Joe Rice said this recently over on Listen to Us, We’re Right:
“I goddam love Captain Marvel. The real one, not some alien who died of cancer or some bland Jheri-Curl nobody. Billy Batson. The kid who can turn into the world's mightiest mortal. His great golden age stuff still holds up, unlike a lot of the big superheroes. The entire Marvel Family is awesome (in theory). Great design, great idea, great adventures, just all around great. Unfortunately, they've been mishandled worse than pretty much any other characters since DC got them. The Maggin/O'Neil stories were good, but it didn't last long. Not even Jerry Ordway, with obvious love, could really make them pop in today's world. I have to think that they can work. I tell my students about them and they go wild. Captain Marvel can work, especially if you don't worry about the grown ups who want him to participate in Infinite Crisis or whatever. Give him to the kids. It's sure fire, I guarantee it.”
I’m inclined to agree with the good Mr. Rice (who, in spreading the word of the one, true Marvel Family to a new generation of children, is truly doing the Lord’s work). I loves me some authentic Captain Marvel, and it bugs me that the character and his associated brood have been so often misused since DC acquired them back in the 70s. It’s a topic I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years – probably too much, in fact, but I don’t let silly things like that hold me back – and a little while back, I came to a conclusion, which is this: most creators are trying to write Captain Marvel stories using the basic superhero formula. This is why so many of them fail - because Captain Marvel isn’t a superhero concept.
It’s an adolescent fantasy tale. It makes use of superhero trappings, sure, but at its core, I think the Big Red Cheese has a bit more in common with Harry Potter than Superman.
Hear me out. Billy Batson is orphaned at a young age, cast out by his only remaining relative in Dickensian fashion, and forced to make his way in life as a child living in an adult’s world. A mysterious ancient wizard shows him that he is destined for greater things and grants him the power needed to make it possible. Life turns around instantly. With the power of Captain Marvel at his disposal, he is able to right not only the injustices committed against him, but against all good, innocent people everywhere (because he’s a hero, and that’s What You Do). But his life as Billy Batson vastly improves, too… he gets a job as a radio reporter, makes a reputation for himself, moves out of the gutter, and establishes a real life with a job, money, friends, and even a bit of family (surrogate and real – more on this in a bit).
All this is pretty well established by just the end of the first story (they didn’t waste much time in the Golden Age, did they?). Just a few pages into the saga, and the groundwork has already been laid for what is essentially the quintessential boys’ fantasy tale: the hidden destiny (the old “there must be more to life than this” chestnut), the amazing powers to help you achieve it, the ability to make your way in an adult’s world but still be a kid, and not a parent in sight. What little kid’s imaginary life isn’t chock-full of this stuff?
And it gets even more fantastic. He meets three kids who have the same name, and miraculously enough, they somehow wind up with the same powers he has. Another homeless newsboy becomes his best friend, and yup, he gets powers, too. Long-lost twin sister? Yup, her, too (honestly, Shazam should’ve just opened up a store and sold the powers rather than just handing ‘em out to every brat who happened along). And with that, Billy is no longer alone in the world… he has friends who understand the uniqueness of his world (because as cool as an Amazing Hidden Destiny is, it gets a bit lonely if you’re the only one, and deep down, we all want to belong to something), as well as a de facto family… a concept they all enjoy so much they officially adopt the name Marvel Family.
(And incidentally, here’s how you know this is really a boys’ fantasy – sister Mary is a lot of fun, and definitely cool enough to play with the guys, but she still lives away from Billy with her adoptive mother. So she can always go back to her own home when and if she starts to get annoying. Because you know how girls are.)
Every day brings a new adventure for our young hero, whether it as Billy, Captain Marvel, or as is often the case, both. His circle grows to include a talking tiger, the world’s most beautiful woman (who also happens to be the Queen of planet Venus), and a W.C. Fields-esque charlatan with a heart of gold. He matches wits and might with the likes of (among others) the world’s wickedest scientist (and his family), a black-clad evil doppelganger, an other-dimensional barbarian king, a giant atomic robot, the living personifications of the seven deadly sins, and bespectacled alien inchworm who manages to kill over 400,000 people (off-panel, of course… it’s classier that way).
Still think this is typical superhero fodder? I say it’s anything but. What we really have here is the ultimate fantasy of every pre-adolescent boy to have ever walked the earth, cross-pollinated with the most vivid fever dream in human history. Also, keep in mind that the good Captain first appeared in 1940, two years after Superman debuted and began to take the world by storm. Superman and the many long-underwear types who followed in his footsteps were big business, so of course Fawcett was going to cast Captain Marvel in that image… they wanted the book to sell! But if the pop cultural landscape of the day were a bit different, this character could very well ended up as a knight, a wizard, an Arabian prince, an Eastern mystic, or just about anything else, for that matter. Billy Batson was created as the ultimate childhood fantasy. Captain Marvel was merely the vehicle to bring that fantasy to the awaiting audience.
Otto Binder and the other Marvel Family scribes of the Golden Age understood that. Denny O’Neil and Elliot S! Maggin, who wrote many of the initial revival stories in 70s, seemed to understand that, too. I’d even say the Roy Thomas got it, based on the Captain’s appearances in All-Star Squadron in the 80s. Everyone else? They were too busy trying to turn Captain Marvel into Superman. But, as I said, Cap isn’t Superman. He’s Harry Potter. He’s King Arthur. And if you consider the whole “boy reporter living and acting as an adult” thing, he’s even Tintin. I’m hoping that, someday, another writer understands this, too.
(Now, of course, the next question is, “Is the mistreatment of Captain Marvel et al. a case of mass misunderstanding, or an intentional action by DC as part of an ongoing plan to get revenge for when Cap outsold Superman on a regular basis all those decades ago?” But that’s a rumination for another day.)