Recently, Warner Bros announced that Shazam would be its next DC Comics film, with shooting scheduled to start around the beginning of 2018 and release some time in 2019. The movie has nothing to do with the extremely helpful “Name that Tune” app, but is instead based on the classic red and yellow cape-sporting superhero Shazam, aka Captain Marvel, aka the World’s Mightiest Mortal. Shazam is superhero wish fulfillment at both its finest and cheesiest, with the character sometimes getting the nickname “The Big Red Cheese” in a similar vein to Superman’s not-so-complimentary nickname “The Big Blue Boy Scout.” The story revolves around a young boy named Billy Batson, who gets special powers from a wizard (conveniently named Shazam). Every time he says the wizard’s name, Billy is struck by lightning and becomes the magical adult hero, Captain Marvel, gaining access to 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. Shazam shares his power with his friends, who become heroes like Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel, and they fight villains like the mad scientist Dr. Sivana and Black Adam (who has similar abilities and will be played by Dwayne Johnson in another film before his inevitable showdown with Shazam).
Shazam was created in 1940 around the same time as Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman, and other prominent DC heroes, and has roots in World War II, with one of his early villains bearing the name Captain Nazi. The lighter nature of most of his stories (there was an “edgy” hoodie-wearing version of him introduced in the DC New 52) and origin in the Golden Age of Comics makes him a logical fit for the DC Extended Universe in light of the success of Wonder Woman‘s hopeful tone and period setting. With that said, here are Shazam’s ten greatest moments in and out of comics, featuring the first ever superhero movie, a lawsuit, and a cameo from one of the biggest rock stars ever:
10. Shazam’s First Appearance in Whiz Comics #2 (1940)
There is no Whiz Comics #1, so Captain Marvel made his first appearance in 1940’s Whiz Comic #2 alongside such forgotten characters as Ibis the Invincible and the Spy Smasher. This anthology was the publishing company Fawcett’s first crack at superhero comics, and it competed with the heroes of National (later DC) Comics, like Batman and Superman. The first Captain Marvel story was scripted by Bill Parker (who quit comics in 1941 to join the military) and drawn by Eisner Award Hall of Fame artist C.C. Beck. The story centers around an orphan named Billy Batson, who is selling newspapers when a hooded figure takes him on a colorful subway train to a cave, reveals himself as the wizard Shazam, and gives him powers that are activated by the word “Shazam.” The utterance transforms him from a tiny street urchin into a strong-jawed hero with a cape and golden boots. Billy immediately finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy featuring a mad scientist named Sivana, who wants to destroy (I guess) the concept of radio in the United States. Billy tells radio magnate Sterling Morris that he will stop Sivana if he gets a job as a radio announcer. He uses his powers as Captain Marvel to infiltrate Sivana’s secret apartment base, smashes his evil “radio silencer” gadget, and then switches back to Billy Batson so that he can get his reward and become a “radio reporter” with his secret identity intact.
In Whiz Comics #2, Parker and Beck create a kind of bridge between teen sidekick characters like Robin or Bucky Barnes, and later teen solo heroes like Spider-Man or the Human Torch. Captain Marvel has the body of an adult but the mind of a child, and a lot of this story is him doing “kid” things, like selling papers and sneaking into small places unnoticed. There’s a sense of pure joy and wonder that a young boy who lost his parents and was kicked out by his caretaker to get access to his inheritance now has extraordinary abilities that he uses both heroically and to get his dream job as a radio announcer. It’s like a fairy tale that happens to have punching and leaping over tall buildings.
The bad guy in Whiz Comics #2 has zero motivation, and Parker and Beck don’t really unlock the full story potential of Captain Marvel in the early going, but C.C. Beck’s artwork holds up over seven decades later as a hybrid of the cartoonish, iconic style of Herge for the character of Billy Batson, with the surrealism of Little Nemo‘s Windsor McCay and a touch of the costumed hero, especially Joe Shuster’s Superman and Jack Kirby’s early work. Bad guys and mad scientist contraptions fly off the page as Captain Marvel revels in his new power, whereas Billy Batson’s design is relatively simple, so readers can project themselves on him. In a time before video games, kids could imagine they were Billy Batson, and Captain Marvel Adventures sold millions of copies, in fact claiming to be the highest selling comic in 1943. (Santa Claus is on the cover so it must be true.)
