07 January 2009

The Elvis Presley-Captain Marvel, Jr., Meme

If you've Googled the names "Elvis Presley" and "Captain Marvel, Jr." together--and who am I to say how you should spend your time?--you've found links to hundreds of webpages repeating the belief that Presley modeled his appearance on that young superhero. The most thorough discussion I've seen is this four-part series at Dial B for Blog.

However, in all those words about Presley and the Shazam! comics, there's no real evidence of a connection between him and Captain Marvel, Jr. Instead, Dial B writer Robby Reed repeats the conclusions of Elaine Dundy's book, Elvis and Gladys (1985). Among Presley biographies, Dundy's is considered one of the more insightful and less exploitative, though still a long way from Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis.

Dundy refers to Captain Marvel, Jr., a lot in her book. Chapter 1 is named after the character. And she makes statements like these:

  • “Elvis was already immersed in the adventures of the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Tarzan, Batman, and Superman when his secret life suddenly took a dramatic new turn. He discovered Freddy Freeman in the comic book series Captain Marvel’s Adventures. There, on page 267, young Freddy made his entrance--and very nearly his exit--fishing off a boat with his grandpa...” [page 3]
  • “Freddy/Marvel, Jr.,...has been obviously and sensitively copied from a most appealing adolescent life-model. He looks in fact exactly like Elvis, from adolescence to the end of his life, strove to make himself look.” [5]
  • “But the Captain Marvel series, and in particular, Captain Marvel, Jr., was Elvis’ unquestioned favorite. Adding greatly to the popularity of the series were the characters that derived and that sprang up from the stories. . . . Elvis’ twin-fusion with Freddy/Captain Marvel, Jr., was total and it was from reading his adventures that the young Elvis secretly began to create himself.” [69]
  • “It was Captain Marvel, Jr., who styled Elvis’ glistening hair, side-parted with the forelock falling over his brow, the sideburns, the hair growing down his neck. Much later would come Elvis’ Captain Marvel, Jr., cape and lightning bolt emblems on the TCB (Taking Care of Business) and TLC (Tender Loving Care) jewelry he would give to his special friends.” [69-70]
But Dundy never cites any interviews or documents as evidence for that connection. She interviewed two of Presley's childhood friends--Wayne Earnest [cited on page 3] and Harold Lloyd [68]--who testified to his love for comic books. But neither of them said anything about Presley's particular fondness for Captain Marvel, Jr.

Dundy quotes Presley's own words, from a 1970s interview: “I was the hero of every comic book I ever read.” [68] He said something similar in a 1970 acceptance speech, quoted at the official Graceland site: “When I was a child, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer. I read comic books, and I was the hero of the comic book.” But those statements don't single out the hero nicknamed Junior. In fact, they imply that Presley had no special favorite.

Lloyd recalled Presley preserving his comic books with unusual care for the 1940s (well before bags and boards). But Dundy doesn't point to any Captain Marvel magazines surviving in his estate. Yes, there are such comics now on display in some museums devoted to him, but they've been put there since Dundy's book was published.

TOMORROW: So what evidence led Dundy to focus on Captain Marvel, Jr.?


Anonymous said...

The first quote doesn't make sense. "Page 267"? The issue of Captain Marvel Adventures that Freddy debuted in never had a page 267.

Anonymous said...

Captain Marvel Jr. didn't have sideburns like Elvis Presley.

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect that what Dundy saw in London was an anthology of Shazam! stories, with Captain Nazi falling out of the sky near Freddy Freeman's boat somewhere around page 260. Perhaps a book published only in Britain.

As for sideburns, I could probably do a whole blog about those. Elvis Presley was known for unusually long sideburns in the 1950s, by contemporary standards. Those sideburns didn't become the monumental whiskers we associate with him until the 1970s, of course.

Dundy doesn't make this clear, but in a charitable reading her argument might refer to young Presley's early choice to wear sideburns longer than the average, with the result that his hair looked somewhat like Freddy's. But I agree—it's a stretch.