The Complete History of Shazam! and Captain Marvel (Part 2)

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Welcome back to my unauthorized yet highly accurate history of Shazam! and Captain Marvel. Be sure to check out Part 1 if you haven’t already. Here’s Part 2, although I must warn you – this gets real complicated…

By rights, 1978 should have been a banner year for DC Comics. After all, it was the year that marked the release of the first major Superman film. Sure, superheroes had been granted big-screen adventures before, but never had any been given a budget as big or a cast as high-profile. “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly!” quickly became the catchphrase of the moment, as audiences put down their lightsabers and donned bright red capes instead.

But though people did believe a man could fly, they also came to believe that a market could tank. That’s precisely what happened to the comic-book market in 1978, following a turbulent economy and ever-rising printing costs. DC Comics, which rode confidently at the top of the market, experienced a massive windfall, cancelling over twenty different series in the space of a few months.

The “DC Implosion,” as it has become known, stands as the largest financial cutback in comic-book history. Among those series hit by the cancellation wave was Shazam!, which had its plug yanked after issue #35, and its stories merged into the ongoing World’s Finest series.

Marvel fared better than DC during the turbulent time, but was still forced to cancel many of its second- and third-tier series. Ms. Marvel was one of the casualties, ending after issue #23 in early 1979. (Two unpublished issues eventually saw light in 1992, when they were published in Marvel Super-Heroes Magazine; the latter was even given a freshly-drawn “ending.”)

But despite the cancellation, Ms. Marvel stayed on as a member of the Avengers. And as the ‘80s began, she was still one of Marvel’s most prominent female superheroes. Surely nothing could happen to hurt the image of Carol Danvers, right?

Right?

Sigh. Okay, here we go.

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In 1980, over in The Avengers, Carol woke up one morning, eight months pregnant. What? How? Who was the father? Even she didn’t know. The series kept readers in the dark for a few issues, only to reveal something which – let’s face it – was a horrible, horrifying idea long before the #MeToo movement even existed.

In the series’ 200th issue, it was revealed that Carol had been transported to another dimension by a being named Marcus, who drugged and impregnated her before sending her back to Earth. She then ends up giving birth to another version of Marcus, because the original one couldn’t enter our dimension on his own, you see. If that’s not bad enough, Carol decides that she’s fallen in love with Marcus, even though her technically raped her (and… is kind of her son? Lord, the more I think about this, the more nauseating it gets). She then leaves Earth and returns with Marcus to his dimension, so the two of them can live happily ever after.

Yes, this storyline is real, and yes, it was actually published.

Fans were furious. So was former Ms. Marvel scribe Chris Claremont, who was not connected to the Avengers series. When given the chance to write an Avengers Annual, in fact, Claremont retconned the story as best he could, killing off Marcus and returning Carol to Earth. During a confrontation with the mutant villain Rogue (who had not yet reformed and joined the X-Men), Carol lost all her superpowers and memories. She regained the latter thanks to Professor X, but the Marcus ordeal was over forever.

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Carol continued to pop up occasionally in X-Men adventures, once again under Claremont. Despite her lack of superpowers, she continued to develop and even helped the mutant heroes on occasional missions (one story, for example, has her using her military credentials to help them sneak into an Army base). Then, during an overlong storyline in which the X-Men battled the Brood (think the aliens from Aliens, except uglier), an extraterrestrial experiment unlocked hidden potential in her Kree DNA, turning her into a new superhero with the powers of a star. Now calling herself “Binary,” Carol took to the stars, favoring intergalactic adventures over a lackluster life on Earth.

Meanwhile, over at DC, the Shazam! stories maintained a steady pace, with Cap sharing room with other “backup” heroes like Green Arrow and Hawkman. These Shazam! stories were more realistic than those of the O’Neil/Beck days, but they maintained some of the humor the character was known for. Alas, it was not for long – in 1982, DC reverted World’s Finest to its original form as a Superman/Batman book, muscling out all the supporting features, Shazam! included.

He wasn’t the only Captain Marvel to get the axe that year, although at least DC’s Cap didn’t get it as literally. Following Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s widely acclaimed Silver Surfer book in 1978, the term “graphic novel” had entered the lexicon to intuit a more prestigious form of comic book. In response, Marvel launched an ongoing series of graphic novels, titled, um Marvel Graphic Novels. The series would feature standalone but canonical stories – longer and more detailed than the average comic book – featuring many of the most prominent members of the Marvel Universe. Needing something huge and dynamic for the first issue, Marvel took the unusual (for its time) step of killing off one of their longtime heroes.

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Written and drawn by Jim Starlin, “The Death of Captain Marvel” revealed that Mar-Vell, one of the most powerful heroes in the universe, was dying of cancer. In the unexpectedly moving tale, many other Marvel heroes paid their final respects, and the story ended with him ascending into the afterlife. Although Mar-Vell’s comics had not sold well, it was still jarring for 1982 audiences to see such a powerful hero meet his end, particularly in such a human way. But they accepted it – that was the end of Captain Marvel.

For a few months, anyway.

Before the year was over, Marvel Comics introduced Monica Rambeau. Created by Roger Stern and John Romita Jr, Monica was a black woman who worked as captain of a cargo ship. When accidentally exposed to high volumes of interdimensional energy, she gained the power to manipulate energy across the electromagnetic field. Adopting the “Captain Marvel” mantle, she became a superhero in her own right, and soon joined the Avengers.

And the Captain’s name wasn’t the only one that carried on. In 1985, Marvel introduced Sharon Ventura, a budding female wrestler who gained disproportionate strength and muscles when a mad scientist filled her with steroids. (As always, it makes sense in context.) She took on the name “Ms. Marvel” and soon joined the Fantastic Four, which actually went through a lot of staffing changes during the ‘80s. Shortly afterwards, cosmic rays mutated her again, turning her into a female version of Ben Grimm’s The Thing. She retained the Ms. Marvel moniker, although fans came to know her more as “She-Thing.”

Meanwhile, DC was having trouble maintaining their own Captain Marvel, and problems stretched beyond their inability to use his name in their titles. Following the company-wide reboot in 1986, DC introduced a four-issue miniseries titled Shazam! The New Beginnings, which attempted to rewrite Cap’s origins from scratch. Written by former Marvel Comics editor Roy Thomas and his wife Dann, and drawn by Tom Mandrake, the series emphasized Cap’s childish personality, a stark contrast to the dark and gritty comics that were prevalent in the 1980s. Despite good sales, Roy Thomas clashed with DC Comics over the direction of the character and soon quit the company, and plans for more Cap revivals were abandoned.

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Finally, in 1994, DC released The Power of Shazam!, a graphic novel written and beautifully painted by Jerry Ordway. Once again, it was a reboot of Cap’s origins – but this time, it stuck. DC made Power an ongoing series, giving it a successful five-year run. During that time, Cap also played a key role in the widely-acclaimed graphic novel Kingdom Come, which further cemented his place in the DC universe.

Meanwhile, Marvel was swapping out its own Captain once again. In 1995, Monica Rambeau passed the torch on to Genis-Vell, son of the original Mar-Vell. Monica took the new name “Photon,” and a new Captain Marvel series, starring Genis-Vell, debuted shortly after. The series failed to catch on, however, and was cancelled after only six issues.

But what of the other Marvel Marvel? (Er… you know what I mean.) In 1998, Carol Danvers returned to Earth, most of her powers drained, and rejoined the Avengers – this time adopting the name Warbird. Crippled by alcoholism and depression over losing her goddess-like abilities, she fared poorly on the team and was soon booted from their lineup. Her appearances over the next few years remained sporadic.

She wasn’t alone. DC cancelled The Power of Shazam! in 1999, relegating Cap to the background once again. The only Marvel who entered the 21st century a victor was Genis-Vell, who was given a new series in 1999, which fared better than his first go-round, though not by much. It was cancelled and revived in 2002 under the tutelage of Peter David, who tried to take the series in a new direction – and make the Cap-Mar mythos more confusing than ever.

