Say the magic word

Spider-Man 3 opening

Lots of talk about Spider-Man 3 today and rightly so. I’ll leave it to the other guy, though.


In that ever ensuing landfill of comic book movies, another much-loved franchise is being turned into a soon-to-be-released-on DVD movie, Shazam!
When I say Shazam! I mean Captain Marvel, the much-loved vintage comic character created by C.C. Beck and published by Fawcett Publications from the 1930’s to the 50’s. Captain Marvel was really Billy Batson, a down on his luck orphan boy who met a wizard in a cave at the end of a magic train ride… no really.

Shazam was revealed to be the magic word that would transform Billy Batson into the ‘world’s mightiest mortal’ possessing the 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.

The series featured incredibly inventive and silly ideas including the mad scientist Sivana, the crazed worm that wore a voice box Mr. Mind and many others not forgetting Captain Nazi. Not all the mad creations were evil, however. My favorite was the walking talking tiger ‘Mr. Tawky Tawney.’ The vocally-gifted tiger was hilarious and interesting at the same time and added to the quality of magic that the Captain Marvel comics had.

Based on a more direct and whimsical version of wish fulfillment, Captain Marvel was a gigantic success at the time, resulting in an amazing serial Adventures of Captain Marvel that still bears up today (witness the home-made trailer by boxing4free.)

The series also drew the attention of National Comics (now DC Comics) to sue the company for using the idea of Superman.

This lawsuit so hampered the comic that it dwindled away forgotten until the 1970’s.

God… help… us.

Nivek Ogre said it best: “Winnebego-induced Tapeworm.”

In any case, DC had purchased the character and by gum they were going to use him! Enter several attempts to relaunch the comic book now called Shazam! because Marvel Comics copyrighted the name ‘Captain Marvel.’ The series by E! Nelson Bridwell and Otto Binder is incredibly fanciful and silly for the most part. It was recently collected as Showcase Presents: Shazam! and I highly recommend it. It won’t change your life, but it’s good clean fun. Fawcett’s Captain Marvel is a silly comic book. Making it anything else would be a gross misunderstanding of the character, surely.

In any case, the character of Captain Marvel floundered about in the ether of comics under the good intentions of my comic book hero Jerry Ordway and others with series such as Power of Shazam.

Many eagle-eyed readers would spot Captain Marvel strolling through comics like Legends or the Keith Giffen Justice League series.

But his big splash came in the mini-series that redefined modern comics in ways that we hadn’t seen since Dark Knight Returns.

Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come saw a future world where the heroes of old had gone into hiding and young punks ran the streets. The hero of the day was no longer Superman but instead a brutal character ‘Magog’ who killed villains without remorse. In this series Captain Marvel duked it out with Superman in an eye-popping fight.

Side-note: The result of this series was a step back from the then ‘edgy’ style of comics and back into a realm of near-nostalgia. It was this era that gave us remarkable series such as Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, a comic book that created a beautifully sculpted world that was both familiar and new at the same time. The adoration of the super hero became the new fad… for a little while anyway.

The fight in Kingdom Come not only cemented the Captain Marvel in the minds of comic readers who vaguely knew of him, but also later influenced Bruce Timm and friends in the incredible Justice League Unlimited cartoon ‘Clash.’

In recent years these attempts to sell Captain Marvel got more desperate, resulting in a trio of restarts and a mini-series modernization of a classic Cap story by Jeff (Bone) Smith, “Shazam! and the Monster Society of Evil.”

I don’t mean to disrespect these series, but my money goes to Jim Krueger, Alex Ross and Doug Braithwaite’s ‘Justice.’. In this series which is a thinly veiled dark and intense rendition of Challenge of the Super Friends we see Captain Marvel in all his glory. Aside from all that, it’s an amazing series and lots of fun. Krueger is an inspired writer and this is nothing short of another marvelous work from the co-creator of Earth X and The Foot Soldiers.

Now this movie is being developed.

It’s hard to tell what (if anything) the end result will be. Word on the street is that the producer is a fan of the old CC Beck comics, but screenwriter John August (of “Go,” both “Charlie’s Angels” films, “Big Fish,” “Corpse Bride,” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” fame) seems reluctant to go down that path, instead looking to modern interpretations seen in Judd Winnick’s Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder Trials of Shazam (beautifully drawn by Howard Porter) and Geoff Johns’ JSA: Black Reign and 52.
I’m not sure what to make of any of this just yet. I’ve heard that next year will be a major push to make Captain Marvel a household name (though… not legally since Marvel owns the name) and to make the phrase Shazam! more popular than when Gomer Pyle shouted it. These plans include a cartoon, a toy line and of course, a new franchise of movies.

But in this mad dash to recreate the character and introduce him to a whole new audience, I just hope the creators don’t lose touch with what made Captain Marvel so cool and fun.

And if I hear Mr. Tawky Tawney‘s name spoken in vain one more time I’ll go crazy. Seriously, done right this character would be everyone’s favorite memory from the movie. Look at Kurt Busiek‘s Loony Leo character from Asto City for inspiration, John… at least give it a think… no?


Oh, and Happy Free Comic Books Day!

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