If you’ve been following Armagideon Time these past four years, you may have noticed that I have no small affection for a certain bipedal jungle cat with a fondness for plaid jackets. While the nefarious Mr. Atom is — by virtue of his metaphorical significance — my favorite ancillary character to emerge from the post-WW2 run of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel Adventures series, Mr. Tawny the Talking Tiger comes in as a very close second.
Tawny (sporting a slightly darker shade of orange fur) made his debut in the pages of Captain Marvel Adventures #79 (December 1947), in which the rather civilized jungle beast abandoned his savage home in favor of such modern comforts as picture shows, ice cream, and comfy turtleneck sweaters. Though originally perceived as a dangerous threat by Captain Marvel, Tawny’s sincerity and kind-hearted nature won over the World’s Mightiest Mortal, and they quickly became close friends. (His first name, “Talky,” was added a couple years down the line via a reader submission contest.)
Tawny’s facility for speech and civilized demeanor were explained a few issues later, when it was revealed that a young Tawny’s consciousness had been raised after imbibing a mysterious potion offered by a Conradian jungle hermit — a superfluous clarification, considering the generally whimsical tone of the CMA tales, where a talking tiger was one of the least improbable story elements of that era.
Tawny represented more than a touch of whimsy or a mercenary nod to the success of the “funny animal” genre, however. Where Captain Marvel exemplified childhood power fantasies — a young boy capable of transforming into a nigh omnipotent adult — Tawny exemplified the painful realities of growing up and attaining maturity. Where Billy/Marvel exhibited a strong sense of level-headed wisdom, Tawny was all-too fallible mixture of naievity and insecurity prone to getting fouled up by one dubious decision after another.
Fawcett took pains to emphasize the “educational” aspects of their comics, right down to creating an “advisory board” of experts — including Eleanor Roosevelt for a while — to vouch for the content and most of Tawny’s CMA appearances concluded with a teachable moment of hard-gleaned wisdom. Tawny certainly did fill the Goofus role to Billy/Marvel’s Gallant but there was a crucial difference in tone from the usually harsh “doo bee/don’t bee” dichotomies found in vintage moral education primers and the amoral object lessons that characterized the later, similar relationship between Superman and the orange-haired, plaid-jacketed screw-up Jimmy Olsen.
Tawny’s judgement may have been imperfect, but his character was shown to be fundamentally sound — a hard-working, kind-hearted Joe commited to the welfare of his friends and his community. His intentions were noble enough, but his lack of street-smarts made him susceptible to the predators that stalk the jungle of post-war modernity, be they confidence men, demagogues, or mental stresses caused by contemporary life.
In that sense, Tawny can be seen as a symbol of the massive changes the American people underwent in the immediate post-war era. While the elders of the First World War era wondered how they’d keep their kids on the farm after they’d seen Paris, the aftermath of World War II unleashed a unprecedented wave of mobility, not just geographical, but social and economic as well. America emerged from the conflict as the pre-eminent financial and military power on the planet, with the last vestiges of its (more mouthed than observed) isolationist traditions stripped away and replaced with a sentiment of global stewardship (just, necessary, or otherwise).
The G.I. Bill opened up educational opportunites, labor shortages and a switch to consumer production led to the rise of new economic hubs and patterns of worker migration, and the smaller (and more mobile) “nuclear family” unit began to replace the extended localized kinship networks of previous generations. It was a whole new ballgame, yet the rules and expectations had yet to be clearly stated.
Into this vacuum rushed a din of conflicting voices from the usual quarters, from church pulpits to the rarefied heights where professional finger-waggers dwell to the snake oil refineries to, of course, Madison Avenue. All tried to stake claims on that virgin territory ripe with the pent up dreams and ambitions of a generation which had undergone the hardships of the Great Depression and a global war.
And in the middle of it? A hard-working civilized tiger with modest aspirations, worrying about whether folks really like him, his growing waistline, and whether or not he’ll be allowed to move into a restricted subdivision because of his ancestry.
Recent creators have tried to “modernize” and “rationalize” Tawny’s presence in the Marvel Family, retconning him into a magically transformed stuffed animal as well as a mysterious shapechanging guru. Besides the fact that both these efforts are even goofier and more convoluted than “a tiger who drank a magic intelligence potion,” they ignore Tawny’s deeper significance…and killer fashion sense.