Shazam! The Evolution of Captain Marvel
Shazam! The Evolution of Captain Marvel by Jerry Whitworth
When Superman was created, it changed everything. Comic books went from some progeny of the comic strip and pulp magazine into its own entity and various companies emerged from the phenomenon. Timely, Quality, Standard, Fox, and MLJ were just a few publishers to emerge in what we today call the Golden Age of American Comic Books. Arguably, the publisher that seemingly came out of nowhere to dominate the industry was Fawcett Comics. Home to such talents as Otto Binder and Charles Clarence “C.C.” Beck, the latter would co-create the juggernaut that toppled the Man of Steel. In the pages of Whiz Comics #2 (1940), some of Fawcett’s biggest franchises were created in Bill Parker and Bob Kingett’s Ibis the Invincible, Parker and Greg Duncan’s Golden Arrow (predating Green Arrow), and Parker and C.C. Beck’s Spy Smasher and Captain Marvel. Basing the characters likenesses on film actors, Ibis was modeled after Tyrone Power, Smasher after Errol Flynn, and Marvel after Fred MacMurray. Marvel was a reworked concept by Parker, a supervising editor at Fawcett, of an idea he had for a team of six heroes each with powers patterned after mythological characters. It was decided a single hero would be better by Executive Director Ralph Daigh and this new character was named Captain Thunder that would headline their new title Flash Comics only for the series name to be scooped by All-American Publications before it could reach publication and the character would be renamed Captain Marvel to prevent any legal issues with Fiction House’s Captain Terry Thunder (though an ashcan of Flash Comics featuring Captain Thunder was released before the issues arose; Fawcett also put out the similar ashcan Thrill Comics but it butted heads with Standard’s Thrilling Comics). Part of Captain Marvel’s name was derived from Fawcett’s founder, Wilford H. Fawcett, who was nicknamed Captain Billy (having been an Army captain in World War I, and a police reporter before that) and the company’s first publication was Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang back in 1919 (the title obviously inspiring the monumental Whiz Comics). It was Captain Billy’s youngest child, and circulation director, Roscoe Kent Fawcett who ordered a Superman-like character but with the condition it would be an adolescent. The same month Whiz Comics launched, Captain Billy passed away at age 54.
The origin of Captain Marvel is of homeless, twelve year old orphan Billy Batson who took residence in an abandoned subway station for warmth and sold newspapers outside its entrance to afford food. When a mysterious stranger appears, Batson tried to sell him a paper only for the man to convince the youth to follow him into the station and through its tunnels to a strange train. The vehicle brought the pair to a long hall, featuring odd figures of the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man and an old man at the end of it sitting upon a stone throne (a massive stone block hovering above the throne). As the stranger simply vanished, Batson approached the elder who beckoned the youth to speak his name Shazam. And with that word, Batson was transformed into the World’s Mightiest Mortal Captain Marvel leaving Shazam, ancient wizard and champion of mankind, to finally rest with his work done and role past down. Marvel was empowered by Greek and Roman gods (and a Hebrew king), an avatar with abilities consisting of the wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus, courage of Achilles, and speed of Mercury (where the first letter of each name formed the acronym Shazam). Though crushed beneath the falling block of stone, Shazam’s spirit could be summoned to share his knowledge with the youth when needed inside the Rock of Eternity (located in a nexus between time and space). In the same issue, Captain Marvel’s nemesis Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana was introduced and Batson talked his way into becoming a radio news reporter. Shazam’s appearance was modeled after Moses or some figure of import from the Old Testament with similar features to Marvel buried beneath his flowing beard and long hair. Sivana’s appearance was based on C.C. Beck’s neighborhood druggist. Marvel’s popularity was huge, his first appearance selling over half-a-million copies, the following year getting his own comic in Captain Marvel Adventures, new heroes like Bulletman, Mr. Scarlet, Captain Midnight, and Master Man appeared, the first comic book film serial in Republic Pictures’ Adventures of Captain Marvel soon hit movie theaters (with Captain Midnight and Spy Smasher to follow), the word Shazam became a catchphrase across the lips of Jim Nabors’ Gomer Pyle, and a popular franchise in the Marvel Family arose.
