Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Captain Marvel

Several Comic-book Superheroes.

1. The most important and abidingly popular is the full-faced, wavy-haired US comic-book character who wears a bright red costume with a yellow lightning flash on the chest, plus yellow boots, cuffs and waistband and a short, yellow-edged white cloak. He first appeared in Fawcett's Whiz Comics #1 (1940). CM was created by editor/writer Bill Parker and artist C(harles) C(larence) Beck (1910-1989), and his cleft-chinned, youthful good looks were reputedly based on those of movie actor Fred MacMurray (1907-1991). This first story told of orphaned newsboy Billy Batson's encounter with a mysterious trenchcoated figure who led him to an underground cavern to meet the 3000-year-old Wizard Shazam. "I am old now," says Shazam: "You shall be my successor. Merely by speaking my name, you can become the strongest and mightiest man in the world – Captain Marvel!" Henceforth, each time young Billy said "Shazam" – an acronym signifying Solomon (wisdom), Hercules (strength), Atlas (stamina), Zeus (power), Achilles (courage) and Mercury (speed) – a clap of thunder and an impressive zag of lightning accompanied his Metamorphosis into "the world's mightiest mortal". The great success of the first few issues was significantly boosted when Otto Binder (1911-1975) replaced Parker as scripter, and a new regular comic book, Captain Marvel Adventures (#1-#150 1941-1953), is said to have achieved sales in excess of one million every fortnight. CM gained a whole family, including Mary Marvel (Mary Batson, Billy's sister), Captain Marvel Junior (crippled newsboy Freddy Freeman, who became a younger, blue-garbed superhero on speaking CM's name), three Lieutenants Marvel, Uncle Marvel and even Hoppy, the Marvel bunny, "cloned" from CM in Fawcett's Funny Animals #1 (1942). The CM stories themselves had an appealing whimsy and gentle Satire then unique in comic books.

As CM's popularity grew, Binder and Beck assembled a team of writers (Ron Reed, Bill Woolfolk, Bob Kaniger, etc.) and artists (Pete Costanza, Chic Stone, Kurt Schaffenberger, Al Falagy, Mac Raboy, etc.) whom they encouraged to maintain a consistent image of the character. CM later featured in numerous other comic books, including America's Greatest Comics (1941-1943), All Hero Comic (1943) and Marvel Family (1945-1954).

This was the version of CM who appeared in the serial movie Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941; dir John English, William Witney; 12 episodes; b/w). In this kitsch outing CM is in Thailand, where he destroys a baddie called The Scorpion.

2. In 1941 National Periodical Publications (later DC Comics) brought a lawsuit against Fawcett, claiming CM infringed their Superman copyright. This dragged on throughout the 1940s until, for financial reasons, Fawcett capitulated in 1953. The UK reprints by L Miller & Co had, however, been enormously popular, and this company decided to continue independent publication, with artwork by the Mick Anglo studio and giving the character a new name (Marvelman), a smart crewcut hairstyle and a new magic word, "Kimota" ("Atomik" backwards). Artists on this feature included Ron Embleton, Don Lawrence (1928-2003) and George Stokes.

3. 2 was resurrected with an adult storyline by Alan Moore for Quality Comics's Warrior, and became the subject of legal dispute when Marvel Comics objected to the use of the word "Marvel" in the title. Marvelman, renamed "Miracleman", was subsequently published unchallenged in the USA by Eclipse from 1981.

4. Two publishing projects (see also 5) in the 1960s served to apprise the two leading comics publishers in the USA, DC and Marvel, of an odd dilemma. A new superhero with the same name was introduced by MF Enterprises in Captain Marvel (#1-#4 1966) and subsequently Captain Marvel Presents the Terrible Five (#1-#4 1966-1967). These publications contained a number of scurrilous rip-offs of established comics characters, and DC took legal action.

5. Meanwhile, the Milson Publishing Company's comics arm, Lightning Comics, attempted to revive the CM concept in 1967 by commissioning Binder and Beck to create Fatman, The Human Flying Saucer (#1-#3 1967) in which a magic word turns a boy into a UFO. This did not last long. DC National's dilemma was that they had assumed ownership of a character whose name included the word "Marvel", so could not sue.

6. Marvel Comics were the first to respond to 5, creating a completely different CM, a warrior-scientist from a distant planet, in Marvel Superheroes #12 (1968), on the assumption that DC could not publish the original CM without causing undesirable confusion.

7. DC Comics could not prevent this because they had never actually published a CM but, not wishing to relinquish their entitlement to do so, they created a new comic book, Shazam (1972-1978), which featured the original CM in new stories; this spawned a live-action tv series, Shazam (which ran 1974-1977 and starred Jackson Bostwick and, later, John Davey as CM), and a brief animated tv series, Shazam (1981).

8. DC began publishing the original Fawcett material in The Shazam Archives (graph coll 1992). To date (1996) only one volume has appeared. A prestigious hardcover publication, The Power of Shazam (graph 1994) by Gerry Ordway (1957-    ), which retold the origin story, showed considerable respect for Beck's original and foreshadowed a new monthly series. [RT]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.