Fawcett’s Big Red Cheese: The Original Captain Marvel

The Original Captain Marvel

One rainy evening in Fawcett City USA a lone newsboy name Billy Batson was selling newspaper on a corner.  He was wet, hungry and alone in the world.  Suddenly a stranger appeared in front of him.  The stranger was dressed in a dark overcoat and slouch hat.  Billy could not see the man’s face.

Billy, used to strangers asked, “Paper sir?”
The man’s eerie voice replied with his own question, “Why aren’t you home in bed boy?”
Billy answered, “I sleep that in subway station, it’s warm there.”
The man said, “Follow me.”  It was much more of a demand than a request.

Billy gathered his left-over papers and followed the man into the subway.  They went down more than one staircase and thru twisting corridors until Billy found himself in a a part of the subway system he had never seen before.  It was a strange subway stop, more cave than structure but there was single track and a car decorated with mystic symbols was waiting silently.

The stranger beckons Billy to follow him into the car and tells him, “have no fear, everything has been arranged.  Billy steps into the car with the stranger and the train whisks itself away to unknown destination.

Billy never remembered how long he traveled in that car.  Was it an hour or a minute?  He could never tell.  Time seemed to lose meaning as the train continued on its journey until it came to a silent stop.

The stranger again beckoned Billy to follow him.  Billy steps off the train and finds himself in an enormous cavern.  It was strangely lit with torches and in front of him is a passage leading to an unknown destination.  The stranger silently indicates to Billy to enter  the passage and with no other word vanished from Billy’s sight.

Billy cautiously enters the passage.  The hewn hall had lights of different colors flickering on and off but Billy could not see the source of the light on his left were grotesque statues of the seven deadly enemies of man Pride, Envy, Greed, Hatred, Selfishness, Sloth and Lust.  Billy grew frightened as each of these statues looked as though they were alive and were each staring at him as he passed, hungry for the boy’s soul.

As Billy continues on he is able to perceive a throne cut out of the rock and on the throne an old man with flowing white hair and a beard.  The throne room is well lit and above the throne where the old man sits Billy sees a square cut block of marble hanging over the man.  The block had to weigh a ton at least and it hung by what looked like no more than a thread.

As Billy approached the throne the old man spoke, “Welcome Billy Batson.”

Billy stammered a question, “How, how do you know my name?”

The old man stood and said, “I know everything, I am SHAZAM!  With that a black cloud miraculously appeared over the man and a bolt of lightning struck the man.  No harm came from the bolt of lightning but after the shock of the bolt cleared an inscription appeared on the wall behind the man who Billy now realized must be a wizard.

Solomon, Wisdom
Hercules, Strength
Atlas, Stamina
Zeus, Power
Achilles, Courage
Mercury, Speed

Indicating the inscription, the old man spoke to Billy, “For three thousand years I have used the wisdom, strength, stamina, power, courage and speed that the gods have given me to battle evil which every day threatens to extinguish man from the face of the earth.”
Billy amazed at the wizard’s words exclaimed, “Three Thousand Years!”

“Yes son, and during that time I have seen and known everything that happened throughout the world from the highest to the lowest.”
The wizard goes on to literally show Billy, Billy’s own life story on a magical device called a Historama.  Billy sees himself being thrown out of his uncle’s house penniless while his uncle steals the money that was left to Billy when his parents passed away.
The wizard continued, “All my life I have fought injustice and cruelty, but I am old now and my time is almost up.  You shall be my successor.  Merely by speaking my name you can become the mightiest man in the world Captain Marvel!”  “SPEAK MY NAME!”
Billy stands proud and shouts, “SHAZAM”

The dark cloud fills the chamber again and bolt of lightning strikes Billy as the cloud dissipates Billy is no longer there.  In his place is a fully-grown man, tall and handsome with a look of wisdom and joy in his eyes.  He is dressed in a form fitting suit of red with yellow boots, a yellow sash and yellow armbands.  On his chest is the insignia of a lightning bolt and around his neck a high collared white cape trimmed in gold and four pointed stars fastened with a golden chain.  This is the one and only original Captain Marvel.

