Feb 25, 2019

The Strange Case of the Names of Shazam and Captain Marvel

This is an updated version of an article I wrote in 2012.

This March and April, we're seeing two movies come out. One is entitled Captain Marvel, featuring Marvel's soon-to-be-flagship superheroine, and the other one is entitled Shazam.

It can be really confusing, especially for longtime fans, because "Shazam" is the magic word and the catchphrase of that character, not his name. But DC has a logical explanation for at least making this big move, which is that that's what people who don't read comics know him as anyway. His name, historically, has been Captain Marvel.

Now, creatively, it's a creative decision that will forever bug me to call him "Shazam" (we may as well change the name of The Who song from "Baba O'Riley" to "Teenage Wasteland"), but it's difficult to argue in terms of marketing (I would bet that the song would increase downloads if the name were changed from "Baba O'Riley" to "Teenage Wasteland").

But how did we get here? I'm glad you asked. Would you believe me if I told you that this is all the fault of a character you've never heard of, from a publisher you've never heard of?

When Captain Marvel was first created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck, he was slated to appear in a Fawcett Comics anthology called Flash Comics, to debut in February 1940. Because Jay Garrick, the original Flash, showed up in All-American Publications' (one of the companies that would merge to become the modern-day DC Comics) Flash Comics, Fawcett changed its title to Whiz Comics. Also, Beck never specified Captain Marvel's color scheme and left it up to the color separator, so there is an alternate universe where the Power of Shazam made its debut in this issue and looks like this:

Check out Marvel Family Web for more on this.

Now, here's another wrinkle in that Maybe Machine: the original name for The World's Mightiest Mortal? Captain Thunder. Not Captain Marvel. Captain Thunder. But as with "Flash Comics," Fawcett again got beaten to the punch, this time by a publisher called Fiction House, who had a character named Captain Terry Thunder of the British Army.

According to ComicVine, this guy appeared in all of 19 issues. 19!

And that's why The Big Red Cheese was named Captain Marvel, and it was as Captain Marvel that he became the bestselling hero of The Golden Age. And since you are all faithful readers of The Comics Cube (you are, right?), you'll also know that Fawcett and Captain Marvel folded in the 50s from reading this article. Which you already did, right?

All right, so Fawcett stopped publishing Captain Marvel in 1953. Thirteen years later, in 1966, publisher Myron Fass of M.F. Enterprises (Guess what M.F. stands for.) got legendary creator Carl Burgos to tell a story about an android who can detach his limbs from his body with the magic word, "Split!" That hero's name would be... Captain Marvel.

He also has a young friend named Billy Baxton.
It's not a ripoff because it's not spelled "Batson."
No, really.

That's when Stan Lee realized that the "Captain Marvel" trademark was up for grabs, and that it should belong to, you know, Marvel, for obvious reasons. So in 1968, Lee and artist Gene Colan put out the first issue of Captain Marvel.

Captain Mar-Vell was a warrior from the war-loving alien race known as the Kree. Over time he'd evolve into one of Marvel's most pivotal and symbolic heroes, if not ever developing into one of the biggest in terms of mainstream recognition. Here's his most popular costume.

Side note: I hate him. He's boring and sanctimonious.
Also a side note: I love the Silver Surfer.

This was enough for Marvel to secure the trademark to the name "Captain Marvel," which meant that DC could not use the name in promotional material. However, since Fawcett still owned the copyright to Captain Marvel, they could use the name in the stories themselves. This is why Cap's books have been called some iteration of "SHAZAM" ever since DC licensed the character in 1973.



Note that for the 1973, they were able to put "The Original Captain Marvel" under the title, but with no trademark sign beside the name. This goes against the conventional wisdom that they cannot use the name on the covers. I asked Brian Cronin why this was, and basically, DC got away with it for a year before the tagline changed. It should be noted that after the 1973 series, that first issue of The Power of Shazam  in 1994 is the only time I've seen it done since, so I'm assuming they walk a legal tightrope whenever they do it. I'm not sure. If anyone wants to clear up these details, please feel free to do so in the comments section.

Marvel, meanwhile, must continue to publish a Captain Marvel comic every few years, or its trademark will lapse. There's no rule as to the intervals, but here's a list courtesy of Brian Cronin's Comic Book Legends Revealed:

They published the adventures of the Kree warrior, Captain Marvel, from 1968 until 1979 (the last few years as a bi-monthly).

