Human readers, welcome back to another installment of Kistler’s Nerdy Love Letters, where we chat about characters, stories and ideas that I love across all fiction. This week, we’ll be chatting about a guy who seems to echo Babar the Elephant, a character who influenced Superman’s buddy and colleague Jimmy Olsen for years, and has been a good friend to the hero Billy Batson and the wizard Shazam. I’m talking about that delightfully dapper talking tiger known as… Mr. Tawky Tawny!
During the Golden Age of Comics, the very first hero to be called Captain Marvel debuted in Whiz Comics #2 in late 1939 (with a cover date of 1940), published by Fawcett Comics. At the time, there was no company called Marvel Comics, so no one was concerned really about brand confusion with a competitor. Created by CC Beck, this hero was actually Billy Batson, a young orphan chosen to be a champion of good by a wizard named Shazam. By speaking the wizard’s name, Billy is struck by a magical bolt of lightning and transformed into an adult superhero gifted with power and abilities from Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. As Captain Marvel, Billy fought evil not just by himself but with an increasing cast of allies, such as his sister Mary Marvel and his buddy Freddy AKA Captain Marvel Jr. His adventures were all-ages stories, depicting a world that felt like it existed in-between Superman and Bugs Bunny.
In 1942, Fawcett Comics released the ongoing series Fawcett’s Funny Animals featuring Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, a cartoon rabbit who emulated Billy Batson’s alter ego but lived in a separate world. In 1947, Captain Marvel Adventures #79 introduced a different type of talking animal into Billy’s life. Created by CC Beck and writer Otto Binder (who later created Supergirl), he was first known simply as “Mr. Tawny.”
Unlike Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, Mr. Tawny was not native to a Looney Tunes type world where lots of animals are naturally gifted with speech, intellect and opposable thumbs. He belonged to the ever-so-slightly more realistic Earth of Billy Batson and was native to India. But somehow, unlike average tigers, he was intelligent, could speak, stand upright, use his paws as well as humans can use hands. Coming across a hermit in the wilderness, Tawny heard stories of American cities and decides to live in one rather than continue living in the jungle where he felt unfulfilled and was in danger of being hunted. After arriving in the US, he developed a quick taste for American fashion and set off as an affable character seeking only friendship, employment, and a new home, like so many immigrants. But many people feared him on sight and considered him dangerous. After all, he was a tiger!
If you haven’t noticed, this was very intentionally a story of prejudice. Surprising, right? In Mr. Tawny’s debut story, Captain Marvel initially believes him to be a wild animal who needs to be caged. Marvel nabs him and takes him to the zoo to live in a cage, then goes about his day. Later, Tawny escapes and attempts to simply acquire clothes and a decent meal, but is disturbed to see that his presence causes panic. Captain Marvel finds the tiger again and realizes he’s not a threat. He further understands that it is wrong to hold Tawny responsible for harm he might do rather than judging him based on actions he’s actually done.
To make up for his initial reaction and behavior towards Tawny, the heroic Captain Marvel then helps the tiger secure a job as a tour guide at the local natural history museum. If you aren’t delighted by the idea of a talking tiger in a sport coat lecturing museum visitors on wild animals and the environment, I don’t know what else to tell you, human reader. That very idea just makes me smile! Think of what fun lectures you would have about wild animals from the perspective of an actual wild animal!
But wait, Kistler, you say. What, you ask, is the secret origin of this tiger? How did he learn to talk? How does he, being a tiger, have the proper vocal construction to even imitate speech? When did he first learn to stand up right?
Well, I was about to tell you, so just be patient!
In Captain Marvel Adventures #82 (1948), Tawny was given an origin story in “Captain Marvel and the Return of Mr. Tawny.” In a flashback, we learn that Tawny started life as an ordinary tiger in India. As a cub, his mother was killed by a hunter and he was adopted as a pet by Tom Todd, the son of a local missionary, who showed him kindness. The boy named the tiger “Mr. Tawny.”
I can’t help but notice that parts of Tawny’s earliest stories, along with his love of green outfits, seem similar to another favorite character of mine: Babar the Elephant. Babar was first introduced in 1931 in The Story Babar, created by Cécille de Brunhoff for her children, then written out and published by her husband Jean de Brunhoff. His story also involves being orphaned when his mother is killed by a hunter. He wanders into a city where he causes some disturbance before a kind woman gives him a home and understanding, along with some fine clothes. Babar then returns to the jungle to bring some of what he’s learned of human society to the other elephants.