The wizard addresses the captain, “Captain Marvel I salute you.  Henceforth it shall be your sacred duty to defend the poor and helpless, right wrongs and crush evil everywhere.”
Captain Marvel realizing that he is not in the presence of a man or a wizard but of royalty itself simply answers, “Yes Sire.”

The wizard gives Captain Marvel his final instructions, “To become Billy Batson again also speak my name.  Now I must go.  Captain Marvel speak my name.”
Captain Marvel Shouts,” SHAZAM!”

The lightning bolt again strikes the string that has been holding the block of marble that has been hanging over the wizard suddenly snaps crushing the wizard under it’s weight.  Before Captain Marvel can even react, he finds himself back outside, in the rain, with his newspapers, Billy Batson once again.
Billy can only wonder if it had all been a dream.

But it was no dream.  From 1940 to 1954 Captain Marvel would thrill comic book readers.  His adventures would captivate kids of all ages and his legend and cast would grow.  Captain Marvel Jr, Mary Marvel, The Three Lieutenant Marvels, and even Uncle Marvel would all join Cap in his adventures.  He would outsell Superman on the newsstands and would inspire a movie serial and eventually a television show.
The year was 1939 and Fawcett publications decided to take a dive into the relatively new publishing genre of comic books.  Bill Parker was chosen as the editor of the new line of comics, he had previously been the editor of Fawcett’s line of movie magazines.

Bill had an idea, not for one comic book character but for 6.  These six characters would be the lead feature in Fawcett’s new book.  Each character would have a separate superpower, the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage or Achilles and the speed of mercury.  Together they would be Shazam and that was what the name of the new comic book would have been, but wiser heads prevailed.

It was executive director Ralph Daigh who made the decision that the six heroes should be combined into one.  Parker agreed and named the newly formed superhero Captain Thunder, with a secret identity of a boy named Billy Batson.  Yes, they were getting closer but not quite there yet.

Parker wrote a script for the book and artist Charles Clarence Beck was hired to illustrate.  CC Beck claims he was inspired by a dream sequence in a movie where it’s star becomes a kind of superhero and so he drew the hero originally to resemble Fred MacMurray.  Later to quote E Nelson Bridwell “C.C. Beck conceded that the face became more round and cap had come to look like Jack Oakie.”  Whatever he looked like the name was still not right.

The comic itself was to be called Whiz comics.  It was published in black and white with Cap still being called Thunder.  This was done in order to secure copyright and the type of publication was known as an ashcan book.

After the ashcan book was published it was decided that the heroes name still wasn’t right.  Everyone wanted to keep the captain part and various ideas were thrown out at a meeting until Pete Costanza who was to become Beck’s chief assistant on the book came up with the name Captain Marvelous.  The name was immediately shortened to Captain Marvel and a legend was born.

Whiz comics number one had been the ashcan book so Captain Marvel made his public debut in Whiz Comics number two.  The actual name of the number one book is lost as no known copy of the ashcan book survive.  The title may have been Thunder Comics.  The Comic Book Price Guide lists it as Thrill Comics.

One of the early publications of Fawcett Publication was a magazine called Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang.  It was a magazine of risqué humor but it became popular and even immortalized in the song Ya Got Trouble from Meredith Wilson’s musical The Music Man.  As can be seen various aspects of that original publication were integrated into Captain Marvel.  Captain of course, the publisher had been a captain in WWI, Whiz the title of the book, Billy, the first name of Billy Batson.  Bang is the only word not used, but they came close as they used boom every time the magic lightning struck.

Captain Marvel made his debut in February 1940.  Superman and Batman had already arrived on the seen and were a sensation and other superheroes were cropping up quickly, but Captain Marvel was unique.  Superman made his appearance at the end of the depression.  In 1938 jobs were still scarce people had been uprooted and afraid.  The country needed a hero who went after corrupt government officials, men who beat their wives and other very real villains and, in the beginning, Superman filled that need.  In 1940 things began to change.

The country was in a better place and Captain Marvel filled a void people didn’t know they had.  Captain Marvel gave us whimsy.  Captain Marvel was fun.

Captain Marvel’s enemies were camp and funny.  Sivana an evil scientist always out to beat Captain Marvel for his own personal gain would end up with his own evil children who would aid him in his evil deeds but his kids were more campy bunglers than real threats to the Captain and his own family.  Sivava would dub Captain Marvel “The Big Red Cheese.”

