Happy Birthday, Charles Clarence Beck!

« It’s difficult to know just what to make of C.C. Beck. He’s crusty and curmudgeonly in the Cleveland Armory mold. He’s virulently opinionated, yet insists that he doesn’t take himself seriously. His aesthetics are inflexible if not reactionary, and not entirely consistent at that. He also happens to be one of the most endearing and original cartoonists ever to breathe life into a super-hero.“*

Charles Clarence Beck was born on June 8th, 1920 and left this world in 1989. The world is a stodgier place without him!

Tawny-CaptainMarvelAdventres79
My favourite of Otto Binder/C.C. Beck’s characters – Tawky Tawny, the well-mannered, reasonable, tweed-wearing tiger. Sweet Tawny first appeared in Captain Marvel Adventures #79 (December 1947), as a talking tiger who longed for a life as a normal, suit-wearing, polite member of society. He also really likes ice cream. This panel is from “Mr. Tawny’s Personality Peril”, a story by the Binder and Beck team, published in Captain Marvel Adventures #115 (December 1950).

Here are a few covers which showcase A) C.C. Beck’s stylish art B) the lovely goofiness of it all. To quote the man, « When Bill Parker and I went to work on Fawcett’s first comic book in late 1939, we both saw how poorly written and illustrated the superhero comic books were. We decided to give our reader a real comic book, drawn in comic-strip style and telling an imaginative story, based not on the hackneyed formulas of the pulp magazine, but going back to the old folk-tales and myths of classic times. » Well, to be honest, aside from the so-called Greek origins of Captain Marvel (“Shazam”, the catalyzing cry which allows ordinary Billy Batson to transform into his superhero alter-ego, stands for “Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, Mercury”), there’s little in these stories that evokes classic folk tales *or* mythology. I know the Ancient Greeks were into some kooky shit, but I don’t recall any myopic worms with a Napoleon complex nor talking tigers in suits. Ultimately, Captain Marvel comics are family fun. “Old-fashioned” values are the backbone of these stories: friendship, loyalty, kindness to those weaker (or stupider) than us. If that sounds boring, it isn’t. Beck had a cartoony style that make his stories fucking adorable, especially when coupled with the often surreal and delightfully wacky plots.

“Quote! Mr. Tawny is not a tiger – he’s a worm! Unquote!”

CaptainMarvelAdventures113
At first glance, this cover is celebrating the beauty of autumn; upon a closer inspection, it turns out that it has much darker overtones – two faceless guys in the background, clearly following some nefarious plan to break up Tawny and Captain Marvel’s friendship (how dare they!) and a creepy boarded-up house. This is Captain Marvel Adventures #113 (October, 1950), cover by C. C. Beck. Read “His Feud With Mr. Tawny” (scripted by Otto Binder, illustrated by C.C. Beck), which is finally not at all gruesome, just heart-warming, here.

C.C. Beck co-created Captain Marvel with writer Bill Parker in 1939. The Big Red Cheese made his first stellar appearance in Whiz Comics #2 (cover date February 1940), published in late 1939. Captain Marvel was a huge hit, and so Fawcett put out a number of spin-off comic books – as for Beck, he opened his own comic studio in 1941 that provided most of the artwork in the Marvel Family line of books.

« Special! Baby dinosaurs! New! Different! Be the envy of your friends! »

CaptainMarvelAdventures123
Captain Marvel Adventures #123, 1951. Did you know that dinosaurs apparently wag their tails like dogs to express their affection? No? Head over here.

« Wait! This isn’t oil! It’s dense, black and real sticky! »

CaptainMarvelAdventures126
Don’t let go of that piglet, Captain Marvel! Pigs’ reputation for loving mud may be well deserved, but no self-respecting swine wants to be dropped into black, sticky goo. This is Captain Marvel Adventures #126 (November 1951), cover by C.C. Beck. The cautionary cover tale, Captain Marvel and the Creeping Horror, was written by Otto Binder and pencilled by C.C. Beck (with inks, tentatively, by Pete Costanza).

« Did you hear that, ma? We’re on another – uh – world! Ma, aren’t you scared? »
« Land sakes, pa, why get scared? At least my wash will dry nice and fast with two suns shining down! »

CaptainMarvelAdventures135
Captain Marvel Adventures #135 (August 1952); cover by C.C. Beck.

IGN ranked Captain Marvel as the 50th greatest comic book hero of all time. You know how they qualified it? “Times have changed, and allegiances with them, but Captain Marvel will always be an enduring reminder of a simpler time.” If there’s one thing I hate, it’s people who assume that generations before theirs were naïve or that the world was a “simpler” place (take a peep in any good history book and see if that was the case). This kind of condescension poisons any compliment.

C._C._Beck_1982
C.C. Beck in 1982. He kinda looks like my physics teacher from high school!
BillyBatson'sBadDream1982
Doctor Sivana comes out with his whole family to taunt Billy! Says Beck, “The publisher also once wanted to drop Sivana, claiming the old rascal was becoming a more interesting character than Captain Marvel. The editors paid no attention to so silly an order and kept him alive and cackling.”

There’s a beautifully conducted interview with Beck by Tom Heintjes, published in Hogan’s Alley. I highly recommend it. Heart-breakingly, Heintjes explains in the introduction that “when Beck died of renal failure on November 23, 1989, my inability to complete a book celebrating Beck’s life and career—to my mind, one of the most commercially and aesthetically successful in the entire history of comic books—was a source of acute regret.

~ ds

*Gary Groth’s introduction to an interview with C.C. Beck published in Comics Journal #95 (February 1985) and conducted in 1983.

3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Charles Clarence Beck!

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