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Film revives 80-year-old character Shazam’s Greenwich origins

April 7, 2019

C.C. Beck stepped onto the stage of Greenwich’s Pickwick Theatre in 1944 and sketched his most famous creation for 2,000 people there to raise money for the war effort.

At the end of the bidding, Beck’s drawing of Captain Marvel sold for $5,000.

The Greenwich cameo was no coincidence. Fawcett Publications, which published the character, had as many as 14 offices in the town before consolidating operations in its own building on its own street. The Pickwick was just a few doors down from the headquarters of the Captain Marvel Club, which claimed as many as 563,164 members and staffed more than 30 employees.

Such was the character’s popularity during World War II, when — by some counts — his comics sold more than any character in the history of the medium. Less than a decade later, he lost a legal smackdown with Superman’s publisher, which decried him as a copycat.

In a flash of lightning, he was gone.

When he stars this weekend in “Shazam!” it will mark the character’s first movie appearance since he became the first superhero to appear on screen, in a 1941 12-chapter serial. The World’s Mightiest Mortal has suffered an identity crisis in the intervening years. By the time he was revived in comics in 1973, his name had been swiped for a different character by Marvel Comics, creating a fresh generation of legal hurdles. Even “Shazam” became better known as a smartphone app.

Now, both characters are in theaters at the same time. Marvel’s “Captain Marvel” has busted the $1 billion mark at the box office since its release last month. “Shazam!” arrives with a promising 92 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

“Shazam” is the secret word orphan boy Billy Batson exclaims to summon lightning that transforms him into the adult caped superhero. If two names aren’t confusing enough, Shazam is an acronym for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.

“The character’s success can be attributed to the wish fulfillment element that was so relatable to Cap’s younger readers,” said P.C. Hamerlinck, editor of Fawcett Collectors of America.

The original Captain Marvel name is no longer uttered in the character’s orbit. The recent paperback release of a 2010 art book celebrating the Fawcett years avoids the name in its title, “Shazam! The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal.” Even press materials for the book dodge mentioning it like a Harry Potter character fearful of saying the name of that universe’s villain.

The book, by Chip Kidd and Geoff Spear, serves as a portable museum of the lost Shazam legend of 70 years ago, including several missives scrawled beneath the fan club’s Greenwich masthead. Club staff kept young fans updated via letters in the voice of the characters, luring dimes and quarters with novelty premiums.

Items included figures, Christmas ornaments, paper dolls, bean bags, neckties, suspenders, beanies, paper planes, “gob-style” hats, tattoos, and canteen kits to send comics to the troops. Era ads in the Stamford Advocate pitched sweatshirts for 98 cents.

War stamp envelopes featured the character smashing swastikas and rolling up his scarlet sleeves with Uncle Sam.

Kidd, a graphic designer famous for book covers, marvels at how Fawcett generated products in-house, while competitors licensed their properties.

When Mary Marvel joined the character lineup, her own club issued letters from 49 West Putnam Ave. that signed off with fashion tips (“Peplums are coming back in full swing”).

One adventure even brought Billy Batson to “the insurance capital,” where he shouts “Shazam!” to snare “Slippery Sam” with the words “I didn’t expect to see this part of Hartford.”

The fan club is featured in the 1950 film “The Good Humor Man,” in which the title character and a group of boys rally by chanting “Niatpac Levram,” (read it backward) as they foil the villain, appropriately played by future “Superman” TV star George Reeves.

Origin story

Beck and writer Bill Parker may have framed the character for his December 1939 launch in Whiz Comics, but the DNA can be traced to Wilford Fawcett, founder of the dynasty.

Fawcett was “Captain Billy” during his army years and put in time as a news reporter. When World War I ended, he launched the risqué humor publication “Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang.” Less than 20 years later, young Billy Batson worked as a radio reporter and changed to the captain in a ... bang on the pages of Whiz Comics. They debuted 20 months after Superman sent comic sales up, up and away as the first costumed superhero.

Superman finished second in more than sales. The Big Red Cheese (as Captain Marvel’s nemesis dubbed him) was flying while the Man of Steel still hopped from place to place in single bounds. Lightning wardrobe changes beat stripping in phone booths. There was even a Hoppy the Marvel Bunny long before Krypto the Superdog.

Riding high on the sales of magazines such as Mechanix Illustrated, Fawcett Publications moved its main office from Minneapolis to Greenwich in 1934.

Only months after his superhero took flight, Capt. Billy died in February 1940. His four sons continued to expand the family business.

“Fawcett issued more than 60 publications by 1942, becoming the largest publisher of newsstand periodicals in the world,” Hamerlinck said via email.

‘The nerve center’

Since many of those magazines were film-related, Fawcett’s move to Greenwich in 1936 raised hope in the Greenwich News-Graphic (later Greenwich Time) that it was “the barometer which points to Greenwich as the flourishing center of the cinema industry.”

In 1946, the company opened an $850,000 four-story limestone building on half an acre near the bottom of Greenwich Avenue, on a side street renamed Fawcett Place. CBS bought Fawcett Publications in 1977 and the building later became the Greenwich Financial Center.

Fawcett also purchased a 21-story office building on 44th Street in Manhattan, but back in the 1940s, “the Greenwich office was the nerve center,” Hamerlinck wrote.

Roscoe Fawcett, who lived in Greenwich, once explained in Hamerlinck’s magazine that he and his brothers had to open a separate building after launching the club in August 1941. “The coins came rolling in from readers wanting their official club pin-back button and the membership card containing Cap’s secret code,” he said.

Kidd attributes the success of the character and company to the “Shazam!” magic word device. “That no one had thought of that before was amazing,” he said.

Artists at work

Artist Beck’s fluid lines defined the character throughout his original run. His Captain Marvel quickly lost military accents on his costume, including a sash and tunic.

Joe Giella, 90, has bragging rights as the oldest living Batman artist, but back in the 1940s, he got his start as a teen sidekick to Beck freelancing on Fawcett titles.

Giella grew up with Anthony Benedetto, the secret identity of singer Tony Bennett, in the streets of Astoria, Queens. In search of work to help his family, he would pack lunch in a paper bag and ride a bus to Beck’s studio in Englewood, N.J.

Fawcett demanded the character stick close to his original vision, which was based on actor Fred MacMurray, Giella said.

“God forbid you deviate with a different face,” he recalled. “So many artists change Batman’s face. But I like the way they do it with (Shazam). Keep it the same.”

For a few magic years, The World’s Mightiest Mortal fended off Dr. Sivana, Captain Nazi and Mister Mind with abandon, only to be thwarted by a lawsuit and the rising competition of television. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer also helped rub him out, as the Fawcetts clutched the financial rewards of cheap paperbacks such as Spillane’s “I, the Jury.”

Zapped between the eyes

After all that lightning and thunder, there were few Shazam sparks in popular culture over the next two decades.

A leftover “Good Humor Man” prop showed up in a “Donna Reed Show” Christmas episode in 1958. Television’s “Gomer Pyle” claimed “Shazam!” on “The Andy Griffith Show” and his spinoff.

A theory (“that’s not a theory,” countered Kidd, a believer) emerged that the character Captain Marvel Junior’s hairstyle and outfit influenced the look of Elvis Presley, whose boyhood comics starring the caped teen remain in Graceland’s attic.

The Beatles paid tribute as well. On the band’s eponymous 1968 album (better known as “The White Album”), “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” includes the lyric “So Captain Marvel zapped him right between the eyes.” John Lennon said he wrote the song about someone who broke meditation camp in India to shoot tigers. Capt. Billy was a big game hunter.

Can lightning strike twice?

Though a Saturday morning TV show in the mid-70s showcased the character for a new generation, he never reclaimed his stature.

That can all change this weekend. Giella, whose son lives in Stamford, said he’s looking forward to seeing the new movie. “Absolutely. I’m 90, but I’m a kid at heart,” he said.

Kidd said Friday afternoon he was planning to see the film later that day. He noted that the film had three weeks to prove itself before rival Marvel unleashes the juggernaut “Avengers: Endgame.”

If “Shazam!” does fly, “you can bet the sequel will be all about Mary Marvel,” Kidd predicted.

As the character returns to theaters for the first time since that 1944 Beck drawing, he can finally break free of obscurity. Ticket buyers hold the power. All they have to do is step up to the box office and say “Shazam!”

jbreunig@stamfordadvocate.com; twitter.com/johnbreunig.