Thursday, March 28, 2019

Captain Marvel Loses His Name

Same guy
I recently wrote up a big post about Carol Danvers in anticipation of her then-upcoming film. Now, in the interest of fairness, I want to do something similar for the other Captain Marvel; everyone’s favorite homeless orphan boy turned superhero, Billy Batson! Or, “Shazam”, if you’re nasty.

The original Captain Marvel predates both Carol Danvers and her predecessor Mar-Vell by about thirty years, debuting back in the Golden Age of Comics. Published by Fawcett Comics at the bottom of 1939, Captain Marvel’s title was considered to be the most popular of the era, outselling Superman. When taking that in mind it might seem a bit curious as to why Billy isn’t more of a widely known character in modern pop culture. Indeed, he can’t legally be called “Captain Marvel” and instead has taken the name “Shazam.” The sad fact is the Billy was the victim of circumstances, both legal and internal design, and where he was once the most popular superhero in America he has since fallen to the level of second-tier, maybe even third-tier, character who struggles to have new ongoing series greenlit. With his new movie about to hit theaters his fortunes are swinging back in his favor, but the fact is that Captain Marvel should be a face on the Mount Rushmore of superheroes alongside the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man. But he’s not even close.

Today we’re going to talk about the rise and fall of the Big Red Cheese!

More on the power of Shazam after the jump.

The Marvel Family have better Thanksgivings than your family
As I said, Captain Marvel was created during the Golden Age of Comics. Developed by Bill Parker and C. C. Beck, the main idea for the character was apparently two-fold: 1) a 12-year old boy as an adult superhero and 2) a purposely cartoony style that was supposed to be a direct contrast to the pulp magazine influenced superheroes that was prevalent in the earliest days of the genre. This not only gave the comic a unique (at least among superheroes) artistic style and feel, as the comic happily dipped into the “Funny Animal” genre, but it also made Captain Marvel a wish-fulfillment character that almost none of his contemporaries could be. These, in my opinion, are likely the reason for the massive popularity of the book.

In addition, the creators apparently wished to base the good Captain on mythical heroes of old and that heavily plays into the character’s origin. Young Billy Batson was a homeless, but pure-hearted and good natured, boy who is summed by the wizard Shazam, master of the Rock of Eternity. The ancient old man offered Billy the chance to succeed him as a champion and inherit his power, to which Billy agrees. Upon saying the word “SHAZAM” Billy summons a single, magical lightning bolt that strikes and transforms him into a superpowered adult with the following traits: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.

As with many popular superheroes of the day, the Big Red Cheese had a bunch of spin-off characters, including the Lieutenant Marvels (three other boys named Billy Batson who could also access Shazam’s power), Uncle Marvel (a guy who pretends he can access the power), and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny (I mentioned the comic dipped into the Funny Animal genre, right?). However, the two most important figures in Billy’s life were Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr., who remained as co-stars of franchise for most of its existence. Mary Batson was Billy’s long-lost twin sister who turned out could also access the power of Shazam. Freddy Freeman was a boy who Captain Marvel saved by sharing his power with him, allowing the boy to transform into a superhero whenever he said the words “Captain Marvel.” The three became a sort of Power Trio of superheroes, never being too far from each other.

An artist sketch of National Comics Publications v. Fawcett Publications 
Things were going great for Captain Marvel for years until the faithful day when Superman’s publishers, National Comics who would eventually rename themselves DC Comics, sued Fawcett Comics over copyright issues, stating that the Big Red Cheese was nothing more than a blatant rip-off of the Man of Steel. Now, there are a lot of dubious issues lingering in this case, such as the idea that National waited over ten years after Captain Marvel’s creation to make this suit, the fact that technically every superhero created following Superman was a take on that character, and that Cap and Supes were pretty visually and thematically distinct from each other.  I suspect that if this case had been tried today it would have been thrown out, but in 1951 National Comics won and Fawcett ceased publication of Captain Marvel.

And thus, in 1953, that was the end of Captain Marvel. Over ten years of publication, and with mainstream popularity large enough to produce a 1941 film adaptation, was suddenly gone.

Ooooh, so that's what SHAZAM means
I thought it was an onomatopoeia for campiness
In 1967 Marvel Comics decided that it would be appropriate to own a character called “Captain Marvel” so they trademarked name. The way their trademark worked was that so long as they kept publishing Captain Marvel comics they would have legal control over the name, which may be the real reason there had been so many characters with that name over the decades. Regardless, the fact was that the name “Captain Marvel” is legally in the hands of Marvel and no other company can produces books or merchandise using it.

In the early 1970s National Comics, by now firmly known as DC Comics, decided to bring the original Captain Marvel back to comics, licensing the character from Fawcett who could not legally do it themselves after the previous legal case. The problem was, of course, that Marvel now owned the name. Despite the handicap, and determined to bring Billy Batson back, DC decided to call the revived comic book series “Shazam”, something that still happens to this day. Any merchandise featuring Billy, be it lunch boxes or action figures, are always called “Shazam” which helped propagate the idea that that was the character’s name. In reality, in the book themselves Billy is only called “Captain Marvel” and Shazam only refers to the wizard and the magic word that grants him his immense power. Unfortunately, this would lead to brand confusion that plagued the character for the next thirty years.

