In our present age, when not only the original Captain Marvel has been the subject of a blockbuster motion picture (with a second one on the way), but so has his most powerful adversary, it may be difficult for younger fans to comprehend just how obscure Billy Batson and his alter ego were to the average comic book reader of half a century ago. Even if you were an avid comics fan who’d been reading superhero funnybooks for the past seven years (as was my fifteen-year-old self, back in December, 1972), you might not have much more than a vague idea of what the “Marvel Family” and its mythos were all about, prior to the publication of Shazam! #1.
Indeed, I’m not even sure that I knew exactly what Captain Marvel looked like until October, 1972 — the month in which DC Comics ran the following full-page ad in a number of its books:
“Watch out, Superman!” As I wrote in my post about Justice League of America #103 back in October, this ad’s provocative suggestion that DC’s new addition to its stable of superheroes might be a credible rival for the company’s flagship character was echoed and reinforced in that comic, in a scene that ran just a few pages after the ad for Shazam! #1. There, the Man of Steel found himself facing a demon-possessed individual wearing the costume (and also bearing the powers) of a figure who, though unnamed in the story, was obviously the very same “World’s Mightiest Mortal” featured in the “Shazam is Coming” ad:
In its way, this dust-up between Superman and his “big cheese” opponent was even more provocative than the ad, since it ended with Supes losing the fight when the other guy spoke a mysterious word and called down a lightning bolt to smite the Last Son of Krypton. Could that word have been “Shazam”? And did that mean that Captain Marvel was, in fact, mightier than Superman? Supes was vulnerable to magic, after all, and if Cap’s powers were magical in origin…
I didn’t really expect that question to be answered in Shazam! #1… still, it added a little extra interest to what was already the very intriguing prospect of finally finding out why Captain Marvel was considered such a big deal by some comics fans and pros — the latter category including writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, whom I knew had drawn heavily on the hero’s origin and modus operandi for their own revamp of another Captain Marvel; the one published by the company that now owned the trademark on the hero’s name, Marvel Comics. (Said trademark ownership was, naturally, why DC’s new title had to be called something other than its main character’s moniker.)
Thomas, of course, had been one of the pioneers of the early comics fandom that had arisen in the wake of the Silver Age superhero revival — and like many of those fans, he was old enough to remember the original Marvel Family comics published by Fawcett during a fourteen-year period that extended from Whiz Comics #2 (Feb., 1940) to The Marvel Family #89 (Jan., 1954). By all accounts, at the peak of his popularity Captain Marvel was outselling every other superhero, including Superman. But as of 1954, Cap disappeared from newsstands, seemingly for good… because after a twelve-year legal battle with DC Comics, which claimed that Captain Marvel infringed upon DC’s copyright on Superman, Fawcett had settled with the other publisher, opting to stop production not only of their comics about Cap and his family of related characters, but of all their comics, period.
So if you were a comics fan who’d come along at any time after that, you could read about the original Captain Marvel, in books like Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965), Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson’s All in Color for a Dime (1970), or Jim Steranko’s History of Comics, Vol. 2 (1972) — but you couldn’t read the stories themselves, at least not without springing for back issues on the burgeoning collectors’ market. Even Feiffer’s book, which lavishly reprinted full stories of Superman, Captain America, the Spirit, et al, was restricted to a single page of Captain Marvel comics, due to legal restrictions. Naturally, such rarity ultimately added to the character’s mystique, lending his adventures a certain contraband quality (kind of like pre-Comics Code horror comics, though obviously for different reasons).
Such was the lay of the land in comicdom when the news came out that not only was the Fawcett Captain Marvel coming back, but that the company bringing him back was the same one that had driven him off the stands in the first place, DC Comics. This news landed like a bombshell in late 1972, and it’s easy to see why; retrospectively, however, it’s also not hard to see how the move was a logical one for DC to make, business-wise. Since his ascension to executive status in the late 1960s, publisher Carmine Infantino had shown a willingness to experiment with the range of material that DC offered (though, perhaps, less patience in allowing time for the fruit of such experimentation to prove itself in the marketplace than one might wish). Beyond that, the licensing of IP owned by others had been part of DC’s business model practically forever, with Tarzan and its fellow Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. properties being a current example. So one can understand how it all made sense to Infantino and the other DC brass: There seemed to be a fair amount of public interest in the old Captain Marvel character, and no comics publisher was presently profiting off of that interest — so why not license the rights to Cap and company from Fawcett, giving both companies the opportunity to make some money in the ’70s from a property they’d spent untold amounts of cash fighting each other over in the ’40s and ’50s? If the gambit were successful, everyone would win.
Of course, logical or not, the revival of the Marvel Family at DC’s hands was still unquestionably a special event — and DC treated it as one in its marketing. We’ve already perused the full-page “DC’s Christmas gift” ad, of course, but before moving on to Shazam! #1’s interior pages, it’s worth taking another look at the comic’s cover, which reinforces the comic’s “event” status by taking the highly unusual step of having DC’s corporate symbol — not to mention Captain Marvel’s presumed rival — pull back the curtain to reveal the company’s newest superstar to its loyal readers. (For the record, while the cover’s main Billy → lightning → Cap image was produced by Captain Marvel’s co-creator and main artist, Charles Clarence Beck [whom you’ll note signed his work]. Big Blue was delineated by the team of Nick Cardy and Murphy Anderson [the latter of whom inked Supes’ face].)
And now, let’s accept the Metropolis Marvel’s invitation, and open our Christmas present from DC Comics: the first new story of the original Captain Marvel to be published in (almost) twenty years…
As already noted, DC had chosen to involve C. C. Beck in its relaunch of Captain Marvel — a choice that all but assured that the feature would have an old-fashioned look to it, if nothing else. For the new title’s editor, Infantino had tapped Julius Schwartz, whose track record of successfully reviving Golden Age superheroes went back to the updating of the Flash in Showcase #4 (Oct., 1956); Schwartz, in his turn, had assigned the scripting duties to Denny O’Neil, arguably the top writer in his stable of “regulars”. (With the second issue, O’Neil would be joined by a much more recent addition to those ranks, Elliott S! Maggin.)
