Captain Marvel

shazam by alex ross

Captain Marvel, also known as ‘Shazam,’ is a fictional comic book superhero, originally published by Fawcett Comics and later by DC. Created in 1939 by artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker, the character first appeared in 1940 in ‘Whiz Comics’ #2. With a premise that taps adolescent fantasy, Captain Marvel is the alter ego of Billy Batson, a youth who works as a radio news reporter and was chosen to be a champion of good by the wizard Shazam.

Whenever Billy speaks the wizard’s name, he is struck by a magic lightning bolt that transforms him into an adult superhero empowered with the abilities of six archetypal, historical figures. Several friends and family members, most notably Marvel Family cohorts Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr., can share Billy’s power and become ‘Marvels’ themselves.

Hailed as ‘The World’s Mightiest Mortal’ in his adventures, Captain Marvel was nicknamed ‘The Big Red Cheese’ by arch-villain Doctor Sivana, an epithet later adopted by Captain Marvel’s fans. Based on sales, Captain Marvel was the most popular superhero of the 1940s, as his ‘Captain Marvel Adventures’ comic book series sold more copies than ‘Superman’ and the other competing books of the time. Captain Marvel was also the first comic book superhero to be adapted to film, in a 1941 Republic Pictures serial titled ‘Adventures of Captain Marvel.’ Fawcett ceased publishing Captain Marvel-related comics in 1953, due in part to a copyright infringement suit from DC alleging the character was a copy of Superman.

In 1972, DC licensed the Marvel Family characters and returned them to publication, acquiring all rights to the characters by 1991. DC has since integrated Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family into their DC Universe, and have attempted to revive the property several times with mixed success. Because Marvel Comics trademarked their ‘Captain Marvel’ comic book during the interim between the original Captain Marvel’s Fawcett years and DC years, DC has used the trademark ‘Shazam!’ to promote the property since 1972, instead of the name ‘Captain Marvel.’ Consequently, Captain Marvel himself has often been referred to as ‘Shazam,’ leading to DC to rename the character as such in their 2012 relaunch. To some however, Captain Marvel will always be an enduring reminder of a simpler time. ‘At his best, Shazam has always been Superman with a sense of crazy, goofy fun.’

After the success of National Comics’ new superhero characters Superman and Batman, Fawcett Publications in 1939 started its own comics division. Fawcett recruited writer Bill Parker to create several hero characters for the first title in their line, tentatively titled ‘Flash Comics.’ Besides penning stories featuring Ibis the Invincible, Spy Smasher, Golden Arrow, Lance O’Casey, Scoop Smith, and Dan Dare for the new book, Parker also wrote a story about a team of six superheroes, each possessing a special power granted to them by a mythological figure. Fawcett Comics’ executive director Ralph Daigh decided it would be best to combine the team of six into one hero who would embody all six powers. Parker responded by creating a character he called ‘Captain Thunder.’

Staff artist Charles Clarence ‘C. C.’ Beck was recruited to design and illustrate Parker’s story, rendering it in a direct, somewhat cartoony style that became his trademark. ‘When Bill Parker and I went to work on Fawcett’s first comic book in late 1939, we both saw how poorly written and illustrated the superhero comic books were,’ Beck told an interviewer. ‘We decided to give our reader a real comic book, drawn in comic-strip style and telling an imaginative story, based not on the hackneyed formulas of the pulp magazine, but going back to the old folk-tales and myths of classic times.’

The first issue of the comic book, printed as both ‘Flash Comics’ #1 and ‘Thrill Comics’ #1, had a low-print run in the fall of 1939 as an ashcan copy (created for advertising and trademark purposes). Shortly after its printing, however, Fawcett found it could not trademark ‘Captain Thunder,’ ‘Flash Comics,’ or ‘Thrill Comics,’ because all three names were already in use. Consequently, the book was renamed ‘Whiz Comics,’ and Fawcett artist Pete Costanza suggested changing Captain Thunder’s name to ‘Captain Marvelous,’ which the editors shortened to ‘Captain Marvel.’ The word balloons in the story were re-lettered to label the hero of the main story as ‘Captain Marvel.’ ‘Whiz Comics’ #2 (cover-dated Feb. 1940) was published in late 1939.

