Chip Kidd really loves Captain Marvel and his mythos. You can tell, because his latest book, Shazam: the Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal is a lavish, lovingly assembled collection of ephemera that celebrates the world of the whole Marvel Family.
The focus isn’t really on the “Captain Marvel” comics – though there are a couple of very notable stories printed in this book. What it’s really about is all the many, many pieces of merchandising that the Marvel family spawned. In assembling a book like this, the book becomes something even more exciting than an exploration of the character. Somehow in its obsessive compilation of miscellanea from about 1940 to 1952, we get an interesting look at society in those years.
Opening this book to any random page shows a whole world of lost obsessions and obscure ponderings. I found myself wondering who would buy a Captain Marvel tie-clip at the same time I wished I had one. How cool would a Captain Marvel tie-clip be, just to have? Then I found myself wondering: where would one find an item like this in 1946? How much would it cost? Would your average recently-returned veteran of Guadalcanal actually spend a dollar on such an odd item and wear it to work to the front office at GM?
Or flipping to another page brings me face to face with Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny “toss bags”. “Toss bags” are apparently canvas beanbags with images of these heroes printed on them, that kids in the ’40s threw back and forth with each other. I’d never really heard of such a thing, and it made me wonder: was this a fad in the mid-’40s? Or an attempt to create a fad? Or was it a cheap and popular toy that could be bought at your local five-and-dime that has passed into obscurity over the years?
Another flip brings a two-page spread of Mary Marvel paper dolls. I get paper dolls. I remember my sister owning some paper doll sets when she was in elementary school, and I definitely remember her carefully cutting out her characters’ outfits. But it’s pretty hard to imagine the fun a girl would have in putting a set of pajamas or demure school outfits over Mary’s cape, lightning bolt dress and flashy golden boots. Did these sorts of things sell well?
I found myself completely fascinated by the incredible range of the discoveries that Kidd made in assembling this book, and by the amazingly obscure finds that he displays here. We get reprints of Dutch and Australian Marvel Family comic covers, are shown some rather desultory but apparently quite rare lead figurines of the cast, see publicity sheets for the Captain Marvel serial, even a amazingly cool and gorgeous vintage novelty Captain Marvel dress shirt.
The cumulative power of seeing all of this merchandise in one place is really exciting. It feels like a view into a lost world, a world where the Marvel Family was as well-known as Superman, and in which kids would clamor for a Captain Marvel Flying Helicopter (“only 10¢”) or a Captain Marvel Magic Flute (“A Lee-Tex Creation”) or a Captain Marvel Power Siren (“the world’s mightiest whistle – used by the world’s mightiest man”). Frankly it makes me nostalgic for a world I never knew.
Kidd presents all of this and more in lovingly assembled and beautifully designed package that makes for a perfect gift for any fan of comics or toys. The fact that he also includes a very early Captain Marvel story by the legendary Simon & Kirby team makes this book even more exciting.
Every time I pick up this book, it makes me smile. I feel nostalgia for an era that my parents would barely remember. How can you ask for a better celebration than that?