Wednesday, 15 August 2018

How DC Comics Almost Killed SHAZAM: The History of Captain Marvel

Shazam! is one of my most anticipated comic book movies of 2019, and one I think will offer a much needed change in the DC film series. But it’s shocking to think that it’s taken until now for a Shazam movie to come to fruition, especially when you think of just how long the iconic character has existed for. 

In this article, I want to discuss the behind-the-scenes history of the former-Captain Marvel, the major adversity faced by his creators, and the amazing journey the character undertook in order to get in a position where a live-action adaptation is not just a possibility, but a highly anticipated reality.

Shazam! (2019) is highly anticipated by many

I find it somewhat astounding that Shazam is actually one of the oldest remaining comic book characters still in publication, only outlasted by his fellow DC heroes, Superman and Batman. The character, who originally went by the name Captain Marvel, was created in late 1939 by writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck for Fawcett Comics, who after the breakout success of National Comics’ Superman the previous year, wanted to capitalise on this trend with their own larger-than-life superhero. The result of this was Billy Batson, a young orphaned boy who, when granted the powers of six immortal elders, turned into an incredible superhero. 

Debuting in Issue #2 of Whiz Comics, the character became a huge success immediately, with his debut appearance selling over 500,000 copies, and placing himself alongside Superman and Batman as one of the most popular and beloved comic book characters of the time. 

Cover of Whiz Comics #2, the debut of Captain Marvel/Shazam

Throughout the Golden Age, Shazam maintained this level of popularity, frequently outselling Superman for a notable period of time, and even received the first live action film serial of any superhero, with Republic Pictures producing a 12 episode serial in 1941 entitled Adventures of Captain Marvel, which also garnered much praise. By 1944, Shazam’s solo title, Captain Marvel Adventures, was selling close to 14 million copies a year, a feat so great that the book’s cover page boasted being the ‘largest circulation of any comic magazine’. Captain Marvel was on his way to becoming the most popular superhero in the world… so what happened?

With the incredible level of success the character experienced during the Golden Age of Comics, it’s somewhat strange to think that Shazam! today (while still an incredibly popular character) isn’t viewed by general audiences in quite the same way as Batman and Superman, who have gone on to become the very faces of the entire medium. One of the primary reasons for this was due to the severe legal battles Fawcett faced over the character.  

Captain Marvel/Shazam became one of the most popular heroes in the 1940's

In 1941, DC Comics sued both Fawcett Comics and Republic Pictures for copyright infringement, claiming that Captain Marvel was heavily based on Superman. This legal dispute lasted in litigation for seven years, before finally being taken to court in 1948. The ensuing battle was incredibly complicated and drawn out; originally, the Court ruled in 1951 that while Captain Marvel was an infringement on Superman’s character, DC had actually been negligent in copyrighting several of their Superman newspaper strips, and as a result, argued that their copyright over the character was not entirely valid, meaning that they had little ground for a lawsuit against Fawcett. 

DC appealed this verdict in 1951, with Judge Learned Hand ultimately reversing the Court’s initial decision, arguing that despite DC’s failures to copyright several of the aforementioned comic strips, their copyright over the character was still valid, and Captain Marvel’s status as an infringement upon Superman was reaffirmed. 

Accurate depiction of National Comics Publications, Inc. v. Fawcett Publications, Inc.

It’s important to note that by 1952 (when Judge Hand delivered his verdict), superhero comics had saw their sales rapidly decrease, so much so that Fawcett decided that it was not worthwhile to continue fighting a legal battle against DC, and instead of retrying the case, attempted to settle out of court. Fawcett agree to permanently cease publication of the character and its related properties, alongside paying DC $400,000 in damages. This dealt a heavy blow to the company, ultimately causing Fawcett to shut down its comics division in the autumn of 1953, and Shazam was left in the wilderness to be forgotten. 

By the time the Silver Age of Comics had kicked off in the mid 1960’s, Captain Marvel had evaporated from the public consciousness; the face of a company which barely even existed anymore. DC had been revitalised after the reintroduction of The Flash and Green Lantern, alongside the debut of their Justice League title, Marvel Comics had reemerged from their slumber, introducing the world to the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the X-Men, and as a result, the comic book industry began to experience a new wave of success. And in a somewhat ironic turn of events, it was Marvel’s resurgence during this time that actually led to Shazam’s return. 

Marvel Comics became a major industry force in the 1960's

Formerly known as both Timely and Atlas Comics, Marvel adopted their most well-known name in 1961, 8 years after Captain Marvel was forced to cease publication. With their new identity, Marvel Comics began to trademark many different phrases which included their company name, and since Fawcett Comics were no longer printing new Captain Marvel comics, the trademark to the Captain Marvel name was acquired by Marvel Comics in 1967. 

