When the Marvel Studios Captain Marvel came out recently, I posted a rough history of the various Captains Marvel. With DC’s Shazam now out, and number one at the box office opening weekend, it seemed like a good time for a history of this specific character. Any comic book character who has been around long enough has a complicated history, and one that debuted in 1939 and changed companies once is more complicated than most.
In Whiz Comics #2, Fawcett Comics debuted Captain Marvel. His origin has been rewritten several times, but the original version was this: William Joseph (Billy) Batson was a young orphan who sold newspapers and slept in the subway. His parents were killed and his uncle, appointed guardian, was far more interested in the family fortune than Billy himself. One night, Billy met a strange man in a green cloak who led him to a strange, unique subway car. The vehicle brought Billy to a strange stone cavern, later revealed to be the Rock of Eternity, where an old wizard sat on a stone throne. The old man, Shazam, charged Billy with becoming a hero, chosen because of his pure heart. When Billy speaks the wizard’s name, he is transformed into Captain Marvel, the World’s Mightiest Mortal. The wizard’s name stood for the attributes Captain Marvel possessed: Solomon’s Wisdom, Hercules’ Strength, Atlas’ Endurance, Zeus’ power, Achilles’ invulnerability, and Mercury’s speed and flight skills. Billy had many adventures, and late discovered he had a twin sister he hadn’t known about. Mary Bromfield, her adopted name, became Mary Marvel when Billy shared his power with her. Later, a disabled young man and his grandfather were out fishing when their boat was destroyed in passing by Captain Nazi, one of Cap’s foes. The boy, Freddie Freeman, barely survived, and Billy gave him power to save his life. Freddie became Captain Marvel, Jr. While Billy and Mary said “Shazam!” to trigger their transformations, Freddie spoke the name of his hero, Captain Marvel. Ironically, this meant he was the only hero who couldn’t say his own name. Over the years, they picked up various supporting characters. The Marvel Family had many adventures, usually with a touch of whimsy along the way. But the Captain came up against a foe he couldn’t beat: lawyers.
When sales soared, Captain Marvel started outselling Superman. Unable to beat Captain Marvel at the newsstand, DC (then National) decided to sue, claiming Captain Marvel infringed on Superman’s copyright. Fawcett won round one, but National appealed. Eventually, Fawcett settled out of court and went out of business, and DC Comics picked up all their characters. Captain Marvel became part of the DC Universe. The Marvels were rarely seen, relegated to another Earth in DC’s multiverse.
After the Crisis on Infinite Earths changed DC’s history, the Marvels were relocated to the one Earth all DC characters then called home. The good Captain was in a few versions of the Justice League, and even the Justice Society, and had many adventures. Billy’s purity of heart led some to dismiss Captain Marvel as naïve, but he was a true hero through and through. When DC did a major crossover event, Underworld Unleashed, the demon Neron launched a deceitful campaign to capture the “noblest hero of them all.” Most thought he was after Superman, but it was eventually revealed his target was Captain Marvel.
When DC rebooted their universe with the “New 52” in 2011, history changed again. The modern Billy was a foster kid in a group home when he gained his powers from the wizard. Billy was a lot less noble and used his powers for some petty crimes initially. Eventually, he shared his powers with the other kids at the foster home. This version is the basis for the SHAZAM movie. At this time, the character’s name was changed to Shazam, since there was a lawsuit with Marvel comics over the name going back decades. The changes to the character were just one of many controversial elements of DC’s reboot.
Captain Marvel has been around for decades, belonged to two different companies, and lived on several different Earths. The only constant has been that a young boy speaks a magic word to become a powerful hero fighting for what’s right. His history has been changed many times, but the appeal of a kid (or kids) saying a magic word and getting amazing power has endured. Whatever you call him, whatever time he’s in, or Earth he’s on, Captain Marvel has remained a popular character. He’s been in many comics, had a live-action show in the 70’s, some early serial movies, and several cartoons. Now, he takes his place in the DC Extended Universe. It will be interesting to see how such a colorful character fits in to a fairly dark universe.