Inspirations for Captain Marvel came from a number of sources. His visual appearance was modeled after that of Fred MacMurray, a popular American actor of the period (though comparisons to both Cary Grant and Jack Oakie were made as well). Fawcett Publications’ founder, Wilford H. Fawcett, was nicknamed ‘Captain Billy,’ which inspired the name ‘Billy Batson’ and Marvel’s title as well. Fawcett’s earliest magazine was titled ‘Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang,’which inspired the title ‘Whiz Comics.’ In addition, Fawcett adapted several of the elements that had made Superman, the first popular comic book superhero, popular (super strength and speed, science-fiction stories, a mild-mannered reporter alter ego), and incorporated them into Captain Marvel. Fawcett’s circulation director Roscoe Kent Fawcett recalled telling the staff, ‘give me a Superman, only have his other identity be a 10- or 12-year-old boy rather than a man.’

As a result, Captain Marvel was given a twelve-year-old boy named Billy Batson as his alter ego. In the origin story Billy, a homeless newsboy, is led by a mysterious stranger to a secret subway tunnel. An odd subway car with no visible driver takes them past Seven statues depicting the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man (Pride, Envy, Greed, Hatred, Selfishness, Laziness, and Injustice) to the lair of the wizard Shazam, who grants Billy the power to become the adult superhero Captain Marvel and shows him his life, after which a stone above Shazam’s head crushes him, although his ghost says he will give advice when a brazier is lighted.

In order to transform into Captain Marvel, Billy must speak the wizard’s name, an acronym for the six various legendary figures who had agreed to grant aspects of themselves to a willing subject: the wisdom of Solomon; the strength of Hercules; the stamina of Atlas; the power of Zeus; the courage of Achilles; and the speed of Mercury. Speaking the word produces a bolt of magic lightning which transforms Billy into Captain Marvel; speaking the word again reverses the transformation with another bolt of lightning.

Captain Marvel wore a bright red costume with gold trim and a yellow lightning bolt insignia on the chest. The body suit originally included a partial bib front, but was changed to a one-piece skintight suit within a year. In 1994, the DC Comics version of the costume had the partial bib restored. The costume also included a white-collared cape trimmed with gold flower symbols, usually asymmetrically thrown over the left shoulder and held around his neck by a gold cord. The cape came from the ceremonial cape worn by the British nobility, photographs of which appeared in newspapers in the 1930s.

Through his adventures, Captain Marvel soon gained a host of enemies. His most frequent foe was Doctor Sivana, a mad scientist who was determined to rule the world, yet was thwarted by Captain Marvel at every turn. He had two non-evil children, the beautiful Beautia, who loved Captain Marvel, and the superstrong Magnificus. Sivana’s evil children, Georgia and Sivana, Jr., were later introduced to the comics, and they resembled their father both physically and mentally. Marvel’s other villains included Adolf Hitler’s champion Captain Nazi, an older Egyptian renegade Marvel called Black Adam, an evil magic-powered brute named Ibac, who gained powers from historical villains, and an artificially intelligent nuclear-powered robot called Mister Atom.

The most notorious Captain Marvel villains, however, were the nefarious Mister Mind and his Monster Society of Evil, which recruited several of Marvel’s previous adversaries. The ‘Monster Society of Evil’ story arc ran as a twenty-five chapter serial in ‘Captain Marvel Adventures’ from 1943 to 1945), with Mister Mind eventually revealed to be a highly intelligent yet tiny worm from another planet. The Monster Society was the first criminal group in comics with members from past stories, including Sivana, Ibac, and Captain Nazi, along with new foes, like Herkimer the crocodile man, and a multi-headed Hydra. Even Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo were members, along with other Nazis.

