Vincent Bartilucci - My dad grew up in Brooklyn during the 40's. At that time and in that place almost every kid read comic books.
Not many of them collected comics, however. Collecting anything--comic books, baseball cards, postage stamps, or whatever--was for kids with a bit more money in their pockets than my dad and his friends had. Instead, if dad got his hands on an issue of Superman or More Fun Comics he'd read it from cover to cover then hand it off to a friend.
That friend would read it and hand it to the next kid. On it would travel from kid to kid until every child on the block had a chance to read the comic or until it fell apart from all the handling. Then it'd get tossed in the trash. I don't think it ever occurred to my dad or his friends to save their comics. Comics were ephemera, a thing to experience rather than to own, more akin to a stickball game or a Gene Autry movie than a baseball mitt or a cap pistol.
So, it is that my dad had no comics from his own youth to pass on to his comic book obsessed son. But he remembered a few of his favorite heroes and sometimes he would talk to me about them. There were three in particular about whom dad would reminisce.
First in this trinity of Golden Age greats was Captain America. Dad was a really big fan of Timely Comics' patriotic Nazi-smasher. I'm sure that the Star-Spangled Avenger placing so highly on my own list of favorite do-gooders is due in no small part to my dad's love of the character. Last year, when all the 24 hour news channels reported that Captain America was being killed off, dad called me at work to make sure that I'd heard. After verifying that I had my copy of the fateful issue reserved, he asked me why they (Marvel) felt the need to kill off Cap. Although he hadn't followed the character since he was a wee lad, he sounded a little bit sad about the whole thing. I, of course, assured him Cap'd be back before he knew it. It's comics, after all.
The second of dad’s childhood favorites was Fawcett's Lieutenant (later Commander) Don Winslow of the Navy. Winslow was an officer in U. S. Naval Intelligence who got into the types of two-fisted trouble one might expect of such a character. Whenever dad mentioned him, he was always Commander Don Winslow of the Navy, spoken in a dramatic near-shout. No matter how many times I heard him say it, dad's silly recitation of that name could always bring a smile to my face.
The final Golden Age hero that dad would discuss with me is Captain Marvel, and it's the Big Red Cheese who is the real subject of this story. Dad was a huge fan of the World’s Mightiest Mortal...maybe. I say "maybe" because dad had one incredibly crucial piece of info about Cap incorrect and this one bit of misremembered data kind of muddies the water. But, more on that in a few paragraphs. Right now, we've got to take a trip across the Atlantic.
In August of 1974, my immediate family--mom, dad, sis, and I--visited Scotland where my mom was born and raised. As I recall, I had a wonderful time across the pond even though the trip took me away from my swimming pool-based Aqua-adventures for three whole weeks. I met all sorts of family for the first time and visited cool sites like Edinburgh Castle. I also made a lot of friends among the neighborhood kids and spent a significant amount of time out in the street playing.
Despite the fun I was having, I still had a four-color monkey on my back and before long I was looking for my comic book fix. During one of our trips "down to the shops" I spied a Spider-Man comic and snatched it up. Now, I've never been the biggest Spidey fan but it was the only comic book I had seen starring a character I actually recognized so I bought it. Beggars can't be choosers, right?
But it wasn't a comic book. At least not a real (read: American) comic book. It was a God-awful, magazine-sized abomination with black and white interiors reprinting a variety of old Marvel stories in unsatisfying little eight to ten page snippets. I did not know at the time that this Marvel UK publication was aping the traditional weekly comic magazine format familiar to all British children. Nope, all I knew was that I was glad I didn't live in Scotland. The big family, new friends, natural beauty, and fantastic history and culture of the place could all go hang as far as I was concerned. These poor people didn’t have real comics! (Please forgive my seven year old self's limited world view.) Anyway, I figured I wouldn't see another real comic until I was back on U.S. soil. But I was wrong.
A few days before our vacation ended, I was traveling around Glasgow in the company of my Uncle Albert and we stopped in at what I believe was a pub. Y'know how the light rapidly dwindles the further you go into such an establishment? Well, this place was downright inky in back! In retrospect, I suppose it could've been a restaurant of sorts or even the world’s darkest lunch counter, but I'm pretty sure it was a pub.
And, if it was a pub, it was the coolest pub in human history because, just inside the entrance to the place where you could still see your hand in front of your face, stood a wire rack containing, among other things, the first real comic books I'd seen in over two weeks. One comic in particular caught my eye and wouldn't let go. I stood there transfixed, staring at and, most likely, drooling over Shazam! #12.
