Of the three great comic book heroes who emerged in the 1940s, Jules Feiffer has argued in his introduction to The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965), CM most perfectly embodied the spirit of childish wish fulfillment. To become SUPERMAN, one needed an aristocratic Kryptonian heritage; to become BATMAN, one needed to devote many years to hard study and physical training. But to become CM, all one needed to do was say "Shazam." It is not surprising, perhaps, that after being introduced in the first issue of Whiz Comics, CM became popular far more quickly than Superman or Batman, and that he was at one point the most frequently-published comics hero in America, appearing in numerous comics and spawning a number of spinoff characters (including the young Captain Marvel, Jr.; heroine Mary Marvel; lovable fraud Uncle Marvel; the three Lieutenant Marvels; and Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny).
During his most successful years, CM had his share of sf adventures, prominently involving the MAD SCIENTIST Dr. Sivana and an alien worm named Mr. Mind; but, as was no doubt inevitable for a character whose magic powers were rooted in an uncertain mixture of Greek MYTHOLOGY, Roman mythology, and Biblical lore, his stories often veered into fantasy. CM had to defend the OLYMPIAN GODS from one menace, King Kull, and in what was perhaps his most famous adventure, CM battled against his sinister counterpart, Black Adam, an ancient Egyptian originally appointed Shazam's first super-powered successor before he turned to evil. A popular recurring character was a talking tiger ( => TALKING ANIMALS), and one crossover adventure involved the aforementioned Marvel Bunny. With the bright colors and simple line illustrations of artist Beck, and clever often humorous scripts from writers like Otto Binder, CM for a period epitomized the excitement and imaginative power of the new medium of the comic book. (James Steranko's The Steranko History of the Comics, Volume Two  devotes considerable and laudatory attention to the character.)
Despite his tremendous popularity in the 1940s, CM did not survive in the 1950s. One reason, of course, was that DC Comics filed suit against his publishing company, Fawcett, claiming that the character was an imitation of Superman, and Fawcett finally agreed to voluntarily eliminate the character instead of pursuing a court case they might well have won. Most people speculate that Fawcett capitulated because of the general decline in the comic book industry at the time, but the company may also have sensed that a hero so purely based on a simple childhood dream could not be fruitfully sustained. The saga of Superman, lonely survivor of a destroyed super-scientific civilization, could be broadened and deepened into a majestic epic, and the story of Batman, orphaned as a boy when his parents were murdered before his eyes, could be darkened into a Gothic horror story; but little Billy Batson, shouting out his magic word, offered no possibilities for such development. Feiffer reports that as a child, he lost interest in CM after one adventure when the hero was transformed into a baby and thus was unable to say "Shazam"; in a larger sense, there surely was something inescapably infantile about such a character.
Nevertheless, CM's former nemesis, DC Comics, attempted to revive the character in 1972 with a new comic entitled Shazam! The World''s Mightiest Mortal (since Marvel Comics in the interim had claimed the name "Captain Marvel" for another character). But inevitably, the revival proved unsuccessful, since the childish Billy Batson, with his childish image and childish adventures, could hardly compete now with the grown-up heroes of DC and Marvel. Later, there were efforts to make the character's artwork and stories more mature, as in the graphic novel The Power of Shazam (1994), and he has sometimes teamed up with Superman and other DC heroes, including one grand epic involving the Justice League of America, the Justice Society of America, and other former Fawcett heroes, like Bulletman and the MAGICIAN Ibis the Invincible, battling against King Kull; but all these efforts to dignify the character were perhaps stymied by the basic, underlying absurdity of CM's origins and powers. One might say, then, that CM demonstrates both the elemental power and the fundamental limitations of pure unadulterated fantasy.
In comic books, CM appeared regularly in his own adventures and teamed up in The Marvel Family with youthful counterparts Captain Marvel, Jr. and Mary Marvel (who also had their own series). In later comics, there have been three other unrelated heroes named Captain Marvel, and some thinly disguised Captain Marvels under other names: see Ron Tiner's entry on "Captain Marvel" in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction for details. In other media, CM was the subject of an undistinguished film serial (1942); in the 1970s, after the character was revived, there was a live-action Saturday morning television series called Shazam (1974-1977), which then inspired first on television, later in comics a new female counterpart to CM named Isis, featured in a separate series (1975-1978). CM has also been featured in a few television cartoons.
To contact us about encyclopedia matters, send an email to Gary Westfahl. Hosted & Designed By:
If you find any Web site errors, typos or other stuff worth mentioning, please send it to our Webmaster.
Copyright © 1999–2015 Gary Westfahl All Rights Reserved Worldwide
Hosted & Designed By: