The Original is born
It was the beginning of the 40’s and the boy scout from Krypton still ruled supreme but not for much longer as he was soon going to be ousted from his throne by a 10 year old kid of all things.
Yes, in February of 1940 a book called Whiz #2 hit the newsstands starring a brand new character called Captain Marvel. This was one of a raft of new superheroes that were appearing everywhere in the wake of Superman’s creation in 1938.
This was a comic about a kid who only had to shout the magic word “Shazam!” to become a superhero with the power of six gods.
Such blatant wish fulfillment instantly appealed to kids more than Superman ever had. Here was a hero who was a kid like them and he was human and could become superhuman with a word.
Its appeal was obvious and soon he was outselling Superman consistently on the way to becoming the most popular hero in the 1940’s.
He was so popular, he became the first superhero to appear on film- in a 1941 serial from Republic Pictures titled ‘Adventures of Captain Marvel‘.
Yes you read that correctly, it was not Superman, not Batman but Captain Marvel who was first to the big screen.
Captain Marvel was soon joined by the other members of the Marvel family. First starting with the lieutenant Marvels, then Freddy Freeman as Captain Marvel Jr and Mary Blomfield as Mary Marvel. The additions were very successful and made Captain Marvel more popular. So much so that Elvis Presley started styling himself after Captain Marvel Jr and you can see this in many of his early costumes that he wore on stage.
Now how do you think DC reacted to all of this? Not very well at all!
In 1941, just a year after his debut, DC sued Fawcett Comics for infringement. This case was in litigation for 7 years before finally going to court in 1948. DC eventually lost the case in 1951, 3 years later. Even worse, DC was told by the court that Superman was not even properly trademarked!
DC were furious and they appealed the ruling. This time, in 1952, they got a better result in terms of the legitimacy of the Superman trademark but the court did not find Captain Marvel himself to be an infringement. The ruling allowed DC to go back to a lower court to fight that battle.
At this time Fawcett Comics really had had enough. It was the 50’s and the comics were no longer the big earner they used to be. Fawcett Comics were being made to pay all these courts costs and lawyer fees and DC were big enough and rich enough to keep this going for ages. In the end Fawcett did not have the stamina of Atlas and they decided they had enough and settled out of court with DC and stopped publishing superhero comics.
Hence this golden era of Captain Marvel came to an inglorious end.
The Pretenders Rise!
By the late 1960’s there was a Captain Marvel-sized void in the industry and in stepped Stan Lee. By this time he had renamed Timely Comics as Marvel Comics and it seemed out of place not to own the once-popular comic character with the same name.
But a company called MF Enterprises had started publishing a comic called Captain Marvel in 1966. After some discussion and a cheque from Marvel Comics, MF Enterprises ceased publication of the book thus paving the way for Marvel to own the trademark outright.
Over the many years Marvel comics created several characters that bore the name. The actual reason there were so many Captain Marvel’s was simply because the trademark had to be used at least once in every two years or Marvel would lose the rights to it!
So over the next few years Marvel had a few Captain Marvels come to the forefront, first was the Kree Soldier Mar-Vell, then we had Monica Rambeau, then Genis the son of Mar-Vell, then his cloned sister Phyla. These and others enjoyed stints as Captain Marvel until the emergence of Carol Danvers as the current title holder.
She has become the best known in recent Marvel history and is the iteration fans will be introduced to on the big screen as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Meanwhile back at DC
Back in 1972, DC were looking to bring in new characters to bolster their roster of superheroes and they decided to acquire the old characters from Fawcett Comics – the same company they had beaten into submission.Many of Fawcett’s old creators moved to DC when Fawcett ceased publishing and this may have played a part in the decision.
So they acquired the rights to the Marvel family characters among many others and started publishing stories of the first Captain Marvel. DC initially tried to call the comic: “Shazam! The original Captain Marvel” but Marvel who now had the rights to the name were not having any of that!
So they changed the title to “Shazam, starring the worlds mightiest mortal” and the Billy Batson Captain Marvel found a home at the very same company that was partly responsible for sending his original home of Fawcett Comics out of business. How ironic.
Shazam has been at DC Comics for a long time without enjoying a great deal of success. In my opinion, this is because he is always downplayed in favour of DC’s true son – Superman. Ironically Captain Marvel is now truly the adopted child in every sense of the word.
He has managed to have some great moments over the years with certain writers who were fans of the character from the old days giving him his due prominence. One of the most noteworthy examples was his appearances in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come.
The latest and most dramatic change in DC to Billy Batson’s Captain Marvel and the Marvel family came in 2011 with the New 52 reboot of the entire DC universe.
They went through a whole wardrobe change, new characters were added, magic was made the focus of the stories and the final straw that broke this camels back writer Geoff Johns made the decision to change his name to Shazam.
His reason? He thought most people felt he was called Shazam anyway and the name Captain Marvel confuses them, what a load of crock!
This is frankly very dismissive of the fans and their intellect plus this had not been problem for the last 40 years or so!
I get that it is easier to call him Shazam for legal reasons but it leads to tons of problems now for the character that can’t even say his own name now.
He retconned the members of the Marvel oops I meant Shazam(?) family by adding new diverse characters as part of Billy’s new background story, so joining Freddy and Mary were Darla, Pedro and Eugene. This is the current status quo in DC comics right now and these are the characters you will meet in the movie Shazam!
I have come to live with this state of affairs and thanks to the DC multiverse and Grant Morrison we do still have a version of these characters that are close to the originals with uniforms and names intact living on Earth – 5, so it is not all bad!
Whew! That was a longer piece than intended, anyone still awake?