Whatever Happened to the Big Red Cheese, Part 4:

The Roy Thomas Defense

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.

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Cody Walker graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelors and a Masters of Science in Education. He is the author of the pop culture website PopgunChaos.com and the co-creator of the crime comic NoirCityComicBook.com . He currently teaches English in Springfield, Missouri.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Cody Walker:

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


The Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh: Understanding Grant Morrison\'s Batman


Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide

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  1. David Balan says:

    Loving this article series!

    But I have a question. Is there a dichotomy between imaginative stories and logical ones? It’s just good craft to tell a story that makes sense, has few plot holes, and portrays believable characters in believable situations. (note that believability has nothing to do with realism, and everything to do with understanding a character’s motivations. If the audience understands the character and empathizes with the protagonist, you could have a story take place anywhere, anytime, any place.)

    I don’t think having mythological whimsy is necessarily opposed to that – in fact I’d say they could strengthen one another by showing that where all that whimsy and magical flight-of-fancy came from isn’t just fiction or some child’s head – it came from real life. I know I’ve seen plenty of magical places, even if it’s not obvious to the naked eye.

    • Cody Walker says:

      I’m not quite sure what you mean. Can you clarify?

      • David Balan says:

        I think I kind of smashed this article and the previous together – my bad!

        I was referencing how in your previous article you talked about the idea of Lieutenant Marvels, Captain Marvel Jr., and Cecebeck as being so whimsical they required no explanation, and none was given. They merely ‘were’. The sense of ‘dream logic’.

        Then in this article you talked about how the Thomas run on Captain Marvel tried to use revisionism to turn his character into something cool, and it failed utterly because in trying to make everything be ‘logical’ Thomas gutted the magic of the character.

        What I was trying to say was that I don’t think magic needs to be at odds with logic.

        Does that make sense?

      • Cody Walker says:

        Personally, I don’t think that magic should really be logical if by “logic” we mean that all of the rules are spelled out and everything is rigorously taxonomized and compartmentalized. The fun of the old Captain Marvel was that anything could happen and in a sense, I guess there was a kind of child logic that went along with it (which is totally fine), but to breakdown a sort of magical hierarchy defeats the purpose of magic because it makes it too much like science. I’ll discuss this idea more in depth when I discuss Trials of Shazam because that is specifically what Winick was trying to do – to create rules for magic when magic is meant to be without rules.

        For further evidence of this, look no further than Hell in the Vertigo Universe. Yeah, I know that most Vertigo titles have nothing to do with one another nowadays, but looking back to the early times, we can see that both Hellblazer and Sandman had two different ideas about how Hell worked. Sandman was a little more traditional with Lucifer running the show until he gave it up to Dream, while Hellblazer introduced the First of the Fallen and the Second and Third of the Fallen who ruled Hell together.

        So, who really rules Hell? Lucifer or the Triumvirate of the Fallen? Somehow all of them do whih is fine because it’s the nature of magic. It’s strange and bizarre but that’s magic. It needs no explanation or logic . . . it just simply is.

        I hope that answers your question.

      • Yeah, but the whole Lucifer / First of the Fallen thing was confusing and actually not good. And it needed explanation, as you point out.

        But those are realistic comics. Hellblazer and Sandman work because they are grounded in the real world. They simply would not work as silly comics, where magic can do anything. In fact, Dream’s death only works when you already know what he can and cannot do. If he magically just said, “oh, I can do this!”, the story would fail completely. And in Hellblazer, “Dangerous Habits” also only works because it establishes what John can and cannot do, magically.

        Having said that, you’re right that Captain Marvel is a totally different case, because it’s not grounded in the real world. The best Captain Marvel stories are indeed silly, whimsical tales in which anything can happen! And I love them.

        But that’s how I’d draw the line between them. The problem isn’t magic, it’s realism. Get rid of realism, and there’s no need to define the rules strictly at all. But in a realistic mode, as both Hellblazer and Sandman were, despite their magical elements, rules are necessary to get those stories to work.

  2. Cody, you’re completely correct, of course, about how revisionism seemed to demand that Captain Marvel be eviscerated of what made him unique. But let me offer three brief points:

    As you’ve pointed out, comics are a commercial medium. Captain Marvel had failed repeatedly since the 1940s. His was a situation, like Plastic Man, in which it seemed that his original creators had some magic that no one else had ever quite been able to recapture. So when the revisionist Captain Marvel came out, it was an honest (and I think interesting, as well as probably misguided) attempt to make the character work. It wouldn’t have been necessary had anyone been buying Captain Marvel for the past 35 years. Minor point, I know, but I am glad that mini-series exists, even if it’s not “my” Captain Marvel.

    Secondly, a revisionist Captain Marvel can work. It’s called Miracleman, and it’s one of the best super-hero works ever written. Yeah, it’s not really Captain Marvel — it’s the British rip-off Marvelman. And no, it’s not silly or whimsical (at least not in the same way). But man, does it work.

    Finally, I’ve said this often elsewhere, but revisionism wasn’t just making super-heroes realistic. It was also an attention to production: to glossy covers and new narrative techniques that mirrored those in literature. So when we get whimsical, fun works (whether DC: The New Frontier or a Chip Kidd non-fiction book) with smart design and interesting narrative devices, it’s revisionism that we have to thank.

    Of course, this is just a series of footnotes to a piece that’s obviously correct on its face. And I very much appreciated both the quotes you used and your look at the rise of the direct market, both of which went further than what I’ve generally seen. This is good work and a fun series. Keep up the good work!

    • Cody Walker says:

      1) I suppose I’m thankful for the Thomas run because it really is the most perfect example of how a particular formula won’t always work for every situation. So, in that regard, I’m happy it exists in that same way that I’m happy that the Clooney Batman film exists – as cautionary tales of what not to do.

      2) While Miracleman is absolutely sublime in its perfection, I would argue that it is not Captain Marvel. Yes, the character was created to be Captain Marvel, but the Alan Moore/Neil Gaiman run on the character is only connected to the Big Red Cheese through superficial means.

      I do think that a more *adult* Captain Marvel is possible, but it has to walk a fine line between “adult” and “dark.” It can be intelligently and methodically constructed with some interesting things to say, but it can’t fall into the unnecessary darkness that the Thomas run fell into.

      3) You’re absolutely right. I suppose I just need to clarify that we mean unnecessary darkness.

      • I agree completely about the difference between “adult” and “dark.” And I know I’m always harping on how revisionism is unfairly maligned. That doesn’t mean I don’t agree with your points — mine were very much footnotes to an article that brought a surprising amount of insight to something I thought I already understood!

        And of course, you’re right about Miracleman. It could be changed to Captain Marvel with few alternations, however. And I do think there’s great potential for the Captain Marvel archetype and darker, more realistic stories.

        But they’re hard to do. And what occurs to me is that Captain Marvel is a weird character who only works on the extreme sides of the spectrum. Batman can be silly or uber-dark, but most of his stories are actually somewhere in between. Captain Marvel works brilliantly when that original C. C. Beck wonder can be duplicated. And I’d argue that Miracleman, if nothing else, shows potential on the other side of the spectrum. But all the attempts to establish some sort of middle ground haven’t done as well.

        Now, I’m sure you’ll be talking about The Power of Shazam! and other takes on the character. And those might disprove my very tentative thesis above! I’m eager to read them — and to modify my thoughts.

        Fun stuff. Thanks for the reply!

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