One of the most anticipated films of 2019 is the latest addition to the DC Extended Universe, Shazam! starring Asher Angel and Zachary Levi as Billy Batson and Shazam, respectfully. While for many of today’s comic book readers Shazam (nee’ Captain Marvel) is at best a second or third level DC super hero, geared towards a younger audience or the hero of a cheesy low-budget 1970s Saturday morning live action series. But “the Big Red Cheese” is actually one of the most important characters in comic book history.
After the successful debut of Superman in 1938, Fawcett Publications decided to enter the growing comic book industry. One of their early concepts was a team of six individuals who each had a unique super power. However, Ralph Daigh, the company’s executive director, thought it would be better to combined all those powers into one hero called Captain Thunder.
Charles Clarence “C.C.” Beck was chosen to bring the character to life. Beck drew in a cartoony style that mimicked the comic strips of the day. Beck’s characters tended to look like famous celebrities, and Captain Thunder was no exception; he was based on Fred McMurray (Best remembered today for the t.v. series My Three Sons and live-action Disney films of the 1960s.) Reflecting Beck’s artistic style, Captain Thunder initially had a lighter, less serious touch than the stories put out by rival publishers.
Beck created Thunder’s red and gold costume with a gold lightning bolt on the chest, which was described as an “operetta-style soldier’s uniform” with a sash, a jacket-like top, and a small, braid-trimmed cape flung over one shoulder. Thunder also had golden armbands that showed his rank. Eventually, the shirt flap was removed. Over time Cap became a bit chunkier, making his face resemble actor Jack Oakie.
Captain Thunder made his debut in Flash Comics #1 and Thrill Comics #1 both published in November 1939. These were small run “ash-can” copies printed in black ink on pulp paper solely for trademark and advertising purposes, and are two of the rarest comic books today. However, Fawcett discovered that the trademarks for “Flash Comics,” “Thrill Comics” and “Captain Thunder” were not available. The comic book was quickly renamed Whiz Comics. The hero was to be renamed Captain Marvelous, but it was shorten to Captain Marvel.
Whiz Comics #2 was released in late 1939 with a cover date of February, 1940. The full-color magazine showed Captain Marvel throwing a car with the caption “Gangway for Captain Marvel!” Many comic book historians rank Whiz Comics #2 with Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #27 in terms of importance to the industry.
Inside Captain Marvel’s origin was told. Orphan newspaper boy Billy Batson, who lives on the streets, is approached by a mysterious stranger outside a subway tunnel. (Though the city was not named, it would later be implied that it was New York City.) He rides a mysterious subway car to a hallway where there are statures of the “Seven Deadly Sins.” He walks down the hallway until he reaches the end where he meets an ancient wizard named Shazam who has spent 3000 years battling evil. The wizard shows Billy’s life, including how a wicked uncle cheated young Batson out of his family’s fortune and left young Billy homeless.
The wizard then tells Batson to say his name. When Batson complies, a bolt of lightning flashes and juvenile Billy Batson transforms into the adult Captain Marvel. “Shazam!” is derived from the first initials of six powerful figures of myth and legend from which Captain Marvel gets his powers:
S –Solomon, Biblical king of Israel, Wisdom
H-Hercules, Greek mythological hero, Strength
A-Atlas, Greek Titan who carried the world on his shoulders, Stamina
Z-Zeus, King of the Greek gods, Power
A-Achilles, Fabled Greek warrior of the Trojan War, Courage
M-Mercury, Roman messenger of the gods, Speed
Like Superman, Captain Marvel was invulnerable (which, depending on the story, came from either the stamina of Atlas or the power of Zeus), had super strength from Hercules and could fly (thanks to Mercury’s speed.) Unlike Superman, Captain Marvel did not possess any super senses, but on the other hand, he had no apparent weaknesses, like kryptonite.
Shazam dubs the transformed Billy “Captain Marvel.” Soon afterwards a large boulder falls on the wizard. Almost immediately Shazam reappears as a ghost and tells Captain Marvel that he can be summoned at any time by lighting a torch on the wall of his lair.
Whiz Comics #2 also introduced Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, a bald mad scientist who would become Captain Marvel’s biggest foe. Called by comic artist/historian Jules Feiffer “the best in business” Sivana (who predated Superman’s Lex Luthor by several months) had a rat-like appearance was allegedly based on Beck’s pharmacist. Sivana is first shown as a mysterious figure who is blocking all radio waves and demanding money for them to be released. Billy tells Mr. Morris, the owner of radio (later television) station WHIZ the truth behind the attack on the radio station. Morris laughs, but promises Billy a job as an on-air announcer if the story proves true. Thanks to Captain Marvel, Sivana is thwarted and Morris makes good on his promise to Batson.
