Disclaimer: There have been many characters named Captain Marvel throughout history. Unless stated, this article refers to the Fawcett/DC Comics hero who is also known as Shazam. (Keep reading to find out how that came to be.)
The original Captain Marvel. Shazam. The Big Red Cheese. The World’s Mightiest Mortal. He has gone under many names but regardless of what he’s called, Billy Batson, his friends, and foes are recognizable to even the most casual superhero fan. You can go into any collectible store or browse around online and easily find merchandise, toys and memorabilia of the characters as well as see them in a plethora of adaptations on the big and small screens. But while many comic book heroes have only found true fame by appearing in big-budget movies or shows, Billy Batson was influencing pop culture as far back as the 1940s due to the immense popularity of his original comics. He is one of the original icons of American comic books and his star once shone even brighter than Superman’s.
In this article you will find a primer to the history of Billy Batson, the old wizard Shazam, and their world from inception to the most recent incarnation as of this writing. This is not intended to be an exhaustive history of every detail and comic but an introduction to quickly get you up to speed on who the Big Red Cheese is, where he came from, and why he’s so famous.
The origin of a legend
The creation of Captain Marvel was complex and tangled much like Superman’s origin. In 1939, the founder of Fawcett Publications, William Fawcett, was looking for a superhero feature to capitalize in the huge success of DC’s Superman. It was customary at the time for comic books to be around 64 pages. There would be one lead feature and a number of backup comics covering a wide range of topics from funny animals to adventure stories to historical pieces, and other popular genres. Fawcett asked writer Bill Parker, who had already done work for the company to come up with a series of features to fill out such a comic.
Parker wanted to create a character similar to Superman but positioned as the leader of a team of superheroes, each with their own ability and expertise. However, Fawcett didn’t like the idea and insisted on a single superhero. Parker reconciled this by giving the character all the powers of the team combined. The artist assigned to this hero (and to several other Fawcett strips) was Charles Clarence Beck who would grow into one of the most distinctive and unique cartoonists working in the superhero genre. Parker and Beck created a hero in a crimson and yellow costume who visually evoked Superman. The hero was endowed with the power of six mythological figures and went through a few naming ideas. First he was Captain Thunder, then Captain Marvelous, and finally the name was shortened to just Captain Marvel.
The comic was eventually released as Whiz Comics and told the tale of Captain Marvel’s origin, today a familiar story in superhero circles. Young orphan Billy Batson was selling newspapers on the street to make ends meet when a mysterious figure led him into a subway tunnel where he boarded a strange train. Billy was taken to a magical location known as the Rock of Eternity, with statues depicting the seven deadly enemies of man (the seven deadly sins) lining the wall. There Billy met the ancient wizard Shazam. Shazam was once a champion of justice empowered by the gods themselves. However, he was now so aged he could no longer defend the world and thus selected Billy as his successor. As Shazam told Billy to speak his name, a magical lightning bolt struck the courageous young boy and transformed him into the mighty Captain Marvel. By speaking the word “Shazam” Billy would become Captain Marvel, endowed with 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. With these mighty powers Captain Marvel stood as one of the most powerful of golden age superheroes, though without any of the darker traits of other extremely powerful entities like the Spectre.
The Golden Age and the reign of Captain Marvel
The early period of Captain Marvel in Whiz Comics featured somewhat more serious pulp adventures with the Captain fighting the mad scientist Doctor Sivana and other criminals. However, when Parker departed the strip, it began veering more towards the fantastical. Beck claimed he had very little influence on the actual stories he drew but his unique style stood out on the newsstands. Later writers would capitalize on his cartoony aesthetics by making the stories more fun and lighthearted. The most influential writer was Otto Binder, who was already a pulp science fiction writer before joining the burgeoning comics field in 1939.
Captain Marvel also received a Republic movie serial in this period. As was common at the time, the film stripped down the character to a rather basic form and had him fight a hooded villain called the Scorpion rather than any foe from the comics.
Whiz Comics was a bigger hit than Fawcett could ever have anticipated. This led to the launch of a comic called Captain Marvel Adventures featuring much more material dedicated to Billy and his world. Beck was unable to keep up with the increasing amount of stories and Fawcett hired several ghost artists to draw in his style, even as they began expanding the cast of the comics.
During this period Fawcett introduced not only a junior version of the Captain called simply Captain Marvel Junior (in truth disabled newspaper seller Freddy Freeman) but also Billy Batson’s long-lost sister Mary who joined the boys as Mary Marvel and had her own feature in WoW Comics. Not only did the Captain Marvel line expand to several feature comics but they also published a title named Marvel Family where the various heroes would team up and work together.
