Friday, February 11, 2011

Captain Marvel vs. The Bronze Age



Jules Feiffer['s]...analysis [in The Great Comic Book Heroesis quite good. It's kids' junk. Kids' poison. Adults have their junk. Whether it’s booze or sex or whatever. Kids needed junk. And the junk was comics for years. That’s why it sought the level that it did.
--Bob Haney

This is a follow-up post to the one on the Silver Age I wrote last week. But where my focus then was in lamenting the lack of any sophistication in Silver Age comics, this week I want to talk about the way in which the Bronze Age tried to correct that flaw. I excerpted the quote above because it so accurately reflects what was going on in the Silver Age, but Haney's very next words in the interview are, "But all of a sudden, as much as comics were shamed and put down and attacked and vilified, we wrote a lot of 'literate stuff.' Quotes around the word 'literate,' in the sense that a lot of kids finally learned more about reading the English language from that than anything else. Because they would read comics but they wouldn’t read, maybe, what the teacher assigned."

I'm not sure that Haney and I would've agreed on what constitutes literate, even with the quotes, but he's right that towards the end of the '60s and the beginning of the '70s, comics started to change. This is an oversimplification of the timeline, but as the '70s marched on, Haney and his contemporaries were let go and replaced with guys like Paul Levitz, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, and Denny O'Neil. In the interview, Haney doesn't offer much insight - other than a general "out with the old, in with the new" attitude - for why that happened, but it's not hard to put the pieces together.

At the same time I was reading the Haney interview, I was also going through the giant Oral History of Captain Marvel that Newsarama ran to commemorate the character's 70th anniversary. There are twelve parts to it, all of which are linked to at the bottom of the first installment. My interest in that history was to get a feel for how Captain Marvel was created and used by Fawcett in contrast to how DC has managed him since they got control. Mark Waid recently revealed his thoughts about how DC's been doing it all wrong:
[Captain Marvel's] not a terribly complex character. And, sadly, we tend to gravitate more and more towards dark, complex heroes as a society. The reason Cap can’t sustain his own series is that the creators and publishers keep trying to shoehorn him into the comics-shop-dweller demographics and can’t just let him be a character for kids, because we can’t figure out how to bridge the gulf between comics in their current format and young readers who would love Captain Marvel but don’t know what comics are or how to find them or how to read them. I will go to my grave believing that preschoolers would love Captain Marvel if they could just find him. Older kids would think he’s too simplistic or too light, but that’s fine. Don’t try to change the character to fit that mold; just find the audience for Cap as he is. That audience is out there.
That makes a ton of sense to me, but in reading the Oral History, I hoped to get a sense for how the darkening of Captain Marvel and his Family came about. Curiously, it was right about the time that Bob Haney and his peers were being edged out of DC.

What's interesting to me is that DC's first attempt to bring Captain Marvel into its shared universe tried hard to capture the whimsical tone of Fawcett's version. DC even hired original Captain Marvel artist CC Beck to draw the book. But even more fascinating than that is the reason they wanted to try Captain Marvel out in the first place: Superman sales were tanking.

Haney mentions this in his interview too, but Marvel really did a number on DC with their focus on continuity and characterization. Fans loved it and DC's sales suffered for it when DC was slow to adapt. That's largely what the new guard at DC was all about. That's why you had guys like Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams making Batman darker again; a tactic that worked out really, really well. But, as Zack Smith points out in the Oral History article, "Revitalizing the Superman books proved a tough nut to crack, even with Denny O’Neil creating a new, less-powered status quo for the character and Jack Kirby bringing Jimmy Olsen into his 'Fourth World' group of books."

DC's solution to the Superman dilemma was a weird one. As Michael Uslan says in the History, "In 1972 or 1973, when sales of Superman weren’t so great, DC turned to Fawcett and said, 'Hey, you can’t do anything with [Captain Marvel] without our permission under the terms of the settlement, so how about licensing the character to us, and we’ll publish it?'"

Now this is with the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, I realize, but if Superman was too light and goofy for the '70s comics fan (and remember that Silver Age Superman was especially light and goofy, even by DC's standards), the first solution to come to my mind wouldn't have been to start another light, goofy series in a similar tradition. But that's what DC did. And it didn't go so well.

DC's Shazam! relaunch lasted 35 issues before it was canceled and the character moved to a World's Finest feature. By that time, DC was already darkening the stories with the realistic art style that fans wanted in those days. They'd hired Don Newton - a fantastic artist, but one very much in the style of Neal Adams and those guys - to draw the book. The response was varied, as the Oral History shows.