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In 2003, David introduced Phyla-Vell, daughter of the original Mar-Vell and sister of Genis-Vell, who attempted to take the Captain Marvel name for herself. Genis refused, thinking himself the rightful heir, but Phyla did become the “new” Captain Marvel for several months. Then, in 2005, Genis grew tired of the Captain Marvel name and decided to steal Monica’s name, Photon. Monica was angered at first, but decided in the end to change her name to Pulsar. And then a few years later, she changed her name again to Spectrum. Got all that? (Don’t worry, I won’t be bringing any of them up again.)

In 2006, DC released The Trials of Shazam!, a 12-issue series written by Judd Winick. The series was designed as a “passing the torch” moment for the aging Cap, as Freddy Freeman, AKA Captain Marvel Jr, attempted to take up the mantle and rebranded himself with the name “Shazam.” (Just to make this extra-perplexing – in the original mythology, Billy Batson turned into Captain Marvel when he said the word “Shazam,” but Freddy Freeman turned into Captain Marvel Jr. when he said the words “Captain Marvel.” For the umpteenth time, don’t think about it too hard.)

That same year, Marvel Comics reintroduced Carol Danvers as Ms. Marvel, reviving her original powers and costume, and gave her a new ongoing series – her first since 1979. Written by Brian Reed, the new Ms. Marvel made Carol more popular with readers than she’d been in decades, and led to her being prominently featured in many pivotal storylines, including Civil War and Secret Invasion. By the end of the decade, she had unexpectedly become the most prevalent female superhero in all of Marvel.

But DC’s Cap continued to lag. The Trials of Shazam! failed to have much lasting impact, and Billy returned to his Captain Marvel name – though by this point, that name was more unsavory than ever. With their rival growing in prominence thanks to films like Iron Man and Thor, a DC character named “Marvel” just seemed like shilling for the competition.

New change was ahead – and not just for Cap. The entire DC Comics universe was rebooted in 2011, and several heroes were given new origins. The new Cap who debuted in 2012 was no longer called “Captain Marvel” – under the pen of Geoff Johns, he was now officially named “Shazam.”

Reaction was mixed, particularly from longtime fans, but in terms of copyrighting, it was the right move at the right time. Around the same time as DC’s relaunch, Marvel Comics announced that there would be a new Captain Marvel… named Carol Danvers.

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Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, the newly-christened Captain Marvel debuted in 2012. The series began with Carol assuming the Captain’s mantle as a tribute to Mar-Vell, and subsequently featured adventures which spanned the universe. Carol rejoined the Avengers, fought alongside the Guardians of the Galaxy, and became the leader of the Canadian super-team Alpha Flight. She played a crucial role in 2016’s company-wide crossover Civil War II, supplanting Captain America’s role in clashing with Iron Man.

And to keep the line of succession flowing, a new Ms. Marvel debuted in 2014. Created by G. Willow Wilson, Kamala Khan is a teenage Muslim nerd from New Jersey whose latent genes develop and give her shape-shifting powers (which she mostly uses to “embiggen” her fists and punch bad guys). Kamala has proven extremely popular with adolescent readers, and her series is among the most acclaimed books that Marvel has released this decade. Though not directly connected to the other Captain Marvel characters (she chooses her superhero name as a tribute to Carol, whom she idolizes), Kamala is yet another welcome extension in their ever-broadening lineup.

Over fifty years after her debut, Carol Danvers is one of the most prominent and pivotal characters in all of Marvel Comics. The same, however, cannot be said for Billy Batson at DC. Shazam, as he’s now known, has largely faded into the background in recent years, as more serious and recognizable heroes maintain the spotlight. Recently, DC announced a new Shazam! series, focused on an older Billy Batson, along with Mary, Freddy, and their many new friends. The first issue was released in December 2018, debuting the first ongoing Shazam! series in nearly 20 years.

And now both Captain Marvel and Shazam – or Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel, or Binary and the Big Red Cheese – will be getting their own blockbuster films, the latest installments in their respective Cinematic Universes. As with many adaptations of comic-book characters, these films will undoubtedly be hits at the box office. And they will largely define the characters to mass audiences, dictating their future development as characters and brands for many years to come.

The names “Captain Marvel” and “Shazam” each have eighty years of history behind them. Yet, strange as it may seem, their stories are only beginning.

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