Captain Marvel would give rise to the Lieutenant Marvels (based on Fawcett art staffers Paul Peck, Ed Hamilton, and Frank Taggart who shared the abilities of Captain Marvel, each awarded a third of it) and shortly afterward Captain Marvel, Jr,, created by Ed Herron and Mac Raboy in the pages of Whiz Comics (predating Superboy by several years). Based in part on Tiny Tim of A Christmas Carol, lame teenage newsboy Freddy Freeman was nearly killed by Captain Nazi during a battle with Marvel. In order to save him, Marvel imparted some of his power to Freeman where uttering the name of his idol Captain Marvel transformed the youth into the World’s Mightiest Boy Captain Marvel, Jr. (with a whimsy similar to Peter Pan). The character was another hit, getting his own series in 1942, inspiring a young Elvis Presley who patterned his costumes after the hero. Next came Mary Marvel (predating Supergirl well over a decade), created by Otto Binder and Marc Swayze, who was the long lost twin sister of Billy Batson switched as an infant with Mary Bromfield, a heiress that died in birth, so that the female Batson could have a good life while Billy was passed to an orphanage. Uttering the word Shazam, Mary was similarly empowered but by the gods Selena, Hippolyta, Ariadne, Zephyrus, Aurora and Minerva. Mary would take over Wow Comics as the leading character, introducing the non-powered Uncle Marvel (patterned after W.C. Fields) and Freckles Marvel, before getting her own title and would star alongside her fellow Marvels in the title Marvel Family Comics. The same month that Mary first appeared, Hoppy the Marvel Bunny was introduced in the pages of Fawcett’s Funny Animals by Chad Grothkopf as a funny animal version of Captain Marvel (The Marvel Family would later acquire a talking, humanoid tiger to their cast in Mr. Tawky Tawny). Sivana developed his own family by having four children (his daughter Beautia based on Betty Grable and son Sivana Junior on Danny Kaye as Magnificus was very much in the vein of Hercules and Georgia was a cross between her father and Junior) and the Marvel Family faced the likes of Ibac, Captain Nazi, Sabbac, Mister Mind, Oggar, Black Adam, Aunt Minerva, Mister Atom, and King Kull.
What separated the Marvel comics from many of the other books of the time was that the Fawcett stories were very much modern day children fairy tales. Where other comics featured heroes punching gangsters off of rooftops to their demise or shooting vampires as they lay in their coffin, Captain Marvel traveled through time and other universes and battled modern day wizards updated as mad scientists in stories that were entertaining and engaging for children. Since the heroes were youths, they also provided the ultimate wish fulfillment for children who, if the circumstances were right, could have been part of the Marvel Family themselves. What more, it was common in stories Marvel’s might couldn’t save the day and needed to become Billy Batson in order to triumph over evil (showing that you need not be an adult in order to do good). Captain Marvel outsold Superman consistently and the Captain Marvel Fan Club had 400,000 members from across the globe where Fawcett had to hire around forty staffers just to handle the tide of mail they received for the characters. In 1944, Captain Marvel Adventures sold fourteen million copies and at its greatest height sold 1.3 million copies bi-weekly. Artist C.C. Beck was integral to the success, whose cartoon style added an innocence and simplicity with iconic imagery throwing back to elemental dimensions of mythology, religion, and folklore. Further, the writers didn’t try to be smart or hip and used plain language with universal, timeless narrative techniques. Captain Marvel, Jr. would break from some of these basic concepts, however, dealing with social issues and moral dilemmas decades before such elements were explored with Spider-Man and the adventures of Green Lantern and Green Arrow (with Junior appealing more to teenagers). Likely the grandest tale in the history of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel was the introduction of the Monster Society of Evil which spanned two years over twenty five issues (making it the longest ongoing story arc of the Golden Age). Led by Mister Mind, the group was made up of some of Marvel’s greatest enemies teamed with the Axis Powers and an alliance of evil that included ranks from eighty-seven worlds.