The Fawcett titles stood out on the crowded golden age marketplace because of their style, consistently high quality storytelling, and likable characters. The Marvel Family were genuinely good, helpful, and the comics lacked any of the lurid depictions of gruesome violence or sexuality that were commonplace with other publishers. They were clean, all-ages titles with rich imagination and broad scope.
One famous storyline ran uninterrupted for two years in the pages of Captain Marvel Adventures and saw the Big Red Cheese contend with the mysterious Mister Mind and his Monster Society of Evil. Mind was eventually unveiled as a super-intelligent worm from Venus. Billy and the others often contended with fantastical magical threats like King Kull the Beast Man or the immortal Oggar. However, there were scientific threats too, like the robot Mister Atom. Despite vast sales success, the titles began to drop as the second half of the 40s ground on.
But the demise of Captain Marvel would not come through natural means but by intentional machination.
The end of Fawcett
Detective Comics (today known as DC Comics) had not let the stellar rise of Captain Marvel go unnoticed and quickly regarded the character as nothing more than another Superman clone.Likely emboldened by their victory against Fox Comics the year before, that had seen the end of Fox’s Wonder Man, DC sued Fawcett in 1941 for copyright infringement, arguing that Captain Marvel was a Superman ripoff. The Fawcett court case dragged on considerably and didn’t come to trial until 1948 – with Fawcett seeing immense success in the intervening years. The initial ruling fell in Fawcett’s favor in 1951, finding the Captain Marvel character and mythology too different to be a mere copy of Superman. However, DC appealed and won in the retrial, with the court declaring Captain Marvel to be derivative of Superman.
Facing a settlement and declining sales that showed no signs of reversing, Fawcett canceled their entire comic book line in 1953 rather than risk having to pay DC more money to keep Captain Marvel and his supporting cast in publication. Thus Fawcett’s once glorious comics empire ended in a whimper and Billy, Freddy and Mary flew off into the sunset even as entirely new comic book genres competed for space in the new decade.
If the golden age comics were so popular where are the reprints?
Unfortunately, there are factors which make DC unwilling to reprint more than a handful of the golden age Captain Marvel comics. The biggest reason is racist stereotypes. While the stories were light-hearted in tone, some of the comedy came from characters like Captain Marvel’s “butler” Steamboat, a very caricatured black man who frequently did foolish or cowardly things to contrast with the hero. This was not the only such portrayal in the comics either and these things stopped DC from a planned reprint of the “Monster Society of Evil” storyline.
Since the Fawcett copyright for many of the golden age stories have expired, some of the comics have been reprinted by companies like Gwandanaland Comics. Although, this is a case where the buyer should beware. These reprints are usually just printed versions of low-quality scans and are not restored in any way and thus can be very grainy, low-resolution, or even be mission portions. They are usually readable, but you have to keep this in mind if you look at buying any of these golden age reprints.
Important golden age titles
- Whiz Comics
- Captain Marvel Adventures
- Marvel Family
- Master Comics
- Wow Comics
- Captain Marvel Jr.
While Captain Marvel may have been gone from comics for two decades, people did not forget about the Big Red Cheese and his mythos. Many golden age superheroes, and even entire publishers, vanished into the mists of history with little to no cultural impact (like most of Marvel’s or MLJ’s golden age superheroes), Billy and friends never seemed far from the pop culture landscape. A young artist named Elvis Presley remembered fondly reading stories about Captain Marvel Jr. (likely illustrated by golden age master Mac Raboy) and styled many of his ostentatious stage costumes and hairdos after the young superhero. The character of Gomer Pyle who appeared on the Andy Griffith Show exclaimed “Shazam!” as a catchphrase, placing the word even more firmly into the pop culture vocabulary.
Otto Binder and artist Kurt Schaffenberger joined DC and would become instrumental in the silver age Superman comics. Binder, in particular, introduced many elements similar to ones that he had used in the Captain Marvel comics the previous decade. Most famously, Binder modeled the character of Supergirl on Mary Marvel. C.C. Beck continued working in comics and illustration but did not find as much fame as he had enjoyed during the Fawcett years. He had created a popular advertising character called “Captain Tootsie” for the Tootsie Roll Pop candy brand and in 1967 he rejoined writer Otto Binder at a new publisher called Lightning Comics. Binder and Beck produced a strange parody comic called Fatman the Human Flying Saucer for this publisher, which took a lot of inspiration from Captain Marvel but was distinct enough not to be a direct copy. Lightning Comics only put out five comics in total before folding and was merely a footnote in the title glut of the late 60s. The same year as Fatman’s ill-fated debut Binder also had Superman face a character called Zha-Vam, a clear parody or homage to Captain Marvel.
