08 January 2009

Captain Marvel, Jr., Meets the Post Hoc Fallacy!

Yesterday I quoted Elaine Dundy’s 1985 book Elvis and Gladys on Elvis Presley's admiration for the comic-book hero Captain Marvel, Jr., one of the Shazam! family. Presley liked that character so much, Dundy wrote, that he adopted Junior's look, his behavior, and his symbols.

What led Dundy to that conclusion? As I noted yesterday, her book didn't quote Presley or his friends speaking of a special connection to Junior, nor point to comic books that Presley had saved featuring the character.

Dundy has since explained how she made the link on her website:

Back in London where I was living at the time I did some sleuthing on my own. Elvis was often quoted as saying that he was the hero of every comic book he'd read. One day I sat down in a Comics bookshop to look at those popular when he was growing up. I looked at all those double identity heroes he must have read from Superman to the Spirit. Then I came across Elvis’ face staring at me from its pages: It was the face of Captain Marvel Jr.
So Dundy started with a general quote from Presley about comics ("hero of every comic book") and her psychological theory about what haunted the singer ("all those double identity heroes"). She then singled out one particular character as Presley's childhood favorite because of his physical resemblance to Presley as an adult--after the man had dyed his hair black, grown sideburns, and started wearing jumpsuits and capes on stage.

Thus, Presley's later appearance was Dundy's evidence that Captain Marvel, Jr., was his favorite, and Captain Marvel, Jr., being his favorite was Dundy's explanation for his later appearance. That's circular reasoning, as well as an example of the common fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hoc. There's still no real evidence of a connection.

In Elvis and Gladys, Dundy didn't lay out that reasoning process. Instead, she simply stated many times, with no hint of doubt, that Junior was Elvis Presley's favorite comic-book hero and model for life. And those statements have been picked up and repeated uncritically by other writers since.

It's very likely that Presley read about Captain Marvel, Jr., as a boy. The Shazam! comics were among the most popular in the country, especially the Midwest, where the Fawcett company was located founded. But he read apparently a lot of other comics, too.

Presley did take to wearing capes in the last years of his career. But so did many other performers of the same period: Jimi Hendrix, Roger Daltrey, James Brown, Rick Wakeman, ? of the Mysterians, and so on. And of course the Shazam! family weren't the only comic-book heroes who wore capes. Many other favorites did as well.

Yet another supposed piece of evidence is how Presley adopted a lightning bolt symbol for his "TCB" crew. The Shazam! family got their powers when lightning bolts struck. However, there are many explanations for Presley's symbol, some with supporting documentation or first-hand memories instead of speculation.

In expounding on Dundy's hypothesis, Robby Reed at Dial B for Blog quoted Presley's cousin and personal assistant Billy Smith on the Shazam! connection:
  • “If you go back and look at a drawing of Captain Marvel Jr., it looks a whole lot like the seventies Elvis--one-piece jumpsuit, wide belt, boots, cape, lightning bolt and all.”
  • “One of the comics Elvis read when he was a kid was Captain Marvel Jr. He went after Captain Nazi during WWII. And he had this dual image--normal, everyday guy and super crime-fighter. Sounds like Elvis, don’t it?”
  • “The lightning bolt came from his army days. It was the insignia of his battalion. Or maybe in the back of his mind, he identified it with Captain Marvel Jr. That’s where he got the idea for the capes. From the comic books.”
The first two quotations are general observations of similarity--the same "evidence" that Dundy relied on. The third actually states another source for Presley's TCB symbol, mentioning comic books only as a possibility, and in an afterthought. Surely if Presley had displayed a particular interest in Junior, then Smith--a cousin who grew up with him and then worked for him--would have more evidence to share than that.

Reed's web essay didn't cite a source for those Smith quotes. I’d like to know whether they predated Dundy’s 1985 book, which has been influential in molding the public's understanding of Presley. Graceland and other tourist sites devoted to him now display comic books featuring Captain Marvel, Jr. Only the curatorial records could say for sure, but I suspect those copies were bought from dealers to reflect what Dundy wrote rather than plucked out of Presley's own collection--that the "evidence" was gathered to support the theory rather than the theory developed from hard evidence.


Anonymous said...

