Lightning Doesn’t Strike Twice: Captain Marvel

Earlier this week I made a jesting Top 5 of the Best Good Captains in comics. I knew right away who the number one was going to be. The Big Red Cheese was the first one that popped into my brain. As I scanned the comments during the week, one in particular jumped out at me:

cannot for the life of me understand how anyone can like shazam.  oh well to each their own. – clintaa

That comment above got my brain working. In the world of online comics discussion we often agree to disagree just to move the conversation along. Different strokes for different folks and then we hop in our Doom Buggy to the next conversation about distribution warehouses. Not that this time. This time I was going to take the time to explain EXACTLY why I love Captain Marvel. I don't think everyone is going to love the character but I thought it would be fun to explain why have so much affection for him.

For the Fawcett fearful, Captain Marvel was a superhero created by Billy Parker and C.C.Beck for Fawcett Comics in 1939. Created in the wake of Superman’s success, Captain Marvel would be an instant success and comics featuring the character were regularly outselling Superman’s comics. The story focused around homeless newsboy Billy Batson. Lured into a subway tunnel he meets the wizard Shazam. Shazam chooses Billy as his champion and grants him the ability to transform into the adult superhero Captain Marvel when Billy yells Shazam’s name. Captain Marvel has 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. In the early fifties, National comics would sue Fawcett claiming infringement on their Superman character by the publishing of Captain Marvel books. Fawcett didn’t have deep enough pockets to fight through the system and all of National’s appeals, so they stopped publishing in 1953. Sales were declining by that point and the writing was on the Fawcett wall. In the early seventies, DC comics would license the characters in a revival attempt that led to the creation of an Earth-S in the multiverse. By 1991 DC had acquired the rights to the whole range of Fawcett characters. In spite of numerous relaunch attempts, Captain Marvel has never regained it’s golden age popularity. Then again, who has? What made Captain Marvel so immediately popular? Why do I love him so much?

Captain Marvel is the embodiment of the ultimate childish fantasy. He appeals to the part of ourselves that longs for the days before we found out that the world needs ditch diggers. (I have dug ditches.) He is the power and dynamism of Superman mixed with a Harry Potteresque dream of destiny.

Billy Batson is homeless newsboy with no family to lean on. A desperate kid in a rough world, who happens to have a greater destiny than being a newsboy. He is shown his destiny and rewarded for his inherent virtues. Once empowered to be Captain Marvel we see Billy get himself a great radio job, finds family (Mary Marvel) that he believed lost, and gathers a unique group of friends. Billy gets into jams because of his own bravery but always has Captain Marvel in his back pocket to save the day. Billy isn’t just a vessel for Captain Marvel, it truly is a partnership. Billy is a totally empowered child.

I also find the the world of Captain Marvel very funny. There is the slapstick elements of the universe like the Lieutenants Marvel. These were a trio of Billy Batsons from different regions of the US who through an adventure with Fawcett City’s Billy Batson gain a portion of Shazam’s power. We end up with a Fat, Tall, and Hillbilly Captains Marvel.  A silly concept with equally silly artistic rendition. Broad humor that aims right at the center of a kid’s funny bone: goofy looking characters. If you want a touch more sophistication you can look to Tawky Tawny. A talking, foppish tiger with a predilection towards get rich quick schemes. The villains were a mix of hulking monster men (King Kull), sinister scientists (Sivana) and talking alien worms (Mr. Mind). They were menacing but with a touch of the absurd in manner and appearance. Big, broad, humorous elements that appeal to the kid in me. Modern mainstream comics don’t hit that spot every often for me anymore.

The atmosphere of the modern mainstream super hero comic is fairly humorless. As the readership has slowly shrunk the dominance of melodrama has grown. Don’t get me wrong, I dig the melodrama as well.  While there are many writers who definitely have a great sense of wit and have a flare for dialogue, there isn’t a lot of visceral humor in superhero comics. When a book pops up with a good mix of humor, it is doomed to low sales and great reviews. The modern superhero fan does not want to laugh. Humor doesn’t mix well with the community’s desired sense of legitimacy. Humor is for kids, and comics aren’t just for kids anymore. In fact, let’s get the kids away from the table. The movie execs might trip over them while wheeling in scripts. That is just the reality of the marketplace.

The art of Captain Marvel has always been appealing to me as well. I think of the classic squinting C.C. Beck art and how it had a goofy heart to it while still having a knowing wink to the audience. In my mind’s eye I see the beefy Captain Marvel with a knowing smile standing straight as an arrow. It is strange to impart motives upon art but I always felt Beck’s art embracing the weirdness of the stories while still selling the adventure.