The legacy of Captain Marvel loomed large in comics themselves. The idea of a hero who swapped from a normal human form (sometimes disabled or weak) would be the basis for countless superheroes such as Archie’s The Fly (which Beck originally had a hand in creating). Even Marvel’s Thor, who began existence as a disabled doctor named Donald Blake. Blake would transform into the form of Thor when striking his magic cane. Over in the UK, Captain Marvel and some of his spinoff features had been reprinted by L. Miller & Son. However, with the DC lawsuit putting an end to the material, they set about creating a replacement character to keep their still successful line going. The resulting character was Marvelman, created by penciler Mick Anglo and first debuting in 1954. Marvelman would become a legend in his own right when the character was revived in the 1980s by future superstars such as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Today the character is better known by the name “Miracleman” and is now owned by Marvel Comics.
While there were characters called “Captain Marvel” published in the 1950s and 60s (one being an android superhero and the other an alien Kree soldier from Marvel), Billy Batson himself remained a ghost through the silver age. He would not return until the 1970s in the pages of the very company that engineered his demise.
The Bronze age and DC Comics
In the early 1970s, DC were in a period of reviving and modernizing older comics properties and expanding their line greatly. DC publisher Carmine Infantino entered into negotiations with Fawcett to license the long-dormant characters for use in their comic books. DC were no strangers to incorporating the characters of other publishers into their own line, having already purchased the IPs of defunct publisher Quality, and now they sought to add Captain Marvel to their roster. However, due to Marvel having introduced the alien super-soldier named Captain Marvel in 1967 and trademarked the name, DC were unable to release a comic called “Captain Marvel”. Instead the decision was made to name the new comic “Shazam!” after the old wizard and iconic catchphrase. Billy was still known as “Captain Marvel” and “the original Captain Marvel” could be seen both in the stories and in the cover blurb. DC initially put famous writer-editor Dennis O’Neil in charge of the project and he would write the most important stories of the relaunch himself. DC also managed to hire C.C Beck to return to the characters that he once brought to prominence, which must have seemed like an unlikely but amazing team-up of creative forces at the time. Unfortunately, the resulting title was rife with issues from the get-go.
O’Neil and Beck started the series off with a fanciful story of how Doctor Sivana had trapped Billy and the other prominent characters and villains of the originals stories in “suspendium”. This placed everyone in suspended animation for decades, explaining why none of the characters had aged since the 1950s. Unfortunately, the title followed a popular format for DC at the time where each issue would be broken up into several shorter stories. Many of the big eventful tales were very quickly resolved or were entirely trivial. Due to the workload, other creators were also involved in order to fill out the comic such as writer E. Nelson Bridwell and artist Kurt Schaffenberger. Beck also chafed at the new style of comic he was supposed to draw, finding the scripts often inane and nonsensical. He eventually straight-up refused to draw the scripts he had been sent and DC fired him as a result.
Virtually all the Marvel Family reappeared during this period and so did most of their popular villains. One important thing to occur in this period was the revival of an obscure one-time golden age villain named Black Adam, who had previously fought the Marvel Family and died in Marvel Family #1. Adam was an Egyptian empowered by Shazam in a similar way to Captain Marvel but he turned to evil and was banished to a distant star from which it took him millennia to return to earth. The 1970s made Black Adam a recurring villain for the Marvels. The villainous worm Mister Mind who had been executed for war crimes at the end of the golden age “Monster Society of Evil” storyline was also retconned to be alive, having miraculously survived the electric chair. The series was often much more goofy than the golden age comics ever had been, with some adventures being pure farces rather than adventure stories with comical elements. The result was a strange mish-mash of golden, silver and bronze age sensibilities that frustrated some readers while charming others.
Eventually DC tried to change the style of art and writing to be more like other comics on the stands at the time. Soon thereafter the title was canceled, surviving as a feature in anthology comics such as Adventure Comics and World’s Finest. During this period Captain Marvel also frequently appeared in team and team-up stories such as Justice League of America (which also showcased the other golden age superheroes such as Spy Smasher and Bulletman) and DC Comics Presents where the Big Red Cheese teamed up with Superman on a number of occasions. Captain Marvel also starred in his own live-action TV show for a time during the 1970s. Though it bore little resemblance to the comics, it was successful enough to spawn a spinoff show called “The Secrets of Isis” about an original female superhero with a similar setup as Billy.
