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Review of Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia

By Jesse Ritchie

Cremins, Brian. Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia. University Press of Mississippi, 2016.

What can understanding the connections between comics and nostalgia, as well as the fan works that spring from those connections, do to alter how scholars study comics? And what does a somewhat obscure character like Fawcett Comics superhero Billy Batson/Captain Marvel have to do with it all? These are the questions that Brian Cremins raises, and answers, in his Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia. In his book, Cremins argues fairly convincingly that nostalgia is an inherent part of the process of creating and reading comics. Cremins focuses on the initial run of the Golden Age Captain Marvel in particular, exploring the character, his world, and the fond memories fans held onto of both. The majority of the monograph that follows is devoted to a close examination of the relationship between the early comics featuring Captain Marvel and how those comics create and evoke memories and nostalgia. As it does so, the text also makes occasional gestures towards the relevance of engaging with these topics for the wider field of Comics Studies. Ultimately, Cremins offers readers an engaging case for examining comics through the lens of nostalgia. In doing so, he draws on an impressive archive of fan and creative work thereby pointing to at least some fan works as potential valuable resources for particular kinds of comic studies. While his study occasionally suffers from some organizational issues and a few stylistic tangents, none of that detracts significantly from Cremins’s work.

Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia opens with a brief introduction, “Tiny Flashes of Light,” which establishes Captain Marvel as a character, and presents some of the most critically concerned prose about nostalgia and its relations to Captain Marvel, the comics he appears in, and comics as a whole. Cremins begins with what is probably the most well-known bit of trivia about the character, starting in medias res with the court case between National Comics (now DC Comics) and Fawcett over whether Captain Marvel was derivative of Superman. He then draws upon testimony from Beck and other Fawcett witnesses about these characters’ different origins and fictional biographies, and he uses this testimony to examine how Captain Marvel comics evoke nostalgia. For Cremins, Captain Marvel/Billy Batson is a “daydreamer” in the tradition of other American literary heroes such as Jay Gatsby, and his narrative world is one “filled with a longing for the hidden, the vanished, and the forgotten” (4). In the pages of a Captain Marvel comic, both readers and characters can reconnect with the vanished and hidden world they long for. This world can be found not in reality, but through the search for it brought about by the nostalgic fantasy on the page. In Cremins’s estimation, the same is true for comics as a medium. Though Cremins’ situating Billy Batson in the same camp as Gatsby and other “daydreamers” may be a bit of overkill as a means of developing Billy’s literary pedigree, the rest of the theoretical material establishes a clear connection between the ways comics form and content can evoke feelings of nostalgia in readers. Cremins establishes this connection using examples drawn from nostalgia studies more broadly, offering readings of the “daydreamer” heroes to which Cremins compares Billy/Captain Marvel. He then returns to Beck’s testimony and description of the similar introductory images of both Superman and Captain Marvel, with both heroes smashing automobiles. He performs a close reading of the ways in which these images function as responses to change and as a desire to preserve a sense of the past in the pages of a comic book.

The first and second chapters, a “Fabric of Illusion,” and “Otto Binder and the Secret Life of Mr. Tawny,” detail the lives and artistic theories of Captain Marvel’s primary creative team: artist (and Captain Marvel co-creator) C.C. Beck and writer Otto Binder. Both chapters present an extensive amount of background on the individual creators and how their experiences and ideas about art and writing shaped the development of Captain Marvel. However, the subject of nostalgia is pushed to the background in these chapters, a somewhat disappointing move coming off of the strong introduction. Instead, readers pick up a little more information about the writer and artist along the way. Yet, both chapters still offer plenty of insight into the respective works of the creators. “A Fabric of Illusion” examines in depth how Beck’s simplistic, cartoonish style serves as a narrative technique that allows readers to move through the panels with briskness and clarity as a means of propelling the story forward. As an example of this simplicity imbued with strong narrative motion, Cremins examines the pages in which Billy initially meets the wizard Shazam. Here Cremins argues that Beck “illustrates Billy’s gradual transformation” through a series of progressive panels focusing on elapsed movement and portal imagery that, according to Cremins, features “a series of doorways, windows, and television screens” which Billy must pass through or peer into (34).

