Since Shazam’s first appearance in 1940, the character has undergone significant changes. Although now one of DC’s biggest characters, thanks to a hit feature film, Shazam actually originated with another publisher–and this is just one of the few changes the Big Red Cheese has experienced in the past 82 years. Shazam’s story is a long and winding one, full of reboots and name changes; the character’s out-of-universe history is just as fascinating.
By 1939, superheroes, such as Superman, were immensely popular, selling millions of copies. Fawcett Publications, then known for magazines such as True Confessions and Mechanix Illustrated, decided to get in on the act. The publisher commissioned writer Bill Parker to create superheroes to compete with DC Comics, then known as National Comics. Among the initial wave of characters created were Spy Smasher, Ibis the Invincible and Golden Arrow, who would become pillars of the Fawcett Comics universe. Parker also created a team of six heroes, each with the power of a mythological character. Fawcett liked Parker’s ideas, but suggested he combine the six into one character, who would have all the powers of the team. Parker agreed, creating a character named Captain Thunder. After Fawcett greenlit the characters, artist CC Beck was brought in to bring them to life.
The first of the many changes Shazam would experience occurred before he even made his public debut. In late 1939, Fawcett released a black and white “ashcan,” titled Flash Comics, in order to secure the copyrights; they also released it under the title, Thrill Comics. However, not only were the titles Flash and Thrill already copyrighted by other publishers, the name Captain Thunder was taken as well. Fawcett rechristened the title to Whiz Comics and changed Captain Thunder to Captain Marvel.
Shazam Has Changed Publishers
Now called Captain Marvel, the character debuted in 1940s Whiz Comics #2, and became an instant success; the character was so popular that RKO Pictures commissioned a Saturday morning serial based on him–making Shazam the first comic book character to receive a live action adaptation. Shazam was a smash with readers, selling millions of copies each month; the book even went to bi-weekly status to keep up with the demand.
Not everyone was pleased with the character’s success, namely National Comics, who felt the character was a rip-off of Superman. National brought a copyright infringement lawsuit against Fawcett Comics, resulting in a 12-year long legal battle, which ultimately bled Fawcett dry financially. This, coupled with declining interest in the superhero genre in the late 1940s/early 1950s, led Fawcett to cease publication of its superhero comics. When the last of the Shazam titles, The Marvel Family, was canceled in 1954, it was the end of an era.
Shazam and his allies faded into limbo, but ironically, would be revived by DC Comics in 1972. The publisher tapped Denny O’Neil, one of their top writers, to pen Shazam’s modern day adventures, pairing him up with original artist CC Beck. DC attempted to market the character under his original name, Captain Marvel, but in the years before his revival, DC’s main rival, Marvel Comics, created their own Captain Marvel. With that name trademarked, DC was forced to use Shazam as the title for the new book. Relegated to Earth-S in DC’s original multiverse, Shazam would cross over with a number of popular DC characters, including his original rival: Superman.
The book debuted to mixed reviews, and was canceled by issue 35; the character would appear in back-up stories in both World’s Finest and Adventure Comics as well as 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. That event served to fully incorporate Shazam and related properties into the DC Universe. By 1991, DC had fully acquired the rights to the character. In 1994, artist Jerry Ordway released The Power of Shazam! graphic novel, which introduced readers to the definitive modern age version of the character; a year later, an ongoing series, also titled The Power of Shazam!, written by Ordway, debuted, running for four years before being canceled.
Ordway’s interpretation of Shazam not only redefined the character for the modern age, it also reintroduced the Shazam Family (more on them later) to the mainstream DC Universe; previous reboots downplayed this aspect of Shazam lore. The character was overhauled in the New 52 reboot, at which point his name was officially changed from Captain Marvel to Shazam.
Shazam’s Name Has Changed As Well
As mentioned earlier, in the years between Fawcett ceasing publication and DC licensing the rights, Marvel Comics created their own Captain Marvel. According to legend, rumors that DC would license the character began in the late 1960s, and to beat them to the punch, Marvel created their own version. Although this story has not been substantiated, Marvel still had secured the trademark to the name Captain Marvel, forcing DC to christen their new book, Shazam. Despite this, the character was still referred to as Captain Marvel, even as late as the beginning of the New 52 era. When Geoff Johns and Gary Frank introduced the New 52 version in 2012’s Justice League #7, he was officially renamed Shazam. Johns and Frank tweaked the character further, making his alter-ego Billy Batson a cynical jerk, who grew into a hero as the series progressed. Johns and Frank also gave Shazam new, lightning-based powers as well as introducing a new version of the Shazam Family.
Shazam Pioneered the Idea of a Superhero Family
In the 1940s, Shazam pioneered the concept of a superhero family, an idea that would later take root at other publishers. In 1941, Fawcett introduced the first entries in what would come to be called at the time “the Marvel Family”–the Lieutenant Marvels. Captain Marvel Jr debuted in Whiz Comics #25 and Mary Marvel entered the world in 1942’s Captain Marvel Adventures #18; there was even a funny-animal version, named Hoppy. Captain Marvel Jr, Mary Marvel and even Hoppy were so popular they were awarded their own titles, in addition to their appearances in other Fawcett titles. The books boasted a large supporting cast, including Uncle Dudley and the talking tiger Tawky Tawny.
When DC began licensing the character from Fawcett, they also revived Mary and Captain Marvel Jr, along with the character’s robust supporting cast and rogue’s gallery. In 1987, DC published Shazam: A New Beginning which attempted to integrate the character into the publisher’s post-Crisis universe. Writer Roy Thomas and artist Tom Mandrake, working under editorial mandates, wiped the slate clean, eliminating the Marvel Family (seen as “goofy” relics of another time) and giving the character a darker tone. This series was retconned out of continuity upon the publication of Ordway’s Power of Shazam!, which restored the Marvel Family to its rightful position. Both Mary and Captain Marvel Jr would find success in team books; Mary in I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League and Captain Marvel Jr in The Outsiders.
The New 52 brought a new version of the Marvel Family. With the character rebranded as Shazam, the name was changed to the Shazam Family as well. Both Mary and Freddie (Captain Marvel Jr’s alter ego) were present, as were new additions Darla, Eugene and Pedro–Billy Batson’s foster siblings. This version of the Shazam family was the inspiration for the 2019 film.
Shazam’s history through the years is just as fascinating as the character himself, having experienced a number of changes both in the DC Universe and in the real world. These changes have kept Shazam relevant and fresh.