Then the Death of Captain Marvel in 1982.

Then the mini-series the LIFE of Captain Marvel (reprinting his most significant achievements) in 1985.

In 1982, Marvel introduced a new Captain Marvel (as mentioned last week), and in 1989, when no Captain Marvel book had been released for awhile, suddenly, she had a one-shot!

In 1994, once again, she had a one-shot!

In 1995, the first Captain Marvel’s son had an ongoing series for less than a year.

In 1997, Marvel published an Untold Tale of Captain Marvel.

In 2000, Peter David gave Marvel’s son another boost, with a series that lasted until 2004.

The one being called Captain Marvel now is Carol Danvers, and what a long road it took to get here.

Carol Danvers debuted in 1977 as a spinoff of Captain Mar-Vell, wearing a similar costume, but named "Ms. Marvel." For those unaware of the context, "Ms." was a feminist label in those days, and to be called "Ms." symbolized that a woman didn't belong to a man. Carol Danvers has always been a feminist. She was created by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan.

What followed was a soap operatic whirlwind even by comic book standards. Carol joined the Avengers, got a new costume (probably her most famous) courtesy of Dave Cockrum:

Cockrum also designed the Phoenix costume, hence the similarities

And then the worst storyline ever happened, which I will not go into here (here's a link to it), which led to Carol losing her powers to Rogue of the X-Men, Carol leaving the Earth and becoming a new superhero named Binary, Carol returning to Earth and becoming an alcoholic under the name Warbird, and finally, Carol getting her own series again in 2006.

The promotion to Captain Marvel happened in 2012, and a year later they debuted a new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, the company's first Muslim character to headline her own comic book. Kamala grew up idolizing Carol.

An important thing to remember here is, Marvel did not get the trademark on Captain Marvel back in 1967 to intentionally screw over Fawcett and DC Comics. As Kurt Busiek points out, in 1967, Fawcett had abandoned those trademarks for 14 years. And it would be another 10 years before DC had the license to use them. Short of actually buying Captain Marvel the character, the only way to get the trademark is to create a new character. (As Busiek points out, however, a case could be made that Marvel was trying to stick it to MF Enterprises, but considering that MF was infringing on all sorts of trademarks anyway — they had a character called The Bat, for crying out loud — I'm gonna give the moral high ground to anyone who's not MF here.)

So it was, since 1973, DC has been trying to figure out a way to not use the name "Captain Marvel" for Billy Batson's alter-ego. In a 1974 issue of Superman (no. 276), they experimented with a Captain Marvel analogue hero named... Captain Thunder!

Willie Fawcett was a boy given powers by a shaman, and all he had to do was say "Thunder" to turn into Captain Thunder.

Learn more about this issue here.

Captain Thunder was also the name used by Roy Thomas and Dan Newton for their reworking of the Shazam concept in the early 80s. This was a proposed treatment that never went through, which had the exact same basic concept, except with the big change of making Billy and Cap black.

Again, thanks to Brian Cronin.

(Roy Thomas wouldn't be denied, however — a few years later, he'd create Captain Thunder and Blue Bolt with Dann Thomas and Dell Barras. I have this issue. It's pretty good.)

Most recently, in DC's Flashpoint in 2011, the alternate universe featured a darker version, also named Captain Thunder.

So there's been precedent for changing Cap's name to one that doesn't involve the word "Marvel" for almost forty years at this point. Now they're pretty much giving up and they're just gonna call him "Shazam." Again, marketingwise, it's probably the best decision, but creatively, it's... kinda stupid. Anyway —

This leads us to a few What If scenarios, so let me address them here:

What if Marvel had been the ones to license Captain Marvel? Marvel didn't have to create a new character to retain the copyright. They could have licensed The World's Mightiest Mortal and gone with him instead, most likely integrating him into the Marvel Universe. He'd have been in the hands of Stan Lee and the Marvel Bullpen (Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were going or had gone by then), so could it have worked?

I don't think so. See, people say Captain Marvel isn't as adaptable as some of his Golden Age contemporaries such as Superman, but the reasoning for that is twofold, from where I sit. First, Captain Marvel was one of the most acclaimed — that's not the same as popular — characters of the Golden Age, so it is, by nature, held to a higher standard. It's the same reason that Green Arrow — a character who was never really praised highly in the Golden Age — is easier to develop and adapt to modern times than someone like Plastic Man — a character whose stories were and still are held in high acclaim.

