Shazam! Comics Alliance And Friends Celebrate The Birthday Of C.C. Beck, Creator Of The Original Captain Marvel
CC Beck was born on June 8, 1910, attended art school in Chicago, and started his career in pulp magazines with Fawcett Publications in the early 1930s. When the popularity of pulps began to fade, he moved over work on Fawcett’s line of comics – and in 1939 he co-created a character that originally bore the name “Captain Thunder”, but was re-dubbed Captain Marvel shortly before the release of his first adventure. In that initial story, young newsboy Billy Batson meets a great wizard, and is given the power to transform into “The World’s Mightiest Mortal” when he says one magic word…Shazam!
Today, one day after what would have been his 104th birthday, we’ve reached out to a few of today’s best comics creators to ask for their thoughts and impressions on Beck and his creations.
Captain Marvel was a revelation in the nascent comic book industry, eschewing much of the masked-man adventurer template that so many four-color heroes adopted, and instead occupying a glorious world where anything was possible; where magic, mythology, modern technology, and just plain absurdity all happily co-existed.
Beck and his regular collaborator, writer Otto Binder, were the architects of this universe, producing comics that reveled in their very comic-bookiness: full of bizarre characters and thrilling situations, crackling with excitement and silliness, brimming over with crazy concepts. The team quickly proved themselves to be equally adept with action and humor, and Captain Marvel’s popularity led to the creation of an entire Marvel Family: Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., Uncle Marvel, the Lieutenant Marvels, Black Adam, and even Hoppy The Marvel Bunny. Captain Marvel Adventures sold over a million copies of each issue at its peak, becoming the most popular title in America.
Such success came with a price, however. National Comics (later DC Comics) launched a copyright infringement suit against Fawcett, claiming that Captain Marvel was a blatant imitation of Superman. The legal battle dragged on for twelve years, and when it finally ended, sales had dropped hugely and Fawcett proceeded to cancel its entire slate of superhero titles.
Beck went on to do work for other companies, reuniting with Binder to create the short-lived (and deeply strange ) Fatman The Human Flying Saucer in the mid-’60s, and returning to Captain Marvel (now published by DC under the title Shazam!) for a brief run in the ’70s. He penned columns for The Comics Journal and other publications, did a number of paintings and cover recreations, made regular appearances at comic conventions, and passed away in Florida in 1989, at the age of 79.
Today, Clarence Charles Beck is often overlooked in discussions of the all-time greats. There are a few reasons for this – the majority of his work has been out of print for over 60 years; his signature character been relegated to supporting status and subjected to an endless succession of ill-fated revisions; and his cheerful, cartoony technique was directly at odds with the hyper-detailed, “realistic” styles of comic art that dominated the comic market in the late-20th century.
But despite those obstacles, his influence continues to be felt. Echoes of his clean, cartoony style and animated storytelling can be found in the work of artists like Jeff Smith, Brooke Allen, Adrian Alphona, Chris Samnee, Colleen Coover, and countless others. And his wild, limitless imagination provides inspiration for all those who revel in the limitless possibilities that the comics medium offers.
The most important superhero of the 20th century didn’t dress up like a bat, wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider, and wasn’t the last son of a dying planet — he was Captain Marvel, the embodiment of mythological power who shared space-time with wayward orphan Billy Batson. While conjured up in story by a magic word, he was conjured on the page by writer Otto Binder and artist C.C. Beck.
I’m aware it’s a lofty claim (and an odd one considering he’s languished in obscurity for decades), but for a time he captured the public like no other — with his magic word “Shazam” becoming part of the larger lexicon, a readership that exceeded Superman’s, and a fan club reaching so far it was popularized in other media (including the movie The Good Humor Man). All of this set the stage for how comic books would be marketed, sold and adapted for the remaining century and well into the next.
