September 25, 2009

Retroactive Continuity: Captain Marvel Returns!

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Written by: Tom
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Despite being one of the most recognizable and iconic comic book characters, Captain Marvel today can’t seem to anchor his own series.  Why?

Shazam!Last time, we saw that after a twelve-year legal battle, Fawcett shut down their comics division and permanently ceased publication of the Marvel Family in 1953.  While Captain Marvel was defunct, the Marvel name still proved popular.  In 1954, British publisher L. Miller and Son, who had been publishing Captain Marvel reprints, originated a new character, Marvelman, who was closely modeled on Captain Marvel in powers, if not appearance.  Marvelman lasted until 1963, and was later revived by Alan Moore and introduced to America as Miracleman.  M.F. Enterprises rolled out their own Captain Marvel in 1966, but this version only lasted for six issues.  In 1961, Atlas Comics (formerly Timely) rechristened themselves Marvel Comics as Stan Lee rolled out their new superhero line at the birth of the Silver Age, and they created their own Captain Marvel character in 1967, adding yet another dimension to the whole saga.

In 1972, Fawcett, unable to capitalize on the resurgence of super-heroes due to their settlement with DC, ended up licensing the characters to their old nemesis, and the original Captain Marvel returned; although, since Marvel Comics had co-opted the Captain Marvel name and essentially the trademark for anything containing the word “Marvel,” his comics had to be retitled Shazam! to avoid confusion and possible legal action.  DC even brought in C.C. Beck to illustrate his signature character.  The comic was moderately successful, running for 35 issues over six years and spawning a live-action Saturday morning TV show that ran for three seasons (and later a cartoon), but the Marvel family didn’t approach the success they had seen in the 1940s.

Superman vs. ShazamWhy was this?  Part of the reason was simply the passage of time.  The kids who read Whiz Comics and the other Fawcett titles in the 1940s and 1950s had grown up during the intervening twenty years, so to the current generation of comic readers, he was a wholly new character with a power set similar to Superman’s.  Despite originating the “family” concept back in the 1940s, by the time of his re-introduction in the 1970s, readers were more familiar with the Superman Family; and so Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel, Jr., etc. looked to be clones of Supergirl and Superboy.  Also, the Fawcett characters were kept out of mainstream continuity for the most part.  In the DC multiverse, their adventures were set in an alternate universe designated “Earth-S.”  As all true comic geeks know, DC’s mainstream continuity was set on “Earth-1,” and the Golden Age Justice Society was set on “Earth-2.”  Aside from the Earth-1/Earth-2/Earth-S crossover in Justice League of America #135-137 and a Superman vs. Shazam! Treasury Edition, there were very few interactions between the Fawcett characters and DC’s primary heroes.

Shazam: The New BeginningThe early 1980s saw Captain Marvel reduced to backup stories, reprints, and the occasional guest appearances until the character was integrated into DC continuity in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths.  In the wave of character reboots that followed Crisis, the miniseries Shazam: The New Beginning reintroduced Captain Marvel, primarily redefining the character so that Billy Batson retained his personality while transformed into Captain Marvel, whereas before, Cap and Billy were considered two separate people.  The miniseries also restarted the character’s history, eliminating most of the Marvel Family and supporting cast, at least for a time.  Captain Marvel also joined the newly-reformed Justice League for the first seven issues.  This new version didn’t stick however, and once again, he faded from view for nearly a decade, once again reduced to guest appearances and a four-issue run in Action Comics Weekly.

Power of ShazamDC finally purchased the rights to all the Fawcett characters outright in 1991, making them fully-owned instead of licensed properties.  The Power of Shazam! graphic novel debuted in 1994 and was yet another attempt to revive the character with a new origin story.  This led to The Power of Shazam! series that ran for five years and 48 issues, reintroducing much of the old continuity while updating it for a modern audience.

Black AdamIronically, since the cancellation of The Power of Shazam!, Captain Marvel’s supporting characters have become more prominent in the DC Universe than Cap himself!  Black Adam became a major character in JSA, overshadowing Captain Marvel’s membership in the same group.  Black Adam also developed into a major-league DC villain as a primary antagonist in 52.  Mary Marvel went through her own personal crisis in 52 and Countdown, emerging as one of the villains in Final Crisis.  Meanwhile, Captain Marvel was bumped upstairs to take the Wizard Shazam’s place as guardian of the Rock of Eternity after the wizard’s “death” in Infinite Crisis.  With his new role, he shortened his name simply to Marvel and changed to an all-white costume, reflecting his new powers and responsibilities.  Freddy Freeman, formerly Captain Marvel Jr., assumed Captain Marvel’s costume and role in the Trials of Shazam! maxi-series, though he adopted the name Shazam.  Currently, Shazam looks to be joining the new Justice League as the sole active member of the Marvel Family in current DC continuity, since Billy, Mary, and Black Adam are currently powerless.  At present, the only series currently featuring Captain Marvel is Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!, part of their Johnny DC line of children’s comics.

Marvel Comics has purchased the rights to the British Marvelman (aka Miracleman) character (whose own story has become equally convoluted), so look for an interesting rivalry to form.  It’s doubtful DC will challenge the character, but they’ll surely find a way to poke fun at their rivals.

Power of HopeCaptain Marvel blazed the trail for many concepts that are common today.  While Superman is the “Big Blue Boy Scout” always trying to balance his godlike powers and responsibilities against his humanity, Captain Marvel has always had the wide-eyed wonder of a child in a grown-up’s body.  The idea of casting off all your troubles by simply saying a magic word is an attractive one that has been exported to other characters like Prime.  The extended Marvel Family introduced a concept that is now in wide use.  At the time, it was a great marketing strategy, since it provided an easy way to expand the comics line into new titles without overexposing the main character.  DC especially, has taken this to heart, since most of their major characters now are heads of multi-generational families.  His whimsical and oftentimes surreal adventures bridged the gap between the grittier super-hero comics and the “funny animal” genre, especially with the inclusion of Mr. Mind, Tawky-Tawny, and Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny.

So, the Marvel Family is currently at a low point, but what does the future hold?  Doubtless, Captain Marvel will return, as will Mary Marvel and Black Adam, and the cycle will repeat again.  Despite challenges to the character’s originality in the 1940s, the loss of his very name in the 1960s, and long periods in limbo, the character, whether known as Captain Marvel or Shazam, is an enduring part of comics history, and he always returns!

Tom McNeely



  1. Billy

    I love this character. I think he was sorely underused on the animated JLU show. The one episode he was in was great.

  2. Once again Tom, this is a very informative article.

    I haven’t read much on the character(s), but I’ve met Mike Kunkel, the writer of ‘Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!’!

  3. […] Marvel, as in Shazam!, was introduced in February of 1940 by Fawcett Publications. This company had decided in 1939 that […]

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