Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Captain Marvel, But Were Afraid to Google
In the emerging comic book industry of the late 1930s, Captain Marvel was the champion of Fawcett Publications. The thriving magazine firm was named for its founder, Wilford H. Fawcett, who entered the publishing field in the early 1920s with a humor publication aimed at soldiers and veterans like himself, entitled Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang. Fawcett ran the firm with his four sons.
They tasked writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck with sketching out the basics of a superhero named “Captain Thunder.” But by the time he first appeared in 1939’s Whiz Comics #2 — yes, that’s a year after Superman arrived — the name had changed, even if his rank remained the same. He was now “Marvel,” which would prove to be something of a magic word in the history of American comics that followed.
Magic words were essential to the character. According to his origin story, orphan boy reporter Billy Batson was lead by a stranger to a mysterious subway, where he rode a magical train to meet the wizard Shazam. When Billy spoke the wizard’s name, he iwass transformed into Captain Marvel, and given the six powers of six patron heroes and gods (Solomon’s wisdom, Hercules’ strength, Atlas’ stamina, Zeus’ power, Achilles’ courage and Mercury’s speed.).
During the superhero gold rush of the Golden Age of comics, superheroes were quite literally a dime a dozen. Dozens of new publishers seemed to spring up over night, throwing every conceivable idea for a masked man or caped crimefighter type at the wall and seeing what if anything stuck.
Captain Marvel stuck. He survived those early years’ rather brutal natural selection, becoming one of the relatively few Golden Age heroes to survive into the successive Ages of comics and to still have his adventures published in some form or another today.
By 1941, the Captain was starring in both Whiz and Captain Marvel Adventures, and, at his peak, he was the most popular comic book superhero in America, selling about 14 million copies in 1944, with a circulation of 1.3 million copies per issue. Not only was he beating Superman in sales at the newsstands, he also beat Superman to the silver screen, appearing in a Republic film serial entitled The Adventures of Captain Marvel in 1941 (Republic did approach DC to do a Superman one first, but it never materialized, so perhaps Cap’s win in this column is only by a technicality).
A truly staggering amount of merchandise was created during the 1940s, much of it lovingly chronicled and photographed in Chip Kidd and Geoff Spear’s 2010 book Shazam: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal. For Fawcett, it must have been the Golden Age in more ways than one, and they were quick to gradually expand the Marvel franchise include other caped heroes with lightning bolts on their chests.
In 1941, Fawcett added Captain Marvel Jr., another young boy gifted with magical powers upon speaking his word of power (although he remained a young boy even when Marvel-ous). In 1942, they added Mary Marvel, Billy’s long-lost sister who received her powers from seven female goddesses. And that same year brought about Hoppy, The Marvel Bunny, an only-tangentially related character who starred in Funny Animals.
For comparison’s sake, Superboy (who was, of course, was back then just Superman as a boy instead of an entirely different character) debuted in 1944, Supergirl in 1958 and Krypto the Super-Dog in 1955.
Was Fawcett guilty of stealing from Superman in their creation of Captain Marvel, or at least gaining inspiration from him? (Note the above cover of Whiz, and remember what Superman was doing in his first cover appearance). Superman’s owners at Detective Comics, as DC was then called, sure thought so, but clearly the two flying strongmen contributed ideas to one another’s milieus over the course of their formative years.
Superman Vs. Shazam
The legal case is as sticky as these things usually are, but, in brief, Detective Comics sued Fawcett in 1941, claiming Cap was an infringement on Superman. They finally went to trial in 1948, and, in 1951 a judge ruled in Fawcett’s favor. The next year, on appeal, a judge declared that Cap was himself not an infringement, but that specific stories featuring Captain Marvel might be infringements of stories featuring Superman, and a re-trial would be necessary to get to the bottom of it.
Having won one and lost one, and with the superhero market drying up anyway, Fawcett settled with DC (by this time known as National) out of court: They gave their rivals $400,000 and promised never to publish any comics with any of the Marvel characters again. DC technically won that round, but the damage they did the franchise would be a burden they would ironically end up carrying around to this very day.
During the next two decades, a few other publishers attempted to grab the name: Short-lived M.F. Enterprises introduced an alien android by that name whose power was to disengage his limbs from his torso.
Marvel Comics had more success. In 1967, Stan Lee and Gene Colan created Marvel’s Captain Marvel in Marvel Super-Heroes #12…and they also trademarked the name, which meant two things for comics: 1) DC could never use the name “Captain Marvel” as the title of a comic book, which is why their title always feature the name of the wizard instead of the hero, and 2) Marvel would have to occasionally publish books entitled Captain Marvel, to re-fresh their trademark.
The character, a hero from a super-powered alien race, was never more famous than he was for dying of cancer, but the name has proved enduring, and Marvel continues to launch new series using it to this day (In fact, they just announced a new one).
Bottling lightning gets progressively more difficult
Having defeated their rival Fawcett in the 50s, in the 70s DC sought to take the fallen publisher’s champion captive, and make him work for them. They began licening the Captain Marvel characters and, in 1973, launched an attempt at a reviaval with Shazam #1, featuring a collection of new stories by up-and-coming writer Dennis O’Neil (and Elliot S. Maggin and E. Nelson Bridwell) and art by C.C. Beck (and Bob Oksner and Kurt Schaggenberger), along with reprints of Golden Age material (the original stories were recently reprinted in Showcase Presents: Shazam Vol. 1). It lasted 35 issues, and was finally canceled in 1978.
