Every year brings with it a new plethora of superhero films, and 2019 is no exception. At last count, studios have an estimated 827 comic-book movies (give or take) scheduled for release this year, and who can blame them? 2018 saw four superhero flicks – Black Panther, Aquaman, Incredibles 2 and Infinity War – make over a billion dollars each, which means that Hollywood will continue producing such films until the sun eats our planet for breakfast.
Most of this year’s biggest comic-book blockbusters, as usual, are saving themselves for the summer months, but a few are making a springtime debut. The two most prominent of these early releases are Shazam! (from DC Comics) and Captain Marvel (from… er, Marvel). And unless you’re as nerdy as I am (and as usual, I must include a disclaimer here saying that I hope you are not), you may find yourself a bit confused when these one of two characters is brought up in online conversation. Is Shazam’s name… Captain Marvel? Is Captain Marvel’s name… Ms. Marvel? Wait, isn’t there another Ms. Marvel? And how can DC have a character named Marvel? What’s going on?!
It’s all quite confusing, and would be so even if these films weren’t debuting within a few weeks of one another. But fortunately for the world, I’m here to clear things up. What follows is the complete history of the names “Captain Marvel” and “Shazam” – which, believe it or not, is even more complicated and convoluted than the string of questions that ended the previous paragraph makes it sound.
Our story opens in December 1939, shortly after superheroes first made their comic-book debut. Superman and Batman had already been introduced by National Comics (later to be known as DC Comics). The Flash had just debuted in All-American Comics (also later to be known as DC Comics, because it merged with National. Like I said, this is gonna get complicated), and several other imitators would be spawned over the next few years. The Man of Steel had ignited the market, and a whole slew of start-up comic book companies hurried to get a piece of the action.
Just as the calendar flipped from the Depression-era ‘30s to the war-ridden ‘40s, a small firm named Fawcett Publications began its own foray into the superhero world. Fawcett had been founded twenty years earlier, and had gained recognition for its offbeat flagship magazine, Captain
Billy’s Whiz-Bang (a name you may recognize from its reference in “Trouble,” the best song in The Music Man). And they now spun off a subdivision of their firm into developing comic books.
Someone at the publishing house must have really loved the Captain Billy title, as Fawcett’s very first ongoing comic book was called Whiz Comics. On the cover of the first issue (which was confusingly labeled issue #2 – issue #1 was just a copy to establish trademarks, and was not sold to distributors) was a tall, somewhat goofy-looking superhero, shown hurling a car at a nearby brick wall and sending passengers, bricks, and tommy-guns flying. (It’s never explicitly stated, but just assume the guys in the car are crooks. And, um, not killed by the impromptu meeting with the wall.) Gangway for Captain Marvel!
Created by Bill Parker and CC Beck, Captain Marvel was the alter ego of Billy Batson, a kid reporter gifted with superpowers by an old, godlike man living beneath the subway. (As old, godlike men often do.) When Billy repeated the man’s name – “Shazam!” – a lightning bolt from the sky would transform him into a fully-grown costumed adult with the powers of super-strength, super-speed, flight, and even super-wisdom. (Though he was rarely shown using that last one.)
Captain Marvel’s stories were sillier and more comedic than the average superhero’s – for instance, among his recurring nemeses was a talking, bespectacled caterpillar who wanted to control the world – which helped him stand out on the crowded newspaper rack. And stand out he did – Cap exploded in popularity, and within a year, Whiz Comics was one of the best-selling series on the market. The book began publication with a standard 12 issues per year, but upped it to 13 (one every four weeks) once Fawcett realized how huge the Big Red Cheese had become. Ditto the eponymous Captain Marvel Adventures series, which debuted in 1941 and quickly shot to the top. The bright, peppy, humorous adventures appealed to children and undemanding adults, who needed something light and escapist as America entered World War II.
Within a few years, Cap’s roster had grown considerably. The series introduced Captain Marvel, Jr. (AKA Freddy Freeman, a disabled boy who also gained Billy’s powers), Mary Marvel (Mary Batson, Billy’s long-lost sister), and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny (a bunny rabbit who… look, don’t even ask), each of whom soon spun off into their own series. The Marvel Family provided a grab bag of sorts, featuring a mix of stories about Cap, Junior, Mary, and a slew of other colorful characters. There was even a text-based Captain Marvel Storybook series, though that one was short-lived, because who reads comics for the words?
