books of my life. The Wal-Mart books sure looked cool, too, and they were part of that decades-long tapestry of colorful, action-packed wonder.

I’m not a collector anymore. If I don’t like a book, I stop buying it, and I often get rid of a comic book after I’ve read it. I’m a fan. I still have some of the books I bought as a kid, for 12 cents or 25 cents or whatever. The prices are a little higher now; they start at $3.99 to $4.99 and go up from there, though some retailers (including Comix Zone) offer discounts for subscribers. It’s okay. You can’t assign a value to dreams, and comic books remain the stuff that dreams are made of. Screw the Maltese Falcon. Gimme my comic books.

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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: Marvel Comics

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

This was originally posted as part of a longer piece. It’s separated here for convenience.
Make mine Marvel?

In early 1966, I was six years old, and a de facto DC Comics fan. I didn’t know about different comic book companies, but the Batman TV series made me a voracious superhero enthusiast. The superdoers I knew were pretty much all DC characters: Batman and RobinSupermanThe Metal Men, and Superboy. I think my comics reading at the time may have stretched to include the grizzled, battle-weary World War II soldier Sgt. Rock (in an incongruous meeting with The Viking Prince) and humor comics like Gold Key‘s The Flintstones and Harvey‘s Hot Stuff and Casper The Friendly Ghost. This would change and expand as the year wore on. And somewhere in there, I also discovered Marvel Comics.

Marvel was both a veteran and an upstart publisher in the early ’60s. It had been in the comics biz since the 1939 publication of Marvel Comics # 1, cover-featuring the debut of The Human Torch. The company had done well in the ’40s, with the Torch, The Sub-Mariner, and Captain America, but had slid to lower-tier status in the ’50s. In 1962, legend has it that Marvel’s boss Martin Goodman heard DC’s Jack Liebowitz boast during a golf game about how well DC was doing with superhero comics again, particularly with a new super-team book called Justice League of America. Desiring a piece of that super-success for his own marginal comics line, Goodman then directed his wife’s cousin, Stanley Lieber, to create a superhero team for Marvel.

Stanley Lieber had been working for Goodman for almost as long as Goodman had a comics line. Lieber wrote, Lieber edited, and Lieber probably swept the office on occasion. His first published story was a text piece, “Captain America Foils The Traitor’s Revenge,” in 1941. Lieber felt that comics work was demeaning, and didn’t want to sully his name by association with this seedy medium. Hoping to some day become a respected novelist, Lieber used a pseudonym for all of his comics work. To this day, though, no one has read nor even heard of novelist Stanley Lieber; but we all know Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee.

Lee basically ran Goodman’s comics line (variously called TimelyAtlas, and eventually Marvel) from the mid ’40s on. As superhero stories fell out of fashion, Lee churned out Westerns, romance, horror, teen humor–anything that might find a place on the fickle newsstand. The line shrunk. The staff shrunk. The assignments for freelancers all but disappeared. But Lee was still there. One presumes he wasn’t thrilled with the fact, but Lee was still there. And he was still there in ’62, when Goodman gave the command to concoct his own Justice League.

Is the story of the golf game that inspired the Marvel Age of Comics fact or fantasy? It may not matter. As we learned from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Lee had his orders. And Lee even had a super power at his disposal: he had artist Jack Kirby. It’s no slight against Lee to suggest that Kirby may have been the single most important creator in the history of American comic books; Kirby’s talent and boundless imagination leaped off every page he ever crafted. Working with Joe Simon in the ’40s and ’50s, Kirby co-created Captain America, The Newsboy LegionStuntmanBoy’s RanchThe Boy CommandosThe Fly, the genre of romance comics, and that’s not even a thumbnail c.v. After Simon and Kirby split up, Kirby continued working and creating. His vibrant visual style added impressive zing to the generic monster stories Lee was slapping together for Marvel’s Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery. Together, Lee and Kirby would make magic. Together, Lee and Kirby would create the Marvel Universe.

Although it’s easy to get carried away with (deserved) praise of Kirby, it’s important to also celebrate how integral Stan Lee was in this partnership. We weren’t there, so we’ll never really know how much work Lee did, nor how much was pure Kirby, but one suspects this whole lightning-in-a-jar of the Marvel Age of Comics couldn’t have occurred without both of them working at the top of their game. Neither Lee nor Kirby could have done it alone, nor would it have been the same with, say, Stan Lee and Carmine Infantino, nor Jack Kirby and Gardner Fox. Marvel was the House of Ideas that Stan and Jack built.

