All messy, unsatisfying theory aside, sometimes a superhero comic really delivers the goods, even without providing ten pages of burly men wrestling and making wisecracks.
Like, for example, one of my favorite superhero stories ever, “Captain Marvel and the Atomic War!” It was originally published in Captain Marvel Adventures #66 in 1946, and recently reprinted in DC’s Greatest Imaginary Stories, an anthology that’s recommended for those who enjoy wondering how the world might be different if Bruce Wayne’s parents had never been murdered. (Not to give it away, but it turns out Bruce still would have dressed up as Batman and fought crime — so take that, defenders of psychological “realism” in superhero comics!)
Written by Otto Binder and drawn by C. C. Beck, it’s a simple, fable-like story, and also just about the grimmest depiction of atomic war I’ve ever seen in comics (certainly in those meant for children). It’s a lot more realistic about the consequences of such a war than 1983’s lauded television movie The Day After.
Beck and Binder’s Captain Marvel, for those who aren’t familiar with him, is actually a pleasant, wholesome young boy named Billy Batson who, by speaking aloud the magic word “Shazam!”, is transformed into a nearly omnipotent Superman-like hero who looks a lot like the actor Fred MacMurray. As Jules Feiffer memorably put it: “A friendly fullback of a fellow with apple cheeks and dimples, [Captain Marvel] could be imagined being a buddy rather than a hero, an overgrown boy who chased villains as if they were squirrels. A perfect fantasy figure for, say, Charlie Brown.”
The character’s usual white-bread innocuousness makes this particular story all the more effective and shocking. It begins when Billy Batson, working as a newsreader at local radio station WHIZ, is given a flash report that the city of Chicago has just been destroyed by an atomic bomb. Billy quickly says the magic word, and flies off to help. But it’s already too late.
In one burning home, he finds a woman and her child. Captain Marvel swoops in to the rescue, but radiation poisoning has already done them in. Shaken, Captain Marvel laments, “It’ll be the same all over! Not one soul is alive in Chicago! Four million people—wiped out like flies! It’s horrible–horrible—HORRIBLE!”
Not long after, a whole slew of atomic “rocket-bombs” are headed towards the U.S. Captain Marvel stops a few, but others get by, destroying Washington, D.C., Denver, San Francisco, and Detroit. The American military finally gets things together and starts shooting off atomic bombs of its own, at an unnamed “enemy” country. Captain Marvel escorts the rockets, and finds that the enemy country is sending out atomic bombs, willy-nilly, all around the world.
Pretty soon, with mass confuson reigning everywhere, each attacked country blindly sends out more atomic bombs, without knowing for sure who the enemy is, until every nation in the world finds itself under attack. Captain Marvel does what he can to help stop the damage, but it’s beyond even his powers.
It doesn’t take long for the war to end, and Captain Marvel realizes the awful truth: all of humanity has been destroyed, and he is “the only man left alive on earth!”
At a time when government officials were assuring Americans that bomb shelters would allow citizens to ride out a nuclear war in safety, and children were being given “duck-and-cover” drills, this story is remarkably honest about a pretty terrifying situation. And Beck’s simple drawings give the horrific imagery a startling power, somewhat similar to the effect Art Spiegelman achieved with his simple art in Maus. (And no, I’m not saying this story rises to the same level, so don’t get on my case, please.)
This is one way for a superhero story to deal with a political or social issue successfully, by straightforwardly and honestly depicting the effects, not souping it up with a lot of hystrionic theatrics and claiming to be “grown-up.” This story doesn’t even bother trying to justify itself, it simply depicts the problem dramatically. In the end, it may not be high art, but it doesn’t degrade itself and the reader by pandering, either.
So far on this blog, I’ve been writing a lot more about old, mainstream children’s comics than I would’ve expected, especially since that’s not my usual reading material. Not that it really matters much, I guess, but next week, I’ll try to write about something that came out less than thirty years ago.