A department store is an unusual place for a celebrated superhero to battle a supervillain, but when the hero is the Golden Age Captain Marvel, sharp-dressed tigers, despotic talking worms, and a greedy businessmen wearing a Santa Claus costume are familiar figures in a comical, absurd landscape. “Capt. Marvel and the Phantom of the Department Store” (published in Captain Marvel Adventures #19, January 1, 1943) provides contemporary readers with glimpses of the sexual politics of the era, as Captain Marvel and his alter ego Billy Batson struggle to discover the secret behind a ghost haunting Massey’s during the holiday season.
The curious environment of the American department store of the 1940s and early 1950s also provides Paul Thomas Anderson with one of the set pieces in his new film The Master (2012), which is filled with dreamlike sequences in which World War II Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) struggles with anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and alcoholism. His illness, as Quell explains to one of the military psychologists who interview him early in the film, is not so unusual. In lines adapted from Let There Be Light, John Huston’s 1946 documentary about the psychological wounds suffered by soldiers returning from the battlefields of World War II, Freddie names his condition for the doctor: “I believe in your profession it’s called nostalgia.”
The Captain Marvel story and Anderson’s film are visual narratives which imagine the American department store of World War II and the immediate post-war era as a feminine space which, for male spectators, is filled with danger and mystery. While The Master is a journey into the past, an attempt to imagine and manifest visually post-war American anxieties about sex, male friendship, and trauma, “Capt. Marvel and the Phantom of the Department Store” is an artifact of the era itself. Both the film and the comic book, separated by almost seventy years, reach the same conclusion: for these male protagonists, the department store is a site of fear, miscommunication, latent violence, and possible redemption.
The quotidian details of Anderson’s department store sequence, in which Freddie seduces a salesgirl named Martha (Amy Ferguson) and provokes a fight with a businessman played by W. Earl Brown, evoke this strange, lost world. When she first appears, Martha, a walking mannequin advertising a lush fur coat with a lavish green and purple lining, waltzes from customer to customer. The ambient environment of the soundtrack—the soft hum of music, the hushed voices, the click-click-click rhythm of bargain-hunting shoppers—is as haunting as any of Quell’s dream visions in the film.
As Matthew Beaumont reminds readers in his essay “Shopping in Utopia: Looking Backward, the Department Store, and the Dreamscape of Consumption,” department stores “described an urban space in which middle-class women in particular could circulate safely and pleasurably, as independent individuals that were at the same time the components of a distinctively modern kind of community” (Beaumont 2006: 195). If the battlefield is the site where a boy goes to prove his courage, his toughness, and his manhood, the department store is a place where, as Gail McDonald suggests, a “figure of ideal womanhood” might appear, as in, for example, “Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward (1887)” in which “Edith Leete is ‘an indefatigable shopper’; indeed, she has no other visible occupation” (McDonald 2002: 235).
According to this logic, then, heroes like Freddie and Captain Marvel must defend these feminine spaces, make them “safe,” but they must not enter them. When Freddie secures a job as a department store photographer, he violently assaults one of his customers. After several futile attempts to capture the Phantom, Captain Marvel dons a suit and goes undercover as a clerk in Massey’s toy department.
The conflict at the center of “Capt. Marvel and the Phantom of the Department Store” is between Mr. Massey and Mr. Dunkel, two businessmen in competition during the busy Christmas holiday season. As Billy Batson observes to his friend Steamboat, “Looks like Massey’s has lots more business than Dunkel’s this year” (1943: 4). When they arrive at the department store, they find chaos: something is haunting the aisles. Three-piece suits shudder and speak; ladies’ dresses invite the patrons to dance. Captain Marvel eventually discovers that Mr. Dunkel, disguised as the department store Santa, has been causing all of the chaos. The ghostly movement of inanimate objects? All done with magnets, Dunkel explains.
The conclusion of the story, in which Captain Marvel restores order, might be read in the same context as late-nineteenth century narratives in which department stores serve as the location of charged interactions between male and female characters. As Gail McDonald argues in her discussion of Looking Backward, “Because of its array of goods and services, its accessibility, its size, and its association with modernity, the department store furnished an attractive metaphor for cooperative social systems in the modern city” (McDonald 2002: 235). Even for a greedy, misguided, mischievous character like Dunkel, redemption is possible. The sentimentality of the story’s ending will also be familiar to readers of Otto Binder and C.C. Beck’s Captain Marvel stories, which, in the early days of comics scholarship, inspired several notable essays including Dick Lupoff’s “The Big Red Cheese” and Roy Thomas’s “One Man’s Family: The Saga of the Mighty Marvels.”
Binder, the principal Captain Marvel writer during the height of the character’s popularity in the 1940s and early 1950s, understood the stories as descendants of a literary tradition of humor, satire, and humanism: “In a sense, Captain Marvel was like Jonathan Swift’s satires of political situations… also like Alice in Wonderland which to the adult is a study of human nature. I always felt I was exploring and exploiting human nature too, digging out its zany aspects to show that much of life was a joke and full of craziness” (Binder qtd. in Schelly 2003: 83).