And in order to retrain said trademark, Marvel had to publish a Captain Marvel title at least once every two years, creating the Kree born superhero Mar-Vell in December of that same year. With Marvel Comics emerging as a major challenger for DC during the 1960’s and beyond, it led DC to begin searching for new heroes to pop sales in the same way Marvel’s new characters had.

Mar-Vell, Marvel's original Captain Marvel

Acclaimed Producer Michael Uslan perhaps describes what happened next best, noting that “In 1972 or 1973, when sales of Superman weren’t so great, DC turned to Fawcett and said, ‘Hey, you can’t do anything with this character without our permission under the terms of the settlement, so how about licensing the character to us, and we’ll publish it?’” 

Fawcett agreed, and the Captain Marvel character was then licensed over to DC Comics, bringing an end to 19 years in the comic book wasteland. However, with the aforementioned copyright obtained by Marvel several years earlier, DC were faced with a dilemma. 

Shazam! #1, dated February 1973

While they could still publish new stories featuring the Captain Marvel character, they were unable to title the book under that name; with DC ultimately choosing to title their new series Shazam!, with DC publisher Carmine Infantino adding the subtitle ‘the original Captain Marvel’. This though was removed by Issue #15 of the series (dated December 1974), after the company received a cease-and-desist letter from Marvel, with further issues of the series instead marketed as “the World’s Mightiest Mortal.”

Regardless, there was a real sense of excitement and anticipation towards Shazam!’s return to print; with comic fans eager to finally read about a character that had become somewhat mythical. Acclaimed comic book writer Mark Waid describes this sentiment, he recalled:

“that was what got me into the character – the hoopla that came with the relaunch of Shazam! in 1972. I had read The Great Comic Book Heroes with the one page on Captain Marvel – legally, that was all you could do! – and I was intrigued by the character… Aside from the character himself, people wanted to see this character who had all this legal stuff behind him and know what all the hype was about.”

And, the first few issues of Shazam! tried to echo this sentiment, appearing almost like a lost series of comics recovered from the Golden Age (partly aided by the return of artist and Captain Marvel co-creator, C.C. Beck). And while this seemed to be a brilliant notion, in execution it did not garner the same success that DC had hoped. 

Despite DC's enthusiastic editorial, Shazam's return wasn't as heroic as many hoped

While the promise of a Golden Age style comic book in the early 1970’s appeared to be a nice change of pace, contemporary comic books had began to cater to a slightly older audience (predominantly college-age readers), with heavy dosage of social commentary and culturally relevant themes; think Marvel’s Spider-Man, or Denny O’Neal (the first writer of this new Shazam! series)’s work on Green Arrow. 

This created a problem; as Michael Uslan describes

 “Captain Marvel got caught in the wrong age at the wrong time, and it was not working for the people who were buying comic books. The comic shops were getting underway, distribution was in flux. It was hard to get comics in the hands of kids who could appreciate a cartoony Billy Batson.”

Failure to adapt to the current climate would’ve made Shazam! come across as very dated and unexciting to contemporary readers, with the novelty of a Golden Age-style comic not bound to last forever. However, C.C. Beck actively fought against any attempts to update the character; Elliot Maggin (who took over writing duties from O’Neal) notes how

“when C.C. Beck wanted to do the series, Carmine Infantino and Julie Schwartz jumped on it, because if we were going to do this book with him, we were going to have to do it fantastically. That was the decision point, when he came on. And then he didn’t work out. He changed scripts – he made changes in storylines that were very strange… He would give us notes on our scripts, telling us how to format our scripts better.” 

Eventually, Beck’s refusal to allow Shazam! to change, mixed with his frequent clashes with DC editorial led to the artist’s exit from the the title by Issue #10 (dated February 1974). Beck remained bitter towards Shazam’s return to print largely until his death in 1989; writing in 1987 that DC had sought to intentionally destroy his character, stating that “they were trying to kill Captain Marvel, bury him, and drive a stake through his lifeless body. Now, at last, they have succeeded.”
Shazam! was cancelled in June 1978 after declining sales

Shazam! had managed to cheat death once, but a second time would’ve been near-impossible to return from. Only four years after Beck’s exit, DC cancelled Shazam! after the release of Issue #35 in June 1978, after a continued decline in sales. As the 1970’s became the 1980’s, there was little talk of DC bringing Captain Marvel back, with the company resigned to the failure of their attempted relaunch. It appeared that Beck’s assertion had came true, Shazam! had been killed off by DC, for the second time in his life. So how did Shazam come back from this second stint in the wasteland, and return to the forefront of the DC universe? It’s simple… they decided to kill their entire universe and virtually start over. 