Babar’s story spawned more books, TV shows, movies, and lots of merchandise for decades, so it’s possible the guy was a partial inspiration for CC Beck and Otto Binder’s animal creation later on. If you aren’t familiar with Babar yourself, do something about that, it’s rather cute though arguably in favor of colonialism.
I digress! Back to Tawny’s origin. After being Tom’s pet for some time, the beast was wrongly accused of killing a person. To give him a chance to defend himself, a hermit scientist created a serum for Tawny that endowed him with intelligence and speech. Lucky for Tawny that a hermit with amazing knowledge of mutagenic sciences happened to be living nearby! Anyway, Tawny revealed that it was after Tom had moved away from India that he had started thinking he no longer wanted to be just another tiger in the wilderness. And so, when he heard about America and its cities, he decided to give the place a shot.
Tawny became a quick hit with readers and one of Billy Batson’s closest friends and allies. Throughout his tales, Tawny was an absurd and lovable adventurer, a tiger who daydreamed about becoming famous, worried about putting on too much weight, and felt very put out if evil-doers had to be stopped on a night when he had planned to update his stamp collection. He loved travel, art, fashion, and music, and was willing to help any person in need. In putting together his memoirs, he also became a biographer for those heroes empowered by the magic word Shazam.
On several occasions, Tawny’s stories would veer quite nicely into tales of social commentary and social justice, reminding readers of the need for altruism, empathy and understanding of others despite preconceptions or fears regarding their heritage. Tawny was eager to make friends and have glorious adventures, but some people he met just wouldn’t give him a chance because they were taught that tigers were dangerous and couldn’t change their stripes. Housing discrimination was touched on when Tawny bought a new home only to then be told the neighborhood didn’t want someone like him living there. Fortunately, friends like Billy/Marvel acted as allies and together they dealt with the situation rather than giving into ignorant prejudice.
At heart, Tawny was sometimes more innocent than young Billy Batson. Sometimes he got too caught up in a desire for glory or a get-rich-quick ideas he had, agreeing to poorly thought out investments or inventing gadgets that wound up not working as well as he’d hoped. Other times, his trusting nature meant he fell too easily for the schemes of con-artists. Fortunately, his true friends were always able to help get him out of trouble, often reassuring him that he didn’t need to work so hard to impress them. They liked him just the way he was.
Otto Binder had not considered a first name for the tiger, so Fawcett Comics decided to leave that up to a reader suggestion contest. Mr. Tawny even mentioned the contest in the pages of the comic, saying he was excited to read all the suggestions. In Captain Marvel Adventures #96 (1949), the tiger proudly announced that he had selected the suggestion of readers Mary Garrisi and Pat Laughlin of Detroit, MI. From now on, he would be named Mr. Tawky Tawny (“Tawky” being a joking misspelling of Talky).
Fawcett Comics stopped publishing the adventures of Captain Marvel and closed up shop entirely in 1953, just before what we know as the Silver Age of Comics. In the same decade, the TV show The Adventures of Superman was entertaining audiences of all ages. On the show, actor Jack Larson played Jimmy Olsen, a comic book character who hadn’t been seen in comics since 1943 due to a lack of interest from creators and fans alike. But Larson had made the character a household name, and so DC Comics decided to give him a spin-off comic book series in 1954 entitled Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. And Otto Binder, now no longer writing stories of Mr. Tawny over at Fawcett, took over the reins as series writer.
Otto Binder portrayed Jimmy as a more jocular and adventurous character than before, a young man with daydreams of fame and glory who often stumbled into more danger than he bargained for, and occasionally got himself mutated or mixed up with magical forces. Many believe that this popular Silver Age interpretation of Jimmy was actually Otto Binder using the guy as a stand-in for Tawky Tawny, right down to Olsen’s new love of suits and checkered sport coats.
By the 1960s, the publisher called Timely had changed its name to Atlas and then finally became Marvel Comics. Since no one was publishing works with the name “Captain Marvel,” Marvel Comics decided to do so years later. Over the years, Marvel Comics has had many heroes called Captain Marvel. Meanwhile, DC Comics acquired the rights to Billy Batson and his pals. In the 1970s, DC started publishing old and new stories of Billy and his allies. Although they still called his heroic alter ego Captain Marvel in the stories, DC could not have that name also be the comic book series title since Marvel Comics now had that trademark. So DC published Billy (and Tawny’s) adventures under the title of Shazam! This was followed by a short-lived reboot in 1987 called Shazam: A New Beginning.