Fawcett’s success threatened National Comics Publications, home to characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (formed from a merger of National Allied Publications, Detective Comics, and All-American Publications) and, the Marvel Family aside, was the biggest comic book publisher of the time. The success of Superman led to a number of clones which National quickly squashed but the elimination of Captain Marvel ranked above all others for the company. National sent cease-and-desist orders in 1941 against Fawcett for their Superman clones Master Man and Captain Marvel, the former of which the publisher complied but refused on the latter (in that while there were some notable similarities, all-in-all they were quite different). The companies would finally meet in 1948 in court with the battle found in Fawcett’s favor. National would appeal in 1951 and win the following year. Fawcett would decide to let the ruling stand because the entire comic book industry faced a graver threat. Interest in superhero comics largely fell to the wayside by the late 1940s (with horror and crime drama comics generally ruling in sales) and in 1954 psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent drew aim on comic books as a leading cause of juvenile delinquency in the United States (claiming Batman and Robin were a homosexual pedophilic couple, Wonder Woman a masochistic lesbian, and Superman a fascist). That same year, hearings were held by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that gutted the comic book industry leading to mass book burnings of comics. In a big way, the result was the death of the industry with only the most popular characters like Superman managed to survive, but only barely. The industry would never be able to consistently carry the numbers it did in the Golden Age. Considering the state of comic books at the time, Fawcett settled out of court for $400,000, ceased publication of the Marvel Family, and needed permission from National to publish their properties (a notable exception being Hoppy the Marvel Bunny who would be sold to Charlton with his lightning bolt insignia removed and name changed to Magic Bunny).
The demise of Captain Marvel would not only have an impact locally but internationally. In the United Kingdom, reprints of Captain Marvel still sold well and licensor Len Miller decided to create a thinly-veiled copy of the character in Marvelman (with Mary and Junior replaced by Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman) designed by writer Mick Anglo. The new titles even maintained the numbering order of the Marvel titles with Captain Marvel #24 followed by Marvelman #25 (similarly with Captain Marvel, Jr. and Marvel Family becoming Young Marvelman and Marvelman Family). In 1960, Anglo would recycle some of his Marvelman stories for a new creation in Captain Miracle for his own comic line. Clones and homages of the Marvel franchise was nothing new. Otto Binder, whose association with the Marvel franchise in its early years was second only to co-creator C.C. Beck, created Kid Eternity (along with famous Bob Kane ghost artist Sheldon Moldoff) for Quality Comics in 1942 with a twist. In an origin similar to Captain Marvel, Jr., Eternity was in his grandfather’s fishing boat when he was killed by a U-Boat 75 years before he was meant to die. In order to right this wrong, the boy was allowed to return to Earth for 75 years acting as a force of good as the hero Kid Eternity (joined by the ethereal clerk who made the error in Mr. Keeper, who shared qualities with Shazam’s spirit). Instead of being empowered by heroes, Kid Eternity could exclaim “Eternity” and make any hero or animal (including from mythology) in history appear in his service. The concept seemed so in line with the Marvel Family, when DC Comics acquired Quality’s characters, they instead placed Kid Eternity on Earth-S (S for Shazam) over Earth-X (where most of Quality’s characters ended up, save Plastic Man who popped up on Earth-1, Earth-2, and Earth-X). Speaking of Binder and C.C. Beck, the pair created Fatman the Flying Saucer for Lightning Comics in 1967 with a similar costume to Marvel who could become Fatman by drinking an alien chocolate beverage. Other Marvel-like characters were Captain Tootsie (co-created by C.C. Beck), Charlton’s Thunderbunny, Mattel’s He-Man, Highbrow’s Mighty Man, and Malibu’s Prime.
Timely Comics was one of the earlier and more popular comic companies in the Golden Age. Their first title was Marvel Comics which introduced the Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner that proved quite popular. Timely would be too late to create their own Captain Marvel but in the same year of the Fawcett creation they managed to produce a Marvel Boy who was largely a modern day incarnation of Hercules (a decade later, they would create another Marvel Boy with elements of Superman and Green Lantern in his concept after Timely became Atlas). With Captain Marvel and his cast going out-of-print in 1954, the character’s popular name was up for grabs. M. F. Enterprises was the first to step up creating their own Captain Marvel in 1966 where creator Carl Burgos took elements of his original character Human Torch and mashed it together with Superman. The resulting Captain Marvel was an android that was the sole survivor of his dying planet come to Earth able to split his body apart in separate autonomous pieces by yelling “Split” and reassemble by exclaiming “Xam.” He was joined by his ten year old ward Billy Baxton and battled pastiches of Dr. Fate, Plastic Man, Destroyer, and Batman. The following year, Marvel Comics (Timely/Atlas’ final incarnation) produced their very own Captain Marvel in Mar-Vell, captain for the alien Kree empire sent to Earth to assess if they pose a threat. Marvel would develop all sorts of Marvels likely to maintain control of Marvel names including the aforementioned Marvel Boy and Captain Marvel as well as Black Marvel, Marvel Girl, Blue Marvel, Mr. Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and Marvelwoman. When Marvelman was brought to America, Marvel Comics forced licensor Eclipse Comics to change the character’s (and his cast) name to Miracleman (a Miraclewoman would emerge during this run). Marvel Comics would later acquire the rights to Marvelman.