There was the villain behind The Monster Society of Evil who would only be a voice over several story lines until it was revealed the evil genius was really a worm with the name Mr. Mind.

Black Adam was another of Captain Marvels Rogues.  He was originally Shazam’s first successor until he turned to evil and was banished from Earth.  Black Adam returned to plague Captain Marvel until he was tricked into saying the wizard’s name and returned to his human form which, being over a thousand years old, turned to dust.

Superman’s publishers soon took note of the popularity of Captain Marvel.  He had begun to outsell Superman and that would never do.  They noticed the similarity in costume and power.  Superman and Captain Marvel were both bullet proof, both had fantastic strength, and both, eventually, could fly.  With these thoughts in mind Superman’s publishers went to court to stop publication of Captain Marvel.
This court case went on for the entire length of time that Captain Marvel was published.  The reality of the outcome is not what most people believe. 

National Periodical Publications later to be known as DC did not win the lawsuit and take Captain Marvel off the newsstands, rather, in 1954 with 14 years of good stories and a film serial under their belts, Fawcett Publications saw the end of the comic book era.  They realized with new government scrutiny and the trend going toward, first horror comics and then western comics that Captain Marvel was not long for this world and they settled with National and stopped their comic book line, promising never to publish Captain Marvel again.

But this was not the end of Captain Marvel.

In 1972 Superheroes were again big business.  This was due to a lot of factors.  The first being the scare that comic books were influencing children in negative ways had ended with the McCarthy Era.  The second, DC publications had slowly begun to bring their superheroes back.  Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman never stopped publishing but all the others had.  DC began by updating the Flash with a better costume and a more realistic origin story as well as a new secret identity.  Green Lantern, soon, also had an update and other heroes like The Martian Manhunter would soon join the new comic revolution.

Marvel Comics would publish The Fantastic Four in answer to DC’s Justice League of America and go on the create The Hulk, Thor and Spiderman.  DC would enter the television arena with Batman and that would send millions of kids to the newsstand and drugstores looking for more adventures of their favorite caped crusader.

Fawcett would have loved to have brought back Captain Marvel but their agreement with DC would not allow that.  In 1972 something a bit funny would happen.

DC Publisher Carmine Infantino decided to bring Captain Marvel back.  The very company that forced the good Captain out of business acquired the license from Fawcett and in 1973 brought Captain Marvel back with the title of the comic book being named SHAZAM.
Marvel comics in 1967 had conceived of their own Captain Marvel and that Captain had his own book with the name Captain Marvel.  DC had to use SHAZAM as a title to not confuse new readers.  However, confusion would stay with both characters right until this present moment.  DC did subtitle their book THE ORIGINAL CAPTAIN MARVEL, but a cease and desist letter from Marvel comics soon put a stop to that and a new subtitle THE WORLD’S MIGHTIEST MORTAL would be used instead.

Captain Marvel and the rest of the Marvel family did not live on Superman’s earth.  They had their own parallel earth known as Earth S.  DC had brought back all of their original characters form the 1940s and had given them their own Earth, Earth 2.  Other Earths would appear over the years as DC bought other heroes from other publishers until you would need a road map to keep it all straight. 

In 1985 as a celebration of DC publishing for 50 years, DC published a one-year maxi series which crossed over into all of its other books.  The series was titled Crisis on Infinite Earths and at the end of the series all of the earths had become one.  Where all heroes who had more than one version of themselves, Superman was older on Earth Two and younger on Earth one as was Batman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, would also become one.  New Origins were written and many of the books went back to the beginning with issue number one.

Captain Marvel would not immediately reappear he would make his debut in the next special crossover series called Legends.  He would eventually join the Justice League of America but would never really find his popularity as strong as it was in the 1940s.

Today Captain Marvel no longer exists.  His name is now Shazam the same as the wizard and the same as his magic word.  The whimsy has been more or less taken from him and though originally Captain Marvel and Billy Batson were two separate people one a child and one an adult.  Shazam is now Billy who gains power and an adult’s body when he says the wizard’s name.  DC comics tends to change up origin stories and re make their heroes on a regular basis so whether this new Shazam will last only time will tell.

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