In the story’s opening scene, O’Neil and Beck give a shout-out to one of the former’s most prominent predecessors, and the latter’s most important collaborators: Otto Binder, who, although he didn’t write the first Captain Marvel story (that honor goes to Bill Parker), almost certainly wrote more Marvel Family stories overall than anyone else, and is widely credited to helping Beck establish the whimsical approach to the superhero genre for which those stories would become known. (Incidentally, following the shuttering of Fawcett’s comics division, Binder had focused his energies on another of his accounts as a freelancer — DC Comics — for whom he eventually co-created a number of the Superman mythos’ most enduring concepts, including Supergirl, Krypto, the Phantom Zone, Brainiac, Kandor, and the Legion of Super-Heroes. Combined with Binder’s contributions at Fawcett, these represent a remarkable legacy in the comic book field, by anyone’s standards.)
As you might expect, C. C. Beck closely followed his own lead in retelling the origin story that he and Bill Parker had first chronicled thirty-three years previously; on the other hand, he didn’t simply reproduce his earlier compositions verbatim, as these excerpted panels from Whiz #2 should indicate:
One panel where Beck definitely didn’t copy his work from 1939 is the last one shown above, which may be usefully compared to its Whiz #2 antecedent:
While the pose is almost exactly the same, the earlier panel more clearly reflects Beck’s original intentions in his design for Captain Marvel’s costume. As the artist himself wrote in a 1983 article for the fanzine Fawcett Collectors of America:*
While Superman’s costume was essentially the old-time circus strongman’s outfit of tights and long cape, Captain Marvel’s was an operetta-style soldier’s uniform. He wore a sash, a jacket-like top, tight pants (not tights), and had a small, braid-trimmed cape flung over one shoulder when he first appeared.
Over time, that original design came to conform more closely to the conventional superheroic “outfit of tights” — although the cape would retain much of its unique panache for a long time to come.
The names given in Denny O’Neil’s script to the two criminals — Charlie and Julie — are in-joke nods to our story’s artist, Charles C. Beck, and its editor, Julius Schwartz.
After apprehending Charlie and Julie and handing them over to the police, Cap learns that the two crooks had just stolen “a lot of electronic supplies from a warehouse”, and that the cops believe them to be in the employ of someone else. “Hmmmm,” Cap muses silently. “I’ll bet I know who the someone else is!” About this time, people in the gathering crowd begin to recognize the long-lost hero…
While we get an origin story for Captain Marvel himself in this issue, our storytellers opt to leave the backstories of his two fellow Marvels complete mysteries, at least for now.
I have to say, the storytelling on page 5 feels oddly disjointed to me. We’re not shown the suspendium globe forming around the Sivanas’ victims, and so the first time we do see the globe, we have to infer the presence of the Marvel Family and their friends inside it. I’m not sure if this rises to the level of being confusing to the average reader, but it seems a strange storytelling choice, to say the least.
Is it just me, or do Cap’s eyes look crossed here? Gee, maybe that’s why he squints so much of the time…
OK, so, according to Captain Marvel’s thought balloons at the top of page 9, immediately following their return to Earth, Junior and Mary headed right back out into space to search for the Sivanas, while Cap himself… decided he didn’t have anything better to do than to take a stroll down the street as Billy Batson, thereby freaking out poor Otto Binder? Did I get that right?
You’ve got to hand it to the Sivanas. They’re not only brilliant enough to invent a “death projector” that’s only shy a few parts (readily available from an ordinary electronics store) away from being able to completely eradicate “the population” (of Earth, I assume), but also enterprising enough to enlist a couple of thieves to steal said parts almost immediately after returning to waking life after two decades in suspended animation.
On the other hand, mere moments after being soundly defeated, they’re quite happy to clown around with “the Big Red Cheese” and to smile for the readers in the story’s final panel, as though the whole thing’s been a big game.
Why? Because they’re cartoon characters — at their core, a very different breed than the villains who bedevil the heroes of DC’s “straight” superhero comic books like Action and Detective. And so, by extension, Captain Marvel and his Family must be cartoon characters, as well.
I’m not saying that I consciously reached that conclusion as a fifteen-year-old reader in December, 1972; indeed, I’m fairly certain that I didn’t. But I think I must have “gotten” it at an unconscious level, even then.
But, moving on… Next up is a text page by Shazam!‘s assistant editor (and DC’s all-around comics history and continuity buff) E. Nelson Bridwell. In addition to identifying the members of Cap’s supporting cast (and fellow suspendium victims) shown on page 8 of “The World’s Wickedest Plan”, it also provides a general introduction to Captain Marvel and his world for contemporary readers (though, it must be said, any such readers wondering how such a popular character had ever fallen into obscurity in the first place wouldn’t learn anything about that here).
And that’s the last new content for this issue, the rest of which is devoted to reprinting an eight-page Captain Marvel adventure from 1946. To modern sensibilities, it might seem odd for DC to devote so much of the premiere issue of a 20-cent, standard format comic book to vintage material — but with a little reflection, you can see how it made commercial sense in 1972. Using reprints helped keep down the title’s production costs, which in turn helped defray the expense of licensing the characters from Fawcett (DC had in fact been doing something similar with Tarzan for the last year). DC may have also reasoned that, with so much having been written about the Fawcett Captain Marvel stories in recent years, a certain percentage of the audience would be not only accepting of the old stuff, but actually eager to see it — and they were probably right.
In his “Shazam & Son” piece, Bridwell opines that the artwork for “The Endless String!” is by Pete Costanza — and according to the Grand Comics Database, that’s correct. As for the story’s script, the GCD attributes it to Otto Binder.
I’ll admit that I don’t know a whole lot about the post-WWII American economy, but was there really a secondary market for “bits of tin-foil, and old string,” in 1946?
Wondering how the royal rug began unraveling in the first place, or how the thread’s end found its way into a hole in mid-air? Well, you’ll have to keep wondering, because Otto Binder’s not going to tell you.