Once DC had Captain Marvel they introduced him as an inhabitant of Earth-S, an alternate Earth where, in theory, all of Billy’s previous stories had taken place. Eventually, during the 1985 mega-crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths, that world would be merged with several other version of Earth into a single reality. In this new, Post-Crisis Earth, Captain Marvel would be considered to have always existed alongside Superman, Batman and the Justice League.  There were a few attempts of jump starting the franchise, including in the mid-90s with a new book called The Power of Shazam, where the characters appeared with more realistic and modern tones, with the three protagonists now firmly in their teens. The book was well received, though maybe not a huge seller. In fact, Captain Marvel would unfortunately never get close to the level of success it had in the 1940s.

In the mid-2000s DC Comics was in a sort of rebuilding phase with their books and began experimenting with their characters in new ways; Captain Marvel was not immune to this. During the 2005 crossover, Infinite Crisis (a sequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths), the wizard Shazam was killed and all three of the Marvel Family lost their powers simultaneously. Billy ended up taking over Shazam’s place as the guardian of the Rock of Eternity, remaining himself Marvel. Freddy underwent a series of trials to prove himself worthy of becoming the next Captain Marvel, as told in the book The Trials of Shazam. He succeeded and, for the first time in franchise’s history, a character takes on the name “Shazam” rather than “Captain Marvel.” (Mary, unfortunately, had rather horrific character development in other books during this time, but that’s a story for another day)

I'm sure fans of the classic comics will love this new Goth Marvel!
This was short lived as the wizard eventually returns and essentially strips everyone’s access to his powers because they all were losers. Or something. At this point it had become quite clear that DC didn’t really know what to do with the franchise in the 21st century. Perhaps there were some plans to resolve this lingering story but it would never come to fruition due to the Great DC Reboot of 2011, more famously known as The New 52.

It should be noted that there were several miniseries that featured versions of Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family that were extremely reminiscent of the classic books of decades past,  possibly most notably done by Jeff Smith, famous for the comic Bone. However, these stories were all out of continuity with the DC Universe. That said, they were critically acclaimed.

Back in the main comics, DC Comics decided to reboot their entire continuity, similarly to what they did with the original Crisis crossover, and everything was reset. It was decided to use this opportunity to completely retool the concept of Captain Marvel. Rather than the sweet natured, too-pure-for-this-world persona he had been associated with, Billy Batson received a much more realistic take on the concept of a homeless teen. More cynical in this reinterpretation, Billy, Freddy and Mary (along with a bunch of other, significantly less important kids who I refuse to learn the names of) are all foster siblings. The superhero alter ego of Billy has several subtle, but extremely notable changes to his classic (and perfect) costume. Billy’s powers were altered a bit, including now apparently being able to control electricity (originally, Billy could only indirectly attack opponents with a single lighting bolt he summoned whenever he said the magic word).

Now he has a full-length cape and wears a hoodie
This will surely make him more relatable to kids!
But the most brazen alteration to the classic character was that this was the moment DC decided to do away once and for all with the confusing branding of their comic. Officially Billy Batson was known as Shazam and the idea of his being named “Captain Marvel” was completely discarded. It is this version of the character that the upcoming film SHAZAM! is based.

It would take seven years following the introduction of this new Shazam before DC actually pulled the trigger on a new ongoing series for the Big Red Cheese, obviously made to tie-in with upcoming film. The fact that I had to double check its existence either says a lot about my current comic reading habits or the lack of publicity Captain Marvel Shazam still gets after all these years. Still, I LOVE Billy (and Mary and Freddy) to death and I could talk about them all day. The fact that I managed to write all these words without mentioning Billy’s bizarre and iconic rogues' gallery (including Black Adam, the archnemesis Doctor Sivana, Mister Mind and Monster Society of Evil, and the unfortunately relevant Captain Nazi) is a testament to just how much there is to know about this incredibly important franchise.

At the end of the day, Captain Marvel is a throwback to simpler times (though not necessarily better) that, even when to was originally published, was a more lighthearted and kid-friendly alternative to other superhero comics. While I love Carol Danvers, there will always be a part of me that thinks of Billy Batson, wielding of the power of Shazam and an all-around swell guy, as the real Captain Marvel; certainly a more entertaining one than that block of wood Mar-Vell. But, alas, circumstances robbed us of him for decades and when he finally came back, he couldn’t be Captain Marvel anymore. The Captain Marvel we have is thankfully awesome but it’s hard not to think of what could have been if Marvel Comics hadn’t decided they wanted to market a namesake character.

The Shazam we deserve, but not the one we'll ever see again
That all said, as far as their films go, I can’t help but notice that Marvel’s Captain Marvel chose to make a flick based on arguably the best version of their character while Warner Bros./DC opted to make a film based on the least interesting version of theirs. I guess we’ll see how the films stack up shortly.

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