Monday, October 22, 2007

The Origin of Captain Marvel Annotated - p. 3

Billy suddenly finds himself back where he started, as if he had just woke up from a dream while he was standing there. The clock tower now says five minutes to one, so the whole story so far has taken place in one hour. Then the scene cuts to the next morning. Most retellings will later cut straight to the next morning and have Billy actually waking up after the events in the cave with Shazam. The death of Shazam always ends with Billy turning back into himself, even though he does not say “Shazam” to change back as he normally has to do. Power of Shazam explains this by having Shazam be the conduit through which the powers of the gods are passed down to Capt. Marvel, whereas in the original version Shazam passes the power of the gods directly to Capt. Marvel before his death. Perhaps the death of Shazam unleashes so much magical energy that it disrupts Capt. Marvel temporarily. Billy was either teleported back to the subway entrance, or perhaps was unconscious and returned there by the “phantom companion.”

The clock tower shows it is almost 8 am the next morning.

Billy’s newspaper is called the Morning Herald. Both New York City and Chicago had newspapers called the Morning Herald in the 19th century, though they were both defunct well before 1940 in our world.

The headline says “Maniac Scientist Threatens U.S. Radio System: Demands $50,000,000.” This was more money than the national debt in 1940, which stood at less than 43 billion dollars. While still an outrageous demand, radio was crucial to communications in the U.S. back then, far more so than it is today. The article goes on to call the maniac scientist “phantom scientist” and “mad wizard,” as if directly alluding to Billy’s phantom companion and the wizard Shazam. The deadline of “midnight tonite” gives the rest of the story a sense of urgency, due to end in 16 hours, 24 hours after the story began. That the article was written in haste for the morning extra is evident by the misspelling of tonight as “tonite.” The article is also the first mention of Sterling Morris, who Billy soon meets in the story. The name “Sterling Morris” seems invented from whole cloth and is not suggestive of any other names important to the radio industry I have found, although “sterling” refers to silver, providing connotation for Morris being rich.

American radio was threatened by something more mundane in 1940 – the threat of monopoly, held jointly by RCA and NBC. The FCC was the real-life “hero”, forcing NBC to sell off some of its stations.

P. 7: “Skytower Apartments” is a generic enough name that it does not narrow down where Billy lives except to cities with skyscrapers. Interestingly, when searching Google for both “Morning Herald” and “Skytower Apartments” today, the top hits for both refer to Australia.

It is convenient to the plot that Billy goes straight to Sterling Morris, president of the Amalgamated Broadcasting Corporation instead of the police. The Wisdom of Solomon would tell Capt. Marvel that he is withholding vital information from a police investigation, but Billy may distrust conventional authority figures who all failed to save his parents or protect him from his uncle.

Amalgamated Broadcasting Corporation may have been named for Amalgamated Broadcasting System, a short-lived radio network that was on the air for less than two months in 1933. Little could Capt. Marvel’s creators know that the NBC affiliates sold off in 1940 would grow into the American Broadcasting Corporation – ABC – four years later.

Though Hammond strikes a blow for equality in the workplace by defying traditional gender roles, the male receptionist does not prove to be a recurring character.

This is the last page of the Captain Thunder ashcan, except for the artwork from the last page of this issue (with different dialog). There is a strong shift in the story at this point, from the deeply meaningful, mystical origin story, to an adventure tale that seems to be a cross between a Superman story and an action-oriented movie serial.

P. 8: When Billy shares what he knows with Sterling Morris, Morris mocks him and asks why he did not say the “Phantom” was in “City Hall” or “the Capitol at Washington.” Perhaps Morris is voicing his frustrations with the FCC’s recent actions, as outlined above.

Morris is wearing pince-nez glasses, as popularized by President Teddy Roosevelt (though there is little other physical resemblance to suggest Morris is meant to look like Roosevelt).

After securing a promise from Morris to give him a job if he finds the “madman’s” laboratory, Billy is next seen much later that night, still mulling over how to get into that apartment building. As the next page makes clear, it is almost midnight again – meaning Billy has wasted as much as 15 hours on the first step. It would have been no difficulty at all for Capt. Marvel. He has either forgotten about his dream-like visit to Shazam or simply remained skeptical of it, as he has not have even tried saying the magic word all this time.

P. 9: After finally trying out his magic word, Capt. Marvel jumps from the roof of a nearby skyscraper to the penthouse apartment of the Skytower Apartment building. Capt. Marvel has either chosen not to fly or, at this time, cannot fly.

Few superheroes in 1940 could fly, and the standard for them all, Superman, would not be flying for another few years. It is a shame that Capt. Marvel, with such varied sources of power, would display no more abilities than any Superman-clone in the comic book market displayed. If we assume that Billy’s world was the same as ours, except that what happened in Fawcett comics was real, then Superman would also be a comic book character, and one Billy would undoubtedly be familiar with. Superman was enormously popular in 1940, thanks to his appearances in comic books, newspaper comic strips, and radio. If Capt. Marvel was limited to only what abilities Billy could conceive, Superman likely would have been his model.

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