The King of Zoozland has seen enough; he calls for his servitors to bring him a bomb, and they immediately comply. Then, after attaching the bomb to the string, they allow the “giant” on the other end to pull it through the dimensional hole. Fortunately, Captain Marvel knows a bomb when he sees one (naturally, if not inevitably, it’s a plain black globe about the size of a bowling ball, with a lit fuse sticking out of it), and he’s able to carry it into the upper atmosphere before it explodes…
But when the old man attempts to cut the string with his pocket knife, the blade snaps. (Like the King told us back on page 2, this stuff is stronger than steel.) At this point the Zoozlanders begin pulling the string back, unwinding the old man’s ball, and he resorts to winding it around the trunk of a nearby tree to keep from losing what he’s already accumulated.
Meanwhile, Cap has arrived at the laboratory of “the famous scientist, Dr. Grenn”. Doc Grenn asks to be taken to the site of this amazing phenomenon, and Cap agrees to do so…
Tortured? Yeah, Zoozland may look like a magical fairytale kingdom, but as we’ll soon see, they don’t mess around with thieves there.
Cap attempts to follow the old man through the dimensional rift, but his shoulders are too wide to fit through. Immediately, he says his magic word and changes back to Billy Batson (he evidently has no concern about keeping his identity secret from Dr. Grenn). But then, when Billy clambers through the rift…
Gee, I always thought that you were supposed to burn out the tongues of liars, and cut off the hands of thieves. But we needed to get that gag off of Billy somehow, so I guess we’ll have to roll with it.
After subduing the guards, Cap scoops up the old man, and then…
Thus ends the first issue of Shazam!, as well as “The Endless String!” As regards the latter, while it’s hardly a perfectly constructed story, it’s pretty entertaining on its own whimsical terms. And it holds up rather better in 2022 than the newer material by O’Neil and Beck that precedes it, at least in my opinion.
That’s what I make of Shazam! #1 in 2022. But what, you may be wondering, did I think of it in 1972? Well, I must confess, I don’t really recall my original reactions all that well. I have to assume, though, that I enjoyed the book well enough, since I bought the next issue… and I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t. (In case you don’t know, Shazam! is widely considered to be one of the first comic book titles of which “regular” fans and collectors bought multiple copies of the first and other early issues, speculating that they’d rise in value; but that’s not something I was into, especially as early as 1972-73.) Nor do I remember many details regarding what I thought of Shazam! #2, or the issues that followed it; though I do seem to recall that I enjoyed the stories featuring Mister Mind and Tawky Tawny, finding them both to be amusing cartoon characters. (At the time, it would never have occurred to me that, years later, DC’s writers would find themselves struggling to integrate “straight” versions of these and similar Binder-Beck creations into the relatively more realistic mainstream milieu of Superman, Batman, et al.)
But by July, 1973, either the novelty had worn off, or I’d decided that the narrative stakes were always going to be too low in stories about cartoon characters, or something — because the issue of Shazam! released that month, #6, was the last I’d ever buy of the series’ original run. And perhaps my experience wasn’t all that unusual, as, following high sales numbers for the earliest issues, DC found demand for the title decreasing as the months went by. Originally published on a eight-times-a-year schedule, Shazam! was upgraded to monthly status for a span, but was then knocked down to a bi-monthly frequency with issue #12 (May-Jun., 1974)… a frequency it would never again exceed for the remainder of its five-year run.
In the meantime, the original team that Carmine Infantino had put together to shepherd the Marvel Family into the Seventies had largely fallen apart. C.C. Beck had exited with issue #10, complaining about the “infantile” stories he’d been asked to illustrate. Denny O’Neil mostly withdrew as well (though his last Marvel Family script wouldn’t appear until #17). Going forward, Elliott S! Maggin was joined on scripting duties by E. Nelson Bridwell, while Bob Oksner and Kurt Schaffenberger became the regular artists. Editor Julius Schwartz hung on until issue #25 (Sep.-Oct., 1976) before passing the book over to Joe Orlando, at roughly the same time that DC started branding Shazam! as part of its “DC TV Comics” mini-line.
This change was of course made in response to the CBS live-action Shazam! television series, starring Jackson Bostwick (and later John Davey), that ran on Saturday mornings for three seasons, beginning in 1974. The show may or may not have given the comics series something of a commercial boost — it’s been reported that at one point DC was actually losing money on Shazam! (the book went to a quarterly, all-reprint format for two issues in 1975-76, suggesting that DC was trying to cut the cost of production to the bone) — but it certainly had an impact creatively, as Bridwell and Schaffenberger began to emulate the TV series by having Billy Batson travel the United States with his Uncle Dudley (who stood in for the show’s “Mentor” character). This approach lasted until about issue #33, the last to carry the “TV” brand logo; after that, new editor Jack C. Harris opted to try something new. Working with Bridwell as well as with new artists like Alan Weiss, Michael Netzer, and Don Newton, Harris offered readers a somewhat darker and more realistic take on the Marvel Family and their world. For some fans, the 1978-1982 Bridwell-Newton run was the best that the post-revival, pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Captain Marvel ever got — but it was a run that mostly happened as a backup feature in World’s Finest Comics, the Shazam! title itself having been cancelled with issue #35 (May-Jun., 1978).
Captain Marvel uberfan P. C. Hamerlinck outlines a number of plausible reasons for the failure of the 1970s iteration of Shazam! in his article, “The Shazam Curse” (published in Fawcett Collectors of America #134, a “zine-within-a-zine” issued as part of Alter Ego #75 [Jan., 2008]). For Hamerlinck, DC’s problems started with the initial decision to handle the Marvel Family as though time had stopped in 1953, not just for the characters, but for the whole world — including the comic book field, where both readers’ tastes and creators’ stylistic inclinations had evolved considerably over two decades. Once that decision had been made, the difficulties in making the old ways work for a new audience were compounded by enlisting an editor (Schwartz) and writers (O’Neil and Maggin) who had no particular attachment to, or even a strong interest in, Cap and company. Even Beck — the most authentic living link to the characters’ vaunted past that one could have hoped for — contributed to the problem by delivering artwork that was excessively spare and simple, even for some fans of the clarity and economy of his Golden Age work. (Hamerlinck opines that Beck’s 1970s art suffered from his having to draw on boards smaller than had been the standard during his prime, as well as from his working without the aid of the assistants who’d helped out with inking and backgrounds in the Fawcett days.)