Unfortunately for Fawcett, they gave up the fight too soon. National (identified as DC Comics on their products), largely with direction from editor Julius Schwartz, entered a Silver Age in late 1956 that, while not returning comics to the status they were, brought strong, new life to the virtually dead industry. As already stated, Timely became Atlas which became Marvel and returned to superhero comics, due in large part to Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, producing books for characters like the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Spider-Man (as well as new stories for Captain America and Sub-Mariner). Charlton came back, their Captain Atom presented to a new generation, acquired property Fox Comics’ Blue Beetle was revised, and heroes like Nightshade, Question, Son of Vulcan, Peacemaker, Judomaster, and Peter Cannon… Thunderbolt were introduced. With the Fawcett properties languishing under National’s heel, the latter decided to license the characters and produce new Marvel Family stories in 1973. Unfortunately, when Marvel Comics acquired a Captain Marvel for themselves, they trademarked the name. In the end, this meant that the Fawcett Captain Marvel could retain his name, but that name could generally not be prominently advertised on any product (generally, this meant using Shazam instead, which many who were unfamiliar with the franchise came to believe was the character’s name). C.C. Beck returned to his creation in National’s Shazam! series with writer Dennis O’Neil but Beck’s involvement didn’t last long, seeing the product National wanted not as appealing as what he produced for Fawcett. The series would last five years, continuing for a while after in World’s Finest Comics and Adventure Comics, with Marvel given his own Earth (Earth-S for Shazam). The series would return Black Adam who only made a single appearance during the Golden Age and identified his abilities as the stamina of Shu, strength of Hershef, power of Amon, wisdom of Zehuti, speed of Anpu, and courage of Menthu.
A year after National began producing new Captain Marvel tales, they would introduce a different version of the character to battle Superman (something similar was done a year earlier when Superman battled a pastiche of Popeye the Sailor in Captain Strong). On Earth-276, orphan youth Willie Fawcett was given a magic belt-buckle by an elder Mohegan medicine man named Merokee that upon uttering the word “Thunder” could become the heroic Captain Thunder (Captain Marvel’s original name before being changed for copyright reasons). Just as Shazam was an acronym for the mythological characters that lent their power to their champion, Thunder stood for the power of Tornado, speed of Hare, bravery of Uncas, wisdom of Nature, toughness of Diamond, flight of Eagle, and tenacity of Ram. In the story, Thunder battled his nemeses the Monster League of Evil (essentially pastiches of the Universal Monsters with Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, Mummy, and Wolf-Man) across 1,953 (a reference to the year Captain Marvel Adventures ended) dimensions before imprisoning them only to succumb to an evil spell that trapped him on Earth-1 with a compulsion to perform villainous acts. The concept inspired Roy Thomas, Don Newton, and Jerry Ordway to create an Earth-1 Captain Thunder in 1982 that was an African-American Billy Batson but the idea was not picked up by National. Earth-S would occasionally interact with other Earths in the pages of Justice League of America, DC Comics Presents, and All-Star Squadron. Arguably the most notable crossover saw Marvel’s enemy King Kull assemble villains from Earths 1, 2, and S in order to wipe out humanity on those worlds and Marvel’s Squadron of Justice team with the Justice Society and Justice League to stop them. In the pages of All-Star Squadron, Mr. Mind would reform the Monster Society of Evil as a group to oppose the title’s heroes. In 1986, Hoppy the Marvel Bunny would feature prominently in the mini-series Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew!: The Oz-Wonderland War Trilogy (Hoppy being sold to Charlton only for most of Charlton’s properties to be acquired by National in 1983). For the mini-series, writer E. Nelson Bridwell identified Hoppy’s abilities as the wisdom of Salamander, the strength of Hogules, the stamina of Antlers, the power of Zebreus, the courage of Abalone, and the speed of Monkury.
