Monday, February 12, 2018

Unearthed: The World's Mightiest Mistake

I first became aware of Fawcett's Captain Marvel through issues of All-Star Squadron which I read in the 1980s. Immediately, there was something about him which captivated me in a manner other DC super heroes didn't. I've retained a fascination with the character over the years and I'm certainly privileged to be living in a time where all of the hero's Fawcett adventures are available for free reading at sites such as The Digital Comic Museum.

Captain Marvel's 1940s adventures definitely stand apart from much of what was published in that supposed 'Golden Age' of comics. The truth is that once you get past Kirby, Eisner, Cole and Everett, you have a mighty big load of second-rate talent with awkward storytelling skills. Fawcett, however, tended to employ quality artists such as C. C. Beck and fine writers like Otto Binder. In its time, Captain Marvel's comics were more popular than Superman's, which is one reason why DC attempted to sue Fawcett out of business; when Fawcett finally did give up on Captain Marvel, the book's creators eventually found themselves developing Superman's Silver Age.

But I'm here today to reflect upon the unfortunate side of Fawcett's Captain Marvel. I've previously noted the racism in one of their Captain Marvel Jr. tales and now I feel compelled to talk about Steamboat. It's hard to overlook Steamboat when discussing Captain Marvel's Golden Age - after all, he appears during the epic 'Monster Society of Evil' storyline which is considered to be the greatest Captain Marvel story of them all.

There is no getting around how embarrassing Steamboat is. At the same time, he was typical for his era. The massive lips which took up most of his face, the speech littered with 'jive talk' and mispronounced word with a vaguely southern accent - this is how so many African-Americans appeared in comic books of the 1940s. It may not have been malicious in origin, but it was incredibly ignorant. Further, there were creators in the 40s who were able to develop persons of colour with some dignity. There is no good excuse for Steamboat.

Let's look in particular at the story "The World's Mightiest Mistake" from Captain Marvel Adventures #16 (1942) by artist C. C. Beck (no writer credited). We open on Steamboat working as valet to Billy Batson, Captain Marvel's alter ego. Billy is a child with no apparent legal guardian in the Fawcett stories, but he's still an echelon above Steamboat. The opening narration refers to Steamboat as a "colored boy," the first of many repeats of that phrase. I suppose it is possible Steamboat was underage like Billy, in which case 'boy' would be valid... but that 'boy' never appears without 'colored' preceding it gives away the casual racism in that term.

Billy gives Steamboat a night off so Steamboat calls up his girlfriend Elocutia Jones for a date. This done, Billy secretly changes into Captain Marvel, then reappears to exit Billy's apartment via a window. Steamboat is unaware Billy is Captain Marvel which makes it bizarre for Billy to change identities just outside of Steamboat's field of vision. Shouldn't Steamboat be wondering where Billy has gone?

Anyway, Captain Marvel sets out to stop the Coloni mob from robbing a bank. Steamboat meets up with Elocutia who - in contrast to every African-American male in this story - has the kind of good features you'd expect on a Caucasian character. Hello, double standards! Steamboat and Elocutia journey to see a hypnotist's stage show. The hypnotist uses Steamboat as a subject and offers to hypnotize Steamboat so that he can become anybody he likes. Steamboat most desires to be like Captain Marvel, so the hypnotic spell is cast.

Attempting to speak Captain Marvel's magic word 'Shazam,' (but saying 'Shazowie' instead), Steamboat steps in one of the foootlights (or 'feet lights' as the hypnotist terms them) and causes a short circuit which plunges the theater into darkness (leaving the crowd's eyes, teeth and giant lips visible). When the lights come on, Steamboat has somehow torn apart his clothing into a weak facsimile of Captain Marvel's costume. Credit where it's due, Steamboat's mock costume fits the elements of Captain Marvel's clothes well - his red flannel underwear matching CM's red tights, yellow shoes in place of yellow boots, a torn white shirt hanging like CM's white cape and a yellow tie hanging in place of CM's lightning bolt.

Steamboat exits the theater to confront 'bank robbehs.' Speaking of which, Captain Marvel arrives at the bank but doesn't see the Coloni mob, so he departs. Two panels later the crooks turn up at the bank, taking advantage of our hero's short attention span. But then! Steamboat comes running up to the bank. The crooks don't even try to shoot him, assuming he's the bulletproof hero. Calling himself the Harlem Marvel - er, or "Hahlem Mahvel," Steamboat punches the robbers. They climb to the roof of the bank to escape; Steamboat, still thinking he's Captain Marvel, can't understand why he's unable to fly to the roof but pursues them via the ladder.

The crooks cross to another building using a conveniently-placed board, then kick the board away to stymie Steamboat. Steamboat tries to fly and nearly splatters himself on the ground, only for our impatient hero Captain Marvel to return and catch him. Captain Marvel catches the gang, then tells the police Steamboat deserves all the credit, earning his friend a cash reward.

Thoughts: What are the positives surrounding Steamboat? Well, (in this story at least) he isn't shown to love craps, watermelon, fried chicken and malt liquor, nor is he lazy or afraid of ghosts. What I mean to say is, if you tried to fill out your Racist Bingo Card to this story you wouldn't make bingo.

The bad? Pretty near everything else the paper and ink were made to do in this tale. Note that the story is titled "The World's Mightiest Mistake." To be sure, Steamboat is not Captain Marvel - that is a mistake. But the very idea of an African-American man aspiring to be a hero is played for lowbrow laughs. A Mistake. It's patronizing, in the worst way. At the time of this story's original publication the USA had entered World War II and African-American men were sacrificing their lives for their country; comic books were immensely popular with servicemen but while there were plenty of opportunities for white soldiers to envision themselves as the heroes, black GIs were not nearly as fortunate. How appropriate that this year's Black History Month will feature the debut of the Black Panther, comicdom's first true black super hero.

The Fawcett tales would eventually introduce the talking tiger Mr. Tawky Tawny as Captain Marvel's friend and he basically provided the sort of comic relief Steamboat had meant to supply, but without bringing in minstrel show visuals.

All images via The Digital Comic Museum

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