Brian Cremins isn’t much of a superhero fan. This might come as a shock to readers of his new book, Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia, published by the University Press of Mississippi in December 2016. Why write a book about one of the most popular and best-selling comic book characters in the United States during the 1940s? “I guess I was more interested in exploring the lives of the men and women who created and read these stories in the first place,” Cremins, an Associate Professor of English here at Harper, explains. “I wanted to understand why these comics were so beloved during World War II, and why they continue to generate such nostalgia for fans and readers even today.” For those not up on their comic book reading, Captain Marvel, created in 1939 by writer Bill Parker and artist C. C. Beck, is the alter ego of homeless newsboy Billy Batson, who is able to transform himself into a hero when he says the magic word Shazam! In the book, Cremins, who credits comic books for his love of reading and writing, explores the lives of Beck and Otto Binder, a science fiction writer who got his start in Chicago and, after Parker’s departure, went on to craft most of Billy Batson’s adventures. Based on theories from the growing field of memory studies, the book also explores the history of nostalgia and what this emotion can tell us about how we choose to remember—or misremember—the past.
So, why superheroes? “This book started as a project about my maternal grandfather and his experiences as a soldier in World War II. He was the child of two Italian immigrants and spent most of his life as a factory worker. I uncovered details about his time in the Army War Show, which was a kind of touring propaganda display in 1942 designed to inspire and assure audiences about what their soldiers were about to face. Once the tour was over, he and his battalion were sent to Tunisia in early 1943. I also wanted to understand the unresolved trauma of the war that he and my grandmother faced in the 1950s. But I realized I didn’t understand the social and political conditions of the era well enough. So, I did the same thing I did when I was a kid: I started reading lots of comic books. I began to look for links between Billy Batson’s idealized fantasy world and the real world my grandparents experienced.”
Along the way, Cremins researched that “real world” by zeroing in on the racist caricatures that appeared in many of Captain Marvel’s early adventures. In the book he tells the story of the Youthbuilders, a group of New York City middle school children who protested the character Steamboat, Billy Batson’s stereotypical African American “valet.” The book required a lot of archival work in collections at UIC, Texas A&M University, and Michigan State, as well as research into critical race theory and into psychological and literary studies of nostalgia itself. “I am grateful that Harper granted me the time to write and reflect during my sabbatical in the fall of 2015. I’d already submitted the first draft of the manuscript to the anonymous readers at the press in the fall of 2014, and the reports I received were good, but I took the time to rewrite most of the text almost from scratch. I wanted to write a book that would be academically sound and have the narrative qualities and structure of a novel. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I gave it my best, and I would never have been able to finish it without the support of my friends and students at Harper and that of my colleagues in comics studies around the country.”
“And I will let you in on a secret,” he adds. “Captain Marvel is great, but, if we had a time machine and we went back to talk to me when I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, he’d probably pick Spider-Man or The Falcon as his all-time favorite.”
Cremins will present a lecture on Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia in the Drama Lab (Building L, Room L109) on Tuesday, March 28, 1 p.m. The lecture is free and open to all Harper students/faculty/staff and the community. There will also be a raffle of a signed copy of the book and a few later Shazam! comics from the 1970s.
Questions (even about superheroes)? Please email Brian Cremins at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at www.brianwcremins.wordpress.com, which includes a list of his other academic essays on comics and graphic novels.