The same year National introduced Captain Thunder, Captain Marvel was adapted for television in a live action series by Filmation for CBS. Departing from previous versions of the franchise, Shazam! featured a teenage Billy Batson given powers directly from the beings that lend him the power to become Captain Marvel as he travels across the country in an RV righting wrongs while being counseled by his elderly companion Mentor. The series wouldn’t feature supervillains and followed a formula not unlike one adopted by the Incredible Hulk television series some years later. The show lasted three seasons, adding Filmation original character Isis as a companion, interconnected series in the Secrets of Isis with the second season. Hanna-Barbera, who produced the animated series Super Friends loosely based on the Justice League of America, was developing another season of the show called Battle of the Superheroes that would star Captain Marvel and his villains. As Marvel was joining the Super Friends, his nemesis Dr. Sivana organized the League of Evil with his daughter Beautia and fellow Marvel enemies Mister Atom and King Kull as well as assorted Batman and Flash villains with Sinestro and Cheetah. However, Filmation maintained a license on Captain Marvel and Batman preventing their use. So the concept was reworked into Challenge of the Super Friends with H-B able to gain use of the Riddler and Scarecrow for Lex Luthor’s Legion of Doom (removing the pair of Bat-villains from The New Adventures of Batman). The following year, H-B would get to use Captain Marvel and Dr. Sivana for their live action Challenge sequel Legends of the Superheroes for NBC (largely because Superman was unavailable, his rights tied into a live action film series). In 1981, Filmation would get to animate the Marvel Family for their series The Kid Super Power Hour with Shazam! on NBC which featured segments of Marvel and original creation Hero High (occasionally, the segments would interconnect and Isis would appear in the latter). In 1986, a Captain Marvel action figure would be produced for Kenner’s Super Powers toyline (though Shazam! had to be prominently displayed on packaging) but he did not make it to the accompanying The Super Powers Team: Global Guardians television series from Hanna-Barbera (though, he was included in the third Super Powers comic book mini-series).
As with virtually every major property for DC Comics, Captain Marvel and his Earth was featured in the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline in 1985 that saw most Earths merged into a single Earth, largely wiping out decades of stories for a new, fresh interpretation. Captain Marvel fitted prominently in the follow up event Legends when he was framed for the murder of Darkseid’s minion Macro-Man in order to discredit Earth’s heroes. This led to Marvel’s inclusion into the Justice League (largely filling the vacuum left from retroactively removing Superman and Wonder Woman from the group’s membership) and a revised history in the 1987 mini-series Shazam!: The New Beginning that led to an ongoing story in Action Comics Weekly that was suppose to spin into a new series that never surfaced. Husband and wife writers Roy and Dann Thomas revised Captain Marvel’s origin as being created to oppose Black Adam who was summoned by Dr. Sivana (who was Billy Batson’s step-uncle). While the mini-series did well, Roy was progressively having problems with DC editors. Marvel’s departure from the League and the end of his storyline in Action Comics Weekly again cast the character into limbo before again being featured prominently in another event in the 1991 Wonder Woman-centric War of the Gods. For this event, Marvel was manipulated by the Roman Gods into trying to destroy the Greek Pantheon instead battling Themyscira’s champion. That same year, DC Comics would purchase the rights to the Marvel Family. For some years after, Marvel was largely relegated to an infrequent guest-star in the pages of various titles of the Superman franchise (such as appearing as part of “Panic in the Sky” and “Funeral for a Friend” with many other heroes). In 1994, DC would try to fix problems that arose from Crisis with the event Zero Hour: Crisis in Time!, again featuring Marvel. In the wake of that event, Marvel would be given another ongoing series in 1995’s Power of Shazam! from creator, and admitted huge Marvel fan, Jerry Ordway.