At the time, Captain Marvel and his cast were all said to reside on Earth-S, in the old DC multiverse of numbered and lettered alternate earths. Each publisher’s character catalog that DC absorbed was first given its own Earth as a setting, as if they were being quarntined to make sure they were properly deloused, disinfected and ready for assimilation into the coming DCU.
And when that new universe did emerge in the wake of 1986-1987 crossover epic Crisis On Infinite Earths, which rewrote the DC setting’s fictional history and storytelling rules regarding space and time, Captain Marvel would forever have a hard time fitting in with his character stablemates.
Here’s a quick rundown of DC’s attempts at Captain Marvel books since then:
Written by Roy and Dann Thomas and drawn by Tom Mandrake, this was Cap’s first post-Crisis story, and was thus to serve as his redefining miniseries ala Batman: Year One or Man of Steel.
In this take, the orphaned Billy finds an abusie stepfather in none other than Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, his archenemy.
Jerry Ordway became DC’s official caretaker of the franchise for the 90s, with The Power of Shazam!, an original graphic novel he wrote, drew and painted, which retold and updated the Captain’s origin story for the DCU (and rebooted the 1987 reboot, to boot). It was followed by a monthly series of the same title that ran for 48 issues (counting the DC One Million #1,000,000th issue) between 1995 and 1999.
Ordway continued to script and handle covers and some of the art chores-often with Dick Giordano inking him-but pencil artist Peter Krause and inker Mike Manley handled much of the artwork.
Because the book was canceled, it’s easy to dismiss it as a failure, especially if you were paying attention to the comics industry at the time. But then, everything gets canceled or at least rebooted eventually-even Action Comics and Detective Comics, it turns out!- but that’s an awful long time, outlving DC’s ’70s version of the charcter’s title.
After the 2005 Infinite Crisis, which tweaked the DCU’s history once again, writer Judd Winick took on the Marvel Family in The Trials of Shazam, part of an ill-fated “Brave New World” initiative of series.
Winick had Captain Marvel replace the late wizard Shazam, who was re-killed off during the run-up to Infinite Crisis, as the new guardian of The Rock of Eternity. He adopted a new all-white costume with a hooded cloak, his hair turned white and long and he took the name “Marvel.”
Meanwhile, Captain Marvel Jr. lost his powers, took to wearing Captain Marvel’s red suit, and changed his name to “Shazam.” The series followed the newly-dubbed Shazam in his attempts to win back the six super-powers of the magic word, and to do so before an evil rival could beat him to each of them. The series was plagued with art delays, and the new take never really took-it was unceremoniously undone in a JSA arc shortly afterwards.
Bone creator Jeff Smith, by most metrics one of the most popular cartoonists making comic books today, tackled the franchise with a four-part, prestige format series that kinda sorta retold one of the most popular Golden Age stories, that of Cap’s first encounter with Venusian conqueror Mr. Mind.
Smith’s version was another hard reboot, and while Smith has said it was indeed the “real” Captain Marvel he was writing and drawing for DC, none of the changes he made were honored in the DCU line of books, but were instead reflected a few years later in…
Originally announced along with Tiny Titans and Super Friends as part of a reinvigorated “Johnny DC” line of kids comics, this was to continue the story from Smith’s series, and each issue was to be written and drawn by Mike Kunkel.
It got off to a pretty great start, but sadly Kunkel and the monthly publishing schedule didn’t quite mesh, and the series was passed around through a whole bunch of (granted, often quite talented) hands before finding a stable creative team in writers Art Baltazar and Franco and artist Mike Norton.
Whether it was the ever-shifting creative teams or some other, unknown criteria-DC’s Johnny DC books sell at different levels and, presumably, in different markets than the rest of their line-the book was canceled with its 21st issue.
And that brings us to today.
DC once-again rewrote their own fictional history during the climax of last summer’s Flashpoint miniseries, and the resultant DC Universe is the new one we’ve been learning about by reading their rebooted “New 52″ titles.
Whether this newer, darker take will actually take remains to be seen, but looking back at DC’s previous attempts, it appears their longest-lived version was the one that hewed fairly close to the character’s core concept, while embedding it in the setting of the new DC Universe. Johns certainly has his finger on the pulse of the modern DC fan, though, and he’s written Captain Marvel and his villains about as often as anyone else currently in DC’s rolodex, having included both the Captain and the Black Adam in his JSA line-up, and he’s returned to them often in crossover stories.
Artist Gary Frank has also had some…
…shall we say experience with Shazam, having drawn 2002’s Just Imagine Stan Lee with Gary Frank creating Shazam! (actual title), in which DC allowed the legendary Marvel writer to completely recreate some of their characters, changing everything but the names. In that version, the Billy Batson character was a buxom blonde and Shazam was the name of a big red monster she could summon to help her. I think its fairly safe to say that however radically Johns and Frank reimagine the Captain, it won’t be that radical.