Who's Captain Marvel?

Who's This? The Big Red Cheese.

The facts: Captain Marvel, he who may no longer use his name, was created by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker for Fawcett Comics' Whiz Comics #2 (February 1940). Though on the surface an analog of Superman with a more fanciful origin, he soon became a bigger seller than Superman, though perhaps the Man of Steel held more sway thanks to other media. Captain Marvel nevertheless starred in his own serial in 1941, the first superhero to do so. DC Comics famously sued for years over copyright infringement and Fawcett stopped publishing comics as a result in 1953 (including comics in which Cap, his sister Mary, and Captain Marvel Jr. appeared, which was most of the company's output), eventually licensing the character TO DC in 1972. But because by that time Marvel had its own Captain Marvel, the Big Red Cheese (as he was dubbed by his archenemy Sivana) couldn't star in a book by that name. "Shazam!" (and variations thereon), was born, though the character's name wouldn't be changed until the 21st Century.  For a couple decades, despite three seasons of a television show and a cartoon in the 80s, DC itself didn't know what to do with the character, keeping him on Earth-S at first (low sales ensued), and trying to launch him back after Legends (didn't work, didn't stick around the Justice League for long either). In the 90s, Jerry Ordway created the best reinvention in The Power of Shazam, after which there were some all-ages, out-of-continuity stories of note, but in the mainstream DCU, it seemed like Billy had been tainted by the success of Kingdom Come (where Cap becomes villainous), and well, I don't really want to talk about what forms the Marvel Family took after that, if it's ok with you.
How you could have heard of him: He's stupidly called Shazam now, and he's had a movie under that name, and continues to show up in the comics, most recently in a mini-series and in Teen Titans Academy.
Example story: Captain Marvel Adventures #148 (September 1953) "Captain Marvel Battles the World" by Otto Binder and C.C. Beck
This oft-reprinted story published in Fawcett's last year is told from the planet Earth's own point of view, I think a good sampling of the "whimsy" that marked the series and generated its popularity. The Earth tells us it erupts volcanoes when it's angry, cools itself with wind when it's hot, etc., but at this point, it's rightly peeved that we're puncturing its skin to drill for oil and decides to teach us a lesson. The Moon, equally sentient, takes notice.
Well, that's a nice little allegory for climate change... Tune your radios to WHIZ to hear Billy Batson reports on it, like he's living in 2021. CAN the "World's Mightiest Mortal" help?!
At that rate, it's gonna take forever to alleviate the heat (and to be fair, he's just destroying public property and increasing the humidity). Maybe some terraforming?
Instead of causing the apocalypse, Cap's ball of ice actually does cool down the planet, but the Earth isn't out for the count! It starts smashing "ice caps" at the South Pole so that the noise makes buildings vibrate apart miles away. Captain Marvel to the rescue! He COULD go tell his writer that that's not what an ice cap is, but instead...
Felt! No one, especially not the Earth, saw this coming. The Moon laughs at Earth, which makes our dear old planet break South America loose so it will swing around and slam into North America. Uhm... Cap plunges into the lava flow left in South Am's wake!
That's the Strength of Hercules and THEN SOME. People used to whine about Superman pushing planets around, but with Captain Marvel, it works better. It's easier to accept such shenanigans when the powers are derived through magic than science. Anyway, the only way Earth is gonna be placated is if a human being actually saves it. Enter a rogue comet. Cap uses a rock full of plutonium to blow it up before it hits the planet, and then it's up to the Moon to make a big speech.
I'm not sure anyone learned their lesson - and Billy's gone and misgendered the Earth - but hey, all's well that ends well, at least until we wreck the planet for good.

Whether it's the magical origins, or the very bright costume, or the fact that Captain Marvel is pure wish fulfillment for boy Billy Batson, this is a character that works well with fantasy and whimsy. Which is probably why he's been hard to insert into mainstream DC continuity, especially as that's gotten darker and darker until it hit peak heavy metal iconography in the 2020s. And it certainly doesn't help that he can't use his own name because no one was around to protect the copyright in the '60s. Perhaps this is as good a reason as any to keep "Earth-S" alive, and indeed, the best Captain Marvel comics of recent years have been Convergence and Multiversity where he could be done in the right tone without it seeming at odds with the rest of the line.

Who's Next?
The Little Blue Cheese.


Unknown said...

So good! I agree the whimsical, not-too-serious tone is what makes a good Captain Marvel story. I hope we get to see some more stories like that in the future!


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