The Big Red Guy-Ch. 3 of the History of Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel Culture

A study of the history of Captain Marvel (all of them)

Chapter 3: The Big Red Guy

In the year following Superman's debut, a few more costumed heroes appeared from various publishers, each with their own gimmick. One comic, Wonder Comics hosted a character named Wonder Man (created by Will Eisner under the direction of publisher Victor Fox, a former accountant at Detective Comics) which was a deliberate and blatant rip-off of Superman. Detective Comics sued for plagiarism right away, and that hero was never seen again. Other characters that took more unique directions and enjoyed more success included The Arrow, Blue Beetle, the Sub-Mariner, Human Torch, Doll Man, Batman, and Green Lantern. Sales of comic books soared and new publishers were jumping in every minute.

In this environment, in the fall of 1939, Roscoe K. Fawcett of Fawcett publications ("Captain Billy" Fawcett's youngest son), decided to get his father's business into the super-hero comic book market. Citing surveys that said that the biggest market for comic books was 10 to 12 year old boys, he said "give me a Superman, only have his other identity be a 10- to 12-year-old-boy rather than a grown man" ("The Fawcetts Could Do It As Well, Or Better, Than Anybody: The Roscoe K. Fawcett Interview" by P.C. Hammerlinck, The Fawcett Companion, pg 10). He tapped art director Al Allard and editorial director Ralph Daigh the head the project.

Comic books at this time were still mostly anthologies with several stories of different characters. The first Fawcett comic book would be no different in this regard. The lead feature would be the costumed super hero of Fawcett's concept. Daigh selected Bill Parker, a supervising editor of Fawcett's movie magazines who had also worked on their detective magazines, to be the editor and develop the material that would fill this new comic book. He wound up writing every story and creating all it's characters.

His original concept for the super hero lead feature was to be a team of a half-dozen heroes, led by a Captain Thunder. This captain and his lieutenants would each have a different power, such as strength, speed, wisdom, etc., which they would use to fight evil. This would have been the first super hero team in comics, coming before the Justice Society of America and even before Batman had his sidekick, Robin. This idea was dropped, though; in favor of one hero who would have the powers of several ancient gods and heroes granted to him by a bolt of lightning and his name would be "Captain Thunder!"

Captain Thunder would be the lead feature in a new comic called Flash Comics. An "ashcan" issue was produced, dated January 1940. Ashcans were cheaply produced editions used by publishers to promote their product and secure copyright. They were sent to wholesalers and distributors and to the registration office in Washington DC. Unfortunately, All-American Comics, an enterprise begun by Max C. Gaines in partnership with Detective Comics, released their Flash Comics, starring the characters The Flash and Hawkman, the same month. Fawcett's book was retitled Thrill Comics. Then pulp magazine publisher Standard Magazines introduced Thrilling Comics. Finally it was decided to give Fawcet Pulication's first comic book the title of Whiz Comics.

Parker, a student of the classics, used ancient myth and legend as the inspiration for his hero. The origin story begins with Billy Batson, a young orphan, selling papers on the street. A mysterious stranger approaches him, inviting him down into an abandoned subway tunnel. After a strange train ride, the boy is led down a tunnel lined by statues of "The Seven Deadly Enemies of Man" (Pride, Envy, Greed, Hatred, Selfishness, Laziness, Injustice; A slight adaptation of the Seven Deadly Sins of Catholic tradition). At the end of the tunnel sits an old man with a long white beard. He tells the boy that his name is Shazam and shows how each letter in his name stands for a different god or hero, who had each granted him their powers. He says that he has battled evil for 3000 years and knows everything, including how the orphaned Billy was thrown into the street by his wicked uncle. Upon speaking the old man's name, a bolt of lighting strikes the boy and he becomes Captain Thunder, "the mightiest man in the world." Shazam salutes him and charges him to "defend the poor and helpless, right wrongs and crush evil everywhere." A second speaking of Shazam's name brings the lightning down again, masking the crushing of the old man by a giant granite block which had been hanging over his head, and Billy finds himself on the street again.

The name of the old man, the magic word that changed the boy into the super hero, would become a cultural icon that would outlast and eventually transcend the publishing life and popularity of the hero himself. The letters in the name each stood for a different figure of antiquity who granted a specific power to Captain Thunder. Those names and powers were:

Solomon = Wisdom
Hercules = Strength
Atlas = Stamina
Zeus = Power
Achilles = Courage
Mercury = Speed

These ancients were referred to as "gods" in the story, though not all were gods of mythology, and they came from various cultures. Solomon was a wise Hebrew king from the Old Testament. Hercules was the Roman name of a mighty Greek hero who was the son of the god Zeus and a human woman. Atlas was a titan of Greek myth. Zeus was the king of Greek gods. Achilles was a human hero of Greek legends and myths. Mercury was the messenger of the Roman gods. Bill Parker had apparently picked those characters of legend and mythology that were the epitomes of the powers he wanted Captain Thunder to have. Though real names similar to Shazam can be found if you look real hard, it is most probable that Parker merely shuffled the first letters of the names until he came up with what he felt sounded most magical.

