Here’s a repost of the article I wrote for the San Diego Comic Con 2015 Souvenir Book, celebrating the 75th anniversary of Captain Marvel, my favorite super hero.
For the umpteenth time I explain to the other Halloweeners and their parents that no, my three year old son’s meticulously homemade costume is not a poorly cobbled together version of the Flash. The Flash? Seriously? Does the Flash wear a cape? Do you see a mask? It’s a screen accurate reconstruction of Tom Tyler’s Captain Marvel (or Shazam, I say, hoping for a spark of recognition that invariably doesn’t come, except in the delighted eyes of a select few comic book readers), which is in turn a pretty faithful rendition of C.C. Beck’s original depiction in Whiz Comics. 1,200 miles away in Indiana my mother worked day and night to assemble the red costume and gold boot covers from scratch, coordinating with my wife, who sewed the gold-trimmed half cape and lightning bolt emblem – the emblem which looks nothing like the Flash’s, at least to my eye.
He’s not worried. He’s got a pumpkin bucket full of candy.
He’s at that age where we can still pick his costumes. Last year was my wife’s choice, the Tin Man. This year, the World’s Mightiest Mortal. I should’ve dressed as an ironic Billy Batson, but the idea came too late.
The first iteration of the Big Red Cheese that I can remember was the TV show with the lustrous-maned Michael Gray bombing around California in a Winnebago with Mentor (Les Tremayne), speaking the power word SHAZAM to summon the crack of lightning which turned him into the strapping Jackson Bostwick (later John Davey). I had a big oversized treasury edition comic book tie-in from DC that featured a bevy of colorful characters I now know to be Mister Mind, Dr. Sivana, Black Adam, and the whole extended Marvel Family, including Uncle Dudley, whom I knew from the Filmation cartoons.
At some point in the fog of my childhood I lost Captain Marvel, or maybe I felt I had outgrown him. He’s the ultimate boy’s fantasy. With one magic word all the troubles of childhood are gone. All the bullies become puny and powerless, all the girls adoring, and all the naysaying adults stand stricken in awe of the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.
On into young adulthood, I moved from optimistic heroes like the captains Marvel and America and from Superman to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, The Punisher, the violent and short-lived 1980’s Shadow, and Wolverine. Captain Marvel and Superman I dismissed as boyhood phases. Teenaged me wanted gritty realism and drab-clad loners growling at the crushing injustice of the world, answering atrocity with Hammurabian atrocity.
Except it turned out it was the other way around.
Some years later, as an adult father with a bit too many responsibilities and not enough bank to be constantly buying single issue comics, I picked up a friend’s hardcover copy of DC’s Kingdom Come and read the awesome, but at its core, heartbreaking clash between Supes and the Lex Luthor-controlled Captain Marvel. It was like unexpectedly finding a dusty old teddy bear, once a constant companion, crammed in the back of a closet while you’re rummaging for the Christmas ornaments.
Old memories flooded back, of that dusty Winnebago, and of that treasury edition comic which I ‘read’ so many times (I couldn’t really read then, so I just flipped through the pages and imagined the story) at the dinner table between bowl after bowl of my great grandmother’s chicken noodle soup that the grease spotted cover tore off and my mom had to tape it back together. I remembered going around with my Shazam Underoos under my clothes, and then, hearkening to some plaintive call for help, jumping behind the couch, and yelling SHAZAM! I would hastily disrobe (making crashing thunder sounds the entire time), stuff a white dishtowel down the back of my shirt, and go running up and down the tiny halls of my old house, which were cavernous to me then, stopping taxiing Cessnas full of escaping bank robbers, and punching out crunchy evil doers.
Although I couldn’t quite commit to following the monthly comics in which my old hero now appeared, I could still delve back into the past and pick up the occasional Archive Edition of the original C.C. Beck iteration, so I did that.
It’s entirely possible to have nostalgia for an era you’ve never lived in. The original deceptively simple illustrations of Captain ‘Thunder’ (later Marvel) duking it out with foreign powers and evil cowboys, and blushing at the ardent advances of his arch enemy Sivana’s gorgeous daughter Beautia, who is totally unaware of, and constantly rebuffed by his bemused boy alter ego, are a blast to read.
And it occurred to me why Captain Marvel is still my favorite superhero.
It’s not simply that the fantasy has reversed. It’s not just that I’m looking fondly back on my boyhood and wishing I could now with one magic word be Billy Batson and turn off adulthood like a switch, though that’s certainly part of it.
Adults gloss over childhood. We sometimes forget the tribulations of growing up. The constant limitations imposed by peers, by family, by our own insecurities. Billy Batson was a homeless orphan. His life wasn’t great outside of Captain Marvel before he rejoined with his long lost sister and formed his own extended family, necessarily maturing more than a little in the process.
And don’t forget Captain Marvel Jr.
As bearers of the Batson name, Mary Batson, Tall Billy, Fat Billy, and the even more unfortunately named Hill Billy could all gain the powers of Shazam by speaking the name of the wizard that appointed Billy. But Captain Marvel Jr. derived his strength from Captain Marvel himself.
A clash between Captain Marvel and the nefarious Captain Nazi led to the death of Freddy Freeman’s grandfather and the near-death crippling of Freddy. Billy took it upon himself to save Freddy’s life by granting him a portion of his own power. Freddy need only speak the name of his benefactor Captain Marvel (not Shazam) to become Captain Marvel Jr. The act of doing this lessened Captain Marvel’s strength a fraction.
Fatherhood is a bit like this.
Before my kids, a world of options open was to me. With a moment’s notice, I could’ve headed out the door for Samarkand (is it still called Samarkand?) if I could’ve scraped together the money, which there was more of, or at least an impromptu midnight show or dinner with my wife and friends. I could divert some of my income and living space to collecting long boxes of all the Captain Marvel adventures I missed out on over the years. I had a wealth of time to devote to my own leisure, to writing, to reading, to myself.
With each subsequent child, I shaved a bit more of these ‘superpowers’ of young, unattached adulthood away. Time became more precious. Money a bit more spread thin. Personal space diminished.
Yet in doing so, I feel I moved a little bit closer to the selfless ideals of Captain Marvel which the wizard Shazam spoke of on his subterranean throne. I love more completely and deeply than ever before. I care more about the world my children inhabit, and this I hope, informs my actions. I want to be the hero that diverts the course of troublesome rivers, so my kids can continue safely along wherever they’re headed.
Sometimes, at heart, I am still a kid, bewildered by the adults around me, confused and frightened by the occasionally cruel ways of the world.
But that’s my secret identity, which my own Marys and Billys don’t get to see.
*Thanks to my friends Arron and Jeff for nabbing extra copies of the souvenir book for my family.
Edward M. Erdelac is the author of eight novels including the acclaimed Judeocentric Lovecraftian weird western series Merkabah Rider. His fiction has appeared in over a dozen anthologies and periodicals including most recently, Atomic Age Cthulhu, After Death, and Star Wars Insider Magazine. He lives in the Los Angeles area with his Marvel-ous family and a trio of cats whom he suspects have the the wisdom of Salamander, the strength of Hogules, the stamina of Antlers, the power of Zebreus, the courage of Abalone, and the speed of Monkury.