In the early 1940s, Captain Marvel also gained allies in the Marvel Family, a collective of superheroes with powers and/or costumes similar to Captain Marvel’s. (By comparison, Superman spin-off character Superboy first appeared in 1944, while Supergirl first appeared in 1959). As with other superheroes, Captain Marvel had a number of non-powered friends and associates as well. These included Mr. Morris, Billy’s employer at WHIZ radio; Joan Jameson, Billy’s secretary (and one of the few people to know his secret identity); Beautia Sivana, Dr. Sivana’s good-natured adult daughter who had a crush on Captain Marvel and only periodically joined forces with her father (and usually by force); and Dexter Knox, an intelligent young scientist who was a friend of Billy’s friends. The most prolific of Captain Marvel’s supporting characters at Fawcett was Mister Tawky Tawny, an anthropomorphic tiger who’d been fed a serum that allowed him to learn to speak and stand upright.

In the 1950s, a small British publisher, L. Miller and Son, published a number of black-and-white reprints of American comic books, including the ‘Captain Marvel’ series. With the outcome of the National v. Fawcett lawsuit, L. Miller and Son found their supply of Captain Marvel material abruptly cut off. They requested the help of a British comic writer, Mick Anglo, who created a thinly disguised version of the superhero called ‘Marvelman.’ Captain Marvel, Jr., was adapted to create Young Marvelman, while Mary Marvel had her gender changed to create the male Kid Marvelman. The magic word ‘Shazam!’ was replaced with ‘Kimota’ (‘Atomik’ spelled backwards).

Marvelman ceased publication in 1963, but was revived in 1982 by writer Alan Moore in the pages of ‘Warrior Magazine.’ Beginning in 1985, Moore’s black-and-white serialized adventures were reprinted in color by Eclipse Comics under the new title ‘Miracleman’ (as Marvel Comics now existed and objected to the use of ‘Marvel’ in the title), and continued publication in the United States after Warrior’s demise. Within the metatextual storyline of the comic series itself, it was noted that Marvelman’s creation was based upon Captain Marvel comics, by both Alan Moore and later Marvelman/Miracleman writer Neil Gaiman. In 2009, Marvel Comics obtained the rights to the original 1950s Marvelman characters and stories.

When superhero comics became popular again in the mid-1960s in what is now called the Silver Age of Comic Books, Fawcett was unable to revive Captain Marvel, having agreed never to publish the character again in order to settle the lawsuit. Carmine Infantino, publisher of DC Comics, licensed the characters from Fawcett in 1972, and DC began planning a revival. Because Marvel Comics had by this time established Captain Marvel as a comic book trademark, DC published their book under the name ‘Shazam!’ Since then, that title has become so linked to Captain Marvel that many people have taken to identifying the character as ‘Shazam’ instead of his actual name.

Captain Marvel’s adventures have contributed a number of elements to both comic book culture and pop culture in general. The most notable of these is the regular use of Superman and Captain Marvel as adversaries in Modern Age comic book stories. The two are often portrayed as equally-matched, and while Marvel does not possess Superman’s vision or breath powers, the magic-based nature of his own powers is a weakness for Superman.

The National Comics/Fawcett Comics rivalry was parodied in ‘Superduperman,’ a satirical comic book story by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood in the fourth issue of ‘Mad’ (1953). In the parody, inspired by the Fawcett/DC legal battles, Superduperman, endowed with muscles on muscles, does battle with Captain Marbles, a Captain Marvel caricature. Marbles’ magic word is ‘SHAZOOM,’ which stands for Strength, Health, Aptitude, Zeal, Ox—power of, Ox—power of another, and Money. In contrast to Captain Marvel’s perceived innocence and goodness, Marbles was greedy and money-grubbing, and a master criminal. Superduperman defeats Marbles by tricking him into hitting himself.

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