Bizarro Back Issues: Captain Marvel Battles The Pie Plot! (1951)
Captain Marvel Shazam Billy Batson and his super-powered alter ego returned to the spotlight in the pages of Justice League #0. For the new version, DC’s going for a grittier, edgier version of the character that’s sure to delight middle aged readers everywhere who want to see a little kid be a dick to everybody, but let’s be honest: That grim darkness was always there, right from those original stories.
And to prove it, I’m going back to 1951 for a brutal crime story of desperate men trying to ruin each other in pursuit of the only thing that matters in their meager little lives: The Almighty Dollar. Also, Captain Marvel gets hit in the face with a pie five times in five pages. It’s pretty amazing. The pastry-fueled action all went down in the pages of Captain Marvel Adventures #118, a 54-page behemoth that also includes a story where Dr. Sivana unleashes a “sound plague” that deafens everyone by filling up all the panels with a gigantic sound effect, and one where Cap fights a sentient bucket of rainwater that was raised by a pipe-smoking hillbilly. So yeah, I don’t want to declare this the best comic book ever printed, but that’s only because it doesn’t have Batman in it.
The story in question, written by the legendary Otto Binder with a sadly uncredited artist, is only five pages long, but still manages to cram in enough craziness for a book ten times that long. This thing doesn’t even wait to get past the splash panel before things start getting awesome, either. Back then, a lot of Captain Marvel stories were introduced in the form of Billy Batson recapping his adventures over the radio. It’s a pretty neat setup, even if Billy’s doing an awful lot of talking about turning into his alter-ego and fighting bad guys. Of course, considering that nobody in these stories ever seemed to be at all bothered by (or familiar with) the concept of a secret identity, that doesn’t really matter.
Here, though, the opening is interrupted when Billy, Captain Marvel, and the actual caption box are slapped with pies, and that is amazing. Say what you will about these being silly comics for kids, but that gag with the caption box is decades ahead of its time.
With the explanation of the story covered up by a delicious if somewhat messy plate of Dutch Apple, we jump right into the action, as local businessman Sterling Morris is retrieving his most valuable possession from a safe under the watchful eye of armed guards:
Like I said, this story moves pretty quick, but we’re not even four panels into it and so many amazing things are going on. My personal favorite? The fact that Morris’s guards are armed not with guns, but with actual cudgels. Seriously, they just grabbed the gnarliest branches they could find and then showed up willing to possibly die to protect the secret of the world’s most delicious pie.
Unfortunately for the Jolly John Pie Factory, Ears over there is not quite up to the task. See, in the world of Captain Marvel Adventures, pie-making is a pretty ruthless business, and Jolly John’s nectar pies are to the dessert industry what Walter White’s crystal meth is to the drug trade. So after John hands the recipe over to his chef, a dastardly doing unfolds involving “rival pie maker” Pete the Pie Man:
I’m not really one to romanticize the past — except for, you know, all these columns I write about how awesome old comics are — but I do wish we still lived in a time in which giant buckets of dough were clearly labeled as such. I’d also like it if I could get my bank withdrawls in a big bag with a $ on it instead of a little envelope, but that might just be a question of volume.
Even though he conks the chef over the head and stiff-arms his way past Morris and his guards to get the recipe, Pete the Pie Man’s pernicious plot hits a pretty serious snag when he stumbles over a pie-pan and loses a grip on it. The recipe floats out of his hand and into a nearby pie as it’s being baked. Rather than stop to grab it and risk capture, Pete cold jumps out the nearest window. That is just how he rolls.
Now, as someone who has used it more than once before, I’m familiar enough with how paper works to assume that being baked into a pie would make anything written on it pretty illegible. Pete, however, has no such doubts, and I guess it’s fair to assume that Morris would at least have the greatest pie recipe on Earth laminated, just in case. So of course, Pete sets out to find it by hijacking the next shipment out of the factory, and that’s when Billy Batson enters the story for Pie #1, which prompts him to turn into Captain Marvel just in time for Pie #2:
The best thing about this story is that throughout the entire thing, Captain Marvel has absolutely no idea what’s going on, and why this guy keeps stealing pies and throwing them at people in frustration. Finally, we have discovered a problem that even the Wisdom of Solomon cannot solve, probably because Solomon expected people to act like halfway rational human beings.
Either way, having been pied in the face twice already, Captain Marvel is now at risk of things escalating to even more dangerous forms of physical comedy. And sure enough…
…there are pratfalls.
Eventually, he follows the trail of discarded pie tins back to Jolly John’s factory, and when Pete starts throwing an entire day’s worth of the production line at him, Cap finally hits his breaking point. A word of advice, just in case it ever comes up: Don’t get into a pie-throwing contest against someone with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules.
Power of Zeus probably ain’t doin’ you any favors either.
Having paid back his pie-related transgressions tenfold, as is only right and proper, Captain Marvel finally hears the whole side of the story. The tragedy, of course, is that the nectar pie recipe is still missing, but Cap has thoroughly had enough of all of this nonsense and elects to just punch the bad guy in the face and send him to jail rather than dealing with it.
But hey, it all works out anyway and I think we can all sympathize. I will say, though, that I’m a little surprised that the guy who owns a pie factory eats an entire pie every day as his afternoon snack, but I can’t say that I definitely wouldn’t do the same thing if I was in his position.
Thus, everything is righted once again, and we all learn a lesson, not just about meting out justice even when you’ve got a pan full of lemon meringue splattered all over your costume, but about how one should always figure out why someone’s throwing pies around before you punch them right in the face.