Sivana would appear in over half of all Captain Marvel stories and had an advantage most super villains would kill for: he knew that Captain Marvel and Billy Batson were one and the same and that Billy had to say “SHAZAM!” to get his powers. Consequently, Sivana probably came closer to destroying his foe that any other villain in comic book history.
There were other villains as well. Mr. Mind, a highly intelligent alien worm, was Cap’s second biggest foe, and Mr. Atom, a radio-active robot that preceded Superman’s Brainiac by more than a decade. (As one might guess, Captain Marvel stories tended to be more fantasy/science-fiction oriented that Superman’s, in fact one of Billy’s closest friends was Mr. Tawny, a highly intelligent, civilized, talking tiger.))
Another notable foe was Captain Nazi, who next to the Red Skull, was the best Axis- inspired comic book villain. (Both were created in part by France Herron.) Captain Nazi was genetically altered by his scientist father giving him super strength and stamina. He could also fly thanks to a special jet back. He was also indirectly responsible for the first new member of what became known as “The Marvel Family,” Captain Marvel Jr.
In Whiz Comics #25, dated December 1941, the same month the United States entered World War II, Freddy Freeman and his grandfather rescue Captain Nazi, who just lost a fight with Captain Marvel, out of lake. The Nazi repays the kindness by killing the grandfather and breaking Freddy’s spine with an oar. Captain Marvel rushes the injured boy to the hospital. There the doctors declare that Freeman’s injuries are so serious that the boy is dying. Batson sneaks Freeman out of the hospital and takes him down the mysterious tunnel to summon Shazam. The wizard informs Billy that he cannot save Freddy’s life, but Billy can if he agrees to share some of his powers with the injured boy. Batson agrees. He says “SHAZAM!” and transforms into Captain Marvel. Freeman awakens and says “It’s Captain Marvel” and suddenly transforms into Captain Marvel, Jr.
Unlike Batson, Freedman does not turn into an adult, nor does his appearance change. His costume was blue with a gold on red cape, similar to Superman’s, but with gold boots. No explanation was ever given for this difference, though it was explained that since his powers came from Captain Marvel, and not Shazam, he had to say Cap’s name. Furthermore as Freddy Freedman, who became a newspaper boy himself, he was crippled and had to walk with a crutch.
“Junior” eventually got his own series starting with Master Comics # 23, February 1942 and his own title nine months later. Unlike the light touch Captain Marvel stories had, Junior’s were darker and more Dickens-like with artwork by Mac Raboy. Though almost forgotten today, Raboy is one of the most respected artists in comic book history. He drew in a realistic style that foreshadowed today’s “graphic novel” style of comic book artwork. Raboy left Fawcett in 1944 and drew the Sunday Flash Gordon comic strips from 1948 until his death in 1967.
(Elvis Presley was a big fan of Captain Marvel, Jr. His collection of Captain Marvel, Jr. comic books is still at Graceland, while a copy of Captain Marvel, Jr. comic book is visible in the Presley’s childhood home museum, both located in Memphis, TN. Furthermore, Elvis based his hair style (which was later dyed black, just like Junior’s) on the character’s hairstyle. His “Takin’ Care of Business (TCB) logo had a marvel-esque lightning bolt. Furthermore, many of Elvis stage outfits, looked like variations of Captain Marvel costumes.)
Captain Marvel, Jr. proved to be so successful that a year later Fawcett introduced, Mary Marvel in Captain Marvel’s Adventures # 18, December, 1942, to attract female readers.
In her origin story Billy is hosting a radio gameshow featuring Freddy Freeman and Mary Bromfield, the daughter of a rich socialite. During a break, Batson learns that he had a twin sister. At the time they were born, a wealthy woman lost a daughter at childbirth. A kindly nurse, replace Billy’s sister, Mary, with the deceased child giving her to grow up in a loving household where here needs would be met. Batson is given half of a locket that will identify his sister.
After the show, Billy tells Freddy the story and in the process, remembers that Bromfield wore half a locket. Changing into their super-powered selves, they follow Mary’s limousine, and find themselves saving the young woman from would-be kidnappers. Discovering the two lockets match, and that Billy and Mary are siblings the two heroes reveal their identities to her.
Unfortunately, the kidnappers have regained consciousness, and they bound and gagged Freddy and Billy. Mary inadvertently says “SHAZAM!” and is struck by a magic lightning bolt and is turned into a super power version of herself, wearing a red dress and top, with gold trim and a white cape. Like Freddy Freeman, her appearance does not change. (Her original appearance was based on Judy Garland.) After defeating the kidnappers, the trio visit the wizard Shazam, who tells them that Mary gets her powers from six female goddess and heroes. (Truth be told, Fawcett really struggled and failed to come up with six goddesses to make up the word “Shazam.” You can Google it if you wish.)
