Echoes Not Heard: Alex Ross' "Echoes of Shazam!" and the Absence of a Certain Big Blue Boy Scout

This past Friday, exactly one week before the North American theatrical release of the SHAZAM movie, Alex Ross has provided what Nerdist.com calls "his definitive take on the cultural impact of the character." [1] "In this illustration..." Diaz writes, "[Ross] goes beyond the comic book universe to trace the influence of Shazam! on a broader pop culture scale, depicting over 100 characters from comics, movies, and television." [2] Not only does it feature characters, regardless of publisher, that have been called "Captain Marvel", but it also depicts characters who have been heavily influenced by him and his stories. If you haven't yet seen Ross' work, take a look below:

Echoes of Shazam! (2019)

As you might expect from an artist of Ross' caliber, the painting is spectacular.


Foregrounded in the image is the original Captain Marvel & Billy Batson, represented in the classic-style of co-creator and Chief Artist of Fawcett's flagship Captain Marvel Adventures, C.C. Beck, surrounded by all of the Captain Marvels and other characters who have taken inspiration from him and his journeys over the years. [3] Immediately recognizable characters like Marvel Comics' Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, Alan Moore's Marvelman, the original Thor (who many might forget was originally Dr. Don Blake, a man who became the God of Thunder when he slammed his cane on the ground), He-Man, Ultraman, Captain Super (the Crime Syndicate version of Captain Marvel), and so many more are there to celebrate the power of Shazam.


While it is certainly true that all of these characters, in one way or another, have taken inspiration from the "Big Red Cheese" and that the painting is an ambitious one that clearly demonstrates Ross' adoration for the character, there is a notable absence among the characters that populate this work of art. And if this is to be a definitive take on Captain Marvel/Shazam's pop culture influence, as Ross, Diaz and Nerdist.com have suggested, then this missing character is an egregious one. So, I have to ask...


Where, oh where, is Superman?

Superman by Curt Swan

Now, I'm sure many of you have already done the math... Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 which was published in 1938. The original Captain Marvel debuted in Whiz Comics #2, first published a full two-years later in 1940. You may even be aware of the lawsuit filed by DC Comics (then National Periodical Publications) against Fawcett that claimed copyright infringement against Captain Marvel. On the surface, none of this gives the impression that Superman was inspired in any way by Captain Marvel. Yet, despite how it looks, here I am suggesting that one of the greatest comics artist's of our time missed an opportunity to reflexively recognize how the "Big Red Cheese" significantly improved Siegel & Shuster's "Big Blue Boy Scout". In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that that the Superman as we know him today only exists because of Fawcett's Captain Marvel.


To understand why Superman belongs in Ross' "Echoes of Shazam!", we first need to talk about one of the greatest Golden Age comics writers of all-time: Otto Binder.

Otto Binder

Otto Binder began writing for Fawcett comics in 1941, taking over the Captain Marvel stories after original co-creator, Bill Parker, joined the military in 1940. Under Binder's pen, Captain Marvel quickly became the most popular comic book superhero published at that time. According to scholars Bradford Wright and Christopher Murray, Billy and Captain Marvel's popularity stemmed from their ability to provide young readers with a way to "imagine what it might be like to possess magical powers". [4] Billy, a boy as young as many of his readers, could become a hero with a single word; kids no longer had to project themselves into the bodies of adults for adventure, they could simply call for magic from the skies and become the hero they had always dreamt about.


It was this level of popularity and success that eventually led National to file their lawsuit against Fawcett. The lawsuit, which would drag on for years and is better discussed in a different article, would ultimately be settled in 1952 when Fawcett (who no longer wanted to continue their fight against National) agreed to stop publishing Captain Marvel comics.


While this might have signalled the end of the best-selling comics hero of the 1940s, it also opened the door for Otto Binder to begin another comics project. In 1954, Binder took on writing duties for the Superman group of titles at National, and would change the face of the character forever.


During his time working on the Superman titles, Binder contributed to the introduction of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and debuted one of Superman's deadliest villains (who will soon be appearing on Krypton: Season 2), Brainiac, as well as the Bottle City of Kandor in Action Comics #242 (1958). Around the same time, he also introduced fan-favourite villain/anti-hero, Bizarro, in Superboy #68 (1958) as well as Bizarro World in Action Comics #263 (1960). He would further introduce other important elements to the Superman mythos including The Phantom Zone, Lucy Lane, Beppo the Super Monkey, and even Jimmy Olsen's famous signal-watch.


While all of these new characters are important and signal Binder's contribution to the Superman mythology, they don't really explain why Captain Marvel impacted Superman or why Superman should be in Ross' "Echoes of Shazam!". For that, we have to look to Binder's two greatest additions to the Superman universe: Krypto the Super Dog and Supergirl.