Early in his run, Captain Marvel hit an even greater milestone, becoming the first superhero in history to appear on the silver screen. A 12-part film serial, titled Adventures of Captain Marvel, featured Western star Tom Tyler as Cap and Frank Coghlan, Jr. as Billy Batson. The film premiered in March of 1941, six months before Fleischer Studios began releasing its now-famous Superman cartoons. (Supes would not get his own feature-length film until 1948.)
Everyone was thrilled with Captain Marvel’s success – except, that is, for DC. (No, they weren’t called DC yet, but for the sake of clarity, let’s just use that name.) America’s largest comic-book publisher was on the alert for any heroes who appeared too similar to their flagship creation – they had already torpedoed Fawcett’s Master Man after just six issues by threatening legal action. DC again came after Fawcett following the release of the Captain Marvel film, requesting they cease publication of their alleged Superman clone. This time, Fawcett refused, and DC dragged them to court.
The wheels of justice ground just as slowly back then as they do today, and the Superman vs. Captain Marvel fight didn’t reach trial until 1948. Fawcett lost the first battle, then lost an appeal when Judge Learned Hand (yes, that was his name) found that certain aspects of Fawcett’s character were too similar to DC’s. Fawcett finally settled with DC out of court, and cancelled all its Captain Marvel series in 1953.
That should have been the end of it. But as anyone familiar with comic book storytelling or MCU post-credits knows, there never is a real ending.
The next sign that the name “Captain Marvel” had not disappeared into the ether came over a decade later, and from a wholly unrelated source. In 1966, magazine publisher Myron Fass founded MF Enterprises, a comic book studio designed to capitalize on the rebirth of the market. (A variety of factors had sent comic books tumbling in the ‘50s, but the ‘60s saw them getting back on track.) MF’s most prominent series was about a new Captain Marvel – this one was an android whose superpowers included the ability to detach his head and limbs when he yelled “Split!” (No, I’ve never read this series, and I’m okay with that.) Among his villains was an obvious Batman parody/ripoff, because the Adam West TV series was on and… I guess MF thought they could fool people into thinking this was a crossover? The series failed to catch fire and was cancelled after four issues, and MF shuttered its doors in 1967.
A few months later, the name was reappropriated – this time, fittingly, by Marvel Comics. (The company had been founded by Martin Goodman as Timely Comics in 1939, and one of its most successful 1940s titles was called Marvel Comics. Writer-editor Stan Lee convinced Goodman to rename the publisher after that series in 1961, just in time to start building the now-famed Marvel Universe.)
Created by Lee and artist Gene Colan, the new Captain Marvel debuted in 1967 in the first issue of Marvel Super-Heroes. (It was labeled issue #12, because it was replacing an 11-issue reprint series called Fantasy Masterpieces. Just go with it.) This series functioned as a test-drive series for new superheroes, checking which ones worked and which bombed. (Interestingly, the Guardians of the Galaxy made their Marvel debut in this series in 1969, though it would be a few decades before even casual comic book fans gave them any attention.)
This Captain Marvel was really Mar-Vell, an alien soldier who protected Earth from all sorts of threats – including those from his own race, the dangerous Kree. The series introduced multiple new characters, including a security chief named Carol Danvers. Carol developed an inevitable crush on Mar-Vell, who at one point rescued her from an exploding Kree machine. (Yes, perceptive readers, I’m bringing that up for a reason.)
Mar-Vell’s series did not sell well, even after some fine-tuning of his story turned him into Billy Batson 2.0. (He fuses into the body of young Rick Jones from the Hulk series, and can only be set free at Rick’s command.) Several costume redesigns did not help much, and although the series continued well into the 1970s, Mar-Vell was relegated to strictly second-tier status.
Meanwhile, with Marvel Comics rivaling and at times surpassing them, DC began searching for heroes both new and familiar to catch readers’ eyes. Although Fawcett had ceased publication of the original Captain Marvel twenty years earlier, the character was still fondly remembered – the Academy of Comic Book Arts had even taken to dubbing their annual honoring ceremony “the Shazam Awards.” (Statuettes shaped like lightning bolts were given out to the year’s best comic book producers.) Spurred on, DC successfully licensed the character from Fawcett, and even convinced cocreator CC Beck to return as artist. After a two-decade hiatus, Billy Batson was ready to return.