Important bronze age titles:
- Adventure Comics
- World’s Finest
The Crisis and new life
The new lease of life of Captain Marvel and friends came to an end in 1985. Despite the Marvels being popular once more and appearing frequently, the Crisis on Infinite Earth event sought to reorder and streamline’s DC’s fictional universe. That meant the end of the peaceful world of Captain Marvel. DC had chosen to give the Big Red Cheese and his mythos their own earth called Earth-S and with Crisis destroying all earths but one, it seemed the Marvels would meet their end once more. Following the end of the event in 1986, DC declared that all of their previous comics about Captain Marvel and his various friends and foes were now non-canon and that DC would soon reintroduce the character for a modern audience.
In the 1987 event comic Legends, readers were reintroduced to Billy Batson as he was embroiled in the battle against Darkseid. However, the comic did not explain the characters new origin or anything else about him, nor did the new Justice League title which initially had him as a member reveal anything except that he was a young and inexperienced hero. Whereas the golden and bronze age, Captain Marvel was usually a confident adult man in his superhero persona (and many creators treated Captain Marvel as a separate character from Billy entirely) this new version of the Big Red Cheese was an insecure pre-teen boy in the body of a powerhouse superhero from the start.
After the conclusion of Legends, a four-issue miniseries from writer Roy Thomas and artist Tom Mandrake finally gave the details of the post-Crisis Captain Marvel’s origin. In line with many post-Crisis DC relaunches, the new origin story was more grounded and nowhere near as whimsical. Sivana was no longer a silly outlandish scientist but a manipulative and ruthless man with some scientific talent, Billy was much less naïve, and Black Adam was the main antagonist (having been banished to a shadow dimension by the old wizard). No sign of Mary, Freddy, or any of the other parts of the old mythos.
An ongoing was planned but, due to Thomas falling out with DC and leaving the company, it never materialized. Instead Captain Marvel and Black Adam only appeared as guest stars in other titles for several years.
One major change to the status quo was that DC finally decided to buy the rights to the entire Fawcett catalog of characters from CBS Publications which at that point held the Fawcett rights. As a result, DC now had full control over all the characters from Fawcett’s lineup and that opened the door for a more expansive and in-depth relaunch of Captain Marvel in the 90s.
Important post-Crisis titles:
- Shazam – A New Beginning
- Action Comics Weekly
Return to prominence
In 1994, Jerry Ordway created a fully-painted hardcover graphic novel called “The Power of Shazam”. Once more, it rebooted the Captain Marvel mythos but kept the character anchored in the DC universe. The story closely followed Billy Batson’s original golden age origin. However, it added some new wrinkles to it like Billy’s parents being murdered by their treasonous assistant Theo Adam, who subsequently transformed into a reincarnated Black Adam. Power of Shazam was very popular and in the following year Ordway started an ongoing title with the same name. Written by himself and with art by Peter Krause, it followed Billy’s adventures and gradually reintroduced his golden age friends and foes.
Power of Shazam placed the Marvel Family in a strangely timeless place called Fawcett City which evoked the art-deco aesthetics of the old C.C Beck stories. It also allowed characters to escape the effects of aging (which became relevant when some heroes like Bulletman reappeared). The creative team reintroduced Mary and Freddy as Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. Additionally, it even brought back fan-favorite oddball characters like Mister Tawky Tawny. Running for 48 regular issues and one annual, Power of Shazam put the Marvel family back on the map and gave many comic book fans their first hands-on introduction to the wacky world of the Earth’s Mightiest Mortal. This also led to the characters appearing in a much wider variety of titles from Justice League to Supergirl to Young Justice and even some of the reimagined classic villains spread beyond the borders of Fawcett City.
- Power of Shazam Graphic Novel
- Power of Shazam Ongoing series
Beyond Power of Shazam
When Power of Shazam ended in 1999, it had successfully reintroduced Captain Marvel as an important figure in the DC Universe. That effect continued after the cancellation, with Billy, Mary, and Freddy appearing regularly in DC event comics, joining teams, and general appearances as part of the background of the universe. Black Adam also unexpectedly became a fan-favorite anti-hero when he was given a new, expanded origin in the pages of the JSA series, frequently appearing without any of the other Marvel characters following this. Adam was one of the key villains of the critically acclaimed series 52, wherein he gained his own “Black Adam Family” in imitation of the Marvels, consisting of his wife Isis and her brother Osiris. The wizard Shazam was also a key player in the crossover Infinite Crisis which led to big changes in the DC Universe’s magic side.
