Bizarro Back Issues: Captain Marvel In The Horror Hunt! (1953)
After a long month of obsessing over various spooks, ghouls and haints, it is finally Halloweek — which basically means that next Monday, I start thinking about Christmas. But before I do, I wanted to make sure that I gave you a glimpse of the ultimate in harrowing horror. A story designed to chill you to the bone, to bring the fear of the dark back into your life, to remind you that there are things out there, unknowable and unstoppable, waiting for you. It would have to be a story with not one monster, not two, not even three, but five unstoppable terrors that could fill even the world’s mightiest mortal with fear.
And, you know, it would also be nice if at least one of those monsters got punched in the face with a windmill while we were at it. Fortunately, I found one that fits the bill, just in time for our final trick-or-treat!
The story in question is Otto Binder and C.C. Beck’s “The Horror Hunt,” from the pages of 1953’s Captain Marvel Adventures #143, and if this is your first time hearing about a story from the same book that brought us Reltih the Reverse Hitler, the main thing you need to know about Captain Marvel Adventures is that it’s crazy as all hell. The second thing you need to know is that while Captain Marvel isn’t exactly a horror character, these stories never really shied away from bringing in scary element. Even though this particular story leans way more into crazy than to actual creepiness, that’s worth pointing out, if only to explain why they once did that genuinely, existentially horrifying story where Captain Marvel was the last survivor of a nuclear apocalypse that ended with Billy Batson cheerfully informing his readers that this was just an imaginary story, but that this could definitely really happen at any moment. You know, for the children.
Binder and Beck had a better sense of What The Kids Are Into than almost anyone else in comic book history — something that would serve Binder pretty well when he went on to become one of the most important Superman writers of all time — and since kids love the supernatural, that’s what they gave ’em. Billy Batson and his alter-ego were always mixing it up with some kind of weird monster or another, and in this particular story, they went even more over the top than usual.
And it begins, of course, with an attempted suicide.
But not just any attempted suicide. This, after all, is the world of Captain Marvel Adventures, where citizens are routinely menaced by monsters from Venus and pie crimes, so when they decide that the time has come to take their own lives, they don’t just go for anything normal. No, this story opens with jetpack suicide.
This poor depressed man, who apparently shops for his jackets at the same store as Mr. Tawny and Jimmy Olsen, is Cecil Throckton, a movie director who has been plagued by a string of flops. His career has tanked, and as he tells Captain Marvel, the only thing that could save it is a brand new picture starring someone that could really draw a crowd. Someone they already liked. Someone who could provide his own special effects and a who could cut the wardrobe budget by always wearing a set of red tights and a cape.
You can see where this is going.
Sure enough, Cap agrees to star in Throckton’s new film, The Horror Hunt, which he had already written, budgeted and hired a crew for before he attempted to jetpack himself to death. But we have no time for suspicion, we’ve got a movie to make! Throckton brings Cap to a location shoot where he tasks him with wearing a pith helmet (because that’s what you do in movies in the ’50s) and rolling a boulder away from the mouth of a cave.
Once that’s done, they’re meant to head back to the studio so that Cap can “fight” with some of the Horrors that are being Hunted, but it turns out that the special effects won’t be necessary:
The dragon, of course, gets punched right in the mouth, but it wasn’t alone. The cave also spits out a Roc, a Cyclops and a sea monster, and since the Wisdom of Solomon doesn’t allow you to focus on more than one thing at once, they’re able to get past Captain Marvel and start causing all kinds of trouble all over the world.
At this point, I should probably acknowledge that even though I’m lumping this issue in with our Halloween-themed Bizarro Back Issues selections, I’m not really sure if these particular creatures really fit the bill as “Halloween Monsters.” I would argue that they aren’t, because the classical mythological monsters very rarely have that feeling of terror that you really need for a properly Halloweenish monster. But, that said, I would also argue that we can make an exception if it allows us to read a story with windmill-punching and just straight up stabbing a sea monster in the mouth with a telephone pole.
Through all the monster-fighting, Throckton is there to get it on film. It’s the sort of thing that’s going to make a pretty exciting movie, and since half of the profits go to charity, Billy is starting to get pretty stoked about it. But then, something happens that’s so suspicious that even Billy Batson can’t ignore it anymore: Throckton drops (and Billy reads) a piece of paper explaining that “ye ancient horrors are sealed within ye cave by White Magic,” which means that Throckton knew all along how dangerous it would be to open it up! It was all a plot to get better scenes for his movie!
Naturally, Billy confronts Throckton about this new information, and just as naturally, Throckton realizes that it’s a heck of a lot easier to deal with a mouthy orphan than a superhero with the powers of actual gods. So he just runs Billy over.
Rather than just backing over him a few times and calling it a day, though, Throckton decides to use Billy to get some… killer footage. Thus. Billy gets trussed up and gagged so that he can’t transform, and Throckton throws him on the ground outside the cave so that he can film the climax of his movie when the final monster emerges.
So, remember all that stuff a couple paragraphs ago about how the other creatures weren’t really Halloween monsters? Well, all that’s pretty much moot now because this last monster is a straight up Lovecraftian FORMLESS HORROR.
Even though he’s being menaced by an incomprehensible and unknowable tentacle monster, Billy manages to keep his wits about him, and tears the gag off with a handy stalagmite so that he can turn into Captain Marvel and save the day. In true Captain Marvel Adventures fashion, it turns out that there is no problem that cannot be solved with a judicious application of righteous violence. Throckton is arrested and thrown in the hut for his crimes, The Horror Hunt is still released to raise money for charity, and, perhaps most importantly, the Formless Horror is defeated once and for all.
Or is it? It is, after all, formless. That which has no shape cannot truly be destroyed. Perhaps it still persists, lingering on the edge of consciousness, casting its noxious shadow over everything in Billy’s life, twisting his world in ways that he may not even realize until those moments of clarity that often come in madness when we wonder just what it is that has destroyed our lives.
Oh, no, wait. He definitely blows it right the hell up by throwing a car at it.
That works too. Happy Halloween, everybody!