Nerd Factor: Shazam!

Dr Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication

This weekend, Shazam makes his first return to the big screen since his 1941 movie serial. Here are some useful things to know about thunderous homecoming.

He is the Original Captain Marvel:  Shazam’s name is a tricky tale of corporate skullduggery and trademark carelessness.  When the character debuted in Fawcett Comic’s Whiz Comics #2 in 1940, Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s creation had already faced a number of name changes and finally settled in as “Captain Marvel.”  That seems strange