PopCult Rudy Panucci on Pop Culture

1970s Shazam Comics Collected

The PopCult Comix Bookshelf

Shazam! The World’s Mightiest Mortal Vol. 2
by E. Nelson Bridwell, Kurt Schaffenberger, Elliot S. Maggin and others
DC Comics
ISBN-13: 978-1779501172
$49.99 (discounted at many booksellers)

I have mentioned many times in PopCult that The Original Captain Marvel is my all-time favorite superhero. I got hooked on the comics in the 1970s when I lucked into a giant tabloid-sized reprint of classic Captain Marvel stories from the 1940s and 50s.

I started buying the “Shazam” comic book (they couldn’t use “Captain Marvel” in the title because Marvel comics had claimed the name), and it was a mix of classic reprints and new stories that attempted to capture the magic of the original stories, which had mostly been written by Otto Binder.

Shazam! The World’s Mightiest Mortal Vol. 2 collects the newly-created material from issues 19 to 35 (completing the original run) and also the tabloid sized Superman vs. Shazam comic book.

All of these were published from 1975 to 1978 (with the exception of five text pages from earlier in the run that are included here). Some of these books were reprinted in black and white in a Showcase Edition a few years ago, but we get to see them in full color in this collection. This is just a terrific collection of fun superhero stories that show what comics were like back before they got all grim and gritty.

This was a curious point in the run of the Shazam comic. By 1975, the Shazam Saturday morning live-action show had debuted and DC Comics (then National Periodical Publications) found themselves in a quandry. Captain Marvel had become one of their top merchandise sellers, but the comic books were lagging far behind.

It’s often said that DC did not understand the characters, and by this time Captain Marvel’s co-creator, C.C. Beck, who had come out of retirement to launch the new book, had left it in a dispute over the quality of the writing. Even with the character being a merchandising powerhouse under the “Shazam” brand, the comic book was selling so poorly that it went to an all-reprint format and was dropped to quarterly publication status while the Shazam TV show was at the top of the Saturday morning ratings.

This collection sort of puts the lie to the idea that DC didn’t understand the characters. It includes one of my all-time favorite Marvel Family stories, and after a year of reprints, the title came back with new material featuring E. Nelson Bridwell, a DC editor with a deep love of the characters, as the writer.

These are, for the most part, family-friendly superhero stories aimed at a younger audience, but they are highly entertaining and address more complicated and adult topics than you migh expect. Most of the art is handled by Kurt Schaffenberger, a veteran of the original Captain Marvel and Marvel Family comics, and there are some interesting interludes with other artists as well.

That story that ranks among my favorites is “The Strange and Terrible Disappearance of Maxwell Zodiac,” written by Elliot S. Maggin with art by Schaffenberger. This is a Bradburyesque tale of a scientist who undertakes a grand experiment to evolve to a higher plane. It’s a gentle story that does not involve world domination or evil. We do get a mob scene, and we get to see Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. do battle with a dragon, a platoon of giant sumo wrestlers and some space robots, so it’s not totally devoid of action. That it tells this story in a mere 18 pages is almost unthinkable considering today’s decompressed storytelling.

A full year elapsed between that story and the next all-new issue of Shazam (we get to see the newly-drawn covers for the reprint issues here), and that new issue was the first to really attempt to cash in on success of the TV show. It featured a crossover with the companion TV show, ISIS (the superheroine, not the terrorist organization). The first half of issue #25 was essentially an Isis story with a cameo by Captain Marvel, and it was drawn in a realistic manner by Dick Giordano.I believe that this story and cover were omitted from the Showcase Edition collection, and that this is the first time this story has every been reprinted.

The backup story, by Bridwell and Schaffenberger, set up a major story arc, which continued almost to the end of the comic’s 1970s run.

Beginning with issue #26, the Captain’s alter-ego, boy reporter Billy Batson, was sent on a cross-country assignment with the Marvel Family mascot, Uncle Dudley, accompanying him in a custom RV. Uncle Dudley even grew a mustache so he’d look more like Les Tremayne, the “Mentor” who accompanied Billy on the TV show.

This run of stories managed to make the comic book more like the TV show while harkening back to the golden age gimmick that saw Captain Marvel travelling to different cities (in order to boost sales in those cities). Captain Marvel fought Dr. Sivana, and then Mr. Mind, as they went from city to city wreaking havoc. Billy and Uncle Dudley “followed” so they could capture news footage for station WHIZ. Along the way we get to see landmarks and adventures in Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis and other cities. In this run of stories we also get the post-golden age revival of Black Adam, who has since become quite a major character in the DC Universe.

