By Scott Tipton
April 2, 2003
THE WORLD’S MIGHTIEST MORTAL
So here’s a question I get a lot:
”What’s the difference between SHAZAM and Captain Marvel? And how can DC publish a character called Captain Marvel? Who came first?”
Fair question. And considering that there’s a big-budget movie in the works, and that I seem to mention the Big Red Cheese practically every week, it seems to me that it’s time to take a closer look at one of the true originals in American comics: the one, true Captain Marvel.
SHAZAM! has been around since the ‘40s, right?
You mean Captain Marvel. Yes. Let’s get that straightened out right off the top. The guy in the red suit with the big lightning bolt on his chest? That’s Captain Marvel. Shazam is the ancient wizard who granted him his powers, whose name is the magic word that transforms young Billy Batson into Captain Marvel.
Billy Batson? Magic word? Wha?
Sorry, sorry, getting ahead of myself. Origin time:
Readers who picked up Fawcett Publishing’s WHIZ COMICS #2 in February 1940 were treated to “Capt. Marvel,” written by Bill Parker and drawn by C.C. Beck, the origin and first appearance of Captain Marvel. In the story, we see young Billy Batson, an orphaned newsboy, being led to a subterranean cavern by a mysterious cloaked stranger. In the cavern, Billy meets the 3,000-year-old wizard Shazam, who explains that for the past three millennia he has fought the forces of evil with the power given him by the gods. Now his time has come to an end, and he has chosen Billy to be his successor. Merely by speaking his name, Billy Batson would become Captain Marvel, and possess all the powers of his namesake. To be exact:
The wisdom of Solomon
The strength of Hercules
The stamina of Atlas
The power of Zeus
The courage of Achilles
The speed of Mercury
Sure, Solomon and Achilles weren’t strictly gods, but you don’t nitpick a 3,000-year-old wizard.
I’ve always felt that it was this origin story and concept that made Captain Marvel instantly popular, to the point that it was outselling every comic on the stands for several years throughout the ‘40s. The central concept was one that every kid could get into. First off, the origin was fiendishly appealing: you could never be Superman, since it was pretty clear you weren’t from Krypton, and sure, you could be Batman if you devoted decades of your life to study and training, but who wants to do that? But Captain Marvel? Hey, all that took was shouting a magic word, and instantly you’re a grown-up (and therefore you couldn’t possibly have any problems, right?), super-strong, super-smart, super-brave and you could fly. Oh, and whenever you wanted you could turn back into a kid again. Talk about your wish fulfillment. With a sweet deal like this, all you needed were buddies to pal around with. Soon enough, Fawcett would provide those, too.
Buddies? Captain Marvel had buddies?
To say the least. Making his appearance in 1942 was Captain Marvel, Jr. The victim of a vicious attack by Captain Nazi (one of the less subtly named villains in Captain Marvel’s rogues gallery), young Freddy Freeman lay near death, until Captain Marvel took the boy to see the spirit of the old wizard Shazam, who agreed to transfer some of Captain Marvel’s power to Freddy, saving his life. As a result, whenever Freddy spoke the name of his hero, Captain Marvel, he himself would become the superheroic Captain Marvel, Jr. (As a result, Junior became the only superhero who could never say his own name. Must have been hell at the union meetings…)
Later that year, Captain Marvel and Junior were joined by Billy Batson’s long-lost twin sister Mary Batson. Once Mary had been let in on their secret, she was shocked to learn that the magic word worked for her as well, transforming her into – you guessed it – Mary Marvel. Mary had her own set of patron goddesses, by the way:
The grace of Selena
The strength of Hippolyta
The skill of Ariadne
The fleetness of Zephryus
The beauty of Aurora
The wisdom of Minerva
With Cap, Junior and Mary, you had the basis for what would be known as the Marvel Family, but there was still more. When a con man discovered Mary’s diary and tried to pass himself off as their long-lost “Uncle Marvel” so as to cash in on their popularity, he soon gave in to the better angels of his nature and was quickly accepted into the Marvel Family. Uncle Marvel didn’t have any powers or anything, but when the others would say their magic words and transform in a clap of lightning, he’d quickly unzip his outer garments, revealing his own homemade Marvel uniform underneath. Good-natured kids that they were, they never let on that they knew he was bogus.
Finally, there were the Three Lieutenant Marvels. Follow close on this one; it’s kind of a stretch. A radio contest introduced Billy Batson (by this time a boy radio announcer for WHIZ radio) to three other young boys with the same name (one a tall boy from Texas, one, shall we say, portly youth from Brooklyn, and one young rustic gentleman from the South. Or, as the comic more crudely put it, Tall Billy, Fat Billy and Hill Billy.) As you might expect, soon enough they were all in harm’s way, tied to logs in a sawmill with the buzzing blades drowning out Billy’s voice. They added their voice to his, and SHAZAM! Tall Marvel, Fat Marvel and Hillbilly Marvel were born. God, I love comics from the ‘40s.