One of the most enduring and popular elements of Binder (and Beck's) time on Captain Marvel was the introduction of the Marvel Family.

Cover to "The Marvel Family #1" (1945)

Originally introduced by Binder and Beck in Captain Marvel Adventures #18 (1942), the Marvel family was one of the most popular elements of Captain Marvel's mythos. In stark contrast to many other heroes being published at that time, Captain Marvel had a whole family to help him on his adventures and demonstrated to young children the importance of having support from those who love and care about you. Billy knew he couldn't always do it alone; a meaningful lessons for young children.


Joining Billy/Captain Marvel in those original team-up adventures with the Marvel Family was Freddy Freeman/Captain Marvel Jr., who had been originally introduced in Whiz Comics #25 (1941), and Mary Marvel (as well as some other less notable family members, like Uncle Marvel). Within a very short time of the family's introduction, they become one of the most popular and best selling comics of the Golden Age. [5]


In an article for Polygon.com about Disney/Pixar's The Incredibles, Meg Downey states, "The Marvel Family’s success went on to inspire copycats of their own — DC (then known as National Comics) replicated the process for their entire trinity, complete with costume-wearing animal companions, super babies, wonder tots, and long lost elderly relatives." [6] What Downey fails to mention is that, for Superman at least, the one who developed this "Superman Family" was the writer of Captain Marvel himself, Otto Binder.


Only one year after he began working with Superman, Binder introduced Krypto the Super Dog in Adventure Comics #210 (1955). Besides Siegel and Shuster's own Superboy, Krypto served as the first step towards the building of the Superman Family as we know it today. The next one, would come in the form of Superman's cousin, Kara Zor-El, also known as Supergirl in Action Comics #252 (1959).


Together with Superman, an increased focus on Lois Lane (his Lois Lane comic for Showcase #9 in 1957 set the stage for her own on-going publication shortly thereafter) and Jimmy Olsen (Binder launched Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen in 1954), the Superman family would continue to grow and demonstrate that the Family Formula pioneered with Captain Marvel all those years before, was still a winner. This is only further demonstrated by the characters lasting importance to Superman even today.


Recent comics (Tomasi, Gleason, Jurgens, and even Bendis' runs) have emphasized the importance of family to Superman. Jon Kent (the son of Superman and Lois Lane) has become one of the break-out stars of the current DC Universe, the return of Connor Kent within the pages of Young Justice (2018) has been met with resounding excitement, Supergirl is riding high after Melissa Benoit's successful CW television series has far surpassed expectations and Krypto has even been gallivanting alongside her in her solo comics series.


Simply put, the Superman that we know today would not be who he is without his family and there is no denying that this "family" is completely indebted to the success of Otto Binder's work with Captain Marvel.


When Fawcett abandoned the fight against National, Binder brought the formula that had made Captain Marvel and his family so successful and applied it to the original comic book superhero himself. Without the contributions of Binder, the family characters that have come after his tenure at DC simply wouldn't exist. He not only set the stage for them within Superman comics, he did so even earlier within the Captain Marvel stories. This is the contribution that Captain Marvel and Shazam gave to Superman, and why he belongs in Ross' "Echoes of Shazam!" painting.

All this said, Ross' "Echoes of Shazam!" is still nothing short of amazing. It is an artist's passion project for a character that he clearly loves and cares about. By demonstrating the missing piece of the painting, I do not intend to diminish it's power or suggest that it fails in it's mission; it certainly doesn't. What it does do though is miss the opportunity to recognize the contributions of a character that Ross clearly loves so much on one of DC Comics' most visible and popular heroes. It would have been a small, but meaningful vindication for Captain Marvel's wrongful demise at the hands of National/Superman.


We may not see that in Ross' work here, but SHAZAM! does hit theatres this Friday. Maybe we'll finally see the "Big Red Cheese" overshadow the "Big Blue Boy Scout" on the silver screen, instead.


Sources:


[1] Diaz, Erica. "Alex Ross' 'Echoes Of Shazam!' Pays Tribute to Every Captain Marvel Ever (Exclusive)". Nerdist.com. 3.29.19. Available at https://nerdist.com/article/alex-ross-echoes-of-shazam-every-captain-marvel-ever-exclusive/.


[2] ibid.


[3] Cremins, Brian. Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia. University Press of Mississippi. 2019.


[4] Wright, Bradford and Christopher Murray qtd. in Cremins, Brian, p. 16.


[5] Downey, Meg. "There's No Incredibles Without the Golden Ages First Superhero Family". Polygon.com. 6.17.18. Available at https://www.polygon.com/2018/6/17/17473058/the-incredibles-2-connections-captain-marvel-comics.


[6] ibid.

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