Shazam! has a long and storied history in comics. He is Billy Batson, a young orphan who is granted the ability to transform into “Earth’s Mightiest Mortal” by shouting the magic word, SHAZAM! If you’ve ever had an interest in the character you’ve probably read about the lawsuits, or about the name changes, even about the confusion between Marvel’s Captain Marvel and DC’s Captain Marvel.
Are you lost yet?
It’s easy to lose track of the character and his importance in comics’ history. One would even be forgiven for forgetting that he was once the most popular comic book character in the world. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the character’s incredible story.
Fawcett Comics Years
Before he was known as Shazam he was the first Captain Marvel. He appeared in the second issue of Fawcett Comics title Whiz Comics in 1940. He’d been created the previous year by Artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker. The two had been brought on to write for the company after the success of Superman. They were tasked with creating something new. They envisioned a character directly influenced by the Greek and Roman mythology they’d grown up reading. Beck and Parker called him Captain Thunder at first, and came up with the magic word Shazam. The word is a combination of those whose abilities he’d gain, Solomon Hercules Atlas Zeus Achilles Mercury.
Fawcett’s editorial staff changed the name to Captain Marvel and began publishing his stories as their flagship character. He quickly became the most popular superhero in the world, even outselling DC’s Superman title. In 1941 he became the first superhero to receive a live action movie adaptation, but things quickly changed.
DC Comics began suing other comic book publishers over copyright infringement in the early 1950’s. They put Fawcett Comics’ most famous character directly in their sights. In 1953 Fawcett stopped publishing Captain Marvel’s title completely. DC Comics licensed the character in 1972, and eventually purchased him from Fawcett in 1994.
DC Comics Years
When DC brought the character into their universe, they did so under the title Shazam. Marvel Comics had gained the copyright to titles with the name Captain Marvel in 1967. The character retained his back story from the Fawcett storylines as he made his transition into the DC Comics Universe. Eventually the editorial staff chose to change the name of the character to Shazam due to the confusion with Marvel’s hero. It was an easy decision because, as Geoff Johns was quoted saying, “That’s what people think his name is anyway.”
Though his backstory has changed several times over his publication history, a few things remain constant with the character; he is an orphan with a heart of gold who catches the attention of an ancient and powerful wizard. He has a series of friends who he eventually shares his abilities with in order to create the “Marvel Family” (now the Shazam! Family) who fight alongside him. His stories are more concerned with the magical and spiritual side of DC Comics. He’s been a part of the Justice League, and a major character in important comic storylines such as Kingdom Come, Flashpoint, and Batman/Superman: Public Enemies, as well as the DC animated TV shows and movies.
Billy Batson is a young boy, and even with all of the powers granted to him he can be overwhelmed. To deal with this, he has shared his powers with those closest to him throughout the years. His best friend, Freddie Freeman, became Captain Marvel JR. and even fought alongside the Teen Titans, while Billy’s sister, Mary Bromfeld, became Mary Marvel, one of the first female superheroes. Their have been others who weilded the power of Shazam! as well, such as Billy’s foster siblings, and an “uncle” who was really just a janitor, but that is another topic. Whenever one of the Shazam! Family say the magic word they turn into adult versions of themselves and gain similar powers to that of Shazam!. The Shazam! Family was one of the first teams of superheroes in comics and set the precedent for the Avengers and the Justice League.
With such a long history in comics it stands to reason that Shazam! would have a large rogues gallery, and boy does he.
Black Adam is probably his most famous adversary. He was the first champion of the counsel of wizards. He betrayed their trust and used his powers for revenge, unwittingly releasing the seven deadly sins upon mankind. The wizards trapped him in the rock of eternity until Doctor Sivana released him from his prison. Since his release he has been the enemy of DC’s heroes, but in recent years has become something of a sympathetic anti-hero.
Doctor Sivana was Shazam’s first villain. A genius in his own right, he’s been through it all, from battling the Shazam family to being possessed with the seven deadly sins. He strives for evil, and lusts after power. Through all of Shazam’s years, Doctor Sivana has been a constant thorn in his side.
Mister Mind is a character who has fallen by the wayside in recent years, but he had a hand in one of the defining points in comic book history. A small, alien worm, Mister Mind has extreme intelligence and telepathic abilities which he used to creat the “Monster Society of Evil”. The storyline in which he makes his first appearance was the first serialized storyline in comic books, and also featured the first team of recurring villains in a superhero comic.
The character of Shazam has gone through quite a lot. Once he was the most popular superhero in the world, then he faded into obscurity, and he’s been fighting his way back ever since. His publication history is easily as interesting as the character’s history in the pages of his comics. Whether fighting the ancient Egyptian menace Black Adam, or punching Superman in the face, he’s managed to maintain his place in the pantheon of great comic book characters.
With the release of the Shazam film, fans have the chance to see all of the narrative threads be brought together for one of comics’ greatest heroes. Shazam!, Captain Thunder or Captain Marvel, no matter what you call him “Earth’s Mightiest Mortal” is here to stay.