Good ol’ Tawky has been around for quite a long time. If you don’t know who he is, or if you only know him from his brief cameo in Final Crisis, then you need to read this. Because Mr. Tawny is one of the coolest cats EVAH!
Mr. Tawny is one of Billy Batson and Captain Marvel’s best friends (maybe the best friend?). He was born in the jungle like any other tiger. As an orphaned cub he was raised as a pet by a boy named Tom Todd, the son of a missionary. During a series of events when the native villagers mistakenly thought Mr. Tawny was responsible for vicious attacks upon them, a mysterious hermit fed Mr. Tawny a serum that enabled him to use his vocal cords for speech. Mr. Tawny already knew English from sitting in the schoolroom with Tom. He was able to give his alibi and the real attacker was discovered.
Some time later, Tom’s father was transferred and Tom was forced to leave Mr. Tawny to live with the hermit. Eventually, after hearing the hermit often talk about civilization, Mr. Tawny decided to leave the jungle and experience a human-style life.
After arriving in the city, Mr. Tawny was befriended by Captain Marvel and Billy, who helped him get a job as a tour director at the natural history museum, which makes perfect sense when you think about it.
Originally, Mr. Tawny did not have a first name, and so a contest was run where fans were encouraged to write in suggestions for a name. The entry judged to be the best was ‘Tawky’. Thus, his full name was henceforth Mr. Tawky Tawny.
Pat Laughlin or Mary Garrisi of Detroit- if you’re reading this, please contact us. We’d like to tawk to you.
As an anthropomorphic animal, Mr. Tawny isn’t that unusual. However, there are very few examples of such a character appearing in a comic amongst other humans. And really, he’s not an anthropomorphic animal at all; he is a real tiger, no different from any other (apart from his winning personality). He was not written or drawn as a “funny animal” he was simply a civilized tiger who decided to live as a person. His character and stories reflected that in a naturalistic way. Pretty avant garde. This was not Tom and Jerry or Heckle and Jeckle. Creatively, this is a figure that remains fairly unique to this day.
The stories involving Mr. Tawny tend to be stories about social injustice and the human condition. Mr. Tawny is used as a kind of everyman in modern day morality plays. His stories comment on the hollowness of commercialism, the value of hard work, and occasionally walk the edge of existentialism as Mr. Tawny ponders whether his life will have lasting remembrance. In one story, racial prejudice is examined in a not very oblique way as Mr. Tawny becomes the victim of housing discrimination. This story appears in 1948, before the civil rights movement begins to garner national attention.
Mr. Tawny first appeared in 1947 and was a regular companion of Captain Marvel in Captain Marvel Adventures until 1953 when Fawcett Publications closed their comic book division.
In 1973 DC Comics acquired the rights to the Fawcett stable of characters and began to publish Captain Marvel stories again in Shazam!. Denny O’Neil wrote a story describing how Captain Marvel and most of his friends, enemies, and associates had been put into suspended animation for 20 years and were now revived and returned to Earth. The Shazam! series featured new stories with these characters (including Mr. Tawny) that took place in the 1970’s as well as reprinted stories from the Golden Age.
Eventually, the Fawcett characters were brought into continuity with the rest of the DC Universe. They were shown to reside on Earth-S.
In 1979, E Nelson Bridwell embellished Mr. Tawny’s origins a little further in World’s Finest #259. A research physician examines Tawny and it is revealed that the serum given him by the hermit not only enhanced his vocal chords, but began to evolve his body as well. This then explains his opposable thumbs, flat footed stride, etc. Using a blood sample from Tawny, the physician replicates the serum in stronger form and uses it on himself with the aim of evolving into an advanced form of human. Needless to say, he goes insane and tries to conquer the world.
During this period, DC also produced a Shazam cartoon through the Filmation studio. Mr. Tawny appeared regularly.
After Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC went about refitting, renewing, and ret-conning all of their staple characters, including Captain Marvel. In revamps like Man of Steel and Batman: Year One DC tried to make their heroes more “edgy” by attempting a more “realistic” approach. Captain Marvel got his revamp in Shazam!: The New Beginning. And just like Bat-Mite and gold Kryptonite, Mr. Tawny was left behind. No reference to Mr. Tawny was to be found anywhere. It’s little wonder why this series was not well received!
In 1994, Jerry Ordway’s The Power of Shazam! revamped the “Marvel” universe yet again. In this retcon, Mr. Tawny was changed significantly for the first time. Instead of being an actual tiger, Tawny is a stuffed animal belonging to Mary Bromfield that is brought to life as a “pookah” spirit by Satanus. Subsequently, Ibis uses his powers to make Tawny a real, tangible being. Making a 180 degree turn thematically, he no longer serves as an everyman but as a kind of spiritual guide for Billy and Mary.
Tawny also served an important supporting role in The Trials of Shazam. During this storyline, Tawny’s link to the realm of magic are built upon even more strongly.
In Shazam! – The Monster Society of Evil, Tawny says he is an “ifrit” spirit and changes into many different shapes at will (including human) although he states he began existence as a tiger. It’s unclear if this series by Jeff Smith is meant to be canon.
Tawny continues to make appearances in the DC Universe on occasion. Most recently, taking on a tiger-reincarnated Kalibak in Final Crisis. Although DC editorial has altered his character from a bourgeois, everyman tiger teaching us about the world through his mistakes, to that of a mystical spirit creature, ferocious in battle and wise in the ways of magic, he’s still pretty special. In a literary genre where derivation is actually valued and deconstruction is the prevailing fashion, Mr. Tawny is a breath of fresh, creative, imagination provoking, air.