The ’80s killed comic books.
Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns are both wonderful books to come out of that era, but the philosophical messages of these two titles completely contradicted everything that Shazam and Captain Marvel stood for. Suddenly, comics were sophisticated and with that sophistication came the death of whimsy and innocence.
Don’t believe me? Look no further than Roy Thomas’s introduction in Shazam: The New Beginning when Thomas writes, “The particular style of whimsy-oriented action/adventure of which Captain Marvel was a major figure just doesn’t work anymore.”
So, what happened? Blame Playboy and the direct market.
The direct market system of distribution has been in place since 1973. Prior to 1973, comic books could be found in gas stations, newsstands, and grocery stores, and while comics could be found in a wider amount of locations, the system had an inherent flaw; comics could be returned. Jean-Paul Gabilliet puts it best in his book Of Comics and Men when he writes, “Publishers had always been obliged to print copies without knowing with any certainty how many copies would sell, or even if an issue that was particularly popular would require reprinting. Once the period during which comics were on the shelves had passed, retailers returned them in exchange for credit on future orders” (143).
Comic book writer Mark Evanier breaks down the logisitics of it all on his blog, “Marvel would print 500,000 copies of an issue of Spider-Man and would get paid only for those that actually sold. So if the racks were crowded (or the distributor trucks filled with an extra-thick issue of Playboy that week), 50,000 might not make it to the racks at all.” So, while this system certainly had more exposure than the current system of distribution, the fact that comics could be returned for credit was damaging to publishers. The key problem with this system was that retailers weren’t being held accountable for lack of sales, therefore, if another magazine was deemed more important than the comic books that were coming out that month, then retailers could sacrifice comic book shelf space in order to make profits off of other products.
Around this time, Playboy magazine had been solidified as a financial success which led to more adult magazines that showed more. Suddenly, skin was in at newsstands and comic books were taking up valuable space that could be used to stock pornographic magazines that retailers knew would sell. As newsstands were becoming inundated with pornography, the magazine rack was quickly becoming a place where children were not welcome.
In response to the economic concerns, a school teacher by the name of Phil Seuling proposed to distribute comics to stores that specialized in comic books if DC and Marvel would sell the comics to him at a cheaper price than the newsstands were paying, and he would ensure that those comics were nonrefundable so they would be guaranteed sales for publishers. But in addition to the economic concerns presented, Seuling and other retailers cited issues of morality for their decision to move comics from the newsstands to private shops. Specialty shops were created under the pretense of trying to protect kids from the perversions that newsstands offered, but all of this was a cover for the real reason of being able to buy comics cheaper than newsstands and make more money. As comic books settled into the direct market in the 80’s, specialty comic book stores fell into the same trap that newsstands fell into when publishers began releasing comics with the disclaimer “For mature readers only.”
Suddenly, comic books had to throw away the fun and the whimsy in exchange for stories that showed what superheroes would be like in the “real world.” This school of thought is known as Revisionism and others have written far more extensively on the subject than I have, and while Revisionism helped revitalize the comic book industry, the problem is that it presumes that just because a formula works for one type of comic, that it will also work for all others. Dark Knight Returns proved that the grim-and-gritty approach to Batman could work because it was a logical progression of the character. It was an idea that made sense given the noir and pulp origins of the character. But just because it works for Batman doesn’t mean that it can work for Captain Marvel because they are two completely different animals.
Roy Thomas disagreed, “Modern-day comics readers, we’ve found, tend to respond best to the more realistic renderings of Cap. But even when they do, there’s still all that (to me, mostly delightful) baggage from the original 40′s series: Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Hr., the Lueutenants Marvel, Freckles Marvel, Uncle Marvel, two Sicana families, Mr. Morris, Mr. Tawny the Talking Tiger, and beaucoup villains.”
What Roy Thomas was trying to say without coming out and saying it is that the comics audience was now excluding children (the very audience they claimed to protect by moving into specialty stores) and that Captain Marvel could be just as good as Batman but everything else had to be taken out of his origin first. With Shazam: The New Beginning, Roy Thomas effectively evicerated everything that made Captain Marvel great. He eliminated all of fun and replaced it with the grim-and-grittiness that made Batman successful and he presumed that it would make Shazam successful as well. Thomas first took out the Marvel family ( I guess because having a family is unrealistic . . . because no one has a family in the real world), but he didn’t stop there.
In regards to the relationship between Captain Marvel and Billy Batson, “In the old days, Billy and Cap had shared memories, speech patterns, even attitudes — yet somehow had been treated as if they were separate persons, each referring to the other as ‘he.’ It was a paradox never really resolved in the original stories.” The underlying message that can be gleaned from this sentence is that comics should be able to be explained. If the logistics of the comic book world can be questioned, then it doesn’t work in the mind of the Revisionist. So, because Billy Batson’s original origin is strange and a little light, then it didn’t fit in with the new paradigm that the comics industry had created with Revisionism.
Thomas continues with the new origin’s changes that read almost like a laundry list of apologies, the most offensive of which has to be ” switching of locales to San Francisco on the West Coast, so that the East Coast can be left to Superman and we can forget forever about ‘Fawcett City.’” Again showing that in the world of Revisionism, everything must be logical. To Thomas, it was illogical for Metropolis and Fawcett City to be near one another because Superman and Captain Marvel shouldn’t be so near one another, so instead of making Fawcett City on the West Coast, Captain Marvel has to leave his heritage and live in a real world city. Even a fictional city would be too whimsical for this grim-and-gritty reboot.
Everything has its place and Revisionism has no place in Captain Marvel. There can be intelligent and powerful stories told with the character, but the Roy Thomas mini-series tried to make Captain Marvel into something he’s not. No other mini-series exemplifies the rampant overuse of revisionist storytelling techniques the way this mini-series does. It abuses the name of Shazam in order to jump onto a fad rather than to tell a meaningful story. Finally, Roy Thomas finishes his introduction by saying, “I couldn’t justify staying any closer to the original — or straying much further from it.” Straying further wouldn’t have been much more than changing the names of the main characters as we’ll see next week.