With one magic word: SHAZAM!
Although the super-hero boom in comics of the 1940s was undeniably started by the incredible popularity of Superman, and manifested in countless attempts to copy/capture/re-create/steal the Man of Steel’s successful model, Superman wasn’t necessarily the best-selling superdoer in the funny-book business. For a time in the ’40s, Superman was outsold by his biggest rival, the original Captain Marvel.
For those who don’t know this original Captain Marvel, lemme give you the brief. A young, orphaned newsboy named Billy Batson is granted secret, fantastic power by the ancient wizard Shazam; whenever our Billy speaks the wizard’s name, he is magically transformed into the World’s Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name is itself an anagram of the wonderful abilities Billy can access when he calls on the power of Shazam: The wisdom of Solomon! The strength of Hercules! The courage of Atlas! The power of Zeus! The skill of Achilles! The speed of Mercury! If you are a mad scientist like Dr. Sivana, or an evil tyrant (and literal worm) like Mr. Mind, or just another nogoodnik in The Monster Society Of Evil, get set to get your ass kicked by Captain Marvel!
I’ve been trying to remember when and how I first got hooked on Captain Marvel, who would ultimately become my all-time second favorite comic book hero (after The Batman). As a kid in the ’60s and early ’70s, I had heard of Captain Marvel, even though Cap was long gone by that point. The first Captain Marvel I ever saw was a Marvel Comics character who’d usurped the name from its rightful owner. Even as a stupid kid, I eventually figured out that Mar-Vell of the Kree couldn’t be the same Captain Marvel referenced on TV shows like The Good Guys and The Monkees.
(Digression: one of my many favorite moments on The Monkees was when Peter Tork had been kidnapped and tied to a chair. Left alone, still bound to the chair, our brave Peter shook ‘n’ shimmied his way in front of a mirror, squared his shoulders, and cried out with a defiant, “SHAZAM!” And the mirror shattered, prompting Peter to say, “Well, that’s seven years’ bad luck for Captain Marvel!”)
My first exposure to Cap was second-hand, in the letters page for a Lois Lane Giant. The letter-writer complained of a scene in a previous Giant where Superman fended off a number of super-powered suitors vying for Lois’ fickle affection; one of the defeated suitors, lying dazed on the floor, was Captain Marvel. The fan took issue with this, saying something like, “I know you put Captain Marvel out of business in the ’50s, but there’s no need to gloat over it!” The editor, E. Nelson Bridwell, replied that it was meant in fun; Lois Lane artist Kurt Schaffenberger had previously been one of the main Captain Marvel artists, and had included Cap’s image as a joke. Bridwell further commented something to the effect that Captain Marvel had been one of his own favorites as a young comics fan, and that he’d never wish to be disrespectful toward the World’s Mightiest Mortal.
I dug out that previous Lois Lane Giant, and I found the page and panel in question. There he was. So that was Captain Marvel! And now, I wanted to know more.
Coincidentally–but relevantly–I found a Super-8 movie projector in the attic. On subsequent visits to K-Mart and White-Modell, I saw Super-8 movies for sale, including Super-8 movies starring Charlie Chaplin, Super-8 movies starring Batman…and Super-8 movies starring Captain Marvel! I acquired them all in short order.
Long before the home-entertainment Utopia delivered by Betamax, laser discs, VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, and on-line streaming, 8mm and Super-8 films were short, silent movies made for home consumption. My two Captain Marvel Super-8s were twelve-minute distillations of the first and the final chapters of the 1941 movie serial The Adventures Of Captain Marvel.
The chronology of my Captain Marvel fandom gets a little confusing; so much happened either all at once or in short order, and I have difficulty putting it all together 45 years later. But figure we’re in a rough timeline of 1972 to ’73 or so. I watched my Captain Marvel Super-8s over and over. I read a single page of the first Captain Marvel comic book story, reprinted in Jules Feiffer‘s book The Great Comic Book Heroes (which contained just that one page of Cap, for legal reasons we’ll touch on in a few paragraphs). I was getting well hooked on Captain Marvel, albeit with relatively little to go on.
But two events kicked my Shazam mania into overdrive. In this time frame, it became clear that my teeth were a mess, and that I would need braces. One evening, following an early (and physically uncomfortable) consultation with the orthodontist, my parents decided to treat me to an evening with the Syracuse Cinephile Society. The Syracuse Cinephile Society was a monthly (I think) gathering of film buffs, who would convene upstairs at a downtown bar called The Firebarn to screen vintage films. This was not my first visit to the Syracuse Cinephile Society; my cousin Maryann had already taken me to The Firebarn to see Humphrey Bogart in Dead End, and she also took me to see Errol Flynn in The Adventures Of Robin Hood, though I don’t recall for sure whether that was before or after Mom and Dad took me to see….