The chapter on Binder is perhaps most critically rewarding for its examination of Captain Marvel’s friend Mr. Tawny, a talking tiger who often acts much more maturely than the Captain. Not only does this “funny animal” character act the most adult, but according to Cremins’s citation of Binder’s own writings, Tawny also functions as an autobiographical avatar of the writer. While Tawny may appear to be the most fantastic character, he is actually the most mundane: he works at a museum, he tries to recapture a lost youth, and, “at the mercy of time,” he is able to age as well as “remember (and long for) the past” (57). The way in which Binder makes use of the contrast between the mature anthropomorphic tiger Tawny with the more innocent and childlike Captain Marvel is one of the most interesting things about the chapter, but, unfortunately, it does not receive much time in the overall examination of the character. Both chapters are informative and provide useful background information on Captain Marvel’s creators. However, despite that interesting background, these chapters don’t do much to broadly engage with the interrelations between nostalgia and comics.

Dealing with nostalgia, comics, and culture is the province of the next two chapters beginning with “Brother that Ain’t Imaginary,” which discusses the event that most profoundly affected the culture and comics of the Golden Age: World War II. Cremins claims World War II era comics often served as reminders for the troops of a home and childhood left behind, a world which those troops—irrevocably changed by the experiences of war—can nostalgically recall but can never return to. The chapter details how the war affected Captain Marvel. Cremins emphasizes four stories of Captain Marvel’s involvement in the war effort that mix the real events, locales, and figures of the war (including both the bombing of London, and the existence of concentration camps) with the imaginary figure of Captain Marvel. According to Cremins, when these real events are made part of the imaginary story world in which Captain Marvel exists, they become part of simple stories of good and evil to which the mighty figure of Captain Marvel can bring swift resolution. Cremins then argues that this mingling of imaginary resolution with versions of the real horrors of war provided a kind of “mastery” over them for readers (88). For Cremins, the imaginary world of Captain Marvel offers “another way of being” in which the innocent and the good are combined with strength in the figure of Captain Marvel and can triumph against evil. While the chapter is an engaging exploration of the relationship between comics, nostalgia, and readers (particularly soldier) a pair of narrative tangents interrupt its flow. The first interruption introduces the army war show, a kind of traveling arena spectacle put on by the army to demonstrate their training to the public and garner support for the war. This tangent adds little to the discussion of the Captain Marvel stories. The second is a narrative intrusion in which Cremins documents his own connections with the war shows, the comics, and nostalgia. These reflections do not detract from Cremins’s argument, but are not necessary to it either.

The fourth chapter, “Steamboat’s America,” examines the role and character of Steamboat, Captain Marvel’s African-American valet and stereotype par excellence. Cremins here offers the fairly standard set up of establishing background and offering close readings of the comics and related sources. Perhaps most interestingly, the chapter explores how the stereotypical figure of Steamboat functions as an unintended intrusion of realism into the fantasy text by playing to those very real and damaging stereotypes (107). At its most engaging, the chapter examines how Steamboat and his stereotypical depiction serve as a contrast to Captain Marvel/Billy’s, since Steamboat is “fixed and unchanging” where Billy is upwardly mobile and literally capable of great transformation which grants him power (111). Cremins advances the chapter with a look at how Steamboat’s presence in the comics affected actual social change by prompting student organization “Youthbuilders” to protest his stereotypical depiction, and advocate the character’s removal from the comics. “Steamboat’s America” ties the legacy of Steamboat to the character of Evelyn Cream in Alan Moore’s later Captain Marvel inspired MiracleMan. The chapter raises important questions about how stereotypes function in the world of Captain Marvel and in early comics in general. It also provides limited, but important, insight into how Captain Marvel comics treat issues of race and class in a broad sense. However, it seems like a missed opportunity that the chapter does not take that insight further and provide an in-depth look at those intersections and functions of race and class in Captain Marvel and whether the way they are portrayed in that comic is exemplary of such representations in comics of the period more broadly. For instance, unlike Billy, Steamboat is not upwardly mobile in the comics. In fact, he moves downward from owning a horse and food cart to being Billy’s valet. He stays put in this position, serving as an indicator of Billy’s own new and higher class status. There is plenty here to dig into, and while Cremins offers a fairly thorough look into the racial aspects of Steamboat and Billy/Captain Marvel’s relationship, issues of class and mobility get short shrift. On the whole, the chapter feels more like a standalone article than a part of the broader work despite a kind of nostalgia playing a clear role in Steamboat’s representation. Indeed, it’s certainly possible to see Steamboat’s crude, stereotypical representation and his degrading situation as Billy’s subordinate as demonstrating the dark side of nostalgia that longs for a mythical past despite, or perhaps because of, that past being built on damaging and oppressive structures and institutions. Cremins does examine Captain Marvel stories that hint at this nostalgia. He examines, for example, an arc in which Captain Marvel and Steamboat visit the South to stop Captain Marvel’s nemesis Doctor Sivana, who has taken over a riverboat and is controlling Steamboat’s voodoo-practicing grandmother. While Cremins does spend time with this story, he does little to delve into any role nostalgia plays in it. It is unfortunate that the full implications of that darker nostalgia are never fully explored here.