While there is no mention of the War in this story—of the memory of Pearl Harbor, of the presence of American soldiers in the Pacific and in North Africa—Hitler makes an appearance just a few pages later, following an advertisement which urges readers not to “miss your shot at the Axis! To score a bull’s-eye buy U.S. War Bonds and Stamps” because “every dime helps!” (1943: 33). Caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo appear at the center of three targets, and Hitler (or one of his doubles) is the villain of “Capt. Marvel and His Achilles Heel” (1943: 34).
The lead story in Captain Marvel Adventures #19, however, reminds readers of the pleasures to be found on the homefront. Massey’s, like Dunkel’s magnets, attracts and repels Captain Marvel: it is a space which he must defend, but it is also a space which deeply puzzles him. On page 7 of the story, a gentleman wearing an overcoat and a fedora shops for his wife. When he addresses the clerk, he stammers, “I—er—wonder if my wife would like that dress?” She replies, “Certainly she would! It will animate her, sir!” The details in these drawings are similar to the objects on display in Anderson’s film: glass cases, impeccably-dressed shoppers, the silent torsos of headless mannequins:
The color palette of both the film and the comic is also similar–pastel greens, yellows, and blues. In Anderson’s film, Martha, dressed in the fur coat with the vibrant green lining, is the only splash of color; in Captain Marvel’s adventure, only the hero himself and his villainous adversary, both dressed in red, provide visual contrast in this safe but normally bland and bloodless world.
The panels on page 7 panel foreshadow a key image on page 12 when Captain Marvel, still in pursuit of the Phantom, stumbles into the Ladies’ Wear department. Another red-headed salesgirl awaits him: “Did you want something sir? Tee, hee!” she giggles. Two items separate the clerk and Captain Marvel—a slip trimmed in white lace and the torso of a mannequin wearing a pink brassiere. We cannot see Captain Marvel’s face, but the halo of black lines suggest that he blushes when he proclaims, “Er—the Phantom! I mean—ulp! I’m in the wrong place!”
On the following page, Captain Marvel admits, “I lost the trail!” and speaks the magic word which transforms him back to Billy Batson. Billy Batson and Captain Marvel, like Freddie Quell, have entered a world of uncertainty and anxiety–what is their role here? The mannequin wearing the brassiere has revealed too much to Captain Marvel. The feminine embrace, however, is powerful and enticing, and proves to be more troublesome than Dunkel’s mischief.
As seen above on page 7, a yellow dress comes alive and threatens the male consumer. “Lemme go! Help!!” the character screams as the dress leaps from the countertop and throws its arms around his neck. In the final panel of the page, Captain Marvel springs into action when he realizes the “man’s being mangled!” Although elusive, the Phantom is a threat which will prove to be easy to contain. Captain Marvel’s powers, however, are useless here. He only succeeds in discovering the identity of the Phantom after he removes his costume and secures the position in the toy department:
The true mystery of the story lies not in Dunkel’s criminal behavior but in Captain Marvel’s relationship with these female characters. When Captain Marvel faces the Other, in the form of a female clerk, the magic of the old wizard Shazam fails him. The true source of fear in “Capt. Marvel and the Phantom of the Department Store” lies in the hero’s inability to reconcile his status as the “World’s Mightiest Mortal” with his difficulty in speaking to women, who frighten not only Billy Batson but also the adult men shopping for their wives.
While Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master asks us to imagine the department stores of the 1940s and 1950s, a cultural artifact like “Capt. Marvel and the Phantom of the Department Store” returns us to December 1942 and provides us with a map of the obsessions and anxieties of the many readers who consumed the hero’s adventures. However, the story should not be read merely as a catalogue of the American prejudices of the era. Rather, this adventure challenges contemporary readers to examine current discourses on gender, especially in the United States, where the expectations of female voters played a key role in the recently concluded presidential campaign.
Unlike Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Captain Marvel does not request “whole binders full of women,” but the trepidation with which our hero and the other customers in Massey’s interact with the female clerks suggests a fear of and discomfort with the female presence which the story never resolves. Perhaps such a resolution is impossible in this “utopia for capitalism,” to borrow Matthew Beaumont’s phrase (2006: 194), which proves to be “the wrong place” for even as powerful a hero as Captain Marvel.
Beaumont, M. (2006: 191–209 ) “Shopping in Utopia: Looking Backward, the Department Store, and the Dreamscape of Consumption,” in Nineteenth-Century Contexts 28.3 (September 2006)
“Capt. Marvel and the Phantom of the Department Store” (1943: 4–19) in Captain Marvel Adventures Vol. 4, No. 19 (January 1, 1943)
Lupoff, D. (1970: 58–83) “The Big Red Cheese,” in Dick Lupoff & Don Thompson (Eds) All in Color for a Dime (Iola: Krause Publications)
McDonald, G. (2002: 227–249) “The Mind a Department Store: Reconfiguring Space in the Gilded Age,” in Modern Language Quarterly 63:2 (June 2002)
Schelly, B. (2003). Words of Wonder: The Life and Times of Otto Binder (Seattle: Hamster Press)
Thomas, R. (1964: 102–109) “One Man’s Family: The Saga of the Mighty Marvels,” in Roy Thomas and Bill Schelly (Eds) Alter Ego: The Best of the Legendary Comics Fanzine (Raleigh: TwoMorrows Publishing)