Charles Clarence Beck, an artist on the staff of Fawcett Publications, was assigned to designing and drawing this new hero and three other features in Fawcett's first comic book. C.C. Beck, as he was known, would eventually become the artist most associated with Fawcett's Captain, and it would become the defining achievement of his career. He was born in Zumbrota, Minnesota in 1910 and encouraged by his Lutheran Minister father to pursue his interest and talent in art. He studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art and the University of Minnesota. In 1933 he began work with Fawcett Publications and was soon drawing cartoons for their humor magazines as well as straight illustrations. He had just finished work on a movie star magazine when he got the assignment to draw four new features in Fawcett's new comic.

Parker and Beck tried hard to make sure their hero was not just a carbon copy of Superman. Rather than circus acrobat tights and a long, flowing cape, the captain was given a military-inspired uniform. Informed by drawings he had recently done to illustrate Sigmund Romburg's light comic opera The Student Prince, Captain Thunder wore a broad-shouldered jacket with a flap buttoned at the right shoulder, tight pants, boots, sash, and a short cape styled after the short capes or jackets worn on one shoulder by 19th-century cavalry soldiers (complete with details inspired by gold braid button loops). Having just recently finished work on a movie magazine, drawing movie stars, somehow he thought that actor Fred MacMurray had the appropriate face for this wholesome, friendly new hero.

C.C. Beck had no input into the colors, however. That was left to the printer's discretion. Fortunately for readers with good taste, a red costume with a white cape and yellow accents was selected.

At the last moment, the name of the hero was changed. Historians disagree on the reason for this. Jim Steranko, in his History of Comics Vol.2 (pg 11) claims that the decision was made to give the hero a name "less clamorous and uninviting." According to the web site An International Catalogue of Superheroes (, "Fiction House produced a Captain Thunder (Captain Terry Thunder of the British Army) in Jungle Comics #1, just ahead of Fawcett." There is also the possibility that the existence of the character Johnny Thunder in the aforementioned Flash Comics may have been an influence. Whatever the reason, a new name was sought. Illustrator Pete Costanza suggested "Captain Marvelous." This was shortened to "Captain Marvel." There is some thought that this was inspired by Marvel Mystery Comics, a title released in 1939 (by the company that would later be known as Timely, Atlas, and then Marvel Comics, which we shall find out more about later in this history), but there is little evidence to support it.

As a footnote, there is no evidence yet to suppose the name Captain Thunder was inspired by the 1930 movie about a Mexican bandito starring Victor Varconi and Fay Wray.

So C.C. Beck went back and re-lettered every "Thunder" in the story to read "Marvel," and Whiz Comics Vol. 1, No. 2 was ready to go. So what happened to No. 1? There are several theories to that as well. The most common theory is that Fawcett considered the "ashcan" issues to count as the first issue, and thus the first issue to hit the stands would be No.2. Franklin Harris, in his Pulp Culture column from The Decatur Daily ( suggests "the No. 2 numbering was a trick designed to get the book into Canada, where arcane postal rules insisted that periodicals already be periodic before they could become eligible for discounted postage rates."

The world got its first look at Captain Marvel in February 1940. That same month, Captain Wilford H. Fawcett passed away of a heart attack in Hollywood at age 57. Though he did not live to see the success that his company's new comics enterprise would have, its first title actually paid a sort of homage to the captain's first publication, Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang: The leading hero was a captain who's alter-ego was named Billy. The publication was named Whiz and the hero's transformation was accompanied by a clap of thunder (most often interpreted as "Boom," but that"s close enough to "bang" for me).

Next: Early Captain Marvel

Go to the outline of Captain Marvel history
Chapter 1: The Captain and the Major
Chapter 2: The Big Blue Guy
Chapter 3: The Big Red Guy
Chapter 4: Early Captain Marvel
Chapter 5: Powers and Personality
Chapter 6: Going Hollywood
Chapter 7: Friends and foes: The Lietenant Marvels
Chapter 8: Friends and Foes: Captain Marvel Junior
Chapter 9: Friends and Foes: Mary Marvel
Chapter 10: Friends and Foes: Mr. Tawny
Chapter 11: Friends and Foes: Dr. Sivana
Chapter 12: Mr Mind
Chapter 13: Friends and Foes: Other Foes
Chapter 14: Enter the Binder
Chapter 15: Superman V. Captan Marvel
Chapter 16


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Over 50 Years of American Comic Books by Ron Goulart

Famous 1st Edition: Whiz Comics fwd by Carmine Infantino

The Fawcett Companion ed. by P.C. Hammerlinck

The Shazam Archives Vol. 1 by Richard A. Lupoff and Rich Morrissey

A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics ed. by Michael Barrier and Martin Williams

The Steranko History of Comics Vol. 2 by Jim Steranko


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