And it started with The Fantastic Four, the superhero team Lee and Kirby created to answer Martin Goodman’s decree. Although much of The Fantastic Four‘s dynamic was immediately reminiscent of Kirby’s previous work on his creation The Challengers Of The Unknown at DC, Lee’s dialogue added a whole other level of seeming verisimilitude. Unlike the monster stories and other disposable strips Lee had been generating, Lee was engaged and energized by writing The Fantastic Four. The spark ignited. The book sold. Success! Success breeds a demand for more. Lee and Kirby accommodated.

The Incredible Hulk! The Mighty Thor! The Amazing Spider-Man, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (though Kirby claimed at least partial credit, and that’s another one we’ll never really know for sure)! The Invincible Iron Man (creation assigned to Lee, his brother Larry Lieber, Kirby, and underrated artist Don Heck)! The hits just kept on coming. Uniting Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk, and Ant-Man and The Wasp finally gave Goodman his own Justice League, with the coming of The Mighty Avengers. Captain America was revived, both as an Avenger and as a companion strip to Iron Man in the split book Tales Of Suspense. More! MORE!
And yeah, I was oblivious to all of that.

As near as I can determine, my first Marvel was Tales To Astonish # 80, cover-dated June 1966. It was probably a book that one of my older siblings picked up. Like the above-mentioned Tales Of SuspenseTales To Astonish was a split book, shared by The Sub-Mariner and The Hulk. The book fascinated me in ways I had no way to articulate. It was…busier than the Superman and Batman stories I’d seen, denser, maybe grittier. Even as I write these words, I also recall the claustrophobic art style of DC’s Wayne Boring on Superman and Lois Lane (a 1965 Lois Lane 80-Page Giant is the earliest comic book I remember reading), so maybe I wasn’t really as unprepared for Marvel art as I thought. But man, this still seemed different.

The first story in this issue starred The Sub-Mariner in “To The Death!,” pitting Prince Namor against an undersea behemoth controlled by his arch-enemy, the evil Warlord KrangGrinnin’ Gene Colan‘s pencils (inked by Dazzlin’ Dick Ayers–Smilin’ Stan Lee had a flair with credits) were simultaneously smooth and dirty, and the image of just the behemoth’s grasping hands, clawing at the ocean’s floor as the creature sinks finally into a deadly quagmire, made a permanent impression on this six-year-old. The second story was no less striking, as The Hulk was kidnapped by his foe Tyrannus, who looked positive creepy as a dying old man depicted by Kirby and Bill Everett.

Well. was hooked.

As a kid in 1966, long before there were any such things as comics shops or the direct sale market, you could never be sure you weren’t going to miss the next issue of any given title. Adding to this frustration, Marvel stories were almost always Continued Next Issue!, not done-in-one like most DCs. But I did get Tales To Astonish # 81, and I found it equally gripping. I didn’t get another issue until spying # 84 on the spinner rack at a grocery store in Aurora, Missouri while on vacation that summer. The cover image of Namor wearing an open trench coat, running while discarding his disguise, grabbed me, reminding me of Clark Kent changing into Superman; Namor didn’t have a secret identity, but I wished he did. I could only buy one comic book that day; I had my choices narrowed down to this one, Batman # 184, and Justice League Of America # 47, and my mother told me to buy the Batman and be done with it. I picked up the Tales To Astonish within a week or so after that, at a small store in nearby Verona, Missouri. I didn’t get that issue of JLA until many years later.

So that was my gateway to Marvel Comics. That same summer in Missouri, my sister Denise and cousin Cheryl returned from a walk with a copy of The Avengers # 13, a comic book from early 1965, but any book you ain’t read yet is a new book. With that, Marvel fully joined DC in my comics cosmology. This new appreciation was immediately reinforced by the debut of The Marvel Super Heroes, a syndicated package of (barely) animated adventures starring Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, and The Hulk on a rotating basis. The cartoons aired daily in Syracuse on WHEN-TV Channel 5, as part of the kids’ show, Jet Set.

Marvel continued to enthrall me throughout the rest of the ’60s. I saw no reason for specific brand loyalty–I read and enjoyed DC, Marvel, Gold Key, Harvey, CharltonArchieMightyDell, even the short-lived King Comics line–but there was something particularly invigorating about Marvel, something irresistible in the carefully-crafted illusion of camaraderie created and nurtured by Smilin’ Stan Lee. In the ’70s, I began to identify myself more and more as a DC fan; the reasons why may be subject for a future blog someday. Nowadays, following a brief period where I was buying more Marvels than DCs, the pendulum has swung back to my familiar ratio of more DCs to Marvels.

