Beginners Guide: Captain Marvel

But not that one! In episode 4 of Superheroes for Dummies we talked about the origins of Captain Marvel, now known as SHAZAM! Another character with a controversial history, this time with lawsuits. Here’s some of what I learnt from our chat.

Published by Fawcett Comics, Captain Marvel began life in 1940, with Whiz Comics #2.
Billy Batson is an orphaned, homeless boy sleeping in subway stations. He is transported to a large throne room, with an ancient wizard standing before him. For thousands of years, this wizard has protected Earth against evil, but is growing old and needs a successor.
Transferring his power, the wizard tells Billy he just has to say ‘SHAZAM’ and he will transform into Captain Marvel.

SHAZAM!

As with our previous discussion on The Fly. Captain Marvel is shown as a completely separate person. A magical being, who has the power of the gods:

  • Wisdom of Solomon
  • Strength of Hercules
  • Stamina of Atlas
  • Power of Zeus
  • Courage of Achilles
  • Speed of Mercury

Billy, although having no direct powers often plays his part. The lightning bolt that transforms them is very powerful and can act as a defence, knocking away any nearby foes if said at the right time.

In the early 40’s Captain Marvel was extremely successful, one of the most popular heroes of the time. This led to a franchise of his own, ‘Captain Marvel Adventures’, with the creation of a supporting cast:

Captain Marvel Jnr

During a fight, a villain captures an innocent old man and his grandson. Captain Marvel forces him to flee, but not quickly enough. The old man is dead and the boy, Freddy Freeman, is at death’s door. Distraught and guilt-ridden, Captain Marvel shares his powers with him. This saves his life, but he will forever be lame in one leg.
By speaking the name ‘Captain Marvel’ Freddy transforms into Captain Marvel Junior. Unlike his friend, Freddy doesn’t body swap; he remains himself throughout. His superhero costume appears and he gains lower strengthened versions of Captain Marvel’s powers.

Mary Marvel

Mary Batson was Billy’s long lost twin sister. After their parents died, their carer wanted at least one of them to have a good life. Whilst Billy went to an orphanage, Mary was secretly sent to a rich family.
After learning of her existence, Billy and Freddy hunt her down. They do so just in time to save her from kidnappers, also revealing their secret. While the two are distracted the kidnappers free themselves and attack, binding and gagging Billy and Freddy. Mary, panicked, shouts he can’t say SHAZAM, unknowingly saying it herself. With the strike of a lightning bolt, she is body swapped into Mary Marvel, a magical being of equal power to Captain Marvel. Saving Billy and Freddy, they realise the Wizard has shared his powers with her.

The Lawsuit

Contrary to popular belief, the legal challenges to Captain Marvel began early on. Detective Comics (soon to be national, then DC) first sued for copyright infringement in 1941. They believed Fawcett had based Captain Marvel on Superman.
After years of going back and forth, the case finally went to trial in 1948. At first, the judge ruled that Captain Marvel did infringe on Superman. But, he said National had abandoned the copyright due to poor management of their newspaper strips meaning there was no damage. As you would imagine, National appealed.

A little known quirk of US appeal courts is they can only decide if a trial had errors in law. It is not the place of the court to decide on an outcome. However, this is often an unintended consequence.
The appeals judge decided the trial misrepresented what it means to abandon copyright. Under the law, they decided National had not abandoned their claim over superman. And so, the case went back to the trial court to proceed in line with this ruling.

This sealed Fawcett’s fate. The appeals judge had removed their one defence while upholding the infringement. The only thing left to decide was how bad it was.
Fawcett decided to settle out of court. They agreed to stop producing Captain Marvel and paid National $400,000 in damages. Later the same year with dwindling sales, they stopped publishing comics altogether.

The Ongoing Revival

After the demise of the original Captain Marvel, there are a few attempts to fill the gap.
Marvelman/Miracleman notably being the most successful, we will hopefully cover him soon on the podcast.
M.F Enterprises Captain Marvel, on the other hand, would be the most short-lived, sued after only 6 issues. He will likely not be getting an episode.

However, in the early 1970s DC licensed Captain Marvel from Fawcett. Fawcett still owned the character, but due to the legal agreement were unable to publish it. Intending to keep the characters name DC published issue #1 of ‘Shazam! The ORIGINAL Captain Marvel’.
Marvel comics, who had at this point copyrighted their own Captain Marvel, followed up with a cease and desist.

This was the beginning of a slow return. For a few years, DC published a mixture of new stories and old reprints, then from 1978, he found himself a guest star with the occasional feature.
In the late 80s, he had a mini-series and an altered canon, but again it only leads to a few issues.
This now seems to be the way for SHAZAM and friends over and over; a series, some guest appearances, then a gap.
Two attempts in the 90s, one in the 00s and another with the New 52, none have quite matched the golden age.

The big revival is yet to come, but for each attempt they make, he becomes more ingrained in the DC canon.
Billy has been fostered and gained a whole SHAZAM family, he joined the Justice League, frequently feuds with Superman and has a movie. Although it may not be an easy ride, we can be sure he’ll be around for a long time to come.

Steve’s suggested reading:
Shazam volume 1 (new 52)
The power of shazam
Shazam! The monster society of evil
Kingdom come

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