It’s been frequently mentioned in this blog’s virtual pages, but it’s a fact which bears repeating: despite being the first comic book superhero, Superman was not the most popular, the best known, nor the best selling superhero character during the Golden Age of Comics. That distinction belongs to Fawcett Publications’ Captain Marvel (often referred to today as Shazam), who sold more comics than any other comic character at that time or in the decades since; at the height of his popularity in the 1940’s, Captain Marvel was selling more than a million comics a month.

Superman has eclipsed Captain Marvel in the decades since, for reasons which have more to do with the courtroom than the newsstand. Because he’s such a high profile character, many superhero parodies today poke fun at Superman’s various tropes (the baby found in a rocket, a weakness to a strange mineral, the “mild mannered” secret identity); consequently it’s not at all surprising that a period comic would take a good-natured swipe at Captain Marvel, who was the most popular kid on the block in the Forties. I discovered such a parody in the back pages of an obscure title called Atoman, published for two issues by a small outfit called Spark Publications in early 1946. The anthology title featured the titular superhero, as well as western, true crime, and humor stories.

The comics’ last feature of its debut issue was a surprisingly well crafted humor feature called “Marvin the Great” which was an obvious riff on Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel, in his secret identity of Billy Batson, was an orphan boy who is set upon by the typical ills which plague kids everywhere (mean teachers and schoolyard bullies); in contrast, the lead character of the parody story is an adult, henpecked, “common man”. But the rest of it is pure Captain Marvel. From the character’s origin based in classical mythology, to the transformation triggered by a magic word, to the superpowers he possesses, Marvin is unmistakably a takeoff on Fawcett’s best-selling character.

The feature itself is very nicely done. The art is cartoonish without being ridiculous, and Marvin’s self-narration is a hoot; some of it (“It’s most fortunate that I’m able to escape in here”, for example) made me laugh aloud. It’s a 1940’s comedy feature which stands up well many decades later, a terrific (and oddly charming) little parody of the superhero genre in general and The Big Red Cheese in particular.

It’s impossible to forgo noting the similarity between Marvin the Great and Warner Brothers’ cartoon character Marvin the Martian; between the name, the helmet, and the diminutive stature, it’s impossible to not make a comparison. The cartoon Martian was introduced two years after this comic was published. Could the design of Marvin the Martian been a mild (even subconscious) swipe? It’s impossible to say, but the thought does give one pause…

Atoman #1,  February 1946

Atoman #1,  February 1946

Atoman #1,  February 1946

Atoman #1,  February 1946

Atoman #1,  February 1946

Page scans are courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2015, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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