As someone who greeted the return of Captain Marvel in Shazam! fifty years ago bearing a genuine interest in finding out what all the fuss was about — and who subsequently found himself pretty rapidly losing interest — I have to wonder how things might have gone differently, had DC made other decisions than they did. Would I have responded more enthusiastically in 1972-73 to a more up-to-date presentation of the Marvel Family? Alternatively, might I have more readily accepted the “classic”, child-friendly approach that DC ultimately went with, if it had been more skillfully executed? Sometimes, I speculate that the main reason I didn’t take to Shazam! is that at age fifteen, I was too old for its cartoonish whimsy — or at least thought I was. Or, to put it another way, I wasn’t old enough yet to have learned that intelligent, well-crafted children’s entertainment can be enjoyed at virtually any age; if that’s the case, then a “better” implementation of a Golden Age-style approach wouldn’t necessarily have made me any more of a fan.
Of course, there’s no way to know how I’d feel about Captain Marvel today if DC had gone in a different direction fifty years ago. As things stand, he’s a superhero I’ve always liked well enough. without ever feeling especially invested in him. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve enjoyed plenty of Marvel Family stories over the years. But that’s been more a matter of my being a fan of the particular creators working on those projects than any strong attachment to the characters themselves.
Obviously, DC is hardly hurting from my own personal lack of devotion to Captain Marvel and his friends (and enemies), what with those three major motion pictures I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The company’s decision back in 1991 to buy the Fawcett Comics properties outright (after licensing them for almost two decades) has clearly proven to be a savvy one, even if there’s never been a DC Shazam! comic that ran more than fifty issues. (These days, hardly any comic runs much more than fifty issues before being relaunched with a new #1, anyway, so maybe that doesn’t matter like it once did.)
In my opinion, a lot of the credit for that success should go to first-generation Big Red Cheese fan Roy Thomas, who (with his writing collaborator Dann Thomas and artist Tom Mandrake) cracked the nut of what made Captain Marvel something other than just “another Superman” in the 1987 miniseries Shazam: The New Beginning— by clearly establishing for the first time that Captain Marvel was the same person as the teenage Billy Batson, only now that person was inhabiting a super-powered adult body. I know that there are purists who hated (and still hate) that idea, since it contradicts one or more stories from the Golden Age, but it fits so perfectly with the pure wish fulfillment at the core of Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s original concept — and really, what’s lost by not having Captain Marvel be a different person from Billy? It’s not as though the guy ever had any kind of adult life, outside of being a superhero. (Naturally, any Fawcett aficionado who wants to set me straight on this point should weigh in in the comments section below.)
No, as far as your humble blogger is concerned, DC Comics (and its corporate parent, Warner Bros. Discovery) has been doing just fine by Billy Batson and company as of late, with one exception… and you already know what it is, don’t you? And, sure, I suppose I’m pissing in the wind to even bring it up; but it’s my blog, so here it is: “Shazam” is a dumb name for a superhero, and as far as I’m concerned, it always will be.
You can blame Gomer Pyle for that, if you want to.
*Reprinted in The Fawcett Companion (TwoMorrows, 2001).
I never bought the early Shazam — my brother bought the Superman/Batman books and this seemed more Superman than JLA/Flash/Green Lantern (my turf). I started buying with the super-spectaculars because as you say the reprint material was much better. O’Neil aspired to Seriousness in his writing and he never got the charm of the Big Red Cheese
Maggin was better but Bridwell remains my favorite DC writer on the series. He also gets credit for resurrecting Black Adam; it seems obvious someone would have, but then again he was only a one-shot villain from the Golden Age so maybe not.
I hated he Roy Thomas grim-and-gritty reboot. If you’re going to go realistic, Jerry Ordway’s as good as it got.
Otto Binder (as some of y’all are undoubtedly aware) pastiched Cap with Zha-Vam, a Superman foe from the late 1960s. I’ve often thought Superman declaring at one point that Zha-Vam is vastly more powerful than he might have been meta-commentary on who Binder liked best (https://atomicjunkshop.com/the-writer-is-not-the-story/).
LikeLiked by 3 people
E. Nelson Bridwell’s creative sensibilities seem to have been most suited to writing Captain Marvel during the Golden Age, and perhaps it’s unfortunate he wasn’t assigned to the feature sooner. I agree Bridwell deserves more credit for bringing back one-off Golden Age villain Black Adam and making his one of the Marvel Family’s primary adversaries.
I love the Jerry Ordway version of Captain Marvel. Earlier this year I did a reread of The Power of Shazam and I enjoyed it even more than I did when it was first published in the 1990s. I did a four part retrospective on the series on my blog. Here’s a link to the first installment…
LikeLiked by 5 people
I have to confess that the only issues of “The Power of Shazam” I picked up back in the day were the crossovers — but that didn’t stop me from enjoying your look back, Ben. 😉
LikeLiked by 1 person
It’s never too late. There’s always back issues and the collected edition.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I agree that Shazam is a dumb name for a super hero, especially when it’s also the magic word he uses to call upon his powers (you’d kinda’ think he might want to keep a word like that, you know-secret or something). This is something they are currently wrestling with in the DCEU with the films. How does Shazam introduce himself to people? How do they refer to his foster brothers and sisters? Have the rest of the family ever had hero names beyond Mary Marvel and, I guess…Shazam, Jr (Oh my god, that’s horrible)? And is Mary still Mary Marvel or is she Mary Shazam now? This makes my head hurt…
As for the rest, I remember buying this book back in the day and being unimpressed by the cartoony-ness of it all and the cheesiness (no pun intended) of his Rogue’s Gallery. It just seemed to me to be a book better suited to 8-year old me than 14-year old me. I thought the recent movie did a great job of giving the book a more real-world perspective and, of course, Mark Waid’s use of the character in Kingdom Come was genius, but this re-introduction of the character fifty years ago-to me-was just a lot of “meh.”