Soon after her introduction, Mary Marvel headlined Wow Comics and continued to do so until she had her own comic book in 1945. Her tales were in the same whimsical style of her brother, though her uniform and hairstyle underwent some changes in the 1950s. It is, however, important to note that neither Mary nor Junior were presented as Captain Marvel’s “sidekicks” like Robin was with Batman.
In Wow Comics # 18, October 1943 the final member of the Marvel Family was introduced, a loveable old con man who claimed to be Billy’s and Mary’s Uncle Dudley, who became the business manager for Shazam! Inc. a philanthropic foundation. Uncle Dudley claimed to have the powers of Shazam as well, though he didn’t, and called himself Uncle Marvel and was used primarily for comic relief.
That same year, Fawcett started publishing The Marvel Family, with the first issue dated December 1945. That issue introduced one of the most powerful villains in the DC universe, Black Adam. He was an ancient Egyptian named Teth-Adam, originally chosen by Shazam because he was “worthy” to be given the powers that would someday be given to Captain Marvel. When he says “SHAZAM!,” he wears a costume almost identical to Captain Marvel’s except his is black and does not have a cape. The wizard dubs him Mighty Adam, but when Teth-Adam starts using his powers to take over Egypt, the wizard intervenes, renames him Black Adam and exiles him into space.
But by 1945 Black Adam returns to Earth. He engages the Marvel Family but since they are all equally powerfully, no one gets an upper hand. In the middle of the fight in the lair of the Wizard Shazam, Uncle Dudley lights the torch and asks Shazam how to stop Black Adam. The wizard tells him to get Black Adam to say “Shazam!” Dudley successfully tricks Black Adam into saying the word and he reverts to his 5000 year old mortal self and turns into a skeleton.
(Though this would be Black Adam’s only “golden age” appearance, it was memorable and when DC started reprinting Captain Marvel adventures in the 1970s, this was the most requested one.)
Captain Marvel became the most popular comic book hero of the era, even outselling Superman’s comic books. Captain Marvel’s Adventures, which debuted in 1941, became so popular that it was published bi-weekly, selling 14 million copies alone in 1941 and up to 1.4 million copies a month. In addition there was a Captain Marvel fan club, and numerous pieces of merchandise for the fans to spend their allowances on.
If that was still not enough, in 1941 Republic Studios released the 12-chapter serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel, with cowboy star Tom Tyler appearing in the title role. Though done on the cheap (a puppet did the flying scenes, though surprisingly effective), it is considered by many to be one of the best serials ever made, the identity of the villain, the Scorpion, is cleverly hidden until the last reel.
None of this success was lost on National Comics Publications, the forerunner of today’s DC Comics. In June 1941 a cease and desist order was issued for both Fawcett and Republic Studios, claiming that Captain Marvel was a Superman rip-off. When both parties ignored it, National brought suit.
It took seven years for National Comics Publications v. Fawcett Publications to make it to trial. National claimed that Captain Marvel’s powers and costume were too similar to Superman’s to be a coincidence. While Fawcett admitted that there were similarities they were not infringing. National present 150 pages of evidence showing artwork from Fawcett publications that was similar to previously published Superman comics. Fawcett countered by showing Superman artwork that was similar not only to previously published Fawcett material, but also from Popeye and Tarzan.
Though the judge found that Captain Marvel was an illegal copy of Superman, he ruled in Fawcett’s favor on a technicality. National had failed to copyright some of its daily newspaper Superman comic strips, thus the judge deemed Superman’s copyright was abandoned.
National appealed the case in 1951 to the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Second District. The presiding judge, Learned Hand (one of the most cited judges in U.S. legal history) heard arguments on May 4, 1951 and issued his ruling on August 30, 1951. Judge Hand found that National’s copyright of Superman was valid, but that Captain Marvel, himself, was not an infringement of Superman. However, Judge Hand ruled that some of Fawcett stories could be deemed an infringement of National’s copyright. He sent the case back to the lower court for a re-trial with both parties expected to prove who copied who. Judge Hand’s ruling is still often cited in copyright and plagiarism cases.
While Fawcett could have fought the case in lower court or appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, they threw in the towel, in part because of declining comic book sales. The two parties settled out of court. Fawcett paid National $400,000 and promised not to publish any more Captain Marvel related comic books. Whiz Comics ended with issue #155 in June 1953. Captain Marvel Adventures ended with issue # 150 in November 1953. The last Marvel related title published by Fawcett was The Marvel Family #89 in January 1954. Appropriately the final Marvel adventure was titled And Then There Were None!