Captain Marvel appeals to the part of me that desires true escapism. Not the gallows humor, continuity heavy, chessboard escapism of mainstream comics. The lean, pure version that drew me into a love of comics in the first place. I believe people can stay comic fans for life as long as that original love they have gets fed. Not the first comic that they read, but the first comic that really made an impression on them. Maybe it was a detective story, or perhaps a slice of life comic. That first initial spark will always stay as long as you find a story to stoke it. Captain Marvel still stokes that spark for me.

Even as list the reasons I love the character I can think of times that the execution has fallen short of the potential. His appearances in in the JLI after Crisis had a tendency to ignore the cleverness of the character in favor of playing up the wholesomeness of the character. The Ordway written nineties relaunch spent too much time trying to modernize a character that probably didn’t really belong in the DC Universe in the first place.  Kingdom Come’s man child version of the character always struck me as extremely unappealing (Then again that was the point of Kingdom Come). On the other hand, 52 and JSA have shown that the character can fit into modern times without completely washing away the elements that I love. Captain Marvel’s history has become the story of trying to jam a kid’s book into a culture that doesn’t really want kid’s books. There are times where you can jam the piece into the puzzle but it is never going to be a comfortable fit.

That is the shame of Captain Marvel. On his own he was a runaway success and the cornerstone of a publishing company. Now he is the weird cousin of a comic book universe that he doesn’t really belong in. Batman would never let that Wizard run the subway.


Tom Katers did not enjoy digging ditches.


  1. At least he has a DC kids book.

  2. I love Captain Marvel as well for some of those same reasons. To me he is THE golden age comedic hero. Its a shame that we don’t like comedy in our comics anymore. We’re all forgetting to have fun. I wonder how much of his being relegated to the back of the DCU bus has to do with the legal arrangements made between DC and Marvel with this character? I know DC has some limitations on how they can use him and his name. 

    How did you feel about him in JLI? i thought he was portrayed as a bumbling idiot which was unfortunate. 

    Hopefully someone like Geoff Johns can give him a good ol rebirth… 

  3. Humor doesn’t mix well with the community’s desired sense of legitimacy.”

    this seems to be really on point.

  4. @wallythegreenmonster  I loved Captain Marvel in JLI. EVERYONE was a bumbling idiot in that book. That was kind of the point.

  5. @conor –yeah totally…but i thought he was the biggest idiot of the bunch. ha! Kind of like a JD Salinger “in a world where everyone is crazy, who’s the most sane?” kind of situation. I’m currently re-reading JLI trades now to go with Generation Lost, so we’ll see how it plays out. I forgot so much of it!

  6. That first cover is hilarious. Why would seeing an ape dressed like you raise identity issues?

    It’s also a crying shame that “HAW HAW HEEEE!” didn’t catch on like “Bwa-ha-ha!” did.

  7. I enjoyed Captain Marvel in JLI, too.  Having him as part of team allowed them to play up on the aspect that in spite of being one of the most powerful members, he’s really just a little kid in a grown up super body.  I think there’s a lot to be mined from that, and in the JLI they mostly mined it for humour (of course), but that’s exactly why I liked the JLI.  I also have fond memories of a Captain Marvel cartoon from the 80’s, I believe.  Without having had much experience with him outside of those two sources, I’m still more than willing to support him in a bid for Comic’s Best Captain.

    Also I thought it was hilarious when it was pointed out to me that because Captain Marvel Jr. uses the words “Captain Marvel” instead of “Shazam” to transform, he is essentially barred from ever saying his own super-hero name without a bolt of lightning coming down to switch him from one identity to the other.  That’s got to create some awkwardness. 

  8. Jeff Smith’s Shazam & the Monster Society of Evil.  Was the title that brought me back to collecting issues after dropping out for a decade or so.  The modern take on homeless, yet innocent and undaunted Billy Batson felt like what adults wanted comic books to be: social criticism for the grown-ups that doesn’t get in the way of a good story for the kids.

  9. In the last couple Captain Marvel posts, I see a lot of people wishing for a Geoff Johns rebirth. I just want to be the (only?) person to come on record as haaating that idea. Well, I guess for starters, I’m not as big a Johns fans as many, but… in this case in particular: Johns seems best at modernizing heroes, trying very hard to use their continuity and force them into something relevant for the 21st century, while tying them deeply into the continuity of the DCU. Similar to Tom’s point about Ordways’ series. 

    I just don’t think that works with Captain Marvel. I think he would work best in stories that are timeless and unique. If I had to pick, I’d give him Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee. He doesnt’ really need a rebirth, so much as his own space to play.

  10. You know what I want? I want a series where Billy Batson goes to college.  Not because then he will suddenly lose his innocence, but because this whole other kind of innocence shows up.  He’s the perfect vehicle for a story about “growing up” and I don’t know why he hasn’t really been used that way.  Like they kind of set it up in that Shazam/Superman miniseries which, in my opinion, is Judd Winick’s second greatest comic series ever. But DC hasn’t paid it off.  Right now he’s in some weird not-being-used-at-all-because-Black-Adam-is-way-more-popular realm and that’s cool (because I think Black Adam is a very interesting character) but I think Billy, Freddie, and Mary could have a place in the DCU.

