In 1939, CC Beck created the World’s Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel. Young orphan Billy Batson obtained the heroic abilities of mythological figures through the magic word, Shazam. In a flash of magical lightning, Batson was replaced by the brawny adult form of a superheroic powerhouse capable of astonishing deeds. It was a clever idea that utilized an innocent dream-like logic along with the popular long underwear comic book character. It’s so embedded in its time that it fails to translate properly to the modern reader. But at the time, Captain Marvel was big dollars for publisher Fawcett Comics. National Comics (later DC) sued Fawcett for infringement on their headliner Superman and while they lost, Fawcett paid a heavy price in legal fees, leading to an eventual closure of its publishing endeavors.
But comic books are a strange and unusual medium that has many twists and turns leading to DC Comics becoming the home of Captain Marvel, then printed under the title ‘Shazam’ as Marvel Comics had copyrighted the name in the interim. But what worked at Fawcett proved problematic at DC.
Several attempts have been made to update the Captain Marvel for a new audience with mixed results. In animation, he is s surefire hit (as seen in Young Justice and Justice League Unlimited). A colorful and brave defender of the innocent, he seems too good to be true and is often in over his head.
In the 1970’s, a totally bizarre live action Saturday morning TV series was launched pairing an older Billy Batson up with a mentor named… Mentor. They cruised the country in a Winnebago looking for trouble and righting wrongs.
There have been many attempts at getting a feature film off the ground for Shazam, but nothing has come of it. From what I have read, no one seems eager to embrace the unique innocence and fantasy of the core concept. To clarify, Billy Batosn got his powers by wandering into a subway station and ending up on a ‘magic train’ that transported him to the Rock of Eternity, where the wizard Shazam waited to bestow 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 on him. Joined by Captain Marvel Junior, Miss Marvel, a talking tiger named Mister Tawky Tawny, Batson battled such weird foes as Mister Mind, a small worm that wore glasses and talked through a miniature radio.
Captain Marvel is all about the purity of youth in a dark world that no longer understands it. It’s about adventure and wonder without the angst and drama found in most books on the shelf. That may be why it is so hard for creators in the comic book industry and Hollywood to grasp what it’s all about.
But don’t let that stop you from exploring one of the lesser known heroes out there from a different time. I’m not knocking Scott Snyder’s Batman or Bendis’ X-Men which I enjoy, but surely there exists room for variety in comics so that they can share some shelf space, right?