New Year's Terror - Golden Age Captain Marvel Style!

With the new year arriving at a time of great fear and uncertainty, I thought the perfect way to ring it in would be another trip back into the Golden Age of comics, for a fascinating strip that I call "Captain Marvel and the Shapeless Horror From Beyond Time".

For the record, though, it was actually titled "Captain Marvel and the Chameleon Stone" when it was published in Captain Marvel Adventures #92, in December, 1948

As usual, the story begins with a charming image that tries to encapsulate the entire story the reader is about to enjoy, without depicting a moment that actually specifically appears in the story:

Generally CM tales start in one of two ways - either the story just opens, as if events are happening in the present, or it uses one of Billy Batson's broadcasts as a framing device, which is always a bit of a puzzling idea. Having Billy narrate the story over the airwaves creates the impression that everything that appears in the story is part of what Billy's saying, including the dialogue between characters that he wasn't present for. More importantly, though, it raises the question of just how open Billy is about his secret identity - after all, he's one of the few superheroes who regularly transforms directly in front of people, although the fact that he does it when struck by lightning seems to confuse people enough that they don't make the connection between a little boy saying a word and a giant man appearing exactly where he was standing. Of course, if Billy is flat-out talking about his transformations in his radio shows, he's disregarding one of the most basic rules of super-heroism.

I mention the ways that Captain Marvel stories open because this story has, by far, the strangest framing device I've ever seen. It opens in India, as a swami uses a sandbox to illustrate a story about Captain Marvel for a group of street urchins:

Unusual, right? And I'm not just talking about the fact that his skin was coloured blue for some reason. I'm also amazed by the fact that he speaks like he's narrating a '30s radio drama. "A noted archaeologist"? "Our tale begins"? Those are some pretty odd turns of phrase to come from a man who's presumably being translated from Hindi.

Anyhoo, the real story finally begins as we peer into the house of that 'noted archaeologist', Cranshaw Jeffers, who is showing off his 'chameleon stone' to an unimpressed man named Ravar:

The story will never make it clear whether "Ravar" is his first or last name. Jeffers explains the legend of the stone, but admits that he never bothered to try the stone to see if it worked or not. Ravar, not being the superstitious sort, touches and wishes it were a diamond, just to show how silly those old beliefs were. Then something miraculous happens... the stone does turn into a diamond! Albeit one with the symbol of a chameleon still marked upon it in some supernatural manner. Ravar's decision after this discovery might well be classified as 'rash'.

Yes, despite the fact that he wasn't a robber, or even a criminal, when invited to his friend's house, Ravar brought along a gun, just in case he had to murder someone. You know, sometimes I wish that I had lived in the 40s - at least the poorly-written comic book version of the 40s, where everyone carries a gun, mobsters still wore suits, and no one was really sure whether pirates still existed or not.

Now, at this point, you may be wondering just how Captain Marvel is going to wind up involved in this particular adventure. That's a good question, considering that this was a shooting in a private home, most likely at night, considering the fact that both men were wearing tuxedos. Luckily the writer has figured a way around this particular plot hole. Well, not around, per se. More like he jsut decided to jump right into the hole, and forget about the consequences.

That's right, Billy just happened to be walking by the mansion when the shot went off. God, how I wish that people could still get away with writing like this these days. (I say that now, but next week I'll probably be furious at someone for trying to do just that) Billy quickly transforms into Captain Marvel, then flies through the window, just missing Ravar. He does recognize the victim though, making me feel silly for criticizing the Swami's words.

Obviously I didn't know just how famed that Cranshaw was. CM flies out of the house, but the quick-thinking Ravar transforms the stone ino a spotlight that he uses to d CM, then transforms it into a hot-rod that he uses to get away. Demonstrating incredible senses and automotive knowledge, the temporarily blind Captain is able to determine what kind of car Ravar sped off in, so when his sight returns moments later, he's able to ake to the sky in search of it.

Knowing that Captain Marvel must be right on his tail, Ravar drives the car into a parking lot, hoping to disappear into a building, then come back for the car later. Apparantly, in the one minute since he turned the stone into a car, he's forgotten that it can transform, so instead of just taking it into the building with him, he leaves it for the parking lot attendant.

This causes more problems than it solves, though, since it seems that the parking lot attendant had been a fighter pilot in the war, and he happens to wish that he was back in one of those planes while touching the chameleon symbol on the sude of the car...

Before he can say SHAZAM, the attendant has found himself flying through downtown New York in his wartime plane! Of course, flying a plane through a skyscraper valley is an incredibly dangerous thing to do, so Captain Marvel has to step in, grab the plane, and put it down carefully on a rooftop. CM scolds the pilot for his dangerous stunt flying, and dismisses his claims that the chameleon car transformed into a plane while he was parking it.

In yet another stunning coincidence, Ravar happened to be walking by as Captain Marvel and the attendant were having that conversation, so know he knows how to find the stone once more. He climbs into the plane and somehow manages to fly it off the roof of the building, then once he's well out of town, Ravar turns the plane into a parachute, then the parachute into a huge mansion.

That's right, his plan was to go out into the middle of nowhere and turn the stone into a huge mansion for him to live inside. As far as Captain Marvel villains go, this Ravar isn't exactly a Sivana. Of course, the key failure of Sivana's life is his continuing inability to murder a child, so maybe he isn't the best example to be judging others against.

A few weeks later Billy Batson, apparently having forgotten all about trying to catch the murderer of a noted archaeologist (the plane incident was like a shiny object to the easily-distracted Captain), sees a wire report of a mysterious mansion appearing in the middle of nowhere. Deciding that it might well be a neat story, Billy transforms into CM and flies over the woods to check it out.

Meanwhile, out in the woods, Ravar is frustrated by the fact that although he has a huge mansion, the stone has provided him with no other wealth to speak of:

Yes, his plan is to destroy the magical stone, all in the vain hope that each of its fragments will retain its entire magical power. Obviously this can't go well, but just how not well it goes was startling even to me. As CM is flying through the woods, looking for the mystery mansion, he hears a blood-curdling scream! Setting down for a closer look, Captain Marvel discovers something terrible:

That's right. The attempt to multiply his wishing stone has killed him, leaving him branded with the mark of the chameleon! The horror doesn't stop there, though, as CM takes a look at the remnants of the stone and makes the following pronouncement:

Yes, that's really the end of the comic. The reader is informed that the wishing stone's power came from the fact that it had been used to contiain an eldritch force from beyond human understanding. In breaking it, Ravar had borne witness to a horror so exquisite that his mind couldn't withstand the knowledge of its existence. This is a Captain Marvel story with an ending straight out of H.P. Lovecraft.

Murders are par for the course in pre-50s comics, but this is a horse of a different colour. I'm amazed that a children's comic would go this dark. The next story in the issue is about the owner of the station, Sterling Morris, finding his life too stressful and running off to a deserted island to hide from his problems.

So on that note of intellectual schism, I bid you a Happy New Year!

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