Outside of JSA appearances, the closest to their own title the Marvel family got in this era was a limited series called The Trials of Shazam in 2006. This altered the status quo by making Freddy the central character and Billy the new caretaker after the death of Shazam. Billy sends Freddy on a quest to prove himself to the immortals that give their power to the Marvels and in the process Freddy goes through many trials. Ultimately the changes wrought in the limited series did not end up having much of a legacy and future attempts would go back to the more classic status quo.
Outside of the mainline comics, the 2000s saw widespread use of the Shazam mythology. Billy appeared several times in both the Justice League Unlimited and Batman: The Brave and the Bold animated series and even had a couple of starring episodes in the latter show. Celebrated writer-artist Jeff Smith did a four-issue miniseries in 2007 titled Monster Society of Evil that retold the classic golden age story in an updated fashion. Following that, in 2008, DC also published Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam, an all-ages title which retold classic stories of the Marvels in a cartoony style. With the 2011, Flashpoint event DC once more rebooted most of their titles and thus Billy and friends were due for another fresh start.
- Trials of Shazam
- Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil
- Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam
The New 52 – Reboot and repeat
With the dawn of the New 52, Billy and his supporting cast received another all-new origin and status quo. This came in the form of Shazam back-up stories in the pages of Justice League written by Geoff Johns and with art primarily by Gary Frank. Billy’s heroic alter ego was renamed “Shazam” with this relaunch to avoid the awkward situation of Marvel owning the trademark to the name “Captain Marvel” – using it for their own series starring Carol Danvers – which created some confusion for long-time readers. The origin of Billy and the other Marvels was presented in a slow-burn form, with the characters now more serious and less naive. Billy, especially, began this incarnation as a rather selfish, impulsive, and foolish person, who only slowly grew into his superhero role. In this version Billy and Mary are not related and instead adopted sister and brother.
In the new canon, Billy’s biological father was a deadbeat who didn’t want the responsibility of parenting and gave Billy up for adoption. Billy’s new family also contained other orphans Darla Dudley, Eugene Choi, and Pedro Peña, as well as Mary and Freddy. The kids are all eventually empowered, with each receiving a specific blessing that they excel at. Thus, in a way, the rejected original idea by Bill Parker came to pass. The team battled various villains and an ongoing series for them was promised but pushed back repeatedly due to scheduling conflicts. During this period the Shazam characters frequently appeared in team books and even in big events, with a loving homage to the original Fawcett comics appearing as part of Multiversity in 2015 under the name “Thunderworld”.
The long-awaited ongoing finally arrived in 2019, written by Johns and with art by Dave Eaglesham. It ran for 15 issues into 2020 and had a few other writers and artists along the way. This series greatly expanded on Johns’ idea for the mythology and coincided with the release of the big-budget Shazam motion picture, a part of Warner Brother’s DC Extended Universe. The movie was heavily based on the New 52 versions of the characters and featured a heavily revamped Doctor Sivana as the villain after the decision was made to save Black Adam for a planned solo movie. The Black Adam movie released in 2022 and co-starred the Justice Society as it loosely adapted events from the JSA series. In 2023 a sequel to Shazam came out titled “Fury of the Gods” where the Marvel Family found themselves battling the Greek gods themselves.
- Justice League (2011)
- Shazam (2019)
There are no signs that the Shazam characters are going away anytime soon. As of writing, a new comic series is upcoming and it has been announced that Billy will be called “The Captain” in the future instead of “Shazam”.
The rich mythology of the original series laid the groundwork for a real-world legend that persists to this day, filtered down through many retellings and reimaginings. I think that Captain Marvel truly is one of the most iconic superheroes of all time, standing proud even after decades of legal battles, creator conflicts and reboots. Hopefully we’ll get to see the Earth’s Mightiest Mortal fight the forces of evil for decades to come.
Which comics should I read?
If you are a complete novice to the world of Captain Marvel, I would recommend you start by picking up the Power of Shazam graphic novel and ongoing series. These issues do a beautiful job at updating and modernizing the setting and characters without them seeming outdated or hokey. The stories are rich and nuanced and the plots are fun. Following that I would recommend the 1970s Shazam! series and the 2019 series as good stepping stones to see what you like about the characters. The 1970s series is full-on goofy while the 2019 series presents a much more serious take.
Captain Marvel’s comics can be found at all good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, and Amazon/Kindle.
Leave a comment