(Fawcett remained in business until 1977 when it was bought by CBS Publications for $50 million. The Fawcett name would continue to be used on mass market books and puzzle magazines until the turn of the 21st century)
Though the Marvels were out of sight, they were not out of mind. On The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle USMC, Jim Neighbor’s character’s catchphrase was “Shazam!” In 1966 Marvel Comics took advantage of the lapsed copyright for the name “Captain Marvel” and created a hero with that name, an alien warrior, who has since gone on to numerous incarnations. (But that is another story, movie and controversy) From 1970-1975 the Shazam Awards were presented by the Academy of Comic Book Arts.
In 1972 DC licensed Marvel related characters from Fawcett. Because Marvel Comics now owned the copyright on Captain Marvel, the comic book cover simply said Shazam! DC did sub-title the first issues The Original Captain Marvel which resulted in a cease and desist letter from Marvel Comics. This is why DC does not use “Captain Marvel” on the cover of any of their publications or any merchandising related the Fawcett character, but “SHAZAM!” instead, which has created years of confusion.
C.C. Beck was brought in to do the first issues, and at his insistence, the new series looked and felt a lot like the original. Wisely DC, kept the Marvel’s on their own Earth (later dubbed Earth-S). Besides new stories and art, each issue featured at least one classic tale. The original Fawcett tales were still considered cannon, with the explanation that the Marvels and all their friends, and some of their enemies, had been kept in suspended animation for two decades. The series lasted only 33 issues ending in 1978. The fact that the hero’s name could not be on the cover, was blamed for disappointing sales. Furthermore, as the characters were licensed, DC had to pay a fee to Fawcett every time they were used. (In the early 1990s, DC acquired the full rights to the characters.)
Still the series was enough to put the Marvels in the DC universe, appearing Justice League of America #135-137 Crisis on Earth-S where the Marvels and other Fawcett heroes met members of the Justice League and the Justice Society, including Superman in the first meeting between the Man of Steel and the World’s Mightiest Mortal. The Marvels were also major players in DC’s 1985 series Crisis on Infinite Earths.
A half-hour Saturday morning live-action television show, Shazam! was produced by Filmation, and aired on CBS from 1974-1977. The series really had little to do with the comic book. Billy Batson and his companion, a silver haired gentleman referred to only as “Mentor” traveled the country in a Winnebago trying to help people from hurting themselves. Each episode started with Batson talking to the six Elders, who gave him his power; (who were animated) with Solomon and others giving him advice. In short, the show was a morality lesson.
Acting, writing, special effects, or money were not a priority for the series. Captain Marvel was played in the first season by Jackson Bostwick, who looked nothing like the character (and was fired during the first season for failure to show up, allegedly in a pay dispute). For seasons two and three John Davey, who somewhat resembled the character took on the role of Captain Marvel. For those two season he had an occasional partner, Isis, the Egyptian goddess, and the stories became more action packed. For those two seasons the show was renamed The Shazam!/Isis Hour featuring a half hour segment for each hero, with a number of cross-over episodes.
More recently, and more successfully, Captain Marvel has been featured on the animated series Justice League Unlimited and Young Justice. The Captain appeared by himself and with the Marvel family in Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
Since the 1970s, DC has made several attempts to launch a new Captain Marvel series. Roy Thomas tried to revamp the figure in 1987 with Shazam!: The New Beginning. Though critically well received, the four issue mini-series did not lead to a full series. In 1995 The Power of Shazam! debuted. It started as a graphic novel by Jerry Ordway and then became a critically acclaimed regular series that lasted for 48 issues from 1995-1999. Captain Marvel has also been a member of both the Justice League and the Justice Society. Conversely, Black Adam has become the only Marvel villain to have an impact in the DC universe.
Finally in 2011’s The New 52 DC erased decades of history and dumped the name Captain Marvel in favor of Captain Thunder. Furthermore, the Marvel, err Thunder, family would grow from three to six, all part of a foster home. A year later in Justice League #7 March, 2012, Billy Batson’s alter-ego became “Shazam” (in a desperate hope by DC to end years of confusion) and a retooled costume. In December 2018, yet another, new SHAZAM! series was introduced, keeping the continuity from 2012.
For the many fans of the original Captain Marvel, the hope is that the 2019 will help put the character, regardless of what he is called, back in his proper place in the pantheon of comic book legends. At the very least, it should rekindle interest in one of the most important comic book characters of all time. (Which would probably make Elvis very happy!)
DC has reprinted many of the golden age adventures of Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel, Jr., Mary Marvel and the Marvel Family in their Archive Edition Series. They have also published numerous paperback compilations showcasing the heroes from the 40s to more recent times.
The best book about the origins of Captain Marvel and family and the mania they created in the 1940s and 1950s is Chip Kidd’s and Geoff Spear’s Shazam-the Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal.
Staff Writer/Resident Historian
Nerd Nation Magazine