So, it’s almost here! I started working on what would become Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia, from the University Press of Mississippi, in the spring of 2011. I wanted to write a book modeled after Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, one of my favorites. I thought I’d select four or five artists (or writer/artist teams) and study the spiritual dimension of their work. In that original outline, I included chapters devoted to John Porcellino, Carrie McNinch, James Sturm, Edie Fake, and C. C. Beck and Otto Binder’s Captain Marvel. Then I wondered, will anyone but me want to read this?!
I ended up writing the essays on King-Cat, The Revival, and Gaylord Phoenix, three of my all-time favorite comics. Then, as I started my research on Beck, I thought, should I write a whole book on Fawcett’s Captain Marvel? I wasn’t much of a fan as a kid. I knew the character mostly from the Saturday morning live action TV show, which I always dreaded, because, on our local CBS affiliate in Connecticut, it followed the cartoons, which meant that Saturday morning was coming to a close. The only upside? My dad would probably make a grilled cheese sandwich for me.
But sometime in the late 1990s I found a stack of DC’s Shazam! revival from the 1970s at one of Hal Kinney’s comic book shows at the Elks Hall in East Hartford, Connecticut. I started to pay attention: I adored Beck’s clean, simple drawing style, and the reprints of Fawcett’s Golden Age stories introduced me to Otto Binder’s witty, strange, and charming scripts. Soon, I began to notice affinities between that research and other work I’d been doing on my maternal grandfather, Nunzio Stango. Born in 1913, he was a World War II vet who joined the Army around the same time that Billy Batson, Captain Marvel’s alter ego, signed up in the summer of 1942. My grandfather and his Army War Show buddies show up in Chapter 3.
While working on the Epilogue, I realized that I wasn’t writing about Captain Marvel so much as I was writing about one of his biggest fans, essayist and science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who graciously consented to an interview in the winter of 2014. He then edited and expanded on that interview for a recent issue of Alter Ego. Recently, I told my students that I learned to write from a series of amazing teachers (more on them in another post) but also from two books: John E. Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition (the Franklin Edition from the 1980s) and Ellison’s short story collection Shatterday, first published in 1980. I hadn’t read Ellison’s book in years, but perhaps I should not have been surprised when I opened it this summer and noticed this passage from the introduction to “Jeffty Is Five,” a short story about a little boy who finds himself locked in the past:
This is not one of those embalmed adorations of nostalgic sentimentality. It merely suggests for your consideration that there are treasures of the Past that we seem too quickly [and] brutally ready to dump down the incinerator of Progress. At what cost, it suggests, do we pursue the goal of being au courant? (Ellison 10)
In writing my first book, I’d found my way back to the very first collection of stories I’d fallen in love with as a young reader. But that’s how nostalgia works, right? That process, as a friend recently reminded me, is what Mircea Eliade called the “eternal return,” a series of rituals that (if we’re lucky) lead us back to Saturday morning, to the Zenith TV, to the ghosts in the hydrangea tree, to the plastic toy soldiers buried in the garden, to the Andrews Sisters and the clock radio, to the toy box filled with comic books.
You know what? Music does the work better then words, sometimes. I wish I’d found a footnote for Return to Forever’s great tune “Captain Marvel.” But since I didn’t have space for it, you can listen to it right here as you take a look at Keiler Roberts’ drawing for the book’s cover.
Meanwhile, over the next several months, I’ll post regular updates about the book, including more material and ideas that didn’t make the final cut. I hope you’ll find something you like.
Or, you know, if you need a soundtrack that matches the title for this post, here’s “Soon” by My Bloody Valentine.