The character’s name, however, posed a problem. Because Marvel Comics was publishing their own series under the Captain Marvel name, DC couldn’t do likewise. They instead wound up titling the series Shazam!, with a subtitle reading The Original Captain Marvel (though a letter from Marvel prompted them to eventually change that to The World’s Mightiest Mortal).
The first issue of Shazam! hit stands in 1973, intending to recapture the quirky, lighthearted feel of the original series. The story explained that the Marvel family had been frozen in suspended animation for the past twenty years, reawakening now without having aged a day. (Whether this sort of explanation was necessary in the world of comic books, where characters age about as consistently as Benjamin Button, is a discussion for another time.) The series brought back all the old characters in brand-new stories, and reprinted many old gems from the Fawcett days. For a little while, it seemed like DC had recaptured the magic that had charmed so many in the 1940s.
But the magic did not last long. Beck clashed with the young writers assigned to his stories, and quit Shazam! after issue #10. Several other artists tried to ape his style, but to mixed results. The series was also still the subject of financial disputes, as Fawcett demanded a licensing fee for every appearance by every major Marvel Family character in DC’s stories. The dispute over how much of a copyright hold DC placed on Shazam! culminated in a story where Cap battled Lex Luthor, and – I kid you not – the name “Superman” is never even uttered.
But even as the comic book flagged, DC made plans to move their shiny old-new character to television. Shazam! premiered on CBS in 1974, a Saturday morning kids’ show with Jackson Bostwick as Captain Marvel and Michael Gray as Billy. Early in Season Two, Bostwick was fired and replaced with Jackson Davey, and the show was paired with Isis (a show about the Egyptian goddess – which “Isis” were you thinking of?) to make The Shazam/Isis Power Hour. Both shows enjoyed brief popularity with young viewers, but were cancelled in 1977.
Still, the late ‘70s became a thriving time for superheroes on television, particularly after DC debuted Wonder Woman in 1976. Eager to get their own heroes on the small screen, Marvel set out to make as many TV shows as they could finance. Results were mixed – The Incredible Hulk ran a successful five seasons, but an ill-advised live-action Spider-Man series was cancelled after one, while Captain America and Dr. Strange never made it past the two-hour pilot stage. (They ended up airing as TV movies.)
Through it all, Marvel was aware of how lucrative the TV business was, and how fickle copyright claims could be. It was a lesson they’d learned from DC – back in 1967, when producers of the Adam West Batman series proposed adding a “Batgirl” character to boost flagging ratings, DC hastily introduced Barbara Gordon into the comics, thus giving them first rights to the character and allowing them to use her in future projects. Eyeing the successful Wonder Woman, Marvel knew that TV producers would try to capitalize on more female superheroes, and they quickly set about introducing lady versions of their most recognizable superheroes. In the space of a few years, several “female reboots” made their debut on the comics page, including Spider-Woman, She-Hulk… and a lady named Ms. Marvel.
Ms. Marvel was Carol Danvers, the former love interest of Mar-Vell – as early issues revealed, the explosion of the Kree machine (‘member that?) had transferred some of his powers to her. Her series, which debuted in 1977, was created by Gerry Conway, but X-Men scribe Chris Claremont took over within a few issues. Claremont, who had drawn acclaim for his nuanced writing of female superheroes, did his best to distinguish Ms. Marvel from her male progenitor, though her rogues’ gallery borrowed heavily from other series, as did her supporting cast. (Carol’s day job was editor of a feminist magazine, published – reluctantly – by none other than J. Jonah Jameson.)
Despite Claremont’s popularity, the original Ms. Marvel series never caught on, even after artists gave her a more flattering costume. Nowadays, the series is mainly remembered for introducing Mystique, the shapeshifting mutant who would later be played by Rebecca Romjin and Jennifer Lawrence in far too many X-Men movies. But back then, the series barely generated more notice than the other Captain Marvel, which ranked near the bottom over a decade after its debut.
Meanwhile, over at DC, Shazam! wasn’t faring too well, either. After devoting a year of issues solely to old Fawcett reprints, the series attempted a serialized “cross-country” arc that fell resoundingly flat. Multiple super-guest stars couldn’t save the series, which now felt thirty years behind the times.
Billy Batson and Carol Danvers were both reeling as the 1970s neared their end, but their respective series still remained afloat. They could survive, provided nothing went wrong.
And then along came one of the biggest disasters in comic book history.