Thursday, July 16, 2020

Captain Billy's Whiz Bang

Here's something from great grandad's attic: a copy of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang. A "naughty" magazine in its day. This is Volume IX No. 188, June 1934 and was published monthly by Popular Magazines Inc. in Minneapolis, MN.

Captain Billy's Whiz Bang was a pocket-size bawdy joke magazine that was published by Captain Wilford Hamilton Fawcett AKA "Captain Billy" (1885 - 1940). I had heard of it, but never actually seen a copy until I saw a few copies at the Two Brothers used bookstore in Freeport, ME this past Sunday. Without this popular racy humor digest that had its heyday 100 years ago, there would be no Captain Marvel or Popular Mechanix magazines. 
Here's the story:

Fawcett lied about his age when he was 16 to go fight in the Spanish-American War. After that, he came home and then worked as a police reporter for the Minneapolis Journal until World War 1. He went off to fight again. Fawcett achieved the rank of captain and worked at Stars and Stripes. It was while he was there that he got the idea for Captain Billy's Whiz Bang. The title was a combination of his nickname, and the name of a WW1 bomb. After the war, he began publishing the risque digest. In 1921, he was quoted as saying that the racy humor mag was closing in on a circulation of a million. (Records show that circulation was actually more like nearly half that, at 425,000 copies a month at its peak.)

From Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, Fawcett and his sons created other magazines: detective magazines, movie gossip magazines, and others, like the long-running Family Circle and Woman's Day mags. Perhaps its crown jewel was Mechanix Illustrated.

After their father's death in 1940, Fawcett's sons began a line of comic books modeled on the popular Superman character at DC Comics. Fawcett Comics published a line of comics including Captain Marvel. (Captain Marvel debuted in Whiz Comics, which I think was a nod to the magazine and the dad who started it all.) DC sued Fawcett for copyright infringement, saying Marvel was way too much like Superman. The case dragged on for years. In the 1940s, the Captain Marvel family of comic books outsold Superman's. Pushing the lawsuit ahead was affordable while sales were brisk, I suppose. (Captain Marvel Jr. had such an impact on Elvis Presley that he borrowed the character's poses, hairstyle and lightning flash chest insignia, as described in Elaine Dundy's biography, Elvis and Gladys.)

After WW2, sales began to decline and Fawcett Publications folded its line of comics. The company had already ventured into the profitable world of paperbacks with the Gold Medal line. 

About the magazine:

Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, which had its heyday in the 1920s, was around for a number of decades, along with sister publications Smokehouse Monthly and Uncle Charley's Joke Book. It laid the foundation for the Fawcett magazine, comic and book empire.

It's also cheesy, dated, male chauvinistic. It's a collection of gossip and funny stories and Captain Billy's own stories of his travels and the famous people he hob-nobbed with. There are a series of departments for stories, all with funny titles like "Drippings from the Faucet," "Button Busters," "Howls from Harlem," "Smokehouse Poetry," and so on. There's a kinda nod to the gay culture with a page of "Queeries and Nancers" with faux editor "Percy McNance" and associate editor "Algy Devere." And there's even a reference to a woman's "time of the month" in one of the gag cartoons.

Bill Holman, just a year before his long-running newspaper strip Smokey Stover debuted, is in the mix in this particular issue with one gag cartoon (opposite "Queeries and Nancers"). A fair number of the single panel cartoons are unsigned. Most all are more than competently executed. (The "tramp" cartoon and the "Major's operation" cartoon are particularly skilled.) Some of the signed contributors include Jimmy Caborn (1909-1955), who would go on to work for the Plain Dealer (interrupted for three years when he enlisted into the army in 1943) and create a couple of syndicated features, while doing a lot of freelance work for The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's and other major magazines; Bob Gesteland, who freelanced for magazines and was part of the Disney stable for at least the 1930s and 40s (pretty much no information on him online); there's even a "Campus Rumpus" section with a couple of cartoons from college publications; and there are other cartoonists, with some terrific skills, who either don't sign or there is a signature or mark that I cannot make out. For some, Captain Billy's may have been beneath their status.

Via Wikipedia: The book Humor Magazines and Comic Periodicals notes:
Few periodicals reflect the post-WW I cultural change in American life as well as Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang. To some people [it] represented the decline of morality and the flaunting of sexual immodesty; to others it signified an increase in openness. For much of the 1920s, Captain Billy’s was the most prominent comic magazine in America with its mix of racy poetry and naughty jokes and puns, aimed at a small-town audience with pretensions of "sophistication."
But despite its shameful humor, it was a money maker and, most importantly to a freelancer, the checks cleared.


DBenson said...

In "The Music Man", Harold Hill warns that a pool table will lead to kids memorizing jokes out of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang.

The 1968 sitcom version of "The Ghose and Mrs. Muir" titled an episode "Captain Gregg's Whiz Bang", so somebody figured it would be recognized.

Brian Fies said...

For a long time, I thought "Captain Billy's Whiz Bang" was just a funny title that Meredith Willson made up for "The Music Man." Years later, to my astonishment, I discovered it was real. Years after that, I actually saw one. Which is my long-winded way of saying, "Great post, thanks Mike!"

Orang Basikal said...

The Music Man is set in 1912, so the reference there is anachronistic.

Graeser Park Restoration & Preservation said...

Robbinsdale Historical Society ( has a marvelous collection of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang magazines on display. Billy Fawcett's publishing was a few blocks away in downtown Robbinsdale. Visit the museum, open Fridays & Saturdays 10:00-3:00, to see them and learn more about Billy. He has a Facebook page too.