LikeLiked by 2 people
Now the Rogue’s Gallery worked beautifully for me — Sivana is a nice variation on the usual mad scientist type. The movie’s take on him was so generic … well, the film didn’t work for me as well as it did for you.
I once heard someone express the opinion that DC should have just renamed the character “Captain Thunder” when they began publishing him in the early 1970s. Maybe that wasn’t an option, since they were only licensing him from Fawcett, and by the time they actually purchased Cap lock, stock & barrel 20 years later he had become so identified with the word “Shazam” that the renaming ship had long ago sailed.
I’m reading The New Champion of Shazam miniseries and really enjoying it… but like you I’m also wonder what the heck Mary’s superhero name is supposed to be!
LikeLiked by 1 person
In fairness Captain Marvel Jr. has had the same problem from the moment of his inception, which they often joked about.
I think at some point in DC after the name change they established “Shazam” only worked if he meant to change, not if he just said his name. But yeah, it’s more about marketing him.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I recall noticing the Shazam! comics on the racks, although as a 10-year-old in late 1972 I was already a committed Marvel zombie and simply wouldn’t spend my allowance on anything from any other company. Anyhow, to my eyes, Shazam! looked like “kiddie fare”, as in meant for kids several years younger than me, although later on I did get a few issues of Spidey Super Stories which were definitely meant for little kids, so it’s not like I was consistent! I was a bit confused by the “Original Captain Marvel” tag. I think it was through the letters pages of Marvel’s Captain Marvel that I learned that, yes, the Shazam character was the first character called Captain Marvel, from the Golden Age of comics. I did watch the tv series when that was on, although I was initially disappointed that it wasn’t about the Captain Marvel I was more familiar with. Not that I was a great fan of the show, but, heck, it was part of the Saturday morning routine with my two younger brothers, getting up early to watch the cartoons and other children’s fare before the parental units aroused themselves out of bed. In those years, I was somewhat more tolerant of whimsical fare in tv shows than in comics, so even if I had given Shazam! a try back in the day, I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it long, just as I didn’t stick with Spidey Super Stories more than a few issues.
Overall, now I find the whole craziness of how the “Captain Marvel” mythos exploded over multiple comics companies rather fascinating, from the original foundation becoming a family of characters, then essentially sued out of existence for years but then up pops up a new Captain Marvel for a few issues and then Marvel itself creating their own version, who, by the time I became aware of him, had aspects that were very similar to the original version. While over in the UK, Captain Marvel begat Marvel Man who much later became Miracle Man, transformed by Alan Moore from a whimsical rip-off of the original CM into something deadly serious, and then that too disappeared for decades. But now DC owns the original character their company had previously sued away while Marvel owns the current variant of the UK clone of CM which they had previously sued into changing its name, so both companies own iterations of the Golden Age character which was for a time the most popular superhero of his era 80 years ago but both companies have had trouble figuring out the best or at least the most profitable way to deal with the character in the present. And at present the current character who actually has the name Captain Marvel is a woman! I have friends, both several years older than me, who love superhero movies but were never into comics and trying to explain all the ins and outs and legal battles, etc., to them over all this can be rather confounding.
I think overall, the biggest problem with trying to integrate a character like the original Captain Marvel into either the DC universe of 50 years ago or today is that, as with Cole’s Plastic Man, the characters were from a world with very different sensibilities than that of what DC had evolved into by the late ’60s. And the magic that had made the Binder/Beck Captain Marvel and the Cole Plastic Man so popular in their heyday wasn’t something that just anyone could do or replicate very well. Both, I think, due to the particular idiosyncrasies of the original creators as well as the tastes of comics fans of the era. Both Captain Marvel and Plastic Man stayed in publication well after nearly every other superhero aside from those starring Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman had been canceled, thus it appears they had a much bigger and more loyal fanbase than most other Golden Age superheroes and maybe under different circumstances, without the lawsuit or if Cole had stayed on Plastic Man and hadn’t committed suicide and its publisher kept it going. I think both characters worked best in their original oddball universes and don’t really fit well within the DC universe. But DC does have the rights and will do as it sees fit with them.
LikeLiked by 3 people
“trying to explain all the ins and outs and legal battles, etc., to them over all this can be rather confounding.” This is true of any character who sticks around a while. When I find myself explaining “so Parallax corrupted Hal Jordan who sacrificed himself in darkest night, then became reborn as the Spectre’s host, tried and failed to make him a spirit of redemption, eventually returned to life to lead a new Green Lantern Corps” — what feels unremarkable spread over decades sounds completely insane when I sum it up.
2)Len Wein having Plastic Man killed in the past when the JLA and JSA arrive on Earth X (which I imagine our host will get to down the road) was a meta-commentary on how much DC’s Silver Age Plastic Man series just didn’t get the character. A shame he never got to try himself (then again, even getting the character doesn’t mean you can write it yourself).
3)For anyone who’s curious, Amazing World of DC Comics 17 had a deep dive into the Shazam/Superman lawsuit, written by Bridwell IIRC.
LikeLiked by 3 people
I’ve tried Moore’s Miracleman/Marvelman and it doesn’t work for me even a little. The early issues feel like a young writer very unsubtly trying to deconstruct superheroes and oh, he’s so proud of how edgy he is. But the later stuff — the one time I looked at it — doesn’t work any better for me.
One has to wonder what would have happened to the Captain Marvel family of titles if DC Comics had not litigated them out of existence in 1953. Would Fawcett Comics have continued to publish the Captain Marvel titles throughout the 1950s and onward, and consequently over time the characters might have evolved into different versions that the changing audience was more receptive to in much the same way as happened with DC’s superheroes? Or would Fawcett, due to the one-two punch of the Golden Age superhero boom losing steam from the late 1940s onward and the early 1950s moral panic that materialized in the forms of Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the Senate hearing have resulted in Fawcett folding up its comic book division anyway, as happened to so many other publishers?
I’ve heard it postulated that the later outcome would have been the more likely one, and apparently the downturn in the industry was the primary reason Fawcett finally threw in the towel and settled with DC, because their comics were becoming less and less profitable and they didn’t see the point in continuing a prolonged legal battle over a property tat was no longer lucrative. But barring a glimpse at a parallel reality we’ll never know what might have happened.
