SHAZAM: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal

Posted by on February 23rd, 2011 at 2:00 PM

Chip Kidd and Geoff Spear; Abrams; 200-300 pp.; $35; Color; Hardcover (ISBN: 978-0810995963)

The pages aren’t numbered because this commemorative tome is another of Chip Kidd’s scrapbooky executions that actively, deliberately, desecrate historic visual artifacts for the sake of flash and filagree, the by-now-boring consequence of a benighted sense of design and the designer’s overweening ego. Like most of Kidd’s work, the design draws attention to itself rather than providing an unobtrusive platform for displaying the content, a spectacular miscarriage of a book designer’s function.

Yes, I know: the current rage among book publishers is to produce books that are themselves works of art so that people will buy them for themselves not, necessarily, for the content. It’s a dodge intended to make books salable again in a competitive market: A cleverly designed book becomes an objet d’art, something you can’t find on the Internet, so you must buy it to put on the mantelpiece. But I like books for their content, and I don’t know why anyone would want the SHAZAM book: the quality of the visuals has been degraded to fit Kidd’s concept and much of the material is presented without accompanying text to explain what we’re looking at. In short, the book satisfies neither the art connoisseur’s passion for contemplating pictures nor the historian’s quest for information.

The book’s cover is a cute construction, typical of the kind of Kidding we get in his work. A cut-out shaped like the bolt of lightning that transforms young Billy Batson into superhero Captain Marvel obliterates most of the drawing of Captain Marvel to let us see inside the book — to the first page within, whereupon Billy’s magic word, SHAZAM, appears, each letter accompanied by the name of the god it invokes, a reprint of the litany frequently published in the comic book; through the bolt of lightning shape, we see only those initial letters, S-H-A-Z-A-M, spelling out both the magic word and the name of this book. Cute, as I said. But it serves no thematic purpose whatsoever in suggesting the book’s innards.

The content, organized by hodgepodge, consists largely of blow-ups of published comic-book covers and interior-page house ads, often distorted by the enlargement (skin-tone dots magnified, f’instance) and replete with whatever blemishes have accrued to them through the years of being stored in someone’s attic (folds in the middle, tattered edges), pages of promotional material for the Republic Pictures Captain Marvel serial (featuring Tom Tyler’s Jimmy Smits smile), and a few pages of original art, plus great quantities of advertising for Captain Marvel merchandise — buttons, figurines (several “rare” sirocco wood-composition figures), iron-on transfers, fan club literature, coloring books, whistles, rings, watches, pennants, key chains, caps, stationery, pins, paper dolls, and even a miniature golf course. The quantity of gewgaw stuff is impressive on its own, I suppose, and maybe that’s the reason this book was published; that, in fact, is most of the “information” to be derived from perusing this volume.

Among the only coherent pieces in the book is the first Captain Marvel story from Captain Marvel Adventures #1 (Spring 1941), the entire issue produced in two weeks or less by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, their only foray into Fawcett territory. The issue is noted in the history of the Fawcett’s superhero for its violation of the usual Captain Marvel tongue-in-cheek ambiance in favor of the usual Simon-and-Kirby pulsating action and for its complete and ghastly reinterpretation of the style of rendering nurtured by Captain Marvel’s visual stylist, C.C. Beck. The story is also reproduced herein directly from a badly out-of-register printing of the comic book; that’s Kidd’s way of doing things, but it inflicts serious damage on this book as a showcase of art.

Other members of the Marvel Family are present — Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., Spy Smasher and (wonderful) Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. Drawn, at first and for much of its run, by the incomparable Chad Grothkopf (who, we learn — one of the few fragments of actual information imparted in this book — wrote the synopses of his stories), Hoppy debuted in Funny Animals #1 (December 1942), “predating Superman’s Krypto the Superdog by more than thirteen years.” Since the two characters are not at all alike, why is this comparison appropriate?

The compilers of the book make a big deal of Mac Raboy’s polished rendering of Captain Marvel Jr. but make no mention of Bud Thompson, whose line was more fluid and less finicky, even though they publish a Thompson Captain Marvel Jr. cover. An error of commission rather than omission occurs when Spear parenthetically makes Quality Comics the entity that morphs into Marvel Comics; not so, but there appear few other errors of this sort, probably because there are few assertions of fact throughout.

Among the few tidbits worth having at hand is a portion of an interview with C.C. Beck in a 1970s issue of Fawcett Collectors of America wherein Beck says: “The Marvel Family characters were originally designed to be as different as possible from all of the comic books’ other tights-wearing strongmen characters, who were also often hooded or masked. The Marvel Family were supposed to look more like high school or college athletes.” Apart from this tantalizing fragment, there’s very little “history” of Fawcett’s comic-book venture.

One of the dishearteningly few highpoints for me in this book are two pages that reprint a World War II contest staged in late 1942 (near the end of our first year in the fray): called “Paste the Axis,” readers were invited to supply the verbiage for the speech balloons of caricatures in miniature of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, the dictators of the Axis nations, Germany, Italy and Japan. The caricatures are appealingly cute and amply disrespectful in a highly laughable mode; a treat for the eye and a balm for the heart.

An anomaly that is always present in the Golden Age Captain Marvel is his backside. Because he wore a thoroughly skin-tight costume, his buttocks could not be ignored. And whenever Captain Marvel is depicted from the rear, his buns are right there, clearly and lovingly outlined. Simon and Kirby, as the accompanying illo affirms, managed to avoid the kind of clarity that Beck and his minions regularly indulged. Walt Disney liked butts, too; he thought they were funny, and so his comedy was often achieved from the rear, so to speak. But Captain Marvel’s buns? Dunno. Did Wertham have anything to say about them?

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