The final chapter, “Wertham’s Little Goblins,” deals with how nostalgia for Captain Marvel and his stories on the part of grown fan readers led to fan scholarship and writing through zine culture. It is also the most theoretically engaging chapter. Cremins digs deeply into the subject of nostalgia and how augments readings of comics. He also draws on fan work as valuable source material for his case, a move that underscores the usefulness of fan works to similar projects as primary sources. Cremins begins the chapter by providing an in-depth history of nostalgia as an idea. He explores the function nostalgia serves as the imaginative capacity of looking to the past and recreating that past in an idealized form. After this rather late reintroduction of nostalgia and its functions, Cremins goes on to explore that sense of nostalgia in relation to comic books, particularly the kind of “active, adventurous” nostalgia that certain comics—like those revolving around superheroes—evoke. It is this “adventurous” nostalgia that serves as not just a longing, but a kind of exploration which invites community building (198). It is this shared nostalgia that leads to Cremins’s own exploration of the role nostalgia played in fan culture. He uses Captain Marvel comics as an example, and he asserts that a desire to remember and explore led to studies and reflections of the comics in fanzines. Indeed, it is the fanzines themselves that are the “little goblins” of the chapter’s title, and they were labeled as such by none other than Fredric Wertham in reference to a fairy tale. As impish disruptions on the margins, fanzines allowed for connections between and discussion of the media which inspired the fans: media like comics starring Captain Marvel. The latter segment of the chapter works off of this position of the consideration of fanzines and fanwork as an important measure for the study of comics and nostalgia. Cremins brings these elements together with the figure of Captain Marvel and his comics in a way that elucidates the ways in which comics, fans, and memory interact to create enduring and powerful experiences. Had that chapter stopped there, it would have been a strong finish. Unfortunately, Cremins lessens the impact of the chapter by tacking on a look into the role of nostalgia and archival sources. The move appears intriguing, except it’s only given a small section and is in large part dominated by a personal anecdote about the nostalgia produced by an old photograph of the author as a young child and Captain Marvel fan. It is a potentially fruitful idea, but it doesn’t add as much as it could have, and would likely be better placed with the final reflective “Epilogue” of the work which is itself another form of extended personal narration.

Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia makes an engaging, but at times uneven, case for studying the important relationship between comics and nostalgia. In part, Cremins’s choice to include moments of personal narrative intrusions to underscore nostalgic connections contributes to the occasionally uneven flow of chapters and ideas. Discussions of nostalgia and its relationship to comics sometimes take a back seat to these personal accounts. However, readers coming to Cremins’s book not knowing much about nostalgia or Captain Marvel are likely to come away with a better knowledge of both. The text serves as a good starting point for examination of those subjects. Cremins’s work does suffer from some unevenness, but this unevenness does not obscure the text’s primary goal in examining the links between Captain Marvel comics, memory, and nostalgia. For those interested, Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia is worth a look, and it may lead readers to reconsider the associations and connections with the past that their own favorite comics inspire.

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