Whatever the case, yes, it’s been argued that because the Captain Marvel / Shazam characters were never given the opportunity to develop to reflect a changing American society consequently they’ve never had any long-term success in the way that, say, Superman and Batman had, and the way the Marvel Comics superheroes would have from the 1960s onward.
Maybe it’s just because I grew up on the post-Crisis version of Cap / Shazam but I do agree with you that the Roy Thomas retcon of Billy and Cap being the same person was a wise decision, and it’s a central aspect of the character going forward, the idea of wish fulfillment, of a young kid gaining superpowers.
LikeLiked by 3 people
Was that really a retcon or just establishing something that had never previously been made explicit either way. Immediately after Billy transforms into Captain Marvel for the first time, the wizard Shazam informs him that he shall be called Captain Marvel and that’s that. Billy magically transforms physically, psychologically and mentally but as best as I can tell not with an entirely different personality as with Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk or Barbara Norton becoming Valkyrie. Of course, Captain Marvel is more mature and wiser than Billy (and in my estimation, actually wiser than Solomon, whose alleged wisdom I find seriously lacking from the Biblical examples). And part of the wish fulfillment is being transformed into a much braver, better, stronger and smarter person but still being the same person; doesn’t quite work out as well if you know you’re trading spaces with someone somehow but even if you share the same memories, it’s not really “you” having all those fun adventures and you might feel a bit cheated.
Of course, Moore took the wish fulfillment aspect to nightmare levels with Johnny Bates as Kid Miracleman, left on his own after the “deaths” of his elder partners and opting to not going back to being a puny little kid anymore but canny enough to hide his physical powers while using his mental powers to build up a powerbase. But also still beset by childish resentments. In Moore’s versions, the mere mortals and their mega-powered alter egos were separate beings although mentally linked and when one was active the other entirely dormant. Hell for Mike Moran when he realized that the Miracle Man who made love to his wife and got her pregnant wasn’t really him although “he” was there as it was happening, or, rather the “much improved” version of himself that he somehow knew wasn’t really him, even if he didn’t know why. Just another nightmarish aspect of the wish fulfillment not quite gelling.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Long story short, the original Captain Marvel stories were inconsistent about whether or not Billy and Cap were the same person or if they were two different entities. Sometimes it was one way, sometimes it was the other, and sometimes the stories were so vague that it’s not clear what exactly the relationship is between the two.
There’s an article in Alter Ego #176 that explores this subject in great detail…
LikeLiked by 2 people
I think of pre-Crisis Cap as being a more grown-up version of Billy. If he’s completely different, as someone once pointed out, then the idea of choosing someone who’s good at heart is pointless — even Sivana wouldn’t be evil once he became Captain Marvel.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I always thought the Shazam acronym was bizarre in that Solomon (son of David, king of Israel), an historic figure, was lumped in with some of the Greco-Roman pantheon as the basis for Captain Marvel’s attributes.
An aside: I understand that, back in the 1930s, C.C. Beck worked in painter/illustrator Norman Mingo’s Chicago studio. Mingo went on to paint the definitive Alfred E. Neuman for an assortment of Mad magazine covers and paperbacks from 1955 to 1980, or thereabouts.
LikeLiked by 1 person
P.S. Look at those mutton chops that Supes is sporting on the cover of Shazam #1. Very groovy!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I, too, hate using the Shazam name in place of Captain Marvel. Shazam is the wizard’s name, Captain Marvel is the hero’s name. I also hate the Roy Thomas reboot that turns Cap into the juvenile Billy Batson. The fact that we never really knew who Cap was supposed to be (though he clearly wasn’t Billy in an adult body) was part of his mystique. Sometimes a little mystery is a good thing. Not every question needs an answer.
I agree with P. C. Hamerlinck completely. DC doomed Captain Marvel for pretty ,uch ever in the comics with Beck’s retro-art that didn’t hold up to then current standards and by keeping the character as simplistic as it had been when canceled. What I feel they should have done was a though experiement as to how Cap would have evolved based off the changes Superman went through in the interim. Sometimes I even daydream what it would have been like if National had outright bought the Fawcett line in 1954 and taken over publishing them. Whiz Comics a fixture like Action and Detective! Cap a founding JLAer! Mary Marvel a founding Teen Titan! Junior being the hero the Legion sought out! Heck, I’ve even wondered how Swartz would have revived Supermn if he’d been cancelled with the other olden age heroes.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I wouldn’t use “simplistic” to describe the old stuff. The plotting is often quite clever, it’s just not a style that fit what everyone else was doing in the Bronze Age.
What little I’ve read of GA Cap, I only know it was of its time so I can’t call that any more simplistic than what else was being published. The revival, however, was simple enough to be a (bad) all ages book before Bridwell and Newton. It’s too bad licensing kept Scwartz from keeping the broad strokes and using his genius at updating properties to jettison what didn’t and start with artwork that would appeal to the then current audience
I was lucky. For some reason, I had old Captain Marvel comics in the attic of my house, and when I started reading comics as a kid in the 1970s, I had already read a bunch of Captain Marvel stories from the 1940s. I loved them. Alas, those comics, which presumably belonged to my father or an older half-brother, were in bad shape and didn’t last to today.
LikeLiked by 1 person
The Original (and best) Captain Marvel was very much a mystery to me back in 1973 with the exception of a panel in a Lois Lane 80pg giant story where a red and yellow figure was depicted on the floor whilst a Schaffenburger drawn Superman knocked over a line of other made up super heroes vying for the affections of Ms Lane. A comment in the letters page of a later issue mentioned “The Original Captain Marvel” appearing in said story … “who ?” I remember thinking to myself at the time. I purchased “Shazam !” and all the subsequent issues, and whilst I enjoyed the content it became obvious that the old Fawcett stories reprinted in the Large reprint issues were superior to the modern stories. For me, there’s only one “Captain Marvel” , and whilst I too don’t like him being referred to as “Shazam”, I’d rather see him “mis-named” than disappear for nearly 20 years !!. Loved the movie as well (“Shazam !”).
