By the time I became aware of comics in the late 1950s, Captain Marvel was little more than a rumor.
In the 1960s, if you had asked me about a caped, super-strong flying hero transformed by magic lightning, I have replied, “Oh sure. Thor.”
But one had come before him, and had in fact once been the world’s bestselling superhero.
The Big Red Cheese had vanished in 1954, the victim of both DC’s copyright infringement lawsuit on behalf of Superman and Fawcett’s decision to abandon its comic book line entirely in the face of McCarthyesque public paranoia and hostility toward the medium.
I’d found the penultimate issue of Marvel Family in a secondhand shop for a nickel, and wondered who on Earth these Supermanish figures were.
What an oddity — immensely popular characters that couldn’t be published. Even Jules Feiffer, in his seminal 1965 book The Great Comic Book Heroes, was permitted to republish only a single page of Captain Marvel’s origin. He lived on only in the memories of fans.
Fortunately, the science fiction fandom of the 1930s and 1950s had inspired comic book fandom in the 1960s, helped along by the fact that comic book editors like Richard Hughes, Stan Lee and Mort Weisinger started publishing letter columns.
“Fanzines” were popping up, and one fan in particular was determined to keep the spirit of Captain Marvel alive.
Born in 1939, Alan Jim Hanley had been just the right age to appreciate the Big Red Cheese in his heyday. A self-published comic book artist, he worked as a hired caricaturist at Chicago-area parties. In Alan Hanley’s Comic Book fanzine, published between 1966 and 1977, he brought the gentle fun of Captain Marvel back to life in the form of his own pastiche hero, Good Guy. That was a nickname. Good Guy was officially known as Major Marvel, and was assisted by, of course, Minor Marvel and Ms. Marvel. They gained their powers with a “Pffft!” when they pressed “panic buttons” energized by Golden Age superheroes who were lost in an unpublished limbo.
Good Guy once debated the state of affairs in American popular culture with the Green Lama while strapped to a missile headed for Disneyland. “Well, heck, the world seems like it’s drunk on sexual and violent themes with no time off for sobering up,” Good Guy mused. “A lot of compounded confusion for folks tryin’ to adjust to this complicated society.”
Another Good Guy adventure featured a black Superman confronting racial animus in American society.
I liked Hanley’s work enough to commission him to do a poster of Good Guy Jr. for me in the late 1960s. Wish I hadn’t lost track of it.
Hanley’s work appeared in a number of fanzines and trade publications, and his other characters included The Spook, All-American Jack and a pastiche of a Lee-Kirby Marvel superhero he called Captain Thunder (which, you may recall, was the original name of Captain Marvel). Only in his early 40s, Hanley died in the winter of 1980 as the result of a car accident.
Such are the vagaries of fate. I’ll always wonder if Hanley’s sunny, whimsical talents might have found a broader audience, had he lived. But perhaps not. Innocence still isn’t in fashion, more’s the pity.