ZUMBROTA, Minn. — Does Goodhue County have a secret alter ego as a comic book landmark?
When it comes to the history of superheroes and comics, Zumbrota, Minn., has its own little-known claim to fame as the hometown of the artist who created the original Captain Marvel, aka Shazam.
The late comic artist C.C. Beck, the son of a Lutheran pastor and school teacher, grew up in a house that once stood across from the Zumbrota State Theatre. He spent his formative years there until his family moved to Minneapolis when he was 15.
Dave Grimsrud, columnist for the Zumbrota News, is amazed that Beck and the connection to Captain Marvel isn’t well known. Wikipedia lists Beck as one of only two “Notable People” from Zumbrota. (NFL coach Paul Casey “Gus” Bradley is the other.)
“Zumbrota takes pride in its support of the arts. It seems odd that C.C. Beck is pretty much ignored," Grimsrud said.
Captain Marvel was his favorite comic as a kid, but he didn’t discover the link to Zumbrota until reading the work of a newspaper columnist who came before him, the late Charlie Buck.
Grimsrud remembered reading Captain Marvel while sitting on the floor of Klug’s Pharmacy on Zumbrota's Main Street.
“I would read some pages, but very often would turn the pages beginning in the back to focus on the drawings ... The visual excitement of Beck's drawings earned my attention. I later majored in art in college,” he said. “I had no idea that the artist walked down the same Zumbrota streets or went into the same buildings that I had.”
Grimsrud suggested that the Zumbrota Public Library or a local gallery could display Beck’s clean-and-simple artwork that launched the comic book that grew to outsell Superman in the 1940s and attracted 400,000 people to join the Captain Marvel Fan Club.
“Maybe instead of the Cougars, the school mascot could be the Marvels instead,” he said.
Known in his hometown or not, Beck is unquestionably the man who created the look of the character that was the most popular comic in the 1940s. Well-known for being curmudgeonly, Beck might not have welcomed such attention. He died in Florida in 1989.
Captain Marvel, created by Beck and writer Bill Parker, hit the comic book world like a lightning bolt in 1940 with the first issue of “Whiz Comics” in 1940. Published by Fawcett Publications, Captain Marvel quickly outsold the rival Superman comic.
In interviews, Beck said he based Captain Marvel’s look on actor Fred MacMurray. Unlike later superheroes, Captain Marvel was known for being wholesome and charming, with a big smile always on his face. He wore a red flannel suit with a golden cape and a lighting bolt symbol on his chest. As an artist, Beck favored a simple “comic strip” style. Beck told interviewers that the story was more important than the art.
“I didn’t create any of Fawcett’s characters — I was just the first person to put them into visual form. They were conceived in Parker’s mind; I was just the doctor who held them up and slapped them on their bottoms to make them draw their first breaths,” Beck told comics journalist Tom Heintjes during an interview. “When Bill Parker and I went to work on Fawcett’s first comic book in late 1939, we both saw how poorly written and illustrated the superhero comic books were. We decided to give our reader a real comic book, drawn in comic-strip style and telling an imaginative story, based not on the hackneyed formulas of the pulp magazine, but going back to the old folk-tales and myths of classic times.”
The rise (and fall) of Captain Marvel
The Captain Marvel storyline is that Billy Batson, a pure-of-heart teen who transforms into the powerful adult hero when he says the magic word: “Shazam.” Shazam represents the first letters of the names of the legendary beings whose power it invokes — Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. Beck always told people that Batson was the real hero of the comic, not Captain Marvel.
Fawcett launched several related books featuring other members of the Marvel family, such as Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel, as well as related characters, like Spy Smasher. Merchandise including Captain Marvel toys, decoder rings, watches, ties and more flooded the market.
Captain Marvel soon became the first superhero to hit the silver screen in a 12-episode serial in 1941 with a suspiciously Superman-like description: “He flies like a bird. Bullets bounce off his body. He runs with the speed of an express train.”
While Beck continued as the primary artist, he was soon supervising a group of artists as the popularity grew. That rotating team of artists at one point included two young men who would later become legendary comic creators themselves, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. The pair later created Captain America, while Kirby launched many of the most popular heroes at both Marvel and DC.
Captain Marvel’s popularity attracted enemies outside the pages of the comic books. Superman's publisher filed a number of lawsuits against Fawcett claiming that Captain Marvel was a rip-off of their most popular character.
The constant legal battles and flagging sales in the wake of World War II led to the final issue of Captain Marvel being published in 1953. Beck had remained the chief artist throughout the 155-issue run.
DC acquired control of the Captain Marvel character in 1974. However, Marvel Comics had trademarked the name and launched their own Captain Marvel comic in 1967, 14 years after Fawcett’s last Captain Marvel comic.
Beck did return to drawing Captain Marvel in the 1970s working for DC, when the character was revived with a new comic series. However, he quit after 10 issues.
“They talked me into illustrating the first few issues of the revived Captain Marvel comic, but I gave up when I realized that the stories were structureless, meaningless and totally worthless,” said Beck of his experience at DC.
Eventually, the pressure from Marvel Comics pushed DC to rename the character Shazam. That’s the name that showed up as the title of a 2019 DC movie. Beck was prominently listed in the credits as one of the creators of the character. The film also referenced Beck by making Zumbrota Billy Batson's birthplace and naming Batson's birth father C.C. Batson.
A follow-up Shazam movie is slated to hit theaters in 2023. A movie featuring Black Adam, a former Captain Marvel villain, is scheduled to be released in 2022.
In a confusing, competitive move, Marvel also introduced its female Captain Marvel character in a 2019 movie.
While the character's history may be convoluted, Captain Marvel's "origin" story leads back to creators Beck and Piper.
While his art defined Captain Marvel, Beck always maintained that he was just someone who started doodling as a child in Zumbrota and he didn’t stop when he grew up.
“I never think of myself as a great artist. I was better than some but worse than others — that’s all,” he told Heintjes during an interview.