LikeLiked by 1 person
The old Fawcett stories had a strange, surreal vibe to me, much like Ernie Bushmiller’s “Nancy” strip. It was so squeaky clean in such a peculiar, idiosynchratic way that it felt like something from a David Lynch film was bubbling just beneath the surface.
DC’s Shazam! franchise has been at best a mixed bag for me. From the 70’s to the present I can’t find much to like about DC’s handling of the Fawcett characters although I can give DC props for making an honest effort with their early issues to emulate the whimsical style of the old Fawcett Marvel Family. Unfortunately said efforts were wide of the mark. Perhaps if someone other than O’Neil and Schwartz had been given the assignment the results would have been better? We’ll never know.
Later attempts by Don Newton, Alex Ross, Roy Thomas and others have been even worse.
And DC’s attempts to incorporate the Fawcett characters into the broader DC Universe such as the creation of Earth S were to say the least ill advised.
That said, I will always be grateful to DC for reprinting older Fawcett stories in Shazam!. It has made me an enthusiastic fan and collector of Fawcett Comics!
LikeLiked by 1 person
The S stands for Solomon, so Billy can’t be the same guy as Captain Marvel in that their intellects are different. Having Cap act like a (let’s say it) dumb boy is an insult to Solomon.
And yet, in the movies, Shazam is obviously Billy as a grown-up, acting like a kid in a man’s body. Obviously, the comic and the movies are different, but both interpretations seem to be valid.
The problem with the movie (one of several) is that Shazam seems to be a dumber, more childlike kid than Billy, the opposite of gaining wisdom. Even allowing for the intoxicating effects of becoming an adult with so much power, it felt very off.
A perfect example of what makes Cap different from Superman is “Sivana’s Good Inventions,” reprinted in Shazam 15. Cap discovers Sivana’s lab includes an Absolutely Forbidden, Enter And Die section, breaks in and prepares to smash everything in it. Then he sees the inventions include a rat-killing ray, a rock-to-food transmuter ray and similar gadgets.
Sivana confesses these are inventions that from his perspective turned out wrong, like a death ray that only worked on rodents. Cap, of course, wants to share them with the world; Sivana feels his reputation as the world’s most evil scientist will be ruined unless he stops Cap. He fails, and ends up getting the Nobel Prize, to his eternal shame.
It’s whimsical, it’s goofball, but I don’t think “simplistic” is at all the word for it.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Like you Alan, I remember seeing the ad for Shazam 1 in the October DC comics and eagerly anticipated its arrival. I had no idea who the original Captain Marvel was and being in the UK had no way of finding out. Regardless, I knew I was going to buy it if I saw it on the spinner rack. Also with the cancellation of Forever People, Green Lantern, New Gods and most recently Teen Titans I had cash to spare that was just burning a hole in my pocket. I bought it, read it once, neatly put it away and had no memory of the contents until reading your review. I probably enjoyed it, thought it was a bit simplistic but hey, I’m a completist so I continued to buy the comic for the whole of its run and still have them all to this day. It was rarely one of my first reads when I got my monthly batch of new comics but I do remember really enjoying issues 34 and 35 with the more realistic art of Alan Weiss and Don Newton and was really disappointed when it was abruptly cancelled thereafter.
Captain Thunder did make an appearance just over a year later as an adversary for Superman in issue 276, in a story also written by Elliot S! Maggin. My increasingly failing memory thought he a
had made additional appearances but a quick search seemed to suggest that he didn’t appear again until Flashpoint and the subsequent New 52 era.
Like Ben above, my favourite handling of the character was in the Power of Shazam series in the 90s. In my opinion it managed to successfully update the original whimsical nature of the Marvel Family balancing seriousness with humour in the right amounts.
Anyway, looking forward to your review of Swords of Sorcery 1, which must be coming up soon 😀.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Before the end of the year, Brian, I promise! (Probably *right* before, tho. 😉 )
I own all five of those. Even with a heavy rotisserie of changing artistic hands, especially by #5, I still loved the series. If only it had lasted longer.
LikeLiked by 1 person
One of the most notorious stories ever published by Fawcett was “The World’s Mightiest Mistake” in Captain Marvel Adventures #16 in October, 1942. The scripter is unknown, but C.C. Beck pencilled it and Dave Berg inked it, according to comics.org. The story has racist caricatures of black Americans – akin to Al Jolson’s makeup in “The Jazz Singer” – in stark contrast to the white characters:
Also in this issue is a cringe-inducing two page text piece, “A Dead Jap is a Good Jap” by Joseph J. Millner. He scripted at least one of the other stories in this issue, and perhaps the “Mistake” one as well.
DC Comics was wise to steer clear of reprinting this sort of fare in the ’70s.
That stuff is awful, no question. Whether Fawcett’s record on race in the ’40s would be counted better or worse than DC’s own — or roughly the same — I have no idea. But, yes, leave those stories unreprinted, unless you’re prepared to provide a huge amount of historical context.
This came up in the letter column after DC brought back Mr. Mind. A writer asked if they’d reprint the Monster Society of Evil; DC’s response was not just no, but Hell No due to Steamboat the valet and the various Japanese caricature villains. Much as I’d love to see the whole thing, it’s absolutely the right decision.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Actually The Monster Society Of Evil was reprinted in hardcover some years ago:
Copies of the reprint are out there to be had although they can be pricey.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Probably worth noting — that was a limited collectors’ edition published in 1989 by “American Nostalgia Library”, rather than by DC (although they probably had to sign off on it).
A planned deluxe hardcover was announced by DC for publication in 2019, but was subsequently was cancelled over content concerns: https://www.cbr.com/dc-shazam-monster-society-of-evil-canceled/
My experiences here echo a lot of the opinions already stated. I did know about the original Captain Marvel when Shazam # 1 came out because I had read about him in Jim Steranko’s beautiful two volume history of comics less than two years earlier. When I read Shazam # 1, I was struck by how cartoonish and, well, childish it all was. It was like reading Harvey comics. As an 11 year old shortly going on 12, it really did not interest me (although I was still reading Harvey comics from my Dad’s pharmacy).