9. Shazam is the First Superhero to Get His Own Movie (1941)
Captain Marvel was such a popular character in the 1940s that he, not Superman or Batman, was the first superhero to star in his own film. Technically it was a 12-chapter Republic serial called The Adventures of Captain Marvel, but honestly, that kind of movie is a good fit for a comic book adaptation, with its cliffhangers and ongoing subplots. The film starred Tom Tyler (who appeared in Westerns with John Wayne, Errol Flynn, and Roy Rogers) as Captain Marvel, and Junior Coghlan as Billy Batson. Coghlan was a 25 year-old former child actor contemporary of Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple, and his wide-eyed performance and high-pitched line delivery as Batson was his comeback role, as well as possibly the reason why the exclamation survived its comic book origins. The film was directed by William Whitney and John English, who had previously directed a serial featuring Zorro and would later work on 1944’s Captain America, the first movie to star a Marvel superhero.
The plot of The Adventure of Captain Marvel feels like a combination of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Arabian Nights, with a smidge more of a classic murder mystery feel than a standard superhero story. Most of the plot happens in Thailand, where Billy Batson is a radio announcer who gets magical powers from the wizard Shazam in a crypt in the Valley of the Tombs. The film centers around the mystical artifact called the Golden Scorpion, which is held by each expedition member so that its energy powers are kept in check. All the while, a mysterious hooded villain, the Scorpion, is hunting down each archaeologist and taking their piece of the Golden Scorpion. Billy gets to play detective and save the day as Captain Marvel, and the final fate of the baddie in Adventures of Captain Marvel is very similar to the one in Raiders. For its time there was plenty of suspense, lore, and action to get fans to visit their local movie theaters for twelve straight weeks to get the whole story, and film critic Leonard Maltin described it as a “pretty good serial” in a 2012 Indiewire piece.
Superman: The Movie famously had the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly,” but The Adventures of Captain Marvel was the first film to feature a live-action, flying caped hero using the special effects of the time instead of cutting costs with animation. The flying sequences were masterminded by the Oscar-nominated Lydecker Brothers, who first shot a dummy wearing a Captain Marvel costume suspended on offscreen wires soaring over the San Fernando Valley, then spliced it together with close-ups of Tom Tyler in the costume. Add some takeoff and landing shots by “the Crown Prince of Daredevils,” David Sharpe, and The Adventures of Captain Marvel featured a hero who could do much more than leap over tall buildings.
You can watch the full 30 minute first chapter of the serial here, which features the first time Billy Batson transforms into Captain Marvel.
8. Shazam Gets Sued (1941-1954)
The success of the Captain Marvel character, as well as the Adventures of Captain Marvel film and its many spinoffs, including the funny animal comic Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, caused DC/National Comics to sue Fawcett Comics in 1941. They said that Captain Marvel was infringing on Superman’s copyright because they had similar powers of flight and super strength. Captain Marvel also had a bald arch-nemesis named Sivana, and a younger version of himself named Captain Marvel Jr., which was similar to Lex Luthor and Superboy. In 1948, National Comics Publications Inc v. Fawcett Publications Inc finally went to trial. Most of the evidence was a binder of Superman and Captain Marvel comics claiming that one ripped off the other.
Fawcett won the copyright infringement case on a technicality because the comic strip syndicate that DC had licensed the Superman comic strip to forgot to put the copyright symbol on some of the stories, so Fawcett couldn’t infringe on something that wasn’t actually copyrighted. However, Superman was becoming a pop culture icon, so DC appealed the ruling, and in 1954 Fawcett was found guilty of plagiarizing Superman with Captain Marvel. By 1954, comics were lagging behind TV in popularity, and were considered to be immoral by witnesses in yet another Supreme Court case featuring the infamous Frederic Wertham, so Fawcett decided to settle out of court, pay $400,000 in damages, and never publish Captain Marvel comics again.
Because the family of Captain Marvel characters were their most popular creations, Fawcett dwindled as a comics company, laid off talented creators like artist C.C. Beck, and mainly published licensed Dennis the Menace comic books until they became defunct in 1980. By this time, Shazam was licensed out to DC Comics, and Marvel held the copyright to Captain Marvel, but that’s a story for another day. The best way to understand this complicated yet juvenile court case is Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood’s “Superduperman vs. Captain Marbles” story in a 1953 issue of Mad. Wood’s parody version of Billy Batson is downright adorable.
