by Glen Weldon
See that smiley red goober over there on the right? For almost a decade, his was the best-selling comic book in the country. During World War II, this guy was outselling Superman back when that really meant something: Millions of Americans thrilled to his monthly adventures.
He's starred in his own movie serial, his own cheesy Saturday morning kids' show, and he helped usher in the modern era of corporations suing one another silly over copyright infringement.
Pop quiz: What's his name?
A. The Flash
C. Lightning Man
D. Captain Marvel
Hint: The rookie mistake is to confuse the guy's name with his catchphrase. Don't worry, though. Lots of folk do that, and it's understandable. I mean, Lord knows I never referred to the "Git R'Done" guy as anything but Git R'Done Guy. Not that it came up much.
But there's a reason this hero's name doesn't spring to mind as easily as that of Superman, Spider-Man and Batman, even though it really should.
After the jump: His real name, his troubled past and why it's taken until now for modern comic book creators to figure out what to do with him.
A. The Flash?
Nope. Good effort, though. You got confused by the costume's scarlet/lightning motif.
Bzzzt. But you're in good company. This is the aforementioned rookie mistake — "Shazam!" is the magic word that young Billy Batson shouts to call down the magic lightning that transforms him into ....
C. Lightning Man?
Oh, now you're not even trying. Who could take a superhero named Lightning Man seriously? It's just a dumb, dumb name, and in a genre that has produced such cringeworthy examples as "Magik" and "Sparx", that's saying something.
D. Captain Marvel?
Ding! And thus the problem begins to become clear.
Say you're DC Comics, and you inherit this great character with a long history and a rich supporting cast. And then it strikes you: every time you even refer to the guy, you're name-checking the competition. It'd be like Coke introducing a drink called Peppsy. Or George Steinbrenner hiring an Eastern European power hitter named Yankisuk. The chanting alone....
Actually, no: Because of the decades of legal maneuvering surrounding the character, it's much worse than that. Imagine if Apple had somehow managed to trademark the name "Windows" while Microsoft wasn't looking. Yeah. More on that later.
Er, no. Long story, but no.
So: Captain Marvel. First appearance, Fawcett's Whiz Comics #2 in 1940.
Orphaned newspaper boy Billy Batson is entrusted with great power by an ancient Egyptian wizard named Shazam. Said power: Speak the old wizard's name, and a magic lightning bolt will transform the feckless, dot-eyed young lad into the mighty Captain Marvel, a being who possesses — well, let's go to the Powerpoint slide:
The wisdom of Solomon!
The strength of Hercules!
The stamina of Atlas!
The power of Zeus!
The courage of Achilles!
The speed of Mercury!
See what's going on there? With the acronymity?
Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that the character's been one great big pantheistic muddle from the very beginning.
(But if you're keeping score at home, we've got: One Egyptian wizard, one Hebrew king, a Roman hero/demigod, a Greek Titan, a Greek god, a Greek hero, and a Roman god. Did I mention that the ancient Egyptian wizard decorates his mystic redoubt with giant statues of the Seven Deadly Sins — Roman Catholic concepts that didn't hit the ecumenical big time until the 13th or 14th century? Talk about your kitchen-sink origins: Good thing Shazam didn't have a middle initial, or Cap could have ended up with the Creepiness of Cthulhu, or something.)
(And, "The power of Zeus?" Really? You want to vague that up a little more? So one of his seven powers is .... Power. Great.)
Over the next couple of decades, he developed a cast of supporting characters that could out-whimsy the most whimsical whim that ever whimsed:
A long-lost twin sister named Mary Batson, who, upon speaking the wizard's name, transforms into a female version of Captain Marvel, without his vaguely pseudo-militaristic vibe. (Captain of what, exactly?)
MM had her own proprietary mishmash of gods and heroines supplying her powers — powers that originally included such clunkers as "Beauty," "Skill," and "Grace." Not a lot of help when you're fighting mad scientists. ("Hold it right there, villain! And look how daintily I can point my toe!")
Captain Marvel, Jr.
Another newsboy who, upon speaking the name of his hero, Captain Marvel, transforms into ... Captain Marvel, Jr.
Mmyeah. Remember what we said before about dumb superhero names? Yeah, well, Captain Marvel, Jr. is definitely among the doofiest, to say nothing of the least practical:
THANKFUL CROWD: Thank you for saving us, blue-leotarded one! What is your name, that we may spread tales of your derring-do far and wide?
CMJR: Uhm. Ah.
THANKFUL CROWD: ... Surely you have a name?
CMJR: (Holds up index finger.)
THANKFUL CROWD: ... Okay... First word. Two syllables...
The Lieutenant Marvels
Three random youths who also happened to be named Billy Batson. Because ancient Egyptian wizards aren't big with the restrictive clauses, the three BBs soon discover that they also can speak the wizard's name and transform into (get ready for a near-lethal dose of whimsy, straight into the mainline):
Hill Billy Marvel!
Seriously: Hill Billy Marvel. An Appalachian in a red leotard, fighting crime, droppin' his g's right and left. That's the whole idea of the character. People actually read this.
Bumbling con artist who pretended to be related to the Batsons and pretended to possess his own powers. When the rest of the Marvel family would call down the magic lightning, Uncle Marvel would quickly doff his outerwear before the smoke could clear. Less creepy than it sounds.
Hoppy the Marvel Bunny
Yeah, you know what? Never mind Hoppy the Marvel Bunny.
Mr. Tawky Tawny
Talking tiger. Wears a suit, hat. Has adventures. As you do.
Can we agree that, based on the above evidence alone, Captain Marvel was ... not like the other superheroes? That humor was a major part of his fictive DNA from the get-go? That he had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek decades before Adam West did the Batusi?