I do agree that the stories themselves are not poorly written. They are what they are, well crafted stories for younger children learning to read. They are entertaining and fun. I would have loved them at the age group for which they were obviously targeted. I also agree that where D.C. got in trouble was when it tried to move Captain Marvel into the modern style comic book world and it really doesn’t fit. Remember when there was an Archie/Punisher crossover in 1994? That was a great amusing one-off, but obviously the worlds don’t mix. Alan, your amusing comments mildly chiding the writers (new and old in the case of the reprint) were fun to read, but obviously, continuity and making sense is about as important to a true kids’ book as it is in a Pecos Bill story. It’s meant to be an entertaining tale not meant to be thought deeply about. Super hero stories starting with the Marvel Silver Age changed all that when it came to super heroes. The original Captain Marvel should have stayed where he was.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’m remembering a similar reaction to Sugar and Spike as a kid — a sophisticated boy like me was clearly above a comic book about … babies! As an adult, I adore the various reprints I have.
LikeLiked by 1 person
“Alan, your amusing comments mildly chiding the writers (new and old in the case of the reprint) were fun to read, but obviously, continuity and making sense is about as important to a true kids’ book as it is in a Pecos Bill story.”
Stuart, I’m glad you found my comments amusing (that was the plan 🙂 ), but I’m going to push back just a little on the idea that a children’s story doesn’t have to make sense. While there’s a subcategory of kidlit that’s clearly meant to be taken for nonsense, even by the youngest readers (I’d put “tall tales” like Pecos Bill in that group), I think that, in general, children have a sense of narrative logic that’s not so different from their elders. I don’t think it’s that hard to imagine a six or seven year old reading “The Endless String” — or even a younger child, who’s having the story read to them — pausing to wonder just how that unraveled carpet thread ever found its way to a hole way up in the air.
I suspect that this is a topic that I’ve thought about a bit more than most folks here (not that that makes my opinion any more “correct” than anyone else’s, of course). But that’s what’ll happen when you’re the husband of one children’s librarian, and the father of another one. 😉
I didn’t start buying/collecting comics until 1978. I certainly picked up some back issues of the 70s Shazam title, but like most, they didn’t seem to do much for me. However, I’m one of those people who loved the Bridwell/Newton version in World’s Finest. The Dollar-sized World’s Finest had a decent line-up of creators and stories, and the Marvel Family was just so much icing on that cake! But having gotten used to that version, I was a little put-off by the subsequent retcons of Cap–er, Shazam! I understand why they switched names, and that was the most logical choice, but ehh….
LikeLiked by 1 person
Coming late to this party, but I guess I’m in the minority of loving CC Beck’s art. I think it’s very attractive work and perfect for the subject matter.
I don’t think Captain Marvel works very well when approached as a typical superhero, I think the property has to be approached as a “cartoon book” like Bone or Astro Boy.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Couple of thoughts:
—Carmine Infantino had good business insights in acquiring the intellectual property (“IP”) and in how he acquired it;
—since there was interest in the old stories, he could save money by producing less new material;
—because it would be cheaper to produce, he could afford to license it from Fawcett rather than incurring the expense of acquiring it;
—because C.C. Beck was still around (and interested in doing the book), he had another advantage;
—the problem was that Infantino apparently did not understand the IP;
—since he did not understand the IP he assigned the wrong editor to it, Julius Schwartz.
—Schwartz was (in my opinion) the best comics editor to date, however, he also apparently did not understand the IP;
additionally, Schwartz’s successes had mostly come from more or less completely re-creating characters, which he lacked the leeway to do here:
—as a result, Scwartz assigned writers who apparently also did not understand the IP (initially): Denny O’Neil and Elliott S! Maggin, whose stores Beck did not like (and eventually left over).
—Otto Binder, who died in the Fall of 1974, and who had a letter in an early issue because he apparently had been sent an issue for review, had only left DC in ’68. Manly Wade Wellman, who had also written CPT Marvel and had worked for Schwartz on Strange Adventures in the early 1950s, also had a letter in an early issue and had apparently been consulted. John Broome, Schwartz’s “best friend, best writer and best man” had written CPT Marvel in the 1940s (I believe he created the villain IBAC) and had only left DC in 1970. E. Nelson Bridwell, who eventually wrote the strip was involved as an Ass’t Editor early on (presumably due to the importance of reprints), but not initially as a writer.
—So, writers who might have been more acceptable to Beck might have been available.
—CPT Marvel, when Fawcett did it, had not been that “juvenile.” Later issues showed a bit of an influence from then popular “EC-type” horror comics tropes (https://www.comics.org/issue/10236/). DC’s CPT Marvel was kind of “kid friendly” in a way the Fawcett CPT Marvel had not always been.
—What might have been a template for a successful CPT Marvel for the 1970s?
—Manly Wade Wellman’s “Silver John” stories, which were beginning to appear again as short stories around the time of Shazam #1. The character would subsequently appear in successful novels in the 1980s prior to Wellman’s 1986 death. These stories featured a protagonist who was a simple man of great rectitude. who faced bizarre (often horrifying) supernatural manifestations in quint or rural settings in North Carolina.
—Perhaps, CPT Marvel as a simple, dignified man of great rectitude facing cosmic horrors in quant or common settings (which, by implication, other heroes might not bother to defend (a good Watergate-era touch) might have worked. Certainly, Wellman’s “Silver John” property got a new lease on life in prose Science Fiction and Fantasy around that time.
–By the time of the last Schwartz-edited issue of Shazam (#20), he seemed to be finding the range with a simple (but not simplistic) science fiction parable by Bridwell and Schaffenberger.
—Art-wise, why were Schaffenberger and Oksner not assigned to ink (or provide finished pencils) for Beck early on? They (unlike Beck) had remained active in the industry since Beck had left.
—The World is full of “damned nice thing[s] – the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”, not go as well as Waterloo.
LikeLiked by 1 person
“not ALL go as well as Waterloo.”
LikeLiked by 1 person