Famous for inking Crisis on Infinite Earths and John Byrne’s Superman run, as well as drawing a critically acclaimed run of Roy Thomas’ All-Star Squadron (where he co-created Infinity, Inc.), Jerry Ordway wrote and painted the post-Zero Hour revision of Captain Marvel in his graphic novel Power of Shazam! For this updated version, Theo Adam, ancestor of Black Adam, kills Billy Batson’s parents and Billy’s father returned as a ghost in the guise of the mysterious stranger who guided the child to Shazam to become Captain Marvel where Shazam remained in order to guide his development. Marvel battles Adam and brings him to Shazam for justice for his parents. Not only was the graphic novel popular, it won the Comics Buyer’s Guide Fan Award for Favorite Original Graphic Album of 1994. This led to an ongoing series that largely updated various elements from the original franchise for the modern age. Ordway’s run was critically well received, the creator walking a tight rope between nostalgia and the angst driven phenomenon that has dominated comics since Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s successful revitalization of Marvel Comics (largely conflicting elements as the Fawcett years generally went in an opposing direction). One change Ordway made was taking the Superman villain Lord Satanis and changing him from a sorcerer from the future to the son of Shazam and an unnamed demon. Also, instead of his ally-in-conflict being his wife Syrene, it was his twin sister Blaze. Blaze and Satanus appeared as opponents of Superman who were retroactively made into some of Shazam’s greatest enemies, Blaze setting up shop in Fawcett City after the emergence of Captain Marvel as Satanis remained in Metropolis (causing interactions between the Man of Steel and World’s Mightiest Mortal). Another notable change is that Billy and his sister Mary share the powers of Shazam. Various heroes from Fawcett’s history were also introduced as characters residing in Marvel’s city, generally as being active during World War II. Power of Shazam! lasted four years before cancellation. Blaze, Satanus, and Captain Marvel fitted prominently in the event Underworld Unleashed during the series’ run, a story that involved the devil king Neron empowering Earth’s villains, as Marvel had the purest soul on Earth and Neron sought to enslave it. Satanus and Blaze, enemies of Neron, assisted Marvel in his battle against the ruler of Hell, learning his magic lightning bolt was the only weapon that could harm the devil. When Marvel offered his soul to save his friends and the Earth, it was the only truly altruistic bargain ever given to Neron, one he could not then accept, instead undoing most of the damage he caused (save empowering Earth’s villains). Marvel would also appear in the events Final Night, Genesis, and Day of Judgment.
In 1996, Captain Marvel would feature prominently in the Elseworlds story Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross. The story is one of Earth’s future where a long retired Superman is forced to return to action when the world is overrun with metahumans that treat violence and death as if it were a game. One of the series antagonists is Lex Luthor who has brainwashed Billy Batson into his slave, working as his butler and chief enforcer. During a final climatic battle, Luthor orders Captain Marvel to kill Superman but before he can fulfill his orders, a nuclear strike to wipe out Earth’s heroes and villains quickly approaches. When Superman pauses Marvel in order to save everyone from the missile, Marvel breaks free of his conditioning and sacrifices himself in order to stop the warhead. Marvel, one of Ross’ favorite superheroes, would get an oversized tabloid book Shazam!: Power of Hope painted by Ross and written by Paul Dini some years later. Some years after that, Marvel and his cast would feature in Ross’ Justice limited series (heavily influenced by Challenge of the Super Friends). The same year Kingdom Come hit store shelves, the DC and Marvel universes briefly merged into Amalgam Comics which featured both of their Captain Marvels merged into a single being for the title JLX. A few months after Power of Shazam! concluded, Captain Marvel appeared in Grant Morrison’s wildly successful JLA series. When a genie threatens the world, Marvel incapacitates Superman knowing the hero was most likely to try and stop the villain’s magical mastermind but also knew his weakness to magic meant Marvel (empowered by magic) was a better candidate. It gave hope to fans to see Marvel join the group which unfortunately didn’t materialize. However, in that same arc, Morrison brought renewed interest in the Justice Society of America and soon an ongoing title about the group would surface.
Titled JSA to capitalize on the success of JLA, the series based on the Justice Society of America was penned by James Robinson of Starman fame and screenwriter David S. Goyer of the film Blade fame (more well known today for writing for the Nolan Batman films) assembling a modern day version of the Justice Society, blending founding members, the progeny of members, and inheritors of various mantles of elder members. Robinson would move on as Geoff Johns (who penned Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., the series that introduced the modern day Star-Spangled Kid featured in JSA and saw the Marvel Family guest-star in that series) joined Goyer on the title which saw Black Adam join the JSA on a road to redemption and Captain Marvel come aboard to keep an eye on him. Marvel would be a frequent guest-star in the title where he developed a close relationship with the Star-Spangled Kid (a disturbing fact to her teammates considering they were unaware of Marvel’s identity as a teenager when he appeared as a grown man). However, Marvel largely played a secondary character to Black Adam who became a breakout star within the book as he tried to do good only to tragically become the villain in the end. In the 2002 graphic novel JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice by Johns, Despero and Johnny Sorrow team to eliminate their mutual enemies, freeing the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man who take over several members of both heroic groups (including Marvel’s possession by Gluttony).
