Friday, October 19, 2007

The Origin of Captain Marvel Annotated - p. 1

The Shazam Archives Vol. 1 Annotated
Whiz Comics no. 2 (Feb. 1940)

Pg. 1: Billy’s hometown is not identified, but the general consensus of the Marvels of Shazam Yahoo!group ( is that his base of operations is specifically said to be, or at least strongly hinted at being, New York City later in the original series. Of course, many superheroes would come to inhabit fictional cities. Later, when DC took over publishing Capt. Marvel, Billy was said to live in Fawcett City, named for the original publisher. Capt. Marvel fan Walt Grogan writes: "E. Nelson Bridwell confirmed it was New York City in an issue of Shazam! but there were enough hints in Whiz Comics and Captain Marvel Adventures to suggest it was New York. The biggest hint was that New York was probably the only big city that Captain Marvel didn't visit in his city-visiting stories -- most likely because it was his base. There was also a story that said Amalgamated Broadcasting was in fact based in New York and that's where Sterling Morris had his office. So all signs point to New York as Cap's hometown."

The fact that it is raining is suggestive of it being spring, though this issue was on sale in January. Of course, rain in January is not uncommon in some parts of the country, particularly California. In the 1987 relaunch of Shazam: the New Beginning, Roy Thomas located Billy in San Francisco.

The time on the clock tower is five minutes to midnight. Midnight, also known as the "witching hour," has strong supernatural connotations.

Though it appears that Billy is answering the stranger honestly about sleeping in the subway station, it is not clear whether Billy is choosing to be honest or is compelled to answer. After his initial question, the stranger only talks in commands to Billy, with his first command appearing in bold, colored letters – a technique used no where else in the first issue. In no later interpretation of the character does Billy live in a subway station. It would be extremely difficult for Billy to escape the notice of the authorities in such a public place, and it is important to Billy’s origin that he have no parental figures, not even as a ward of the state. Billy has been forced by his own circumstances to grow up, just as speaking the magic word “Shazam” will force him to literally grow up. This parallelism, the same theme seen through the lens of the mundane and then the magical, is at least as old as Peter Pan, and can be interpreted as how a child interprets the mundane world around them through their own magical lens. This thematic parallelism will occur again.

Pg. 2: The stranger is referred to as Billy’s “phantom companion,” further reinforcing the impression that the stranger is supernatural in origin.

The headlights and grill of the subway car are suggestive of a face, with the headlights even compared to a dragon’s eyes. That the car has no driver may be further evidence that the train is alive. One year later, Disney released the movie Dumbo, featuring an even more anthropomorphic train. The weird symbols on the outside of the train my show that the train is non-sentient, but magically animated. A tilde-like wave shape is repeated outside and inside the train, and a sun symbol is visible inside the train. These could represent water and fire, though without obvious symbols for air or earth, an alchemical connection seems less likely. One of the symbols on the outside of the train is the Star of David, an important symbol in Judaism. It is surely no coincidence that so many comic book creators circa 1940 were Jewish.

Always absent from later retellings are the two alien figures standing before the subway car after it stopped. It is possible that the lizard-like humanoids, noticed by neither the characters nor the narrator, are not real, but are artworks on the cavern wall, like the symbols on the subway car. It is odd, though, that these creatures are rendered no less realistically, and no less 2-D, than Billy and his companion in the same panel. These creatures may have been controlling the car, or simply passing by. There is the possibility here that this underground lair is shared by multiple intelligent species. This also presages the appearance of aliens later in the series, though later monsters will tend to be rendered more cartoon-y and less sinister-looking.

The subterranean lair is not here identified as the Rock of Eternity, but it probably is.

P. 3: It is interesting that the statues are “the seven deadly enemies of man” instead of “the seven deadly sins.” Only three of the seven are the same in both versions – Pride, Envy, and Greed – with Hatred, Laziness, Selfishness, and Injustice replacing Anger, Sloth, Lust, and Gluttony. Aesthetically, the longer title fits better over the entire row of statues. Or it could have been a conscious effort by the comic book’s creators to separate them from their religious connotations. Other elements of religion will soon appear without their religious context. It could also be that young Billy can only identify the enemies using terms he understands. This would make sense if much of this is actually going on inside Billy’s head, a journey of self-discovery where Billy reviews what he knows so far of human nature, translated literally on the page. Jeff Smith has commented before his revision of the origin on how he liked the Tiki-like quality of the statues. If this is true, there may be a Central Eastern Polynesian connection to the statues, and/or the enemies.

It is later revealed that the seven enemies of man are contained within the statues. In Jeff Smith's retcon, the statues open their eyes as indicators of how active the enemies are on Earth.

This is the last we see of Billy's phantom companion for about 50 years. When Jerry Ordway rewrote Capt. Marvel's origin, his big revelation was that the phantom is the spirit of Billy's dad. When Jeff Smith rewrote the origin, he turned this on its head by having Billy recognize the phantom as his dad right away. Michael Norwitz recalls an interview where C.C. Beck, or someone else from the original series, identified the phantom companion as Mercury, messenger of the gods.

Literary precedents for old, bearded wizards abound, with Shazam fitting the mold of Merlin and Gandalf. Merlin was imprisoned underground and Gandalf was imprisoned on a rooftop, while Shazam seems incapable of leaving his spot, even with the threat of death literally hanging over him. The stone block hanging by a thread has an obvious mythological precedent in the Sword of Damocles, the legend of a sword hanging over a ruler’s head by a hair and representing the perils of leadership. The books and scrolls around Shazam represent his knowledge, and the fact that the book must be close to four feet tall shows he is very knowledgeable (indeed, he even claims omniscience). It is telling that the globe is positioned to show the Americas. With so much unrest in Europe and Asia circa 1940, it is curious that Shazam looked to North America for his champion, yet he must have sensed or known the pivotal role the United States would soon play in world events (and certainly lends credence to his claim of knowing everything).

Lightning and thunder accompany Shazam speaking his name, foreshadowing the visual effects of Billy’s transformation to Captain Marvel. The flames on the brazier suggest the appearance of wind too, though this is never an effect associated with Billy’s transformation. Shazam does not change when he says his own name.

Pg. 4: Much has been written about the six beings that spell out the acronym SHAZAM. From these six sponsors, Billy will gain 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. Of them, Solomon is Hebrew, Hercules is Roman (called Heracles in Green myth), Atlas, Zeus, and Achilles are Greek (though Atlas is called the same in Roman mythology too), and Mercury is Roman. It is frequently pointed out that Solomon hails from religion while the others are from mythology, but little is made of the geographic location, with all of them originating within just a 1,500-mile diameter along the Mediterranean. Close to the opposite side of the globe from the Mediterranean is the very Polynesian region of the Pacific that makes Tikis. So the sponsors of Capt. Marvel and the enemies of man are not just morally opposed, but geophysically opposite. Still, this polarity is likely symbolic and not meant to speak to cultural value.

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