Whether or not Elvis Presley's look was based on Captain Marvel Jr., it's true that Captain Marvel's look was based on Fred MacMurray and Mary Marvel's look was based on Judy Garland.

I used to not at all understand how MacMurray could be the basis for early Captain Marvel. I knew MacMurray from his later movies, such as Charlie and the Angel. Then I saw Alice Adams and recognized the early Captain Marvel look right away. MacMurry used to be hot!

Of course, the real reason I watched Alice Adams was because one of the main characters is played by Fred Stone, the Scarecrow from the 1903 Broadway Wizard of Oz.

J. L. Bell said...

I got Cap's MacMurray resemblance pretty early because of seeing Double Indemnity, and was spared the actor's later Disney movies and My Three Sons until I was mature enough to take them. I hadn't known about Mary's Judy Garland look, so thanks.

As you know, Mac Raboy drew the character of Freddy Freeman/Captain Marvel, Jr., in quite a different style, and I don't know if he had any actor (Freddie Bartholomew?) in mind.

I hadn't realized Fred Stone was in Alice Adams. I'll have to look at that again.

Anonymous said...

Also, a small correction, Fawcett was in Connecticut, not the midwest.

Fred Stone is the father in Alice Adams. It's a pretty substantial part, although he doesn't display any of the amazing acrobatics that helped shoot him to stardom in Wizard.

There is an online movie clip that shows Stone bouncing off his head--almost unbelievable. You can see it on the Hungry Tiger Press website.

One of his early movies, the silent Under the Top has him doing some amazing acrobatics--catapulting off see-saws, balancing in a chair on a trapeze, and more--but I don't think that's available commercially.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the correction about Fawcett. I assumed that in the 1940s the firm was still operating out of Minnesota, where it had been founded. After better research, I see the company moved east a few years before the superhero comics craze.

My dad, who grew up along the northern Mississippi as Elvis Presley grew up along the southern, remembers Captain Marvel comics more than any superhero.

Thanks also for the Fred Stone link!

Anonymous said...

I don't know if Cap Jr.'s look was based on anyone in particular. There's a Raboy model sheet for the character that has detailed notes for the hair and lightning bolt design, but I don't think it says that the character is supposed to look like a famous actor or so on.

I believe Fawcett had offices in New York while they were publishing Captain Marvel. I'm pretty sure that the primary Cap artist, C. C. Beck, did. The Jack Binder studio, which drew a lot of stuff for Fawcett, including Cap stories and most of the Mary Marvel material, was in Englewood, NJ.

Fawcett dropped it comic book line in 1953. But they were still publishing Peanuts paperback reprints in the 1970s.

You've been calling the Marvel Family the Shazam! Family. That sounds funny to me, although I certainly realize why you do it.

The book in the quote I wrote about yesterday doesn't seem to have been Shazam! from the '40s to the '70s. Just wanted to mention that because of the very tangential Oz connection in Linda Sunshine as designer of it and of a couple of Willard Carroll's Oz-related books.

I wonder if this British woman is aware of the UK's own version of Captain Marvel: Marvelman, who came into being when Fawcett stopped producing Captain Marvel. Marvelman has been published in the USA as Miracleman, both older reprints and new work written by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman.

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, I made a decision to refer to the “Shazam! comics” and the “Shazam! Family” to reflect current trademarks. I know it’s anachronistic, but so’s “DC Comics,” and it’s a teensy bit clearer. If I’d been fond of the Marvels in my childhood, I probably would feel more strongly about that nomenclature, but they barely made an impression on me.

The Fawcett name remains in publishing as an imprint of the vast Random House conglomerate. It seems to be used mainly for paperback mysteries from the Ballantine division. A long way from Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, but still out to please an audience.

I’d wondered if the ’30s to the ’70s volume might have been what Dundy saw in London, but the page count seemed too high. Thanks for checking that.

Elaine Dundy was actually American, but lived in Europe for many years. She was married to Kenneth Tynan and wrote for That Was the Week That Was, among other things, before returning to the States. Quite an interesting life.

I doubt Dundy knew much about comic-book superheroes, American or British. She seems to have been grasping at straws when she built her Captain Marvel, Jr., theory.

Anonymous said...

I'll say.