Even more important than sales numbers or multimedia reach, Beck and Binder approached Captain Marvel with an inventiveness that was often imitated but never replicated, even by some of comics’ most celebrated creators. Whether he was fighting a frustrated planet Earth that used its continents as super-weapons, talking with tigers, visiting real-life mayors of countless US cities, or starring in the first-ever superhero epic event comic (in the original Monster Society of Evil serial story), Captain Marvel opened the scope for what superhero comics could achieve and be capable of, heralding the somewhat mad Silver Age long before Superman discovered multi-colored kryptonite or Reed Richards and company set off for the stars.
While Binder and others’ writing captivated audiences, it was Beck’s clean artistic style that gave Captain Marvel Adventures their soul.
- Joe Keatinge (co-creator/writer of Shutter, writer of Tech Jacket, Glory, What If: Age Of Ultron, and Marvel Knights: Hulk)
I first became aware of C.C. Beck in the Steranko History of Comics, I believe. I was a Marvel Comics fan, but was amazed at all the stories in the History of Comics… I was not aware of the original Captain Marvel before reading about him in there.
I eagerly purchased the DC version of Shazam in 1973, and enjoyed that first storyline quite a lot. Denny O’Neill did a nice job of bringing Cap out of limbo, and C.C. Beck’s artwork had a clean precision that I liked. (In the early days of fandom, a magazine called Inside Comics came out, and I can remember reading some very cranky columns by Beck that probably influenced me more than his artwork. He became a sort of a voice of truth, and cranky old man at the same time, complaining about DC’s treatment of Captain Marvel and anything else that bugged him.)
I came to do the Power Of Shazam graphic novel in a roundabout way. I was working on Superman, and yet I felt like I wanted to create a standalone book project. Marvel and DC had done these standalone books for a while, and I was always too busy on monthly comics to do one myself. I had a taste of the experience drawing the comic adaptation of the first Batman movie (1989) and liked that idea of pencilling and inking my stuff, not passing off pencils to someone else to ink. I was also writing by then. So anyhow, my friend John Byrne had quit the Shazam graphic novel he was doing, and the editor called me and was agreeable to me doing it from the ground up.
Doing the origin story (which is essentially a sad, dark story in the original Whiz Comics), allowed me to put off the crazier elements and characters for later. DC always wanted a regular series out of it, though I was not interested in drawing it – my wife and I had just started our family, and I didn’t want to be working 14 hour days. Our first artist was Mike Weiringo, which I think would have lent the series a more cartoony look, in line with C.C. Beck. But when Mike quit before starting, we had to delay our launch until after the Zero Hour launches. When we did launch, with Pete Krause as artist, the tone was more in line with my Superman stuff, due to Pete’s more realistic art style.
My attempt to update the property was to approach it with the tone of the ’70s Spider-Man comics I loved. So Power of Shazam was modeled on a Marvel comic. I really enjoyed the absurdity of Mr. Mind, but needed to find a way for it to work for me. I talked with Don and Maggie Thompson while I was working on the graphic novel, and got a lot of encouragement from them, which meant the world to me. I recall them telling me an anecdote about the Mr. Mind intro story, serialized as the “Monster Society of Evil.” Mr. Mind was a disembodied voice for many chapters, building suspense until the final reveal that he was actually a smart worm. They wanted the reveal to be the most unexpected thing possible. So that inspired me to introduce the evil of Mr Mind many issues before we revealed him. I also loved the idea of Talky Tawny as a sort of Calvin and Hobbes imaginary friend, as a way to skirt the idea of a six foot tiger in a plaid suit walking around Fawcett City… I also knew of Beck’s other projects, and liked Spy Smasher so much I worked him into my run.
As much as Beck railed against realistic artwork in comics in his later years, his own best work was rooted in realism. His cartooning was akin to Roy Crane’s work, solidly researched, but with a bigfoot style of whimsy to it. Captain Marvel cast real shadows, etc. His approach had a simple appearance, but was very well drawn. And besides his artistic chops, Beck co-created one of the top super-heroes ever. That’s his legacy: The Big Red Cheese!
-Jerry Ordway, writer/artist of Superman, Tom Strong, The Avengers, The Power Of Shazam!; co-creator of WildStar
(All quotes and original images in this post are exclusive to ComicsAlliance, and © their respective creators – Whiz Comics #2 panel is © DC Comics)