Back Issues: Formerly known as Captain Marvel

AP Photo Zachary Levi, left, and Jack Dylan Grazer in a scene from “Shazam!”

After “Captain Marvel” took the box office by storm last month, Warner Brothers is hoping lightning strikes twice as “Shazam!” premieres today, starring… Captain Marvel?

He goes by Shazam now, and in his early days, his greatest foe wasn’t on the comic book page but in the courtroom.

The original Captain Marvel first appeared in 1940’s “Whiz Comics” #2, from Fawcett Publications. His alter ego was Billy Batson, an orphaned boy making ends meet by selling newspapers until the wizard Shazam chooses him as his new champion.

The wizard’s name is an acronym of heroes of legend. Saying it imbued Billy with their powers — 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. He transformed into a muscular adult man (modeled after actor Fred MacMurray) and fought crime using his mystically imparted gifts, including the ability to fly.

The ranks of Billy’s “Marvel Family” grew to include his twin sister Mary Marvel, buddy Freddy Freeman as Captain Marvel Jr., multiple Lieutenants Marvel, Uncle Marvel and even animal sidekicks like Hoppy the Marvel Bunny and the tiger Tawky Tawny.

Villains like mad scientist Doctor Sivana, alien caterpillar Mr. Mind and the malevolent, Shazam-empowered Black Adam couldn’t defeat Captain Marvel. But DC Comics felt the character was too similar to their Superman and took Fawcett to court for copyright infringement. The multi-year legal battle resulted in Fawcett being legally prohibited from publishing comics featuring the character.

In 1966, M.F. Enterprises launched its own Captain Marvel title, featuring an alien robot who could split his body into various parts. Marvel Comics soon acquired the Captain Marvel trademark and introduced their own hero by that name, a male forerunner to Carol Danvers.

Billy Batson would eventually return, under the banner of none other than DC Comics. The company licensed the character from Fawcett and reintroduced him in the ’70s. The only catch was they couldn’t use the words “Captain Marvel” in the title of any of his comics. Instead, they used “Shazam!” on the covers, while still referring to the character as Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel and his supporting cast appeared in the continuity rebooting “Crisis on Infinite Earths” before being adopted into the DC Universe proper in the 1986 limited series “Legends.” His origin was revamped again in the mid-90s in “The Power of Shazam” by writer Jerry Ordway and artist Peter Krause.

The more recent comics played on the idea that Billy retained his personality when he transformed, making him a young teen in the body of an adult superhero. The stories also linked Black Adam even more closely to his origin, making the villain responsible for Billy’s parents’ deaths.

Captain Marvel would go on to serve in the Justice League and Justice Society. His popularity waxed and waned over the years, and, like virtually all comic book characters, some creators took him down a rather dark road.

At one point, Billy took on the wizard Shazam’s role and Freddy — whose codename was modernized as CM3 — acted as his champion. Perennially innocent Mary Marvel took a villainous turn.

During this time, Columbus cartoonist Jeff Smith — whose epic series “Bone” is like “Calvin & Hobbes” meets “Lord of the Rings” and the stuff of comic book legend — did his own “Shazam” series. Standing apart from DC continuity, “The Monster Society of Evil” both returned to the character’s roots and modernized his origin. As Smith’s only mainstream superhero project, it’s an interesting and fun read.

With the continuity-resetting New 52, Billy Batson returned as a backup feature in the “Justice League” series. Writer Geoff Johns abandoned the Captain Marvel codename and simply called the character Shazam. His Billy was a bit older and more of a troublemaker, but still a good kid at heart. This is the version that it seems will have the biggest impact on the movie.


Recommended Reading

* “Shazam!: A Celebration of 75 Years” — A sampling of the original Captain Marvel’s adventures across eight decades, including his first appearance, a look at the extended Marvel Family and clashes with Doctor Sivana, Mister Mind and Black Adam.

* “Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil” — Columbus cartoonist Jeff Smith’s only mainstream superhero work reimagines the story of Billy Batson and Captain Marvel, emphasizing them as two distinct individuals.

* “Shazam!” — DC heavyweight Geoff Johns officially transitions the hero’s name from Captain Marvel to Shazam as he gives him an updated origin that looks to be a significant influence on the movie.