You’ve gotta be kidding. Mary Marvel? Uncle Marvel? Hillbilly Marvel? And this stuff was outselling Batman? Isn’t all this kinda goofy?
Well, sure. But that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. Most of the Marvel Family stories were written by Otto Binder, who had a knack for churning out month after month of appealing, straightforward adventure stories with more than a hint of whimsy, which matched perfectly with the cartoony, humorous art of C.C. Beck. The result was a dreamlike romp that combined the fantastic non-logic of fairy tales with the action and adventure of the comic books of the era. And with monthly sales that at times topped one million copies, there must have been plenty who enjoyed the formula.
One of the most popular “cartoony” elements of the series was introduced in 1947. In “The Talking Tiger,” Captain Marvel readers met Mr. Tawny, a talking tiger who grows tired of the jungle and stows away on a boat to America to see what civilization is like. When he’s met with somewhat less than a friendly impression on the city streets (including a bop on the snoot from a well-meaning but overreacting Captain Marvel), Tawny decides that it’s obviously clothes that make the man, and goes down to the haberdasher’s for a fine set of threads. The newly dapper Mr. Tawny makes Captain Marvel see the error of his ways, so to make amends, Cap gets Tawny a position as lecturer at the city’s museum of natural history. Sure it was goofy, but the stories have a simple, innocent charm that allow you to accept it. It wasn’t even explained just how Mr. Tawny gained the ability to speak until his next appearance in 1948, and he was a series regular after that.
And while the stories were whimsical, they also had their share of menace. Captain Marvel’s villains were some of the most bizarre in all of comics. First and foremost was the maddest of mad scientists, Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana. Looking for all the world like an insane twisted druggist, Dr. Sivana was a constant thorn in side of the Marvel Family, especially since he knew the secret of the magic word. There was also the aforementioned Captain Nazi, who was pretty much what you’d expect, and Black Adam, the first mortal to be gifted with Shazam’s magic word, back in the days of ancient Egypt. And then there was Mr. Mind.
Who was Mr. Mind?
Most fans of the Fawcett Captain Marvel consider the high point of the character to be a serial that ran in CAPTAIN MARVEL ADVENTURES for two years, from 1943 to 1945: “The Monster Society of Evil.” In the story, all of Captain Marvel’s enemies (including such fiends as Sivana, Ibac, Captain Nazi, Mr. Banjo, the unfortunately named Nippo, and many others) were united against him in a quest to rule the universe, under the leadership of the mysterious and devilish Mr. Mind, who was never seen by Cap or the reader, only appearing as a disembodied voice emerging from speakers. When Mr. Mind was finally revealed, it was something of a shock, to say the least.
He was a worm. With glasses. Not a giant worm; not even a three-foot-tall worm. Just a regular worm-size worm. By the end of the serial, Mr. Mind’s plans lay in ruins, and he was finally captured by Captain Marvel (after a hilarious sequence in which Mr. Mind tried to electrocute Billy Batson with a live wire, dragging it across the floor inch by inch). Here’s where it gets weird.
Mr. Mind stands trial for the murder of 186,744 people, atrocities never actually shown or referred to in the stories themselves. His own lawyer turns against him, which, I would think, is grounds for a mistrial in itself, but considering that the judge allows Captain Marvel to prosecute the case, legal niceties are apparently not a priority. Mr. Mind is found guilty and gets the electric chair. No kiddin’. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the final indignity: Mr. Mind is stuffed and mounted, and placed on display in the museum. You ask me, Mr. Mind was railroaded.
So if he’s named Captain Marvel, why do all the comics say ‘SHAZAM!’ on the cover?
This is the ugly, unjust part of the story. In the face of Captain Marvel’s enormous success, National Comics sued Fawcett in 1941, claiming Captain Marvel to be a blatant copy of Superman. The suit finally came to trial in 1948, with the court finding for Fawcett, while admitting some similarities between the characters. National appealed and got a new trial in 1951 and the legal battle continued until 1953, when Fawcett decided to quit publishing comics altogether in the face of softening sales, and they settled out of court with National for $400,000 and a promise not to publish the Marvel characters again.
In 1967, as Marvel Comics was booming, they realized the “Captain Marvel” copyright was lying unused, so they quickly created their own Captain Marvel in order to get a title on the stands. Marvel’s alien Mar-Vell character was moderately popular but never widely known, and different variations on their character have been continually published to this day.