In 1994, Jerry Ordway wrote and drew the graphic novel The Power of Shazam! that rebooted Billy Batson for the modern age. This was followed by an ongoing series of the same title. In this reboot, Billy’s sister Mary owns and loves a stuffed doll of a suit and tie wearing tiger named Mr. Tawky Tawny. A pooka (a shape-shifting spirit of Celtic myth) then becomes an ally to Mary and Billy by bonding with the Tawky Tawny doll, using it as a host body. Thanks to magic, the pooka becomes a human-sized version of the toy whenever it wants to speak with the Batsons or help them.
In The Power of Shazam! #11 (1996), a spell cast by the magical hero Ibis the Invincible makes the pooka a real, physical talking tiger permanently. Since the toy had been dressed in suits and bow ties, the pooka (now adopting Tawky Tawny as his true name) decides to keep dressing in a similar style.
Sadly for fans like me, this pooka-turned-tiger version of Tawny didn’t get to show up much afterward in comics over the years. We didn’t get to see him explore absurd adventures or venture into social commentary like his Golden Age incarnation. It seemed like a lot of folks didn’t really know what to do with him in the modern era of comics where there is a constant struggle between embracing absurdity and making things realistic and grounded so non-comic book readers can’t dare make fun of it.
Even so, Tawny did at least get great appearances during the mini-series The Trials of Shazam, the crossover Final Crisis, and the series Multiversity.Following the cancellation of The Power of Shazam! series, it became common for artists to draw Tawny as a far more realistic version of a tiger who just happened to wear human clothes, as opposed to looking like he had walked out of a Micky Mouse cartoon. There he was, our lovable tiger back in action with his claws, tiger strength, fashion sense, and sometimes a jet pack. Because being a tiger who stands upright and dresses impeccably is not cool enough, you also need a jet pack, folks!
In 2007, Jeff Smith wrote and drew his own version of Billy Batson’s origin and world in Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil. This was followed by the series Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! In this version of the story, Mr. Tawny works for the wizard Shazam and looks after Billy before he’s chosen to be a heroic champion. He is also an ifrit, a powerful supernatural creature of Middle Eastern mythology, who often shifts between looking like an old man and looking like a wild tiger.
This version of Tawky Tawny was less an innocent adventurer and more a kindly grandfather-like guide to Billy and his sister Mary. He understood the magic of Shazam better than Billy did himself. A later adventure magically locks this version of Tawny into a half-way form between his human and tiger guises, giving us once again a tiger who stands up right and has opposable thumbs. Stuck like this, Mr. Tawny moves in with Billy and Mary Batson, hilariously telling the landlady that he is simply their uncle.
In the alternate reality story called Flashpoint, writer Geoff Johns and artist Andy Kubert reinterpreted Tawny as an ordinary tiger who can be transformed by Shazam’s magic into an armored, giant tiger reminiscent of Battle Cat from the cartoon He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The following year, DC Comics rebooted much of its history and characters with a line of comics called the New 52.
In the New 52 canon, Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank revised Billy Batson for modern audiences. Now, Billy’s adult/heroic alter ego is simply called Shazam, as he inherits the wizard’s name along with the magic power. This move was to prevent brand confusion with Marvel Comics and its characters, and was a nod to the fact that many folks often just called Billy Batson “Shazam” half the time anyway (I think it would’ve been neat to call him Captain Thunder, his original intended name, but that’s neither here nor there).
Since the New 52 reboot, the current canonical version of Tawny is originally an ordinary tiger who lives in a city zoo. One of Billy Batson’s earliest happy memories is visiting the tiger on a family trip, so he considers Tawny a link to his lost parents. At night, Billy secretly visits and feeds Tawny, telling the tiger problems and fears he doesn’t feel comfortable sharing out loud with people. The two develop an affection for each other, and Billy considers him family. Later on, Billy becomes the hero Shazam, then learns he can lend some of his power to transform Tawny into a magically-enhanced, giant tiger.
This is a neat idea, for sure. But me? I miss the dapper talking tiger who was polite, a bit of a nerd, and loved the little things in life like a comfortable chair, good music, and conversations with friends. I hope we see that version or something similar again in the future. Time will tell!
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