…Well, they took me to The Firebarn to see the Syracuse Cinephile Society’s screening of the complete twelve-chapter movie serial, The Adventures Of Captain Marvel. The whole thing! With sound, unlike my silent little Super-8s! Mind you, this was over three and a half hours of serial action, three and a half hours originally intended to be enjoyed over the course of three months in twenty-minute weekly installments, not in a single evening as your butt hurt from sitting and your teeth ached from orthodontic invasion. But it didn’t matter. I was captivated. SHAZAM!
By this time, I probably knew a little bit about what had driven the World’s Mightiest Mortal off the newsstands decades ago. The folks in charge of DC Comics were none too thrilled about the success of Captain Marvel, a character published by Fawcett Comics. DC sued, claiming that Captain Marvel was a copy of Superman, and a violation of DC’s copyright on mighty caped guys who could fly. Fawcett eventually capitulated, and agreed to retire Captain Marvel permanently. Captain Marvel and the rest of The Marvel Family (his sister Mary Marvel and their pal Captain Marvel, Junior) disappeared–seemingly forever–following their final appearance in The Marvel Family # 89, cover-dated January 1954.
One of my favorite comic books in the early ’70s was a reprint title called Wanted: The World’s Most Dangerous Villains, a DC book that usually featured stories from comics’ Golden Age, the ’40s. The fourth issue of Wanted was a particular favorite, with a lead story reprinting the original Green Lantern‘s first encounter with Solomon Grundy, and a back-up of Kid Eternity (another of my faves!) facing his evil opposite number, Master Man. But, for all that, the one thing in this issue that just ’bout made my head explode was this one-page house ad:
Captain Marvel was coming back?! At DC??! Not even world peace or a Beatles reunion could have been more welcome news to me at the time. Well, maybe a Beatles reunion. World peace is nice, too. But I could barely contain my glee at this announcement. Captain Marvel was coming back!
The new comic book was called Shazam! During Captain Marvel’s nearly two-decade absence from newsstands, Marvel Comics had claimed the Captain Marvel name as a trademark, preventing DC from ever using that name as a comic book title. Curses! But I loved the new stories at the time, and I really loved the fact that DC was including a Golden Age Cap reprint in each issue. I figured this was the start of a new Golden Age!
But DC couldn’t quite get a handle on what to do with the World’s Mightiest Mortal. The scripts aimed to be charming, but usually settled for silly instead. Even with a new Saturday morning live-action Shazam! TV series, the character just never really caught on in a big way. Matters weren’t helped by the then-unknown fact that DC hadn’t actually purchased the rights to Captain Marvel; it was merely a licensing deal with Fawcett; that meant there was a limit to how much exposure Cap could get at DC, at least without DC having to pay additional fees that, frankly, wouldn’t have been worth it, given Captain Marvel’s lack of blockbuster sales appeal.
In the decades since, DC did eventually assume full ownership of Captain Marvel, and the character has appeared as a member of the Justice League of America and the Justice Society of America, and on animated TV shows including Justice League Unlimited and Batman: The Brave And The Bold. There is a Shazam! feature film in development, with Dwayne Johnson signed to play one of Captain Marvel’s enemies, the mighty Black Adam. So the World’s Mightiest Mortal lives on.
Unfortunately, DC doesn’t call him Captain Marvel anymore; now, the character is just called Shazam. Marvel Comics owns the original name, and has its own Captain Marvel movie coming, with Brie Larson in the title role. It bugs me a little that the original Captain Marvel can’t use his own name, but that battle was lost a long time ago. I read Marvel’s Captain Marvel comic book regularly, and I’ll see Marvel’s Captain Marvel movie when it’s released. That’s the way it is, and I accept it. I’ll even enjoy it, I betcha.
But, in my heart, I know who the real Captain Marvel is: a little kid with the biggest, best secret in the world; a kid who can move mountains, and fly around the world, and shrug off bullets and bad guys with a smile and a twinkle in his eye; a kid who can shed the troubles and limitations of frail humanity, and become a champion like no other; a kid who can become, at will, the World’s Mightiest Mortal.
It’s a pretty good deal. All it takes is one magic word.