The other reason for Cap's being difficult to adapt is simply this: he disappeared. Unlike Superman and Batman, who were able to slowly adapt to changing times, Captain Marvel was not. So if you bring him back, you're stuck in a catch-22: either you adapt him and get criticized for changing him too radically, or you bring him back from where the Golden Age left off and then he's outdated. There have been all of three interpretations I can think of that have lived up to it. It's hard. (Here's a ranking of all DC's takes on Shazam.)

One thing though that would have changed completely, which would be big for kids who grew up in the 80s. If DC didn't get Captain Marvel, we wouldn't have gotten He-Man. You see, in the 70s, Lou Scheimer produced two shows: Shazam and Mighty Isis.

You know what Lou Scheimer got a hold of a decade later? That's right, He-Man.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe just started out as a Conan the Barbarian property, changed for the toyline. It wasn't until Scheimer got onto the property that he got that whole "Young prince changes to a mighty hero with magic words and a bolt of lightning" thing going.

So there. If DC didn't get Captain Marvel, you would have had a different childhood. If you were a child of the 80s. Which I was.

What if DC had gone with Roy Thomas's Captain Thunder? When this article first came out in 2012, I said:

Making Captain Marvel an African-American may have given Captain Marvel a nice shot in the arm back in the day, especially as that was the era of "relevance." But ultimately, I don't think it would have mattered. I'm going to have Dream of the Endless say it for me:

Even if Roy Thomas and Don Newton came out with an excellent story, it would have stood the test of time as an excellent story, but Caucasian Billy Batson/Captain Marvel would have been brought back to the forefront. It's the same reason why Hal Jordan is Green Lantern again and why Barry Allen is the Flash again. (Remember, Alan Scott and Jay Garrick were never in cartoons or serials, while Hal and Barry were both on Superfriends, so they are the iconic versions of those characters and what they will keep reverting to).
And I now don't think it's that cut and dried. I was wrong on the 80s being the era of "relevance," because, quite honestly, every era is the era of relevance. Superhero comics from the very beginning when Superman was fighting corrupt politicians and Captain America was punching out Hitler have always commented on the world around them. (Side note: I actually curated an exhibit in college showing how comics have reflected the world around them as they've evolved.) While I think the classic version of Captain Marvel/Shazam would have always been the template, the question of what will live on in public consciousness will have been what was the most successful.

A few years ago, The Rock was cast to play Black Adam, Captain Marvel's arch-nemesis. My reaction was this: "Oh man, I wish he'd been cast to play Captain Marvel." Captain Marvel is a heroic man, the ideal adult that a child would wish to be like. What child would ever complain about being the Rock?

And finally, what if he had been called Captain Thunder in the first place? Would DC have been able to market him more strongly since 1973? Well, it's possible, but as far as I'm concerned, I don't think there would have been much of a difference. Again, Captain Marvel had a cartoon in the 80s — I knew he was Captain Marvel with the magic word "Shazam" when I was four, and I don't think it's a hard concept to get. In other words, I think the problem with the name is small, and a good story is a good story, and calling the book Shazam makes as much sense as calling Superman's and Batman's books Action Comics and Detective Comics. I don't think the negative effect of not being able to call him Captain Marvel is so big that it can't be done away with with the proper amount of marketing.

So no, I don't think calling him "Shazam" is going to make the character that much more marketable, except that calling him "Captain Marvel" might just remind viewers that that other Captain Marvel exists. In other words, the existing fanbase of Shazam, Captain Marvel, and the other Captain Marvel is split over a small bit of trivia and you just read this entire article, all because this guy exists.

You have to admit, when you think of it that way, it's kinda funny.

But most importantly, the important thing is to be civil, and I'll let Zachary "Shazam" Levi tell it here:

You can like both movies, folks. Or you can like one and not tear the other one down. It's okay. Personally, I'll be going to see both.

As a bonus, here's an image for you. Don't ask me where it's from. I just got it off of here. Here's Waverider showing us DC's Cap as the other Captains I mentioned.

And before we end, let me leave you with this house ad from Lightning Comics.

Captain Shazam? Really, guys?
Read more here.
It's a good thing that never happened, because that'd have made things even more confusing.

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