Despite Black Adam beginning to eclipse Captain Marvel, the latter would begin to see himself become fairly popular. Judd Winick, a writer who gained fame for appearing on The Real World: San Francisco to go on to pen works like Pedro and Me and The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius before scribing notable runs on Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and The Outsiders (the latter of which would feature Dr. Sivana, Captain Marvel, Jr., and Sabbac), is also an admitted fan of Captain Marvel. He would pen the character on several occasions, first as a three-part story arc called “Lightning Strikes Twice” across Superman’s different titles in 2005 that saw Superman and Captain Marvel team against the villain Eclipso (alluding to an earlier confrontation between the three). The following year, Winick wrote the mini-series Superman/Shazam: First Thunder detailing the latest first meeting between the two heroes as they tussled with Eclipso (revealing the pair, along with Batman, to be some of the first heroes of the modern generation). While Geoff Johns and Judd Winick were making use of Marvel, the hero would serve a prominent part in Bill Willingham’s Day of Vengeance (a mini-series and event leading up to the event Infinite Crisis, a sequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths). In DoV, the Spectre is manipulated by Eclipso into trying to destroy magic in the universe, terminating users of magic across the planes of existence. While a group of survivors come together to form the Shadowpact, it’s Captain Marvel who battles the Spectre directly (revealing Marvel to be magic’s champion). Inevitably, the Spectre battles Shazam directly and slays him, where the Rock of Eternity collapsed above the skies of Gotham City and the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man escaped.
In the aftermath, the Shadowpact helped rebuild the Rock of Eternity and recapture the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man leading Billy to assume Shazam’s role on the rock as its guardian (known now simply as Marvel). Judd Winick would pen a bold new direction for the franchise in 2006’s The Trials of Shazam! where Billy’s sister Mary has lost her powers and Freddy Freeman must undergo trials for each of the beings who donate power to Shazam, now living on Earth in host bodies, in order to prove worthy of their gift. The forces of darkness designate an agent to usurp this power in Sabina who competes against Freeman. Inevitably, good wins and Freeman inherits the powers taking the name Shazam. The while, Black Adam formed (only to lose) his own family in the Black Marvel Family. Meeting and marrying a DC Comics analogy of Filmation’s Isis, they’re joined by this Isis’ lame brother who becomes Osiris and the manlike talking crocodile Sobek (an allusion to Mr. Tawky Tawny and the Crocodile-Men). Isis and Osiris are killed by the Four Horsemen of Apokolips leading Black Adam to become an instrument of death and destruction spreading doom across the world. Eventually, Billy’s depowered sister Mary makes an arrangement with Black Adam to relieve him of his powers in order to do good. Instead, she’s perverted by the power with help from Eclipso but eventually comes to her senses and relinquishes her newfound abilities in a bid to destroy Eclipso. Mary later regains her powers but is persuaded by Darkseid to enter his service, becoming an avatar of his dark energies. This would be a prelude to becoming Apokoliptian New God Desaad’s host body during the events of Final Crisis.