In a bitter twist of irony, in 1972 DC Comics (formerly National) purchased the characters outright from Fawcett, and set out to revive the Marvel Family in all its glory. The problem? Marvel now owned the Captain Marvel copyright, so no book DC published could be called CAPTAIN MARVEL. DC’s solution was to re-title the book SHAZAM!, which is what every successive Captain Marvel project has been titled in some form or another, and also why many people mistakenly think that’s Cap’s name.
Title aside, DC’s SHAZAM revival never quite worked out. They initially tried to emulate the whimsical innocent feel of the original books, but without Otto Binder’s magic touch, they never felt quite right. Later attempts to make Captain Marvel more realistic also never quite succeeded, although Jerry Ordway’s respectable run on THE POWER OF SHAZAM did unquestionably the best job of combining today’s necessary realism with Captain Marvel’s original flavor. Even then, the sales just weren’t there, and the series was cancelled after 47 issues. Currently Captain Marvel can be seen in the pages of DC Comics’ JSA .
There was a SHAZAM! TV show in the ‘70s, right?
Captain Marvel has made appearances on both the big and small screens, as a matter of fact. In 1941, THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL graced Saturday-morning theatre screens for 12 weeks. The Republic serial, starring Tom Tyler as Captain Marvel, is considered by many to be one of the best examples of the action serial genre. You can still find this on VHS in video stores if you look hard enough.
SHAZAM! hit the Saturday-morning small screen in 1974 when CBS began airing Filmation’s live-action weekly series. The series ran for three seasons, and starred Michael Gray as Billy Batson and first Jackson Bostwick, then John Davey as Captain Marvel. To be honest, I haven’t seen the show since I watched it as a kid, and I remember being totally enraptured by it, but I would imagine it would look pretty silly now. I do remember Billy traveling the country in an RV with an old guy named Mentor, but that’s about it.
There was also a Saturday-morning cartoon series from Filmation in 1981. This was probably the most faithful translation of Captain Marvel, with appearances from the whole Marvel Family, Dr. Sivana, Mr. Tawny, and even Mr. Mind! The series is also noteworthy for some of the early animation scripts of Paul Dini, who would later go on to revolutionize Batman as part of the award-winning BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES team at WB. These were briefly available on video, but are now long out of production.
Okay, so now I’m hooked. What should I go read?
Always good to start at the beginning. DC has published two volumes of THE SHAZAM ARCHIVES, reprinting all of Captain Marvel’s earliest appearances from WHIZ COMICS in chronological order. It’s very interesting to see how the cartoony style from C.C. Beck was slow to evolve at first. There’s also a pretty rare Jack Kirby-drawn Captain Marvel story to be found here as well.
The next couple items are rather hard to find, but I finally got copies for myself, so there must be more out there. First up is SHAZAM: FROM THE FORTIES TO THE SEVENTIES. This is the Holy Grail of Captain Marvel reprint books. Published by Harmony Books in 1977, the 350-page monster contains the first appearances of all the major Marvel Family characters, and a whole lot more. Solo stories for Cap, Mary and Junior, Marvel Family adventures, the first and last chapters of the Mr. Mind saga, a rare Bulletgirl crossover, you name it. A must-have. Start looking for it now. (On a personal note: this book was in my junior-high library; I lost count of how many times I checked it out. In college, I had the book transferred from a sister university, and photocopied the entire thing, just in case I never saw it again. This was before the days of scanners, kids. A couple years back, I finally saw the book at a comic convention. It had been going on eBay for about two hundred dollars. The sticker price? Fifteen bucks. I pulled the cash out and threw it at the guy before he could say anything. He looked down, realized he hadn’t re-priced the book in years and was getting way below value, and was not happy. To his credit, he honored the price, but every time I see the guy now, man, does he give me the stinkeye…)
The other rare gem of Captain Marvel reprint books is THE MONSTER SOCIETY OF EVIL, a huge leather-bound collection of the entire 25-part Mr. Mind saga, reprinted in full, glossy, glorious color. This is about as hard to find as FORTIES TO THE SEVENTIES, and usually more expensive, but it’s still cheaper than trying to put together a collection of the original appearances in CAPTAIN MARVEL ADVENTURES.
Captain Marvel plays a big part in the critically acclaimed KINGDOM COME, written by Mark Waid and painted by Alex Ross. Set thirty years in the future, KINGDOM COME pits the heroes of yesterday against the next generation of younger, more vicious superheroes, with some surprising alliances forged. But who’s really pulling the strings? Waid’s careful plotting and spot-on characterization works seamlessly with Ross’ photo-realistic painting, making for one of the best “super-hero epic” type tales ever told. And watch out for the Superman/Captain Marvel dust-‘em-up that everyone’s waited years to see.
We may not have the wisdom of Solomon here at Comics 101, but we can probably answer any questions you might be wanting to ask. Send ‘em to firstname.lastname@example.org.
E-MAIL THE AUTHOR |