I had never seen an issue of Shazam! prior to that moment but, thanks to my dad, I recognized that mystical acronym instantly. It was the magic word used by Billy Batson to change into the World's Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel, just like it said right there on the cover.
And what an amazing cover. It's like a primer on all things Shazam. You've got Cap flanked by his two primary partners in adventure, Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel, Jr. Below the flying Marvels are their three alter egos, Billy and Mary Batson, and Freddy Freeman. You've even got the disembodied heads of Uncle Marvel and Dr. Sivana making an appearance. Man, I needed this comic!
There was one small problem. Not only was it the first issue of Shazam! I had ever seen it was also the first of DC's 100 Page Giants I had ever encountered. The darn thing cost 60 cents U.S. which translated to well over one pound sterling! I probably didn't have enough to buy that comic even if I had my vacation money with me, which, of course, I didn't.
My uncle saw me gazing intently at the comic rack and he quickly pulled Shazam! #12 from its wire cage. He took another comic book from the rack and paid for them both. He informed me that the comics were for the long flight back home and that they were going to my mom for safe-keeping until the family was airborne. I thanked him--gosh, I hope I thanked him--and we left the pub / restaurant / world's darkest lunch counter.
Later, we met up with the rest of the family back at my grandmother's house and I excitedly told my dad that Uncle Albert had bought me a comic book starring Shazam. "Do you mean Captain Marvel?" he asked. Having forgotten the 'fine print' below the logo ("The Original Captain Marvel") I said, "I think they call him Shazam now." Dad thought that was kind of silly. Captain Marvel was a perfectly good name. Why change it?
On the flight home, mom handed me the comic books my uncle had purchased for me and I dove right into Shazam! #12. I immediately grasped that, despite the title of the series, the star was, indeed, still called Captain Marvel. I also quickly learned what Shazam stood for; dad could never quite remember all the gods whose names made up that magic word and the power each one contributed. I was, however, surprised by a major mistake the folks at DC had made.
As I mentioned earlier, dad had one piece of Shazam-lore incorrect. Oh, he had the facts about the old wizard, the magic word, the extended Marvel Family, the talking tiger in the leisure suit, and the World's Wickedest Scientist right. But he always told me that, in his non-powered form, Captain Marvel was Billy Batson, crippled newspaper boy. Shazam! #12 depicted Billy as hale and hearty but showed Freddy Freeman, Captain Marvel Jr.'s alter ego, as walking with a crutch. What a goof! On the part of DC, of course. Dad couldn't be wrong about something so important, after all.
I reported this discrepancy to my dad who just figured it was another silly change made for no good reason. I soon discovered such was not the case. Despite having all the other particulars straight, dad's memory had somehow placed that crutch under Billy's arm not Freddy's. I'm not sure why.
Back on Long Island I looked for more issues of Shazam but I didn't find any at my usual comic book haunt, Clearview Stationary, until just a few issues before the series was cancelled. I picked those up then followed the feature when it reappeared in the pages of World's Finest and the digest comics run of Adventure. Unlike many Shazam purists, I enjoyed the Don Newton version of the Marvel Family and the World's Mightiest Mortal soon became my second favorite DC hero, right behind a certain sea king.
Through all the years, however, I was never able to convince my dad that Billy Batson wasn't the one with the crutch and the newspapers. Even when I showed him reprints of 40's era Captain Marvel stories that contradicted his memories, he was not persuaded. Now, my dad wasn't a stubborn man--he had absolutely no problem admitting when he was wrong. But, for some reason, he wouldn't budge on the matter of crippled newspaper boy Billy Batson. He was utterly convinced about these 'facts' regarding Cap’s alter ego and was sure that somewhere along the way someone must have made the decision to reassign these character traits to Freddy.
My dad, Richard Bartilucci, passed away last month. He was 69. It's funny where your mind goes when you're grieving. I guess death is so big that you can only process it in little pieces--little "sadnesses". I find myself really sad about stupid little things. Like, I'll never get to tell dad, "Hey, Captain America is back." And I'll never get to hear him intone, Commander Don Winslow of the Navy, again. And I’ll never have another chance to convince him that Freddy was the one with the crutch...
Okay Rob, fellow Hey Kids folks, I promise my next story won't be so depressing. I have to tell you about the other comic my Uncle Albert bought me, after all! Like Shazam! #12, it was my first issue of a soon to be beloved series, a series with a title that I initialed misread back in 1974 and, therefore, misunderstood for years to come.