Even his villains — the mad scientist Thaddeus Bodog Sivana (never seen out of his lab coat, prone to unprovoked shouts of "Curses!") and Mr. Mind (cute li'l alien inchworm in eyeglasses) — never exactly struck terror into the hearts of the innocent.
And so it went, until DC Comics sued Fawcett, Cap's owner, for infringing on the copyright of Superman. Years of legal wrangling ensued — some of which featured Judge Learned Hand musing on the precise nature of Captain Marvel's super powers, a notion that gives one pause. And a giggle.
Fawcett suspended publication of Cap's adventures in 1953, and the character languished in comic book limbo for years. Beginning in 1962, however, Jim Nabors would periodically invoke Cap's spirit by turning his magic word, "Shazam!" into a catchphrase on The Andy Griffith Show and subsequently Gomer Pyle, USMC. The fact that the Pyle character was identified by an interjection that was, by then, over a decade out of currency served only to underscore his Gomer-ness.
(Question for the breakout session: Was Gomer Pyle, with his childlike reliance on a comic-book catchphrase, the very first pop-culture depiction of the comic book geek?)
In 1972, DC brought Captain Marvel back, reproducing — at least for a while — the cartoony, whimsical style of his early adventures. But with a big, lawyered-up asterisk.
DC's competition, Marvel Comics, had spent the years of Cap's disappearance creating their own character called Captain Marvel. So DC decided not to market their new book using its main character's name, settling instead on "SHAZAM!"
And thus, by endeavoring to avoid confusion, they ushered in three decades of utter confusion in which people would mistakenly refer to Cap as Shazam, Captain Shazam, or (personal favorite) Shazam Man.
I should note here that the '70s SHAZAM! book contains one of my favorite comic book panels ever: Dr. Sivana has fired a ray of "concentrated wickedness" straight at the Marvel family as they soar overhead. But not to fear — Cap has reminded his fellow crimebusters that all they need do is "think good thoughts."
The panel in question depicts the three Marvels flying in tight formation toward the craven coward. Above their heads, three thought balloons:
Captain Marvel Jr: "Apple Pie!"
Mary Marvel: "Christmas!"
Captain Marvel (not to be outdone): "Motherhood!"
But it was the '70s, and such flights of fancy would be soon grounded. It didn't take long for Cap and company to start getting shoehorned into "relevant and realistic" storylines, egged on by a craptastic Saturday morning lesson-of-the-week television show that decried, among other things, the evils of daredevil stunts and overprotecting the handicapped. (Both separately and in combination, one assumes.)
DC decided to fold Cap into their existing continuity, which meant allowing some of the more, ah, incongruous elements of his backstory (read: talking tigers, flying bunnies, and hillbilly Billys) to fade away. And then the '90s hit, and things got even grumpier and grousier for Cap, Mary and Captain Marvel, Jr. (who by this time was going by CM3, for no easily defensible reason.)
So continued the downward spiral. Very recently, in the interest of "freshening" these characters (and doing away with the legally pesky "Captain Marvel" name once and for all), DC has sent Cap into retirement, turned Mary Marvel into an evil super-goth, and made Captain Marvel Jr, undergo trials to earn the title of "Shazam" from the "Gods of Magick" or some such thing.
Gotta say: It looks like certain doom for our heroes.
But even as all that hot mess was going on, someone in charge of DC's "all-ages" books — comics aimed squarely at young kids — looked at the character and realized something.
Captain Marvel is the very essence of superhero comics, a pure embodiment of wonder. He's wish fulfillment literally personified — the guy's called into being by a magic word, for pity's sake.
In other words, he's a kid's idea of what a superhero is. He's what other superheroes would be if they, like him, had skipped the '60s altogether, when superheroes began to develop personalities and — as rapidly followed — neuroses. He's what other superheroes would look like, if they weren't so heavily encumbered by the years of backstory and tortured exegesis that we middle-aged comic book fans eagerly pore over like Talmudic scholars.
No wonder the theology of his origin doesn't scan, and he sports a mysterious, quasi-military title, and that he's friends with talking tigers. Captain Marvel is what Billy Batson — and kids like him, if they still exist — imagine, when they image a superhero.
To those of us who argue over whether Spider-Man should have mechanical or organic web-shooters, Captain Marvel says in a loud, clear voice: "Lighten up, nerds, comics should be fun. Hey, look! A bunny in a cape!"
That's what sets him apart. Or at least, it should be.
Enter: Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! The fifth issue hits stores next Wednesday. (Mmmmaybe; the book has been plagued by delays.)
This all-ages series doesn't muck around with established continuity. All the angst and agita of Cap's recent years are dismissed in favor of stories that capture what Captain Marvel's all about. Artist/writer Mike Kunkel illustrates in a frenetic, deceptively kid-like style, loading the page up with expressive art that looks, in some passages, as if it's been scrawled on notebook paper by a hyperactive, albeit freakishly talented, fifth-grader.
It's not a quick read, particularly for a kid's book — Kunkel really piles on the dialogue — but he brings the sense of humor Cap so desperately needs, and his graphomaniacal tendencies makes the gag-per-page ratio healthy indeed.
That level of detail is likely what's caused the book's delays, which made DC decide first to ship it bimonthly, and now to take the highly unusual step of asking the creators of another DC kids book, Tiny Titans, to step in and start trading off issues with Kunkel.
The Tiny Titans book is a much different beast — it's cuter, for one thing, and drawn in a simpler, cleaner style. It'll be interesting to see what creators Art Baltazar and Franco do with Cap and Co., now that DC has finally allotted the character some much needed space to embrace, unabashedly, his inner goofiness.