Sunday, February 6, 2011

SHAZAM: The Golden Age of the World's Mightiest Mortal

I've talked before about how much I love Chip Kidd's art books, and I've long considered the Fawcett Captain Marvel comics among the best comics I've never really read (meaning I've enjoyed greatly whatever reprints I've been able to get my hands on as they've trickled out over the years, but to date still haven't read much of it), so you would think this latest of Kidd's books would be pure heaven for me.  Unfortunately, while I enjoyed the book, it nevertheless came as something of a disappointment.

The fault it mine, and not Kidd's.  I was under the impression the book would be an examination of the original comic books and related merchandise of the Golden Age Captain Marvel.  In reality, the book focuses, almost exclusively and by design, on the merchandise.  Kidd is upfront about this in his introduction, and I can't really fault this fine book for not being what I wanted it to be.  I do like looking at all of the toys and things, beautifully photographed by Kidd's constant collaborator Geoff Spear.  In addition to the toys and other merchandise, Kidd publishes a lot of the ancillary material, such as letters from Captain Marvel to members of his fan club, and comic strips developed to sell the license to toy manufacturers.  There's also a section devoted to the 1941 Captain Marvel movie serial starring Tom Tyler, for which Kidd has obvious affection and admiration.  There is room for some discussion and presentation of the comics themselves: An early Captain Marvel story by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby is reprinted in its entirety, and I particularly enjoyed the section of the book which discussed the work of artist Mac Raboy on Captain Marvel Jr.

The book succeeds admirably at being precisely what it set out to be, although it certainly left me wanting a more thorough examination of the comics themselves.  Kidd claims in his introduction that the comics are "very well archived in popular reprint editions," but I'm not so sure that's the case.  DC, who now owns the rights to the characters, has put out four volumes of Captain Marvel comics in their expensive Archives editions, and one volume of Captain Marvel Jr. material in the same format.  As far as I can tell, all of these volumes are now out of print and I've heard of no plans to continue the series, which I'm pretty sure is still a few years away from the "peak" material, anyway.  A plan to publish a famous Captain Marvel storyline has apparently been put on indefinite hiatus.

At the risk of turning this review into another diatribe about the state of archival comics collections from the mainstream comics publishers, I hope someone at DC might be inspired by Kidd's book to bring some more of this material back into print.  It seems the least they could do.  It was DC who effectively ended the golden age of what at the time was the most successful comic book running when they sued rival publisher Fawcett over copyright infringement.  The feeling was that Captain Marvel was too similar to their Superman character.  Kidd reprints some transcripts from the 1948 trial, and it's pretty clear what side of the argument Kidd himself comes down on.  Kidd writes about the end of Captain Marvel's golden age and DC's subsequent purchase of the characters, concluding "The future of the Marvel family was from then on in the hands of DC."  It seems to me that DC is ethically bound to make available again the material they once censored.


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