Disney is due to release the Captain Marvel movie in a little over a month. That’s just enough time for most people to figure out the history of the character.
Not the character of Captain Marvel, although that’s bad enough. I mean the character of “Captain Marvel”.
This isn’t turning out well… and that’s about the best anyone can expect with the character. The original Captain Marvel, you see, is best known as “Shazam”… even though he specifically isn’t Shazam. Shazam is another character. I’ll start again.
In 1938, Action Comics #1 by National Publications (later DC Comics) introduced a new character named Superman. He was a powerful hero who possessed incredible strength, amazing speed, virtual invulnerability, a brilliant brain, and other powers such as super-breath. He hid his abilities beneath the mild-mannered identity of Clark Kent, who worked for a news agency. The comic book was a success, and other superheroes followed in his mold.
In 1939, Whiz Comics #2 by Fawcett Publications introduced a new character called Captain Marvel. He was a powerful hero who possessed incredible strength, amazing speed, virtual invlunerability, a brilliant brain, and other powers such as super-breath. He hid his abilities beneath the mild-mannered identity of Billy Batson, who worked for a news agency. This time, however, instead of having the powers inherently, they were gifts from classical gods and heroes. The wizard who granted him the power was named Shazam, and “Shazam!” was the word used by Batson to transform into Marvel.
If you think this led to a copyright infringement lawsuit, you’re right… but not until 1941. The trigger is uncertain, but is likely to have been the sales figures… Captain Marvel had recently been outselling Superman on the comic stands. The lawsuit went on for a decade, with the judge eventually finding in Fawcett’s favor. Upon appeal, the decision was reversed, and Fawcett was forced to abandon the character.
That was the end of Captain Marvel… in the U.S. In the U.K., however, Captain Marvel reprints were still selling, and the U.K. publisher decided to create a thinly-disguised revamp called “Marvelman”.
In the U.S., however, in 1966, a small comic publisher named M.F. Enterprises created their own Captain Marvel character, this time an android who could split his limbs off from his body to perform actions independently. He did so by shouting, not “Shazam!”, but “Xam!” He didn’t last long, due to a lawsuit from Marvel Comics over his name.
In 1967, Marvel decided to forestall any future attempts to use the name by creating their own Captain Marvel character, a defector from a warring alien race with the name Captain Mar-Vell.
I told you this was complicated.
In 1972, DC comics was having its sales figures damaged by the successful Marvel line, and decided to revitalize things. One of the ways they did so was by licensing the old, now defunct, Fawcett characters, as they already had a history and (hopefully) a nostalgic following among parents buying titles for their kids. One of those characters was Captain Marvel.
Only one problem: Marvel owned the trademark on the name for comic books and related material. So DC could have Captain Marvel return, but it could only be produced under a title other than Captain Marvel. They chose his familiar shout…. which was the wizard’s name.
One big problem for Marvel: they owned the character’s name for merchandising, but they really didn’t have much for him to do in his own title. Every time they made an attempt to promote him, the character fell flat. Eventually they handed him off to writer/artist Jim Starlin, who had him die of cancer in a critically acclaimed graphic novel in 1982.
So now Marvel didn’t have a Captain Marvel. But, owning the rights to the name for publication, they quickly corrected that problem. The new Captain Marvel was Monica Rambeau, a brilliant scientist who could create bursts of any type of energy and could even turn into energy herself.
Meanwhile, they also had Carol Danvers, Ms. Marvel. The “Ms.” was an attempt by Marvel Comics to appeal to the women’s movement of the 1970s. It… didn’t work very well. Ms. Marvel had her powers sucked out by Rogue in the introduction of the eventual X-Men hero, joined a group of spacefaring swashbucklers, and had her own inherent mutant powers triggered by an event that turned her into a glowing character named Binary.
It’s good that they kept Carol Danvers around, because someone at Marvel decided to bring back the whole Kree warrior thing again. Monica Rambeau agreed to call herself Pulsar instead, handing over the mantle to Mar-Vell’s son. Suddenly there were a sequence of new Captain Marvels who were Kree… it was a mess.
Eventually they threw up their hands and just altered history on the fly (it’s amazing how often that happens in comics) to make Carol Danvers into Captain Marvel. After all, she’d started out as Ms. Marvel, it wasn’t all that far a leap. Besides, they had a new Ms. Marvel, this time a stretchy girl who adored Captain Marvel.
Anyway, that’s what’s going on there. Be glad I didn’t tell you about Starman.
Question of the night: what’s your favorite superhero movie?