But I still love Marvel, too. I love the characters, I love the history, I love the tapestry woven all those years ago by Stan and Jack, and Steve Ditko, and Larry Lieber, and Don Heck, and Bill Everett, and Dick Ayers, John BuscemaRoy ThomasJohn RomitaSterankoNeal Adams, and so many others. The House Of Ideas was a very, very, very fine house.

‘Nuff said.

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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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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Inferior Five

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

This was originally posted as part of a longer piece covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.

In the ’80s, a writer named Mike Tiefenbacher was working on some funny animal comics for DC. Tiefenbacher was using a pair of supporting characters he’d named Sacco and Vanzetti, but his editor objected, pointing out that kids wouldn’t get any reference to Sacco and Vanzetti, the anarchists convicted and executed (perhaps wrongly) in the 1920s. Tiefenbacheer agreed that, of course the kids wouldn’t get the reference, but that the names were inherently distinctive and funny in context, and that the kids would respond to that. (The editor won the argument. Editors always win arguments.)

But Tiefenbacher was right. Kids do respond to what seems funny, to what strikes them as delightfully silly, regardless of whether or not they understand the motivation, the relevance, or the back story. They just think it’s funny; they just know it makes them laugh.

I was seven years old when DC published Inferior Five # 1 in 1967. It was loaded with references I didn’t get, including direct parodies of the TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a show I knew about but didn’t really know. None of that mattered. Inferior Five was silly, busy, energetic, frantic fun. It was funny. It made me laugh; I understood that fact just fine.

The Inferior Five’s name was a take-off of Marvel‘s Fantastic Four, but that was where the similarities ended. The I5 was created by writer E. Nelson Bridwell, a DC staffer who’d been basically the first comic book fan to break into the comic book industry in the ’60s. The team had made three previous appearances in DC’s try-out book Showcase before debuting in its own title. I didn’t see any of the Showcase appearances until years later, but those issues revealed the back story that the earnest but inept members of The Inferior Five were all legacy heroes, the sons and daughter of various members of a Justice League doppelganger called The Freedom Brigade: the 97-pound (and still losing weight) weakling Merryman, the powerful but clumsy Awkwardman, the cowardly archer White Feather, the corpulent, slow-flying Blimp, and the beautiful, super-strong but dim-witted Dumb Bunny.

When I first met this intrepid quintet in Inferior Five # 1, the I5 was summoned by good guy spy outfit C.O.U.S.I.N. F.R.E.D. (Competent Organization Utilizing Scientific Investigation for National Fiend, Ruffian and Evildoer Defense)–it was the ’60s, and super-secret acronyms were everywhere–to thwart the evil machinations of H.U.R.R.I.C.A.N.E. (Heinous, Unscrupulous Rats and Rogues Initiating Criminal Anarchy and Nefarious Evil). By page 10, The Inferior Five (along with Merryman’s grandfather, the elderly Green Hornet counterpart Yellowjacket) were being debriefed by characters lampooning The Man From U.N.C.L.E.‘s Mr. WaverlyNapolean Solo, and Illya Kuryakin (Mr. IvanhoeCaesar Single, and Kwitcha Belliakin).

Did I understand all of this when I was seven years old? No. Did I find it amusing? Oh God, yes! Action! Chills! Spills! Thrills! Plus, I learned what the word “indolent” meant! My favorite line in the whole damned thing was when the evil “Tabby” Katz, seeking to avoid a beat-down from Dumb Bunny, held up an artificial plastic baby and implored, “You wouldn’t hit a woman with a baby, would you?” “No,” Dumb Bunny replied, “I’d hit her with a grown man!” And. She. DID!

I next caught up with the inept avengers in Inferior Five # 3 (guest-starring a Tarzan clone called Darwin of the Apes), and again from Inferior Five # 7 through its tenth and final issue in 1968. I absorbed the I5’s encounters with seemingly familiar characters like Cobweb KidAllergy QueenThe Kookie QuartetSub-Moron, and Iron Pants, plus SupermanGroucho Marx, and Norton from The Honeymooners. In the ’70s, I went back and completed my Inferior Five collection. And, with or without pastiches of other characters, I loved the individual heroes of The Inferior Five.

Um…especially Dumb Bunny. Even at the age of seven, a couple of years before sneaking my first look at Playboy, I understood the appeal of a beautiful woman wearing rabbit ears on her head and a cotton tail on her curvy derriere. See, kids understand more than ya might think.

From Dumb Bunny to Barbi Benton–a kid’s gotta start somewhere….

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