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:
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.