  11. @Daccampo you’d like to see a all-star superman style SHAZAM book? i think that would be very awesome, and as awesome as samnee would be, i’m not a big fan of Langridge.

    One of the things that interests me the most is that ultimate child fantasy; any character who can protrays this fantasy, like He-Man, is really a neat concept.

  12. I agree with you Tom that Captain Marvel is an excellent character, though I disagree he’s better than Superman. I love for the Man of Steel won’t compromise!

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Jeff Smith’s Shazam and the Monster Soceity of Evil. It was an excellent story that had a lot of the same appeals that the original Golden Age comics had. Since that book took place in the DC Universe, I’m not sure if I agree or disagree that Captain Marvel and his world fits into the DC Universe.

  13. @daccampo  –i see what you mean about the Rebirth thing. I’ve never looked at it that way. I don’t know if i’d like a modernization as much as a reintroduction. I know with the market being what it is, i doubt he could sustain his own series, but it could be cool. An All-Star treatment might be really cool like WeaklyRoll said, but i doubt that could ever happen. 

    @redlibertyx —Billy goes to college! That could be really fun. 

  14. @wallythegreenmonster  I think we’re gonna see Morrison’s “All-Star”-esque version of the Marvel Family in his Multi-Versity series if it ever comes out.

  15. Tom, you hit the nail on the head and explained just how Capt Marvel was able to out sell Superman to the point of National suing Fawcett into dropping the Marvel Family all together.

  16. @wallythegreenmonster Not only that, but I want him to stay in college. I’m actually very annoyed that few teen superheros have stuck with their education and I don’t think that’s a good message to send.  I understand that it could be difficult to show both the college life and the superheroing life together but I think it’s something that can and should be done.

  17. @daccampo, @TheGoose: The Golden Age Capt. Marvel stuff was more jokey than many of the modern interpretations we’ve mentioned.  A good compromise to the Golden Age vs. Langridge & Samnee is Billy Batson & the Magic of Shazam.

    @redlibertyx, @WeaklyRoll: Shazam (Freddy Freeman, former Capt. Marvel. Jr.) somewhat got a “rebirth” in Judd Winnick’s great post-Infinite Crisis story Trials of Shazam which I thinks works great for DCcontinuity. (I’d love to see this  tied in with where Wonder Woman is now.)  That Freddy would make an awesome college student.

  18. @redlibertyx  The Superman / Shazam: First Thunder mini-series by Judd Winnick and Joshua Middleton that came out has really awesome / interesting art. It’s a riff on the Captain Marvel origin sort of also and how it relates to Superman and the differences and similarities between the two. 

  19. P.S. Kid Miracleman still freaks me out so Captain Marvel Jr. does also by proxy.

  20. @ResurrectionFlan  I re read First Thunder last night  Winnick did a great job on that book.
    Captain Marvel was also on the Young Justice 1st Episode. I hope he gets some more screen time (it makes sense that he does)

  21. @purplehulk  @PozrDu  Sorry, but the kids book “Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!” has been “cancelled”/”is on hiatius”.

  22. It’s well and good to wax poetic about the idealized virtues of a character in concept, but at the end of the day there needs to be a consumable product and in terms of modern CM stories, there’s simply too few and far between, much less ones that are definitive, worthy of critical acclaim, and palatable to a broad modern audience.

    If you go to DC’s own page for Captain Marvel, the only story they recommend reading that are Captain Marvel central (as opposed to a mere co-star) is The Power of Shazam… that’s it.

  23. it would be interesting to put billy batson/captain marvel on the teen titans, and have billy interact with his own real age group.

  24. @wordballoon  That’s a great idea. It could be the source of a lot of comedy too when facing some kind of foe and they see a bunch of scrawny kids and then SHAZAM! Captain Marvel houses people.

  25. @wordballoon  Batson would probably be OK, but Capt. Marvel don’t look teen to me.  Would he be their lunchroom monitor?  Seriously though, it would be interesting to have him on the Teen Titans, but Freddy Freeman Shazam (formerly Capt. Marvel, Junior) on the JLA.  Whoa!  Flip the script!

  26. Alan Moore sorta stole all the innocence and wonder of Captain Marvel from me when I read his Miracle Man.  I can’t divorce the two.

  27. “Vootie?”

    Nexus actually makes just a little more sense now.

  28. See, I think Captain Marvel *can* be brought into the 21st century and into modern continuity. He’s got his own space to play right now and, honestly, it’s not something I’ve enjoyed reading. The character has a lot of potential and, quite frankly, I’m surprised they ever took him off the JSA.