- Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia by Brian Cremins
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It is perhaps a testament to Brian Cremins's commitment to his research that Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia was not renamed "Shazam! and the Art of Nostalgia," despite the fact that its subject, the superpowered alter-ego of child orphan Billy Batson, has existed under the name Shazam since his most recent reboot in 2012. Any confusion that might exist with more modern iterations of Captain Marvel are ignored in Cremins's work. To the author, Batson was—and is—the only Captain Marvel.
Written with a deeply personal approach that sees Cremins's research mingled with everything from childhood anecdotes to discussions of his side career as a musician, Captain Marvel … seeks to explore "the relationship between the medium of comics, the lure of nostalgia, and the art of memory studies" (4). While the book's interests are indeed hybridized, it is as a record of one of the comic medium's "secret histories" that it succeeds most fully, overshadowing some of the author's more plainly-stated goals. [End Page 258]
This discrepancy is first seen in the introduction, "Tiny Flashes of Light." Here, Cremins does an admirable job of contextualizing Captain Marvel within the book's multiple themes, but the author seems most at ease when chronicling the character's invention by creators C. C. Beck and Otto Binder for Fawcett Comics in 1940. However, the book's first attempt at aesthetic analysis and memory study is somewhat vague. Comparing Captain Marvel's first appearance in Whiz Comics #2 to Superman's in Action Comics #1 two years prior, Cremins notes that both comics' covers feature heroes smashing automobiles. He calls these acts of technological destruction "an exercise in nostalgia, an active, violent attempt to move time backwards" (22). While this thesis might have some merit, given further examples, it's unclear for much of the book how this "violent nostalgia" is specific to Captain Marvel.
The author's considerable skill as a historian outshines his theses throughout. Chapters 1 and 2 are in-depth explorations of Beck and Binder, and one almost wishes Cremins might have seen fit to build a full-length work from his masterful reassembling not only of the two creators' histories, but of their time at Fawcett Comics as well. Readers of works like Gerald Jones's Men of Tomorrow are likely familiar with an image of the Golden Age of comics as being wrought with seedy backroom deals and artistic compromise, but through Cremins's lens we learn of a "lively, collaborative atmosphere at Fawcett," fueled by "booze and old time … music" (29). Beck in particular is rendered not only as a budding comics theorist (some thirty years before Will Eisner popularized the subject), but also as one of the earliest writers for comic fanzines. Binder's story is more personal, and more imbued with pathos. Cremins considers him a foil for Captain Marvel supporting character Mr. Tawny, an anthropomorphic tiger and struggling writer who faced constant obstacles to his lofty literary ambitions, but who (like Binder) had to learn to be happy as "a regular fellow" just the same (64).
Much like the introduction, these chapters feel somewhat thin when the subject moves from historical narrative to visual analysis or memory study. In discussing how Beck chose to draw Billy Batson's ear, for example, Cremins tries to connect the image's simplicity to the artist's boyhood in Minnesota with language that is as effusive as it is somewhat lacking in substance. "This is Beck's 'handwriting,' his signature," the author suggests in his analysis. "Drawings of a universe so complex that its beauty must be communicated with simplicity, elegance and grace" (47). Despite Cremins's lyricism, there is often a tenuous relationship between the microcosms of his examples (in this case, a drawing of an ear) and the macrocosm of meaning that he wants us to appreciate.
Chapter 3, "Billy Batson and World War II," discusses...