Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Bestselling Comic Book Character Came From NoMi

Guest post and photos by the Hawthorne Hawkman.

In a post describing a Hawthorne Halloween tradition, I made the mistake of disrespecting a comic book character that I erroneously called "Shazam." It turns out that this particular character, and other prominent publications, have their roots in north Minneapolis.

I sat down with a NoMi friend who collects comic book history tidbits like I consume mortgage technicalities, and got the story from him...

Bill Fawcett got his start in comic books and publication through creating mimeograph joke books while in the military. (I was told this was during the Spanish-American War, but if that's true then Fawcett would have been in his early teens, so WWI seems the most likely.) Still, when he returned home, he set up shop in nearby Robbinsdale and began printing magazines. It's rumored that many of the first issues were distributed by "Captain Billy" and his four sons as they biked around Minneapolis.

The magazine was called "Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang." Whiz bang was slang for a kind of German artillery shell fired in World War I. The magazine itself was considered "adult" publication at the time, due to its (then) racy content. It was one of the most prominent magazines in the 1920's specifically because of its adult/racy/sophisticated content. The periodical was even immortalized in the musical "The Music Man" (Whiz Bang reference at the 3:50 mark):

"Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger? A dime novel hidden in the corncrib? Is he starting to memorize jokes from Captain Billy's Whiz Bang?"

Fawcett began making serious money and started to branch out. He moved his office and staff to New York City to be at the center of media distribution in the 1930's. Fawcett realized that comic books had earnings potential and recruited a north Minneapolis-born artist, C.C. Beck. Beck created Captain Thunder, a new lead character whose name was changed to Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel debuted in the premiere issue of Whiz Comics, and within a few years he was outselling the likes of Batman and Superman as the #1 comic in the country. Many of the artists contributing to its success were from NoMi and turned in their artwork to the office still located in Robbinsdale. Many of the stories prominently featured famous areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The reason "Shazam" is prominently displayed is because that is the word that the young boy Billy Batson says in order to summon the collective wisdom, strength, and powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. The character is commonly referred to as this because, in a turn of events that only lawyers could love, DC Comics sued on the grounds that this character too closely resembled Superman. After fighting DC for twelve years, Fawcett settled and agreed not to publish Captain Marvel stories.

But this didn't keep Fawcett down. He helped bring about other characters such as Captain Video. Captain Video, for those of you who don't follow horrendous 50's sci-fi television series, was a space explorer who came across planets whose inhabitants used alien technology Earthlings would normally associate with janitorial supply closets. There was even an evil robot villain named Tobor. Get it? Robot...Tobor...I'm sure J.J. Abrams studied "Captain Video" footage laboriously when coming up with some of the plot twists on "Lost."

Fawcett also started up a magazine you might have heard of called Popular Mechanics. Yeah, I think that worked out a little better for him.

Ironically, the name "Captain Marvel" was somehow copyrighted by Marvel Comics while the character laid dormant in DC's vault, and now he can no longer be referred to by that name.

Now, as fascinating as this history is to NoMi, I simply cannot tell this story without at least some criticism leveled at the creation of one of the main Captain Marvel enemies, Mister Mind. This villain was some kind of alien bent on galactic dominance, carrying out his plans through the Monster Society of Evil. This sounds like it could be scary, until you realize that Mister Mind looks as if someone added this:

and this:

to get this:

At least Mister Mind was given a new image that's worthy of a villainous nemesis:

Robbinsdale's Whiz Bang Days festival commemorates Bill Fawcett's work and accomplishments, but we can take the credit that he and many of his colleagues actually came from NoMi.


Mary-Eileen / Ms. G said...

I just happened upon your blog!

check out what's going at Northside charter school Sojourner Truth Academy.

Our lunch program is called, "Bring the White House to Our House!" Each day during lunch, our students are learning about manners and respect, and are participating in our government through a school wide letter campaign to invite President Obama to have lunch with us at STA.

I need help/ideas for fundraising and inviting government officials and community leaders to have lunch at our school. Can we chat? Would you like to have lunch in our Banquet Hall?

Hillside Chronicles said...

What does that comment have to do with the post? I thought the "word verification" device was suppose to eliminate random spam comment. Gez-whiz.

The Hawthorne Hawkman said...

John may have approved this comment, I think. To the degree it's "spam," I think that it was actually hand-written, and "Ms. G." is just going around and tossing this comment on a bunch of NoMi blogs.

Upon a closer review though, I agree that this qualifies as spam and should be deleted. I'll check with John and then take the appropriate action.

Anonymous said...

I like the comment, it's substanative. Other commenters occasionally leave a comment that doesn't have to do with the blog post subject.

Ms. G's comment is certainly relative to the northside.

I don't consider it spam, but more like promoting information about what's going on in NoMi.

The Hawthorne Hawkman said...

@ Anon 9:54 - Since the JNS blog tends to err on the side of approving comments instead of rejecting them, I'll leave this one up. But the plea for fundraising help unrelated to the content of the specific post is what made me view this as closer to rejection on the spam basis.

To Ms. G and others, I'll say that in the future I may view comments containing financial requests unrelated to that particular post as spam, and reject them as such. This comment stays because it was approved already and has at least one supporter.

veg*nation said...

i've heard mass e-mails like this referred to as "tofu"--it's for a good cause, but since it's still unsolicited marketing, it's like spam, but more p.c. :-)

Hillside Chronicles said...

To today's anonymous commenter: I really wasn't asking for it to be removed...rather, I pointing out how it was COMPLETELY unrelated to the post. If it were "open comments day" or something like that, then sure whatever, but at some level it just seemed if I were to write this:

Check out what's going on at Hillside Chronicles.

No donations needed.

Mary-Eileen / Ms. G said...

Oh my goodness! I am so sorry for leaving this comment. It was not my intention to stir up controversy. I didn't see any other way to contact "Adventures of Johnny Northside."

I was hoping the comment would not be published, and that "Johnny Northside" would email me back to start a conversation off the blogsphere.

I was excited to learn that this blog was about NoMi and the dedication "to help with a process of turning a rapidly revitalizing neighborhood into something approaching Urban Utopia." In that way, I thought it was similar to our lunch program, "Bring the White House to Our House!" and our goal to send one northside student to the White House. I just moved here from CA in Sept. and was looking for Northside connection. I guess I made a mistake.

anyone is welcome to contact me through our website:
again, my apologies.

thanks & Peace! Ms. G

Anonymous said...

Ms G - please don't be offended - I actually liked getting to read your comment - if you hadn't left it, and JNS hadn't published - I wouldn't know about your program.

I know Johnny likes his blog to be used as a virtual community center - so I think you did the right thing.

Don't worry about the donations thing - people can choose to donate or not. Choose to read your blog or not.

But I'm glad you left the comment. And good luck with getting your goals accomplished - keep the community informed!