One Magic Word

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By Travis Kramer

I started regularly reading comic books in 1989 after purchasing Iron Man #239 at a local drugstore spinner rack. I liked Iron Man well enough and was intrigued by the villain the Ghost who (spoiler alert) killed the Spymaster several issues later in a way that my young imagination found delightfully chilling. (After offering the Spymaster a device that could make him intangible, the Ghost stole it back, forcing Spymaster to re-materialize while partially inside a wall -- a death that was retconned years later but was ghoulish at the time).

Anyway, that was the first comic book I purchased that compelled me to read what happened in the next issue.  

But that wasn’t where my love of super heroes started.

It’s hard to say exactly when I first came in contact with super heroes. Like all good myths, they seem to have always been present in my mind. I would have to guess it was television – Superfriends, Spider-Man/Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends, '60s Batman, and '70s Wonder Woman are all indelible – but there were plenty of capes and tights in other places. Super heroes were on my t-shirts, my lunch box, my Underoos; on coloring books, Presto Magix and Colorforms; and on my well-worn Mego, Super Powers and Secret Wars toys. I even rode around my house in a toddler-sized Batmobile. I’ve always known super heroes.

Captain Marvel is my all-time favorite super hero.

My introduction to Captain Marvel is a mystery. Again, it could have been television. I distinctly remember Filmation's 1981 series “The Kid Super Power Hour With Shazam!” if only for the episode “Best Seller,” wherein prehistoric lizard men emerge from a portal in a storybook and kidnap the Marvel Family in their sleep before turning them into lizard slaves – a home invasion scenario with bondage and rape overtones is a bold choice for a kid's cartoon.

But I also have a lot of Shazam! comics and activity books in all shapes and sizes from before I started collecting comics in earnest; most being DC’s ‘70s reprints of the Fawcett material from the ‘40s & ‘50s along with new material by co-creator C.C. Beck. And when I graduated to scouring back-issue bins in comic shops, the first thing I looked for was material with the good Captain.

Sure, Captain Marvel was initially a rival company’s Superman rip-off. But while the Man Of Steel had his own share of camp adventures, the Big Red Cheese’s aesthetic dwells in the delightfully batshit, right down to his convoluted origin and extended family of friends, felines & foes. I would wager that the materials’ second-class origins enabled it to develop the misfit funhouse mirror version of super hero action that made it so unusual. Much of the credit goes to C.C. Beck for his character design & illustrations; a playful mix of clean line work and cartoon elasticity that equates him with nobility like Alex Toth and Bob Montana, in my mind.

I highlight Shazam! #3, from June 1973, because it features a charmingly racist international spy caper in “The Wizard Of Phonograph Hill.” Written by Elliot Maggin and illustrated by Beck, Captain Marvel befriends and must immediately escort a scientist inventor through his day, protecting him from a cadre of foreign stereotype-themed assassins out to steal his secret – an anti-gravity device that is, ultimately, deemed too dangerous to be useful. Then, everyone shrugs and goes home. It’s great stuff; expertly illustrated, if not thoughtfully written. The story actually inspired an episode of my college newspaper comic strip featuring Ronin Pig, if mostly for the awkward dialogue and nonsensical plotting. Still, it was my way to pay a small tribute to the creative minds that inspired my own.

Comic books have played a number of different roles for me over the years – escapist fantasy for an awkward kid; creative inspiration for a burgeoning writer & artist; tangible product for a creator & self-publisher; a common language among other pop culture genre fanatics. Comics were not just there for me to have, to hold and to polybag; they were a way for me to engage with other people, with art, and with the world at large.

I think comics & sequential art are a brilliant medium because of the unique combination of prose and illustration. Words and pictures provide a means for storytelling, but comics have a singular way of turning words and pictures into one another -- images composed in panels become rhythm and motion, while narrative elements become word balloons and sound effects woven into each image. At its best, a mix of high and low art – finely rendered pulp literature that is as much a visual & conceptual experience as it is a tactile one.  Comic books are captivating by the very nature of how you engage with them as a reader. Technicolor man-gods fighting an endless battle against evil is just sugar on top.

I may not collect comics anymore or read them with much regularity, but my love for the form and these iconic characters does not diminish with time . . . as my current toy collection would attest.