Strong character, strong opinions: Minnesota native gave birth to Captain Marvel stories
ZUMBROTA, Minn. — Any claim that Captain Marvel, once billed as “the world’s mightiest human,” was conceived in Zumbrota are not far off the mark.
C.C. Beck, the comic book artist who created the image of a red-suited superhero with a bolt of lightning on his chest, was born in 1910 in a house that once stood just across the street from Zumbrota’s State Theatre.
Charles Clarence “C.C.” Beck was the son of the Rev. and Mrs. Willis Beck. His father was pastor of the English (Redeemer) Lutheran Church for several years, and his mother was a schoolteacher.
Beck’s story is told in the late Charlie Buck’s Nostalgia Notes columns that were published in Zumbrota’s weekly newspaper.
In the late 1920s, Beck attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. His career as an artist was launched in Chicago, where he was paid to draw cartoon characters on lampshades, Buck wrote.
Beck moved to Minneapolis and went to work for William H. Fawcett Jr. of Fawcett Publications. His job was to illustrate humor magazines including “Hooey,” “Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang” and “Smokehouse Monthly.”
Fawcett and Beck relocated to New York City in 1939 and began work on a new comic book hero to rival the hugely popular Superman, which was being published by National Comics.
Writer Bill Parker was hired to develop stories for what would be Fawcett’s first superhero comic. Parker wrote about a team of six superheroes, each possessing a special power granted by a mythological figure.
Fawcett decided to combine them into one hero who would embody all six powers: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, powers from Zeus including the ability to summon lightning and near-indestructibility, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury (S-H-A-Z-A-M).
Captain Marvel was the alter ego of Billy Batson, a teenage boy who spoke that word — “SHAZAM!” — and was transformed into a costumed adult with powers including superhuman strength, speed, flight and more.
The new superhero made his debut in the first issue of Fawcett’s Whiz Comics in 1940.
Beck told his friend P.C. Hamerlinck how he developed the image of Captain Marvel and other characters.
“I based the characters on famous actors of the time because I knew I couldn’t really create characters out of my head,” Hamerlinck quoted Beck as saying. “Nobody can create a character. Characters create themselves in answer to what the people are looking for.”
As a basis for Captain Marvel, Beck chose popular actor Fred MacMurray. “He had kind of a slanted forehead, wavy hair and a big chin,” Beck said.
Errol Flynn was his model for Spy Smasher, and Ibis the Invincible was inspired by Tyrone Power.
Beck’s style was influenced by his early experiences with comic strip art, Hamerlinck said, describing a “whimsical, shoe-button eye” style similar to newspaper strips.
Captain Marvel became the most popular superhero of the 1940s, based on comic book sales. He outsold even Superman.
When Parker was drafted to serve in World War II, Beck continued as lead artist, steering the Captain Marvel stories toward a whimsical tone that emphasized comedy and fantasy elements alongside the superhero action.
Beck remained chief artist throughout Captain Marvel’s Golden Age of Comics run at Fawcett, which ended with issue 155 in June 1953.
DC Comics attempted a revival series in the 1970s. Beck illustrated the first 10 issues, but was disenchanted with the quality of the product and quit.
He believed that the story, not the artwork, determined the quality of the comic book.
Hamerlinck quoted him as saying, “People are always making the mistake of underestimating the intelligence of children.” The artist should only illustrate what’s necessary and let imagination do the rest, he believed.
After retiring, Beck expressed his strong opinions about comics and illustration in story telling in a regular opinion column, The Crusty Curmudgeon, which was published in The Comics Journal.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, he was a regular guest at comic book conventions nationwide, including the Minneapolis Comic-Con in October 1982. Also in the 1980s, he became editor of the newsletter for the Fawcett Collectors of America, which he renamed FCA/SOB (Some Opinionated Bastards).
Beck died in 1989 at his home in Gainesville, Fla. He later was inducted into the comic book industry’s Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame and the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame.
His obituary, published in the Comic Buyer’s Guide, stated that Beck was notable for “the incredible warmth and enduring charm of the Captain Marvel/Billy Batson persona he helped to develop” as well as for his “oft-repeated viewpoints on the need for simplicity in art.”