After Captain Nazi’s first appearance in Master Comics #21 ended with his escape, the character crossed over into the pages of Whiz Comics, one of the best selling comic titles of the 1940’s. Why was Whiz Comics so popular? Because it was the home of Captain Marvel, the best selling comics character of the Golden Age.

The amount of ink spilled in analyzing Captain Marvel’s popularity would fill a fleet of tanker trucks, consisting mainly of analyses of the “adolescent power fantasies” the book provided. Young orphan Billy Batson is led by a mysterious stranger to an abandoned subway car which whisks Billy to the subterranean home of an ancient wizard. The old sorcerer bestows great power upon Billy; whenever the boy says the word “Shazam!” a bolt from the blue instantly transforms him into the adult Captain Marvel, the world’s mightiest mortal.

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

I don’t want to put down anyone who’s spent many hours extensively dissecting the psychology behind Captain Marvel’s commercial success but, seriously, these folks are overthinking it. The reason why Captain Marvel’s exploits moved literally millions of comic books off the racks is because they’re just plain entertaining; for the most part the art and writing were a notch above the other Golden Age fare. The stories were laced with elements of the fantastic – literally anything could happen. The art was kept simple, drawn in a style similar to the newspaper comic strips. The result was a book which could be read and enjoyed by all ages of readers, from kids to grandparents. Adults comprised a sizable portion of the readership demographics for the various Captain Marvel titles, especially servicemen during the war years; hundreds of thousands of comic books were mailed to soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

The books in which the Captain appeared were smash hits. At the height of Captain Marvel’s popularity, Captain Marvel Adventures was selling more than a million copies a month (present day comic publishers would sell their mothers into slavery to Bedouins for even a quarter of those numbers), and that sales volume didn’t include the myriad other books in which the Captain and his various spin-offs and relatives appeared (which included Mary Marvel, a distaff version of the character, and Captain Marvel Jr., another kid with similar powers but one who remained a kid after his transformation into a superhero). There was even a Captain Marvel movie serial, which is definitely worth watching – it’s pretty danged good.

So how did a blockbuster hit character of the 1940’s become one of today’s B-listers? It was due partly to changes in the tastes of comic readers during the 1950’s and partly to lawyers. You might recall an earlier post in which I mentioned that National Comics (one of a group of publishers which would eventually merge and become today’s DC Comics) sued Fox Publications over Fox’s character Wonder Man, which National believed was a ripoff of Superman. In a clear case of “if you can’t beat ’em, sue ’em”, National bided its time for a year after the Captain’s introduction to see how sales would go; once Fawcett had a hit on its hands with the character, National hit Fawcett with a lawsuit which claimed that Captain Marvel was a copyright infringement on Superman.

Unlike Fox, Fawcett didn’t just roll over. They fought National in court and kept the case tied up for over a decade. It required several judgments to settle the case; in 1952 it was finally decided that Captain Marvel was indeed a case of copyright infringement. Fawcett was ordered to cease publication of all Captain Marvel books (the last of which wrapped up at the end of 1953) and to pay National several hundred thousand dollars in damages; although it was a fairly large sum for the day, it was chicken feed to Fawcett, as it amounted to about four months’ worth of Captain Marvel’s sales.

The irony was that Fawcett’s powers-that-be had already decided to get out of the comic book business. Sales of comic books had been in decline ever since the end of World War II and the few comic publishers which remained after 1950 largely gave up the publication of superhero comics in favor of other genres: westerns, romances, and the red-hot (briefly, until Wertham and Kefauver) horror comics. Fawcett had already switched to other genres for their main comic output, but found overall sales to be dismal. After the suit by National was settled, Fawcett laid off all of their artists and writers, left comics, and focused their attention on publishing paperback books, a venture which proved hugely successful.

But National still wasn’t finished: they’d beaten Captain Marvel — next they set out to humiliate him. In a bizarre twist a couple of decades later, DC Comics in 1972 licensed the publication rights to Captain Marvel, then bought the rights completely in the early 1980’s. They began to publish various Captain Marvel titles and made a major change to the character along the way – when Billy Batson transformed into the hero, he remained a mental/emotional twelve year old inside an adult superhero’s body. The DC stories weren’t on a par with the Golden Age books, but sold very well – so much so that DC again feared for the well-being of their trademark character Superman. Proving for the millionth time that businessmen are seldom the brightest bulbs in the room, Captain Marvel’s comics were canceled for doing too well.

Meanwhile, Marvel Comics had introduced their own character named “Captain Marvel”. In yet another surreal twist, a lawsuit between Marvel and DC ended with Marvel Comics being awarded the trademark on the “Captain Marvel” name; DC could still use the character and could still call him Captain Marvel in a comic’s interior pages, but not as the title of a comic book nor in any advertising for same. This is the point at which the character started to become known as “Shazam!” The latest low blow to Captain Marvel came in 2011 when DC rebooted their entire comic line: his name was officially changed to “Shazam!” and thus the best-selling character of the Golden Age officially passed into history, ultimately defeated not by his arch-foe Dr. Sivana, but by lawyers and business ineptitude.

The moral here, kids, is that petty envy always trumps creativity – as long as petty envy retains the better lawyers.

Back to the matter at hand. Pay careful attention to how this story is written; the writer’s intent is to make you utterly despise Captain Nazi. Even though the villain tries to destroy a hydroelectric dam, which will flood a valley and kill thousands of people, it’s really not the story’s main focus. Human beings generally don’t deal well with big numbers; the death of thousands is too vast for us to easily comprehend. Think of Star Wars Episode IV: the Death Star destroys an entire planet, but people really remember Darth Vader throttling that rebel at the start of the movie. Evil is easier to grasp when it’s personal, which is why Captain Nazi assaults Whitey, kills an old man, and cripples a child, all for absolutely no reason aside from the sheer hell of it – the writer wants us to understand the character is evil and to despise him on a very real, very visceral level.

Also take note of what happens to the crippled boy, which elevates this story to the status of a major event. This tale is meant to be a big deal, and the creative team pulls out all the stops, from the eye-catching cover (shown near the start of this post) to the introduction of an important new character to the “Marvel Family”.

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Whiz Comics #25, December 1941

Notice that Captain Nazi neglects to mention his failure at the dam when he’s on the phone with Hitler; he just describes his random mayhem against civilians. If the writers had wanted to depict Captain Nazi as truly evil, they’d have shown the start of the conversation – he was calling Germany collect.

Although a third part to the story (which crosses the tale back over to the pages of Master Comics) is “teased”, it’s really a letdown. In Part Three, Bulletman teams up with Captain Marvel Jr. to take on Captain Nazi and an evil wax museum curator. The story is an obvious riff on Mystery of the Wax Museum (a good horror film which starred Lionel Atwill and the always luscious Fay Wray, and which was remade a couple of times as House of Wax), but you could easily remove Captain Nazi from the tale entirely and not affect it one bit; his presence adds nothing to the story and is a total come-on to encourage Whiz Comics readers to buy the latest Master Comics. Consequently we’ll not be reading it in this blog, but the curious can download a copy of Master Comics #22 from The Digital Comic Museum and have a look for themselves (or read it online at Comic Book Plus).

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2012, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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