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411 Comics Showcase: Captain Marvel

July 15, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard


Just to make things perfectly clear, this column is not about Carol Danvers, the former Ms. Marvel who will be headlining Captain Marvel in 2019. While there is nobody more excited about that film that yours truly, I would just feel wrong spotlighting her before writing about Billy Batson. Carol will have her day on this column someday, rest assured.

Captain Marvel was created by writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck, and debuted in Whiz Comics #2 in February of 1940. Billy Batson was a young kid selling newspapers until he ran into an old wizard named Shazam, who granted him the ability to turn into the World’s Mightiest Mortal, a superpowered adult known as Captain Marvel. All that was necessary for the switch was for Billy to exclaim “Shazam!” and he would be magically transformed. Published by Fawcett Comics, Captain Marvel was one of the most popular comics of the 1940’s, outselling both Superman and Batman for a considerable time.

“Shazam” also tied into Captain Marvel’s powers; each letter stood for a different mythological figure and a corresponding ability. Captain Marvel had The Wisdom of Solomon (from the Bible), the Strength of Hercules, the Stamina of Atlas, the Power of Zeus (lightning magic), the Speed of Achilles, and the Speed of Mercury (also known as Hermes in Greek Mythology). I’ve always enjoyed this power set, and while Billy is referred to as Captain Marvel throughout this article, I did find it fitting when DC renamed him as Shazam when they reintroduced him in The New 52. It’s the catchiest and most unique aspect of the character.

The appeal of Captain Marvel comics is very simple; while Superman, Captain America, and Batman were extremely popular, they were intended to be adults who were setting examples for their readers, who were primarily children. Billy Batson was a child, and unlike Robin, he wasn’t a sidekick taking orders from an older, more experienced hero. Billy Batson was able to magically become an all-powerful adult and could solve problems on his own terms. Is it a childish fantasy? Of course, but that’s applicable to all superhero comics. But Captain Marvel may have been the purest expression of that power fantasy for children.

This distinction as the first child superhero is perhaps the most important aspect of Captain Marvel’s character, at least in terms of the history of the genre. Before there were Teen Titans, before there were X-Men, before there was Spider-Man, and even before there was a Robin, there was Billy Batson. His almost unparallelled success proved that not every superhero had to be an adult; the kids could play too.

“Play” is also a key word; Captain Marvel’s adventures had a decidedly different tone from anything else going in comics at the time. Batman’s early comics were gritty crime stories with roots in pulp novels. Wonder Woman, strange as her comics were at the time, was primarily a symbol of female power and tied to gender politics. Captain America was fighting in World War II, and even Superman was a symbol of the average American citizen standing up against crime and oppression in the wake of the Great Depression. These are all pretty serious subjects. But Whiz Comics provided fun, bizarre fantasy and readers ate it up.

While the fantastic adventures of Captain Marvel were certainly less serious than most of his counterparts, they were also more innovative and pushed the envelope of what could be done in the genre. It wasn’t unusual for Billy to have to fight a dragon in space; these stories set the stage for the Silver Age of Comics. Characters like Dr. Strange, The Fantastic Four and even the silver age versions of The Flash and Green Lantern all owe a debt to Captain Marvel for opening the door for more surreal, unusual storytelling.

Another major innovation to come from Whiz Comics was the Marvel Family: Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel, Jr. (and several other sidekicks). Before Supergirl was flying around (and largely controlled by Superman), Mary Marvel was working together with Captain Marvel and starring in her own comic. Captain Marvel Jr. was a crippled child who also got to work with them; for the 1940’s including women and the disabled was an admirable attempt at diversity, and the Marvel Family encouraged kids to get along and make friends.

This innocent, happy-go-lucky tone hasn’t exactly endured over time, and while Captain Marvel was certainly an institution in the 1940’s, the entire genre of superheroes fell out of favor with readers after World War II. Combined with an exhausting lawsuit with DC (who claimed that Captain Marvel was too similar to Superman), Fawcett eventually decided to cut their losses and the Marvel Family stopped being published in 1954, with the promise never to publish the character again.

Fortunately, after the Silver Age of comics re-established the popularity of superheroes, Captain Marvel was destined to make a return. Carmine Infantino was responsible for introducing the character into the DC canon in the 1970’s, and Captain Marvel first met and worked alongside Superman. He’s also infamously battled with Superman and done rather well for himself; he’s got power, stamina and speed, but he also has magic, something that Superman has always been vulnerable too. Since coming over to DC, the distinguishing traits have been accentuated more than the similarities; Billy’s youth differentiates him from Superman and that has been his defining characteristic since.

While he’s never quite reached the heights of the Golden Age, Billy Batson and his alter ego has managed to develop a bit of a cult following among comic book readers. Some see him as a more vulnerable, more entertaining version of Superman, while others appreciate the more innocent tone of his stories in an age where most comic books are usually pretty dark. I’ve always liked Captain Marvel/Shazam and consider him one of the most underrated characters in comics. But while that is ultimately just an opinion, one cannot deny that Captain Marvel is one of the most important characters in comics history. He’s worth keeping around, worth studying about, and I’m glad that his legacy has been able to endure.

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