7. Captain Marvel Jr. Inspires Elvis Presley’s Classic ‘Do (1954)
Captain Marvel comics were out of print in the late 1950s and all throughout the 1960s, but the Earth’s Mightiest Mortal – or more specifically his younger counterpart, Captain Marvel Jr. – had a great influence on the King himself, rock’n’roll legend Elvis Presley. Captain Marvel Jr. was Freddy Freeman, an orphan boy at a hospital whose life was saved in 1941’s Whiz Comics #25 when Captain Marvel gave him some powers of his own that are also activated by saying “Shazam!” In his Freddy Freeman identity, Captain Marvel Jr. is still crippled, and his main villain was Captain Nazi, who was responsible for both Freddy’s grandfather’s death and his own injury.
Probably the most famous reader of Captain Marvel Jr. was Elvis Aron Presley, a young boy from Tupelo, Mississippi who became a singer “who don’t sound like nobody,” and would later bridge the worlds of country and rockabilly with rock’n’roll and R&B as one of the most famous pop music artists in American history. In her book Elvis and Gladys, journalist Elaine Dundy said that Elvis was attracted the dual identity of Captain Marvel Jr. and Freddy Freeman because he himself had two identities: poor Southern boy and rock star. As a boy, he read comics and played music to escape from the hardship and poverty of his home life. Later, he slicked back his hair and dyed it black like Captain Marvel Jr. in the comic, and got a record deal from Colonel Tom Parker, the Shazam to his Captain Marvel. Elvis would even wear capes and light blue jumpsuits on stage, and some think that the lightning bolt in his TCB (“Taking Care of Business”) logo was also inspired by the character.
With their ability to bring hope and empowerment through music, pop and rock stars seem like real-life superheroes. Elvis couldn’t fly or call down lightning, but he did help bring rock’n’roll music to a larger audience, and is still well loved today. His home of Graceland is kind of a mecca for music fans, and there is even a copy of Captain Marvel Jr. #51 (1947) in a recreation of his childhood bedroom in the housing projects of Memphis there. In an homage to Elvis, writer Geoff Johns had a modern version of Captain Marvel Jr. call him the “greatest modern day philosopher” in Teen Titans #23 (2005).
6. Captain Marvel Joins the DC Universe and Becomes Shazam! (1973)
In the early 1970s, DC Comics was having issues making Superman stories for a modern audience, so their editor-in-chief, Carmine Infantino, decided to license Captain Marvel and the other Fawcett superheroes and supervillains less than two decades after DC sued the pants off them. Marvel Comics had gotten the rights to “Captain Marvel” in 1968 for an unrelated alien character, so the relaunch had to be titled Shazam! It was written by Denny O’Neil, who turned Batman from a campy crusader to a “Darknight Detective” while also introducing real-life social problems like racism and drug abuse into the Green Arrow/Green Lantern comic, and drawn by Captain Marvel co-creator C.C. Beck. The first issue (which featured former Captain Marvel lawsuit rival, Superman) featured a retelling of Shazam’s origin, a modern-day adventure that explained why he hadn’t appeared in any stories for 20 years, and a reprint of a Golden Age Captain Marvel Adventures called “The Endless String.”
In its writing, Shazam! #1 is more self-aware about its protagonist’s wholesomeness, breaks the fourth wall when Captain Marvel encounters one of his old writers (Otto Binder), and uses continuity as a plot device when it’s revealed that Dr. Sivana put Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, and Captain Marvel Jr. in suspended animation for 20 years. However, C.C. Beck’s art is just as fun, triumphant, and slapstick-y as it was in the 1940s, beginning with the first Billy-to-Shazam transformation sequence, and ending with a silly takedown of the Sivana family, who are as twisted and clearly evil as the Marvel family is broad-shouldered and straight-laced. Captain Marvel is also very transparent and open about his actions, clearly explaining to police and passerby why he tackled a car with electronics equipment, and restraining the Sivanas peacefully for the authorities instead of punching them.
Shazam! is technically a reboot of Captain Marvel, but armed with the power of 1940s nostalgia, Dennis O’Neil and C.C. Beck don’t change much about the character. Dark and edgy this is not, and it would influence later comic writers like Mark Waid and Bone‘s Jeff Smith, who would write Shazam in some shape or form. Beck’s art is clean yet wacky, and Shazam! is a comic with a clear moral center that isn’t afraid to get weird sometimes, just like Captain Marvel and his myriad of strange wizard-bestowed powers. It brought back readers to the happier days of their childhood, when comic books ruled the earth of mass culture.
Be sure to come back for part two of The Most Important Shazam moments, where the top 5 will be revealed!