Mark Waid, not surprisingly, didn't care for it. "I’m a huge fan of Don Newton’s work," he says in the article, "and I know he was a huge fan of Captain Marvel, but there was always something very shadowy and gloomy about his work on the character for me. Personally speaking, it always worked on conflict with what Captain Marvel should be for me." Alex Ross, on the other hand, dug it and calls Newton, "[Captain Marvel's] best bronze-age benefactor."

It never really caught on, though DC kept trying with other realistic artists. Dave Cockrum even had a shot at it before Newton. Older fans who remembered the original stories by Otto Binder and CC Beck didn't care for the modern, non-cartoony look.Younger readers who were fans of that art style didn't like the goofy stories filled with scenes like Captain Marvel's stopping an elephant stampede by tying the animals' trunks together.

Michael Uslan identifies the problem this way: "It was a market that was growing up, that was becoming more mature in its stories, where the art was in the styles pioneered by people like Jack Kirby and Neal Adams and Jim Steranko. Comics were growing up and appealing to an older, more sophisticated audience, and the timing wasn’t great."

This was before Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, by the way. Those books are usually held up as the start of the grim n' gritty, "mature" era of superhero comics, but they were really just high-profile (and very well-written) heirs to a tradition that started with Fantastic Four #1. It was Marvel that set the tone. Alan Moore and Frank Miller just perfected it and took it the next logical step.

In fact, it was four years before DC published Watchmen that Alan Moore wrote Marvelman (reprinted in the US as Miracleman to avoid trademark issues with Marvel Comics), yet another experiment in darkening Captain Marvel. In many ways, Captain Marvel is the poster child for the transition from the Silver Age to the Bronze. And though Alex Ross enjoyed Don Newton's take on the hero, he seems to have felt that Moore went too far. "I took great inspiration from Alan Moore’s work with Miracleman," Ross says, though the inspiration was negative."I disliked the human foibles of Alan’s flawed superhuman and [particularly in Kingdom Come] only desired a return to heroic idealism all the more because of his work."

It's that loss of heroic idealism that I miss too. For all its faults, the Silver Age had it. And one of the things I like most about the Bronze Age is that it hadn't lost it yet. Though comics started growing up during that time, they weren't "mature" yet in the sense that "mature" means when it's printed on the front of a comic. The Bronze Age was a time of transition and both DC and Marvel made a lot of mistakes as they tried to find their way away from "kids' junk" to a better, more relevant type of storytelling. But it was a noble effort and some great, interesting comics came out of it. I don't know that Shazam! was one of them, but books like Master of Kung Fu, Tomb of Dracula, Green Lantern/Green Arrow and the Batman comics certainly were.

I'm sure this has a lot to do with these being the comics that I grew up with, but it seems to me that Marvel and DC can learn a lot from those rare comics of the '70s and early '80s that managed to strike the appropriate balance between serious storytelling and the fun sense that anything could happen. The best comics today are already doing that. I just want to see more of it.

5 comments:

mrbluegenes said...

:...Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams making Batman darker again..."

For decades, I blindly accepted the


that a darker Batman was returning to his roots. But I've since come to reject that notion. When and where was this original brooding Batman? It certainly wasn't in the work of Bob Kane or Jerry Robinson, which month after month featured the Dynamic Duo cheerfully socking it to the bad guys with oh-so-self aware grins on their faces.

I submit to you that the darker Batman of the early seventies was breaking virgin territory for what had previously always been a campy character.

Al Bruno III said...

Great article and I think Mark Waid is right about the Big Red Cheese. When my daughter was around four or five TVLand started showing the old SHAZAM! tv series and she was entranced by it.

I wonder if a parallel could be made with the revived DOCTOR WHO series. They made it back into a kid's show that adults could enjoy and it became a success.

Michael May said...

mrbluegenes: You have to go back to the pre-Robin stuff to see the darker, stranger Batman. The earliest Batman stories in Detective Comics have an eerie feel to them, but that went away pretty quickly in favor of the stuff you're talking about.

Michael May said...

I agree, Al. I loved that show as a kid too. It was my introduction to the character as well.

I think DC was on target with the recent Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam book. It's a shame it was canceled. I'd love to learn more about why that was.

Lou Mougin said...

Interestng bit from my old friend Mark. I'm a lot more sympathetic to the Bridwell / Newton Cap, and think that the series *might* have been more successful if that approach had been tried from the start...a lot of the earlier DC stories mistook silliness for cuteness, and neither would have worked. But a Cap series for kids? That very well MIGHT work, and kids need more step-on titles as it is. Believe it.

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