Book review–Go back in time with the world’s mightiest mortal in nostalgic look at Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel

Review by C.J. Bunce

A new edition of a book about the popularity of Fawcett Comics‘ original Captain Marvel, the world’s mightiest mortal–the superhero renamed Shazam and featured in a new movie this month starring Zachary Levi–will be the perfect trip through time for fans who have enjoyed the character in his many stories going back to his debut in 1939.  My personal favorite Captain Marvel stories can be found in the original Whiz Comics (all in the public domain and available to read online now here) and as drawn by Alex Ross in his landmark graphic novel with Mark Waid, Kingdom Come.  For the first time in a softcover edition, Chip Kidd’s Shazam: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal has been reprinted by Abrams ComicArts just in time for the release of the film, Shazam!

For those not in-the-know, this is the Captain Marvel who now goes by Shazam (the word that causes him to bring forth his powers)–the one owned by DC Comics today, and not the one owned by Marvel Comics and also in theaters now in the movie Captain Marvel (reviewed here at borg).  Shazam: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal is a historical work, and it doesn’t hesitate to use the name he’s always been known as by his fans.  As told by writer Chip Kidd, the Captain Marvel fan club had 400,000 people in it in its best year in the 1940s, and Fawcett projected 40 million followers of the character in books and film.  Captain Marvel books sold 1.3 million copies per month, not a common feat even today.  Does anything approach that kind of fan club status today?  At the height of the character it was more popular than Superman and Batman, and so of course the character had hundreds of tie-in products.

Readers will marvel over a reprint of the entire story from Captain Marvel Adventures, Issue #1–created by two then unknowns: Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, and reprints of several colorful covers from Whiz Comics, Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel, Jr., Mary Marvel Comics, WOW Comics, Master Comics, America’s Greatest Comics, Spy Smasher, and even Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny, plus pages of scans of original comic pages from ex-Fawcett staff.

The book uses photographs from a collection of some of the scarcest superhero collectibles known, including images of books, toys, and paper ephemera for Captain Marvel and the entire Marvel Family–superhero kids like Billy Batson–the boy who turns into Captain Marvel–and his friends who use the Shazam powers but remain as kids.

It’s noteworthy that Captain Marvel was about integrity, and as found in an original Fawcett document included in the book, he was written in adherence to Fawcett’s self-regulating code, which included “no comics shall use dialects and devices in a way to indicate ridicule or intolerance of racial groups” and “no comics which ridicule or attack any religious groups are permitted.”

As with many comics of the day, readers can also expect plenty images of Captain Marvel punching Nazis– a subject of many stories and comic book covers.

Here is a book trailer for the hardcover release in 2010, showcasing many items found inside:

Anyone after this book will already be a fan, looking back for some good nostalgic reminders of the popularity and success of this character for 80 years.  That’s a good thing because the brief text remarks are a bit snarky and off-putting.  Although I liked writer Chip Kidd’s works on Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schultz, and his book on Alex Ross titled Mythology, this one doesn’t have the same reverent tone.  Kidd doesn’t really seem to like a lot about Captain Marvel, as seen through the criticism he volleys at the collectibles he discusses in the book and the various choices made in the 1940s by the writers and artists for Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family characters.  It’s simply ill-placed.  Nobody interested in this book is looking for a critique of a character loved by millions or potshots at marketing giveaways made for kids in the 1940s.  Despite the legal wrangling over the past 80 years, Captain Marvel is unique, strong, forthright, and interesting, which can be attested to by his many fans.  But fortunately you don’t need to care about the brief text inclusions to enjoy the great images in the book.

Reprinted with 22 more pages than in its original hardcover edition in 2010, Shazam: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal, including hundreds of photographs by Geoff Spear, is highly recommended for fans of the superhero and fans of the Golden Age of comics and superhero toys and collectibles.  It’s now in softcover from Abrams ComicArts, available here at Amazon.  Or order a copy from Elite Comics or your local comic book store.


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