With One Magic Word: Happy Anniversary Captain Marvel

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.

auggiehalloweenFor 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.

marveltyler“Don’t worry, Auggie,” I say to my son, who really has no inkling who Captain Marvel is either. “In four years when the Rock movie comes out, everybody’ll be wearin’ one of these.”

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.

marveltvThe 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.

marvelbillyOn 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.

marvelrossOld 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.

marvelbeckIt’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.

whiz25bAs 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.

On Conviction

It’s a busy busy March. In addition to getting together something special for the epic, penultimate installment of the Merkabah Rider series, tentatively called Once Upon A Time In The Weird West, I’ve got a few projects coming your way.

Out now from Damnation Books, publishers of Merkabah Rider and Dubaku, and editor/author/live action GI Joe Lincoln Crisler, is Corrupts Absolutely? an anthology of dark metahuman fiction exploring the notion of ‘what would happen if the average person had superpowers?’ It’s a great looking anthology with offerings by Cat Rambo, Weston Ochse, Joe McKinney, Tim Marquitz, and bizarrely, a pair of my old high school buddies, the talented Malon Edwards and Wayne Helge among others.

My own story, Conviction, takes place in the old (and mostly demolished now) Cabrini Green Housing Projects of my old abode, Chicago.

It’s origins go all the way back to my roleplaying game days, when a guy named Aaron gave me the title and premise and told me ‘I don’t ever intend to write anything, so take this concept and run with it.’ The premise was, a kid can make anything happen, can alter reality around him, simply with the power of conviction, by convincing himself beyond any doubt that he can affect change. The idea stayed with me for a good twenty or so years, till Lincoln’s anthology came along and gave it a home. So thanks, Aaron, wherever you are.

The second ingredient was Katsuhiro Otomo’s excellent manga Domu, about a senile resident of a Japanese housing project with Akira level mental powers, who uses it to basically steal and collect (and in the process murder the original owners of) various trinkets belonging to unsuspecting members of the community. As a policeman investigates the bizarre associated deaths, a little girl moves in with her family, a girl with the same psionic abilities. Someday, if given the chance, I would love to adapt and film this story with a minority cast set in Cabrini.

The showdown in Katsuhiro Otomo's 'Domu'

Cabrini-Green has been the setting for entertainment before, from Good Times to the horror film Candyman.

Good Times: Where I first thought Janet Jackson was dyn-o-mite.

Cabrini Green, for those that don’t know anything about it, was a massive complex of high rise low income housing situated in South Chicago. You can read about it here –  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabrini_Green

'The Reds' at Cabrini-Green

My own extremely brief experience with Cabrini dates back to around 1995 or ’96. I drove a date up to Chicago, I don’t remember where we were heading, possibly one of the museums, and I made a wrong turn and ended up driving through. I recall my date (she was African American), becoming extremely agitated and hunkering down deep in the passenger seat.

“What’s the matter?” I said.

“”We’re in Cabrini!” she laughed nervously, wiggling further down in her seat.

What I knew about Cabrini Green at that time you could fit on the end of Tinkerbell’s pinky and still have room to paint her nails. I knew only it was ‘a bad place’ full of ‘thugs.’

What it really was was a ghetto. An intitutionalized concentration of low income predominantly African American households whose basic design seemed to be crafted to break up black families. I have no idea as to what it’s origins were, but in researching it for Conviction, I gotta call a pig a pig.  Unable to make ends meet, mothers applied for assistance. The city would pull surprise inspections on assisted families, and if they found the father in residence, they would immediately cut off benefits. This caused fathers to necessarily live in separate apartments from their wives and children, effectively increasing the temptation of drugs, infidelity, and violence, all of which were rampant thanks to the deep infiltration of local street gangs. In its heyday, police treated Cabrini almost like a sovereign nation, refusing to pursue criminals inside or respond to calls for distress from its terrorized residents without significant paramilitary force. They sealed it off at New Years because the gangsters basically ran the show, waltzing down the street firing Tec-9’s and MAC-10’s into the air.

The situation of the buildings created a killzone in the center courtyard. Gangsters fired from hundreds of possible elevated positions. They burrowed holes in the adjoining apartments on various floors so that if police attempted raids, perpetrators could easily escape to stairwells or elevators.

If I remember right, Virginia Madsen made her way through one of the so-called (by police) 'ratholes' inbetween apartments in Cabrini.

In the name of preventing suicides and violence (protecting the residents supposedly), iron cages were erected over the open walkways, reinforcing its penetentiary look.

Nah the bars are for your protection, not ours.

So, in picking a setting for Conviction, I picked Cabrini, because if ever there was a place that inspired hopelessness in a youth, it was that place.

The main character of Conviction is Abassi, a picked upon kid raised by an unsympathetic grandmother, who witnessed the debasement and murder of his own drug addicted older sister at the hands of a cadre of local Gangster Disciples, and was beaten near to death for it.

Miss Orozco, a social worker at his school, tells him something he’s never heard before; that he matters, that he if he can but visualize something better, he can make it happen. She brings hope to a kid without hope, and that little push puts him on a road to improvement.  She teaches him a word he’s never heard before – conviction.

Then, in the weird and wonderful way superhero fiction creates metahumans out of improbable events (Peter Parker and his irradiated spider, The Flash and his lightning bolt and shelf of chemicals), an event occurs which once married to this new conviction, grants Abassi incredible powers.

But without any guidance or positive reinforcement to temper them, what does a child without hope do with them?

That’s Conviction…

And here’s an excerpt –

I wait in the Killing Field between the reds and the whites, where the crackheads go and the po-pos won’t ‘cause they get shot at from the windows. Them windows is like hundreds of eyes, and the red and white buildings be like giants looking down on you. I wait by the wet mattresses and the busted stones and the bottles and the pipes and the crinklin’ chip bags and the yellow grass that ain’t never been green.

I stare at the ground while I wait. It’s wet from the rain. Rain s’posed to make things grow. They ain’t no reason it shouldn’t be green. They ain’t no reason they can’t be flowers.

Yes they is. The poison. The poison in the dirt from the blood and the rock and the puke and the dog shit and the people shit and the glass, which is the only green they is.

I think about the grass bein’ green. I breathe.

From where I sit, it turns green, like it always should’ve been. The green spreads out across the whole lot. The grass drinks up the rain and spits out the poison into the street where it belong. It grows up my ankles, so thick you can’t see the glass and the garbage no more. There are pink and yellow flowers like the ones in my picture.

I get up. I know what I can do now.

Pick up a copy of Corrupts Absolutely? from the publisher http://damnationbooks.com

or right here in print and Kindle from Amazon –  http://www.amazon.com/Corrupts-Absolutely-Metahuman-Fiction-ebook/dp/B007GE8RLC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1331238309&sr=8-1