Jeff Smith, creator of the critically-acclaimed and wildly popular series Bone, would be given the opportunity to provide a new direction for Captain Marvel, or so he thought. In 2007, in the midst of Scholastic re-releasing Bone with color to an even larger audience for school children, DC released the mini-series Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil which updated the origin of Captain Marvel. The new origin blended old and new ideas as well as original ideas from Smith himself. In it, Billy Batson is a homeless orphan close friends with the bum Talky Tawny (in reality an ifrit that secretly transforms into a tiger) that following a mysterious stranger leads him to Shazam. Returned is the concept Captain Marvel and Billy Batson are largely separate entities in the same space all but abandoned during his course at DC Comics. Where reinventions for Marvel at DC have generally involved Black Adam in the character’s origin, Mr. Mind is instead tied into the hero’s first adventure when Batson accidentally unleashes him on to the world. Sivana is re-imagined as the insidious Attorney General of the United States. It also re-establishes Mary Marvel as drawing her power from another set of mythological beings than her brother (though, in the final issue, Billy loses his powers and Mary shares her abilities with him). Around the time the mini-series was released, DC had reinstated its multiverse concept and many fans speculated Smith’s tale as being one of the new Earths in the 52 universes. However, Smith understood his Captain Marvel was THE Captain Marvel and regardless of whatever Earth DC Comics based their titles on, his Marvel would be the new Marvel. It seemed editorial had a different idea as their current take on the Marvel mythos remained unchanged. Smith’s Marvel was picked up by cartoonist Mike Kunkel who produced Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! for DC’s children-focused Johnny DC imprint. The series lasted for two years, picked up after the initial arc by Art Baltazar and Franco of Tiny Titans fame, before it was canceled. The series would introduce its own versions of Black Adam, Captain Marvel, Jr., Mad Mummy, King Kull, Mr. ATOM, Niatpac Levram, Arson Fiend, Mr. Banjo (as Axe Banjo), and Vampire Burglar.
In 2008, Captain Marvel would be featured in the animated film Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (based on the comic book story arc of the same name) where he battled Superman on behalf of the US government. Geoff Johns and Jerry Ordway would return to the Marvel Family in the pages of the series Justice Society of America as Black Adam resurrects Isis and the pair attack and defeat Marvel, taking over the Rock of Eternity. They convince Mary Marvel to join them and use her power to pervert her brother Billy into an evil member of their brood. However, when Black Adam begins to realize the evil he had unleashed, he forsakes his power to resurrect the wizard Shazam. Angry, the wizard removes all of their powers, turns Adam and Isis to stone, and casts Billy and Mary to Earth failing him. Due to the events in Blackest Night and Brightest Day, Osiris and Isis return to life as the former uncovers some way to prevent Freddy Freeman from being able to transform into Shazam. In 2009, the Marvel and Sivana Families and the Monster Society of Evil were featured in an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold. The following year, Captain Marvel would co-headline an animated short film called Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam featuring George Newbern and Jerry O’Connell reprise their roles as Superman and Captain Marvel, respectively, from those parts five years prior on the series Justice League Unlimited.
During the recent event Flashpoint where Earth’s history was altered, instead of Billy Batson becoming Captain Marvel, he would join with five other children as a group called S.H.A.Z.A.M. that merge to become Captain Thunder. Orphans Billy and Mary Batson, Freddy Freeman, Pedro, Eugene, and Darla each bear a component of Shazam’s power and would say Shazam to merge to form Captain Thunder. The idea draws inspiration from various areas including Bill Parker’s original concept for six separate heroes that each draw power from a different mythological entity that would evolve into his concept for Captain Thunder and some mash-up of Infinity Man, Firestorm, and/or Captain Planet. Pedro’s pet tiger Tawky Tawny transforms into an oversized, armored tiger not unlike Cringer into Battle Cat from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Following the event, DC Comics rebooted similarly as they had following Crisis on Infinite Earths which included another re-imagining of Captain Marvel. Unveiled in a back-up in Justice League by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, Billy Batson is revealed as a troubled orphan that has gone through several foster homes and has been adopted most recently by the Vasquez family (who already adopted five other youths, the fellow members of Flashpoint‘s S.H.A.Z.A.M.). Batson in this incarnation is much more angst driven, lacking faith in others, guarded, and angry who pretends to be sweet to adults as a defense but beneath his act and gruff is a good kid. Shortly afterward, as Batson tried to escape from bullies chasing him, he boards a mysterious train and is transported to the Rock of Eternity to meet the Wizard. After passing his tests, Batson is awarded the power and name of Shazam. However, in a fashion not unlike Spider-Man’s origin, he’s inspired to use this power for wealth. The while, Dr. Sivana goes through a transformation as a sympathetic villain seeking out magic where science failed to save his family leading him to search for Black Adam.
Shazam’s story continues monthly in the pages of Justice League. The complete series for the Shazam television show will be released on DVD exclusively by the Warner Archive Collection October 23, 2012. Captain Marvel can be seen as part of the Justice League in Young Justice: Invasion on Cartoon Network returning September 29, 2012.
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