Leonard Cohen – Singer-songwriter, Novelist, Poet, Icon, & Comic Book Aficionado
Ongoing readers may recall the lamentation concluding The Suppressed Leonard Cohen Influence: Comic Books:
While I am delighted to discover the role of comic books in the development of Leonard Cohen’s literary sensibilities, I am appalled that this aspect of Cohen’s influences has received so little attention. The significance, for example, of Catherine Tekakwitha is a focus of papers, book chapters, and seemingly every review of “Beautiful Losers.” Heck, as far as I can determine, Ms Tekakwitha has never had her own comic book or even been a continuing character in one. Where are the scholarly studies, the ground-breaking re-interpretations of Cohen’s oeuvre based on the trinity of iterations of Blue Beetle, the almost but never quite completed “Leonard Cohen As Superman: The Nietzschean Vs DC Comics Dichotomy” PhD dissertation by that University Of Chicago 12th year graduate student…
As of yet, there has been no reaction from academia, a lack of response inexplicable except as the consequence of a surreptitious conspiracy to deny the significance of comic book superheroes in the work of Leonard Cohen.
Consider the multitude of articles and book chapters citing the impact of Cohen’s early Talmudic training on his novels, poems, and music and the contrasting dearth of such references to Cohen’s perusal of Superman and the Blue Beetle. Yet, the quotation that began this post comes from Cohen’s answer to the interviewer’s query, “You also wanted to be a priest?”
No, no I have no memory of that. At the time I wanted to be a hero-type, Superman, Captain Thunder. A priest, that is the last thing!1
The man is telling us – albeit to no avail – what was important to him.
There is, moreover, a complication regarding Cohen’s childhood wish to emulate Captain Thunder. Captain Thunder, it turns out, was introduced in DC Comic’s “Superman #276,” which was published June 1974, when Leonard Cohen was 39 years old.
Well, perhaps we’re talking mid-life influences.
By 1974, the earliest anyone could have read a comic featuring Captain Thunder, Leonard Cohen had already published his two novels, five volumes of poetry, and fathered two children. In 1974, he released his fifth album, “New Skin For The Old Ceremony.”
There is something intriguing about the notion of Leonard Cohen reading comic books between editing his manuscripts and recording albums.
Of course, it is possible he wasn’t actually reading those comics as an adult but only pulled a couple of superhero names as cultural referents. After all, anyone reasonably aware of the world could have eschewed comics to focus on Elizabethan poetry and, despite that tragic choice, still know who Superman is. But, not everyone knows who Captain Thunder is.
As explained at Captain Thunder,
Captain Thunder was really a clever homage to Captain Marvel and Fawcett Comics. In fact, Captain Marvel was originally called Captain Thunder, in the first issue of Whiz Comics (which was called Flash Comics and was never published). … Captain Thunder’s costume was virtually identical to Captain Marvel’s with the exception of a sunburst insignia on Thunder’s chest where Marvel’s lightning bolt would have been.
Captain Thunder’s alter-ego was a young orphaned boy who changed into the powerful hero by saying a magic word, and who was given these abilities by a mysterious stranger in a cave [Merokee, the last Mohegan medicine man]…
In the Captain Thunder back story, a previous adventure warped Thunder’s persona, causing him to become a super-villain. This led to a Superman Vs Captain Thunder battle, described on the same web page:
Thunder immediately attacked Superman and the battle was soon taken outside of Metropolis to the mountains. Superman tricked Thunder into saying his magic word (and managed to make him rub his belt buckle at the same time) and Willie was back on the scene. Superman realized that Willie had come from a similar Earth in a different dimension, and Willie decided that the only way he was going to get home was to use Captain Thunder’s natural wisdom. Superman kept Willie in a full-nelson head lock while he changed, and forced to realize what had been done to him. Thunder also used his wisdom to figure out how to get home, and the next time he said “Thunder” he and Willie were gone…hopefully back home to his normal time and dimension.
While that was the original Captain Thunder’s sole appearance in print, The Captain Marvel Family Web Who’s Who points out that “Roy Thomas later used the name Captain Thunder for his own creator-owned series Captain Thunder and Blue Bolt published by Hero Comics in 1987.” The comic featuring the father-and-son superhero team ended publication a year later.
Captain Thunder:2 In Superman #276 (June 1974), Superman found himself at odds with “Captain Thunder”, a superhero displaced from another Earth and another time. Thunder had been tricked by his archenemies in the Monster League of Evil into doing evil by a magic spell, and Thunder therefore was made to do battle with Superman. Captain Thunder, whose name was derived from Captain Marvel’s original moniker, was a thinly veiled pastiche of Marvel—down to his similar costume, his young alter ego named “Willie Fawcett” (a reference to the publisher of the original Captain Marvel stories, Fawcett Comics), and a magic word (“Thunder!”), which was an acronym for seven entities and their respective powers. He got his power from rubbing a magic belt buckle with a thunder symbol on it and saying “Thunder”. His powers came from Tornado (power), Hare (speed), Uncas (bravery), Nature (wisdom), Diamond (toughness), Eagle (flight), and Ram (tenacity). Superman held him while he used his wisdom to escape the effects of the spell.
At the time of Superman #276, DC had been publishing Shazam! comics for two years, but had kept that universe separate from those of its other publications. The real Captain Marvel would finally meet Superman in Justice League of America #137, two years later (although he met Lex Luthor in Shazam! #15, November/December 1974).
The Enduring Questions
Given the date Captain Thunder was introduced and the obscurity of the character, it seems all but certain that Leonard Cohen remained interested in superhero comic books at least until he was nearly 40. Heck, there may be stacks of Batman and Superman comics stashed in his LA and Montreal homes now.
Cohen’s fascination with comics from childhood until at least mid-life3 represents a moral mandate, not only for scholars to consider this important literary influence but for future interviewers and imminently eminent Cohen biographers (yes, I’m talking to you, Sylvie Simmons) to investigate the fundamental issues: who is Cohen’s favorite superhero, what super power does he most crave, is this singer-songwriter-poet-icon persona actually his secret identity, is that what “In My Secret Life” was about, would he rather be known as Captain Mandrax or Captain Thunder, did he consider naming Adam “Kal-El,” …
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted May 11, 2010 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com.