Page Two: A Constant Marvel

Binder, Beck, and the Big Red Cheese

Page Two
The last columns took a break from the epic Otto Binder story, but now we continue it. Our story so far: In the early 1930s, Otto Binder and his brother Earl began writing science fiction for the pulps. They used the pseudonym Eando Binder. As the Thirties progressed, Earl dropped out of writing for the most part. Keeping the pseudonym, Otto became very prolific, and was one of the best-known writers in the SF pulp field by the late 1930s. The beginning of the next decade found him starting to work on comic books, which paid much better than pulps. At first, he wrote for many different characters and for many different companies. Soon, instead of science fiction, he was writing comic book scripts exclusively. Around 1942, Otto Binder was hired full time to work for Fawcett, the home of Captain Marvel.

Working for his brother Jack's shop, Otto Binder had begun writing for a number of different comic book companies, including Fawcett, where he wrote for Captain Venture, Mr. Scarlet, Dr. Voodoo, Golden Arrow, and Bulletman. It was a happy relationship and a giddy time, as they soon raised his pay rate to $4 a page. In retrospect, he realized that Ed Herron was grooming him for Fawcett's star character, Captain Marvel. One day, Herron looked at him and said, "Otto, you're ready for the Captain." His first effort was Captain Marvel and the Return of the Scorpion, a Dime Action Book. He was soon writing the Big Red Cheese (as Captain Marvel was affectionately known) for the comics, beginning with Whiz Comics No. 38 and Captain Marvel Adventures No. 9.

Otto's writing for Captain Marvel worked beautifully, as his whimsical comedic vision and happily wacky ideas that still embraced adventure perfectly complemented the already established style of the Captain's artist, C.C. Beck. Otto thought that he and Beck made a really inspired team, and, according to him, they ate, drank, slept, and lived Captain Marvel. Clearly, the happiest times of Otto's life were the years at Fawcett when he was writing the Big Red Cheese, a time he never spoke of with less than enthusiastic affection. He loved it there, especially when Wendell Crowley became the editor for him and Beck.

Binder's devotion to Fawcett and the Captain Marvel Family (the Captain, Captain Marvel Jr., Mary Marvel, and the Family itself) becomes obvious when considering his output. Between 1941 and 1953 (when Fawcett folded), Otto wrote 986 of the 1,743 Marvel Family stories that were published. This was the source of Otto's greatest fame, and that time was easily his most productive period.

Although in later years Beck would downplay Otto's contributions to Captain Marvel and company, Otto acted in a completely opposite manner, giving Beck full credit for the character's success. There's no question that Captain Marvel was created by Bill Parker, who was working at Mechanix Illustrated when Fawcett asked him to come up with a superhero for its new comic book line.

The prototype story had the character called Captain Thunder, but only one or, at most, a handful of copies were made (to get a mailing permit). During the Sixties, whenever the old Fawcett hands got together, they talked about that initial effort and who might have it. They figured it was probably among the rarest of comics. At least one of the printers told me it was just a few pages in a three-ring binder, rather than a comic. Others claimed there was a handful of copies, not just one. But at the time it never surfaced.

Only later did Beck get involved. Still, Otto always thought it was Beck who really brought the character to life. On a number of occasions, Otto told me that he thought (though he wasn't entirely certain) that it was Beck who came up with the Captain's catchphrase, "Shazam." Otto's attribution of this to Beck indicates not just his respect for the artist but the amount of credit he gave him for the character.

Their work was a collaborative effort, driven by this deep respect that Otto had for Beck. When talking about Captain Marvel's success, he always made it clear that he wrote for Beck. Visually, Beck was simply a great storyteller; he had an outstanding story sense and would often change the scripts that Otto sent him to improve the narrative flow or eliminate or revise the weaker parts.

Even better, humor informed Beck's every line – some of his sequences, Otto noted, were splendid, hysterical comedy. Otto hated the criticism that Beck's work was too cartoony; he thought that was its genius. The other Marvel Family members, done by different artists, never approached the Big Red Cheese's market dominance. He loved that nickname, though he couldn't remember who came up with it. The evil Dr. Sivana was the first to call him that, as Otto remembered it. Sivana was a Beck creation, as far as Otto was concerned. Otto may have written him, but it was the drawing that brought him to life.

In a June 1968 letter to Wayne DeWald, Otto wrote: "You ask for my opinion on C.C. Beck's artwork and I'm glad to give it.

"As I've often stated in the past, I always considered Beck among the top three artists in the comic field. Simon-Kirby may have had a 'sensational' style, Bob Kane and others may have been good in their own way, but Beck had something special – a gifted knack for 'telling the story' in pictures.

"Some people criticize his art as 'too cartoony,' but that is what made Dick Tracy, Blondie, and all of the greats in the syndicate field. Applied to comics, this cartoon style with its simple lines and clear-cut actions put over the Captain Marvel stories like no other artist could.

"I truly believe the enormous success of CM ... was due primarily to the story-telling talents of Beck, plus perhaps a fortunate combination of writer and editor (myself and Wendell Crowley) who made up an inspired team and were really enthusiastic over what we were creating – and it was creating. We lived, ate, drank, and talked Captain Marvel."

Although my writing on Otto Binder is largely autobiographical, as well as supplemented by notes I took at the time and letters from Otto, crucial to it and to any writing on Otto is Bill Schelly's magnificent biography, Words of Wonder: The Life and Times of Otto Binder.

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Otto Binder, Captain Marvel, comics, C.C. Beck, Eando Binder, Fawcett, Bill Schelly, Words of Wonder: The Life and Times of Otto Binder

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