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Shazam! The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal

Author/designer Chip Kidd and photographer Geoff Spear ogle oodles of highly collectible "Marvel Family" merchandise.

By Rich Clabaugh / January 8, 2011

In his time – the 1940s and early 1950s – Captain Marvel was outselling Superman.

Captain Marvel's Magic Flute/From the collection of Harry Matetsky

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‘SHAZAM!!’

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That’s the word young Billy Baston has to say to be transformed by a magic lightning bolt into the world’s mightiest mortal (and an grown-up too, I might add) Captain Marvel! As Captain Marvel, young Billy has the powers of –

Solomon – wisdom

Hercules – strength

Atlas – stamina

Zeus – power

Achilles – courage

Mercury – speed

Pretty neat, huh! What little kid wouldn’t be drawn to such a character? And like flies they were during the 1940s and early 1950s, outselling Superman by 14 million comic books a month. Besides the Captain, who appeared in three comics a month, there were comics with his sister Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., and even a funny animal character Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny.

The huge popularity of Captain Marvel is celebrated in the book, Shazam! The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal (Harry N. Abrams, 246 pp.) by writer and designer Chip Kidd and photographer Geoff Spear. Together they show us oodles of "Marvel Family" merchandise and ephemera, mostly from the collection of Harry Matetsky.

And what a collection it is, from Captain Marvel club items to clothes, toys, games, puzzles, figurines, and paper dolls, just to name a few. Among those which stood out to me: the "personally" addressed letters to fans "signed" by the Captain himself (Fawcett Publications, who printed the Captain Marvel comics, had 30 full-time staffers to answer the Captain’s fan mail); and all the clothing – ties, shirts, dresses (from Mary Marvel). The funniest, however, was the replica of Captain Marvel’s cape, which has a disclaimer printed on it: "Play cape does not possess superhuman powers," probably to prevent any unnecessary roof jumping.

Besides merchandise there are comics and letters that were sent out to companies to entice them to have Captain Marvel endorse their products.

All the collectibles leap off the page thanks to the amazing page design of Kidd. His enthusiasm for his material is contagious, from the cover with its neat lightning bolt shape cut out to display the word "Shazam" on the page underneath, to the items (beautifully lighted and photographed by Spear) shown on page after page. Many of them get a full-page treatment and there's even a gatefold.

Kidd’s text leads you through the items with brief descriptions and a history of the "Shazam" phenomenon, letting the collectibles speak for themselves. He only breaks from them occasionally to show covers of the various "Marvel Family" comics.

But what happened to the Captain Marvel craze? Kidd recounts the battle that Captain Marvel lost – the one in the courtroom. D.C. comics claimed that he was a Superman rip-off and, after years and years of trials, Fawcett stopped publishing the comics.

Kidd’s introduction is my favorite part of the text. Here, he reveals the degree to which this book was a labor of love. Kidd tells how he discovered Captain Marvel at age 8 and shares pictures of a home-made Halloween costume of the Captain he wore at age 9. He sums up the character’s appeal simply but eloquently:

“Batman was Menace.

Superman was Power.

Captain Marvel was Charm.”

Rich Clabaugh is a Monitor staff artist.

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