SHAZAM, BATMAN & SUPERMAN
a hefty piece of comic book and comic book publishing
history. The "original Captain Marvel" (as the
cover points out) was created back in 1939 by writer Bill
Parker and artist C. C. (Charles Clarence) Beck and
originally published by Fawcett, making his debut in
February 1940 in Whiz Comics #2. He is actually
adolescent radio news reporter Billy Batson who is chosen
by an ancient wizard and given super powers to fight for
good and foil evil - Billy need only say the magic word
"Shazam!" and he is struck by magic lightning
and instantly turned into Captain Marvel.
Portrayed as the world's "mightiest mortal", Captain Marvel was given the nickname "Big Red Cheese" by his archvillain Doctor Sivana, and this stuck with the fans of Captain Marvel who started labeling their hero that way. Fawcett found that they had a real top seller on their hands - so much so that they received a cease-and-desist letter from National Comics Publications (DC Comics) in June 1941, who felt that Captain Marvel was a copyright infringement on their own Superman. Turning into one of the longest running legal battles in comic book publication history, DC's litigation was initially turned down, but their appeal in 1951 prompted Fawcett to seek an out of court agreement as the sales of superhero comics had by that time decreased to an extent which made it seem not worthwhile to continue fighting DC. In 1954, Fawcett paid National $400,000 in damages and agreed to cease publication of all Captain Marvel-related comics - in fact the company shut down its comic book branch entirely.
For quite some time, that was the end of Captain Marvel. As superheroes once again became popular, Marvel trademarked their own Captain Marvel - which explains why DC, upon licensing the rights to all of Fawcett's superheroes in 1972, revived Captain Marvel in his own title but called it Shazam. As DC had also obtained reprint rights to the original Fawcett material they included older stories in the title. In 1980, DC bought the rights to the Fawcett characters outright, but Captain Marvel never returned anywhere near to the level to the success of the 1940s - hampered on one hand by the fact that DC could not fully promote him as Captain Marvel (as Marvel by now owned that copyright and tightly kept on to it), and on the other by the fact that the Big Red Cheese was hard to transfer. The nostalgic approach taken by DC with Shazam highlighted the character's Golden Age goofy traits way too much (the title ended in 1978 after 35 issues), and later attempts to modernize the character ran afoul right off the bat due to his inherent cheesy characteristics.
Shazam #1? Today the owner of DC's B-2 Super Pac from 1973 can appreciate the history this comic book issue represents. But even as a pre-teen comic book reader back in the days I might only just have swallowed the sanitized lameness of this comic book, which retells Captain Marvel's origin (first story) and then shows him escape from the trap that Dr Sivana had created which caused the Marvel Family (an aggregation of Fawcett characters created in the vein of Captain Marvel) to be placed in suspended animation for 20 years (and in what looks like a chewing gum bubble in outer space). But now, Captain Marvel returns to Earth - all of which is rounded off by a reprint story from Captain Marvel Adventures #55, originally published in March 1946.
It is obvious why this comic book was placed facing outwards - DC wanted to push this new title as much and just about everywhere they could, which also explains the inclusion of Superman on the cover - which is almost ironic, given the history of the copyright litigation (the issue does contain a page of text on certain aspects of the character's history, but the legal issues remain unmentioned). The stories are clearly written tongue in cheek by O'Neil, but even with the odd nice one-liner they come across as being very simplistic indeed - as is the artwork, although that is intentionally so, replicating the original style (which makes sense, having one of the original pencillers and inkers is on board).
|Actually forming one story
taking place between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve,
the first part covers events taking place during holy
night, when a couple with a small boy (not quite Joseph
and Mary, but close) whose car broke down in the swirling
snow seek refuge in a lonely house only to find that
they, along with the houseowner, are now at the mercy of
a gun-wielding gangster who has stolen a vial of
immensely potent nerve gas from the Army and is intent on
killing his captives. However, the Batman intervenes,
although he only gets the upper hand thanks to a bright
Christmas star which distracts the hood. The second part
shows the gangster freed by his gang en route as the
Batman intend to drive him to Police HQ. Things only get
worse after that as Commissioner Gordon informs the
Darknight Detective about a threat he has received that
Gotham will be sbjected to a nerve gas attack at the
stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve unless an imprisoned
mob primo is released. Unfortunately, said
mobster died of a heart attack in prison a few days back,
so Batman and Robin must learn the location of that
canister of nerve and find the evildoer behind the
scheme. In spite of having almost no clues and only a few
days left, the Batman finally succeeds in averting the
catastropy with only seconds to spare, using a ruse to
make the perpetrator give himself away at the New Year's
Eve party of Gotham's rich and famous.
Quite often, the middle comic book in a DC Super Pac - which was the "hidden" or even "surprise" title - proves to be a hidden gem, at least from today's perspective. In this case, Batman #247 is nothing short of being the saving grace for the 1973 B-2 Super Pac. Even though this is not Dennis O'Neil's strongest Batman plotting, it is more than solid enough to stand way above the other two titles in this collection (even though Shazam #1 comes from the same pen - just shows how much a strong central character can do). Certainly helped by engaging and vibrant pencils from Irv Novick and Dick Giordano, this is a nice little Christmas tale involving the Dynamic Duo. Much as I would have been disappointed by the other two comic books in this Super Pac back in the days, I would have absolutely loved Batman #247. And even today, it feels special to read this comic book fresh out of a comic pack. Evidentally stored in places which were rather on the warm side, all the pages in their entirety have taken on a slight browning hue, but that is nothing compared to finding pages still clinging together (due to the small indentations made by the printing press at the bottom of the pages as the paper was transported through the machine) and now separated for the first time since that comic book came off the press. Such is the beauty of the time capsule known as comic pack.
The only slightly off thing about this comic book is a full page commercial for Kenner's "Easy-Bake Ovens" which, as the five panel comics-like story showing "Sally's visit to the Easy-Bake Oven toy factory" informs us, is "the greatest girl's toy since dolls". That ad seems strangely out of key in a Batman comic book. However, it would not have been quite as much out of place in the third comic book in this Super Pac, which is:
|Ultimately, however, Lois
Lane tricks Star Sapphire, who loses her grip on the Man
of Steel and decides it's time to make an exit. Lois
worries about what Clark will say if he finds out about
her being in costume. Superman assures her I
hell never hear it from
Seemingly, the DC Universe is populated by a number of Star Sapphires, the first of which made her first apperance in All-Flash Comics #32 in December 1947, battling the Golden Age Flash. Carol Ferris first appeared in October 1959 in Showcase #22, and her Star Sapphire incarnation premiered in Green Lantern #16 in October 1962. Her appeareance in Superman #261, however, is highly contrived and kicks off a story that feels rather anaemic and quite harmless - which really is quite amazing given the cover... or is that cover a case of honi soit qui mal y pense ?
Obviously as much a matter of taste as any other superhero, the Superman stories from the early 1970s frequently came across as rather ludicrous to anyone who wasn't a die-hard fan. The howler in this issue is when the Man from Krypton uses super-ventriloquism to alert Lois lane in her office to the predicament of Superman at the hands of Star Sapphire - which makes you wonder if nobody other than yourself was wondering why on earth he didn't just use super-telepathy ...
The artwork by Swan and Anderson is clean and sharp, and all in all makes a so-so story look way better than it actually is.
posted 6 July 2014