These are some fun comic books. They’re light adventure and perfect for all ages. The art is interesting because at one point, Schaffenberger, who inked his own pencils most of the time, was inked by the legendarily-questionable Vince Colletta for a couple of stories. Colletta actually doesn’t butcher Schaffenberger’s work too much, but you can tell that he eliminated a few background buildings and figures. Another story is inked by the then-newcomer Bill Wiacek, and that artwork is almost as good as when Schaffenberger inks himself.

We also get a couple of issues pencilled by Philippino artist Tenny Henson, which represent his only two American superhero pencilling gigs. Both of these are inked by Colletta, but the first one turned out so bad that they had Schaffenberger come in and re-ink all the faces of major characters in the second. Henson went on to a long career in animation, where he worked on He-Man, Blackstar, The X Men, Animaniacs, Exo-Squad and many other series.

Then, near the end of the run of Shazam, in 1977, we had the “Hail Mary” pass of revamping the artistic approach of the series. Instead of presenting the stories in the clean, golden-age style of the original comics, DC decided to update the art to a more modern approach.

They gave the assignment to the team of Alan Weiss and Joe Rubenstein, both then-young talents who have since become respected veterans, and the results were impressive…and jarring…and to be honest, the art on this one story did not age well.

Weiss went on to do the first KISS comic magazine a year later, but with this book he seems to be struggling with integrating his style with the cartoonier aspects of the original Captain Marvel comics, and the end result is a bit awkward. The pages with Captain Nazi, the villain on the issue, look spectacular but when Captain Marvel shows up, things go a little screwy.

With the next (and final) issue (seen left), Weiss and Rubenstein were replaced by the art team of Don Newton and Schaffenberger, and the result were glorious. Newton, a life-long fan of Captain Marvel, continued as the artist of the Shazam feature after this, as it moved to World’s Finest Comics as a back-up strip.

After this run of the Shazam title ended, the Marvel Family of characters moved on to World’s Finest (and then to Adventure Comics) and that run of stories, written by Bridwell and pencilled by Newton, has never been reprinted.

The team of Bridwell and Newton continued telling great adventures that did manage to update the look of the Marvel Family without losing their original charm, and along the way, Bridwell, a comics historian and the first die-hard comics fan to turn pro, managed to weave the history of Kid Eternity, a Quality Comics character that DC Comics had acquired, in with that of Captain Marvel Jr. In the golden age of comics, both features shared a writer, the legendary Otto Binder.

Shazam! The World’s Mightiest Mortal Vol. 2 wraps up with issue #35, leaving those later Bridwell/Newton stories uncollected. I’m hoping that this book does well enough that we can get a third volume that would bring this incarnation of DC’s “Shazam” stories to a close.

However, that is not all that’s in this collection. In 1976 DC teamed up with Marvel and released a tabloid-sized comic book, Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-man, which sold a ridiculous number of books. A couple of years later DC tried to repeat that formula with several follow up tabloid comics featuring Superman “vs.” Wonder Woman (then on TV), Muhammed Ali and then they published Superman vs. Shazam in 1978, around the time the Shazam comic book was winding down.

The 72-page story from that giant-sized comic is reprinted here in a smaller format, and to be honest, it is probably the least impressive of the Superman tabloid crossover comics. It’s written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Rich Buckler with inks by Dick Giordano, and I don’t think anyone involved would rank this among their best works.

Conway, who wrote the Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-man book, had never written Captain Marvel before, and doesn’t really seem to have a handle on the characters. One gets the impression that this was “just a job” for him. Likewise, the art by Buckler has the look of having been done under a very tight deadline. Both men have done so much great work that it’s probably best not to dwell on what was probably just a quick assignment for both men.

It’s not awful, but it’s underwhelming and mainly has novelty and historical value, but it doesn’t fit in with the rest of this collection. I can understand it’s inclusion, if only to leave enough of the World’s Finest Shazam stories to be collected in a possible third volume.

I hope we do get another volume. Shazam! The World’s Mightiest Mortal Vol. 2 is a great collection of fun comics, and it’s a welcome respite from today’s overly-wraught superhero comics.