Created by Bill Parker and C. C. Beck
Written by Otto Binder
His name and catchphrase are an important part of comic book history, but the original Captain Marvel has been overlooked by even those who love comics. The Big Red Cheese was something that was far different from the other comics of the time, and something that has been completely lost today.
Everyone knows his origin story: Billy Batson, a lame newspaper boy, is taken into a mysterious cave by a wizard and taught a magic word: Shazam. This changes him into the superhero, who then goes to fight crime and evil villains. Saying “Shazam” again would turn him back to Billy. He first appeared in Fawcett’s Whiz Comics* in 1939.
But the Captain was different from any other superhero of the time (or since). It was more cartoony, and the captain really acted like a 12-year-old boy.
Most of the stories were written by Otto Binder. Binder had been a veteran of science fiction pulps** and he worked to create a mythology that was both fun and entertaining. As time went on, he added an entire mythology of characters, becoming the Marvel Family. These included:
- Mary Marvel -- Billy’s sister, who turned out to have the same magic word.
- Captain Marvel, Jr. – Freddy Freeman, whose magic words were “Captain Marvel”*** and who wore a blue uniform.
- Uncle Marvel – Dudley H. Dudley, a chubby old man who discovered Mary Marvel’s secret. He claimed to be her uncle, and helped them fight crime, mostly as comic relief. When he tried to use superpowers, it turned out his shazambago was acting up and nothing worked. The rest saw through the fraud, but humored him.
- Hoppy the Marvel Bunny – the funny animal version of the family, who showed up in Fawcett’s animal comics.
- Tawky Tawny – a tiger (and natty dresser) who had been given a potion that gave him the power of speech.
Of course, you can’t be a superhero without an arch enemy, and the Captain’s was world’s maddest mad scientist, Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, a bald evil genius out to rule the world.**** Sivana was sometimes assisted by his son and daughter, Sivana, Jr. and Georgia; there were two other children, Beautia and Magnificus who worked on the side of good.
Other villains included Captain Nazi, Black Adam, and Ibac (the evil version of the Marvel superpowers). A favorite of mine was Mister Mind, and evil worm from another planet.
The stories were usually more cartoony than the more serious superhero strips. Beck’s art was deceptively simple, with bright colors and large swaths of color. It worked well: in the 1940s, Captain Marvel was the most popular comic book out there, and was the first to be made into a movie serial.
But all was not well. In 1941, National Periodicals sued Fawcett, claiming that Captain Marvel infringed on Superman. The court ruled in 1948 that it did not infringe, but National (later DC) appealed and the court found in 1952 that some elements of the stories did infringe. And sent it back to make a final determination.
By this time, though, Superhero comics – and comics in general – were losing popularity. Captain Marvel was selling at only half its peak, and, in 1953, Fawcett settled out of court and let the character die. The agreement forbid Fawcett from publishing comics, so they licensed it to DC. Unfortunately, in the meantime, Marvel Comics had created their own Captain Marvel character. DC had to name the revived version “Shazam,” though the character was referred to in the book as Captain Marvel, and they were able to reprint many of the old Beck and Binder stories. Eventually, the character moved away from the original concept.
Of course, comics and their characters constantly evolve, so one wouldn’t expect the Captain to remain as he was. But the original version is one of the greats of the comic book world.
*Founded by Bill Fawcett. Fawcett made a name for himself for a magazine that everyone who has ever seen The Music Man has heard of: Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang. “Whiz Comics” refers to that.
**Originally co-written with his brother Earl, and billed as Eando Binder. Their “I, Robot” (no connection to Asimov) was considered a landmark in the field.
***Making him incapable of saying his superhero name, or that of the Captain without changing. “Shazam” wasn’t used because the publisher felt he should be promoting the Big Red Cheese.
****He appeared before Lex Luthor, and Luthor wasn’t bald in the beginning.