DC's famous mantra: 'Got a problem? Crisis it!'

In 1985, DC released their limited series Crisis on Infinite Earth: a huge, universe-spanning crossover which promised to change the entire landscape of the DC Comics multiverse. This story ushered in a new age for the company (with most comic books thereafter defined as either “pre-crisis” or “post-crisis” up until the creation of the New 52), and  while the implications of Crisis is a video in itself, one thing it did do was finally fold Shazam! into the main DC universe. 

You see, prior to this mini-series, it had been established that all of Shazam’s stories (both before and after the character had been licensed to DC Comics) didn’t take place on the same Earth as the rest of DC’s titles, instead occurring the parallel Earth-S. In the aftermath of Crisis, where all the alternate versions of Earth were merged, leaving behind one single continuity, Shazam and his related characters found themselves living in a world populated by other heroes, meaning that three decades after he was forced out of publication and discarded as a Superman clone, Shazam now shared the sky with the Man of Steel. 

From this point onwards, DC attempted to rework elements of the Shazam character, in order to make him a perfect fit within their existing comic book universe. The most notable of these changes came in 1987, as part of Roy and Dann Thomas’ revised origin series, Shazam: The New Beginning. In this series, it’s established for the first time that when Billy transforms into Captain Marvel, he retains the mind and personality of his younger self: with this trait becoming a defining part of the Shazam! character. 

Shazam!: The New Beginning (1987)

This idea of building the Shazam character around Billy’s youthful nature was expanded further in the 1990’s. After DC officially purchased the rights to the Shazam! Character from Fawcett, Jerry Ordway penned the graphic novel, The Power of Shazam in 1994. This series placed a heavy focus on Billy’s teenage life, and the relatable problems he faced. As Ordway explained 

“I gave Billy all the problems Peter Parker had, back when he was in high school. That was my goal - if Fawcett hadn’t stopped publishing the book, they would have had to adapt to the times somehow. You would have had your silly period, but I think they would have rolled with it and done what Marvel was doing in the 1960s.”

However, where this story perhaps comes full circle the best was in 1996, when writer Mark Waid (who was first introduced to Shazam upon his initial resurrection by DC Comics) released his seminal graphic novel, Kingdom Come; an out of continuity story detailing a future where in the classic DC heroes were forced into retirement, after the emergence of amoral and dangerously irresponsible new heroes. 

Kingdom Come was as a love letter to classic comics, with Shazam placed centre stage

Kingdom Come served as Waid’s love-letter to the classic Golden Age of comics, in the midst of the overly dark and extreme stories that dominated the 1990’s, and in his mind, Shazam represented the best of what a superhero should be, ultimately having a prominent role in the book. Most notably, the conclusion of Kingdom Come saw a now adult Billy Batson sacrifice himself to save a world at the brink of destruction, with his torn off cape serving as the ultimate memorial for the hero, and a symbol of hope and optimism to the new world, just as it had to legions of comic fans decades prior. 

And now, in 2018, Shazam! has not only been firmly entrenched as a permanent member of the DC universe, but a prominent and central figure within it; after the company’s New 52 relaunch in 2011, Shazam! was granted both a new series (by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank) within the backups to the company’s crown-jewel series: Justice League, and soon after became a member of the iconic superhero team, priming the hero for his return to the big screen some 78 years after the premiere of his breakthrough serial. 

Shazam's New 52 series brought fresh eyes on the classic hero

And it is truly astounding to see how far the character has come, after cheating certain death on more than one occasion, to now being the property DC hopes will win back audiences after the disappointments of their prior entries in their extended cinematic universe. Not only that, but the sheer sense of irony that Shazam, a character known around the world as Captain Marvel, was only brought back to life by the company who spent two decades trying to destroy him as a way to compete with Marvel Comics, makes this one of the greatest comeback stories in the history of comic books.

Despite their early attempts to wipe Shazam’s existence, DC have managed to not only house the character, but truly gift him a new home: one where he’s been able to thrive, succeed, and inspire new generations of fans in the same ways he did to those decades ago. And with his aforementioned big-screen adaptation currently one of the most anticipated superhero movies of the year, I think it’s right to not only acknowledge where Shazam has been and what he overcame, but also celebrate where he can and will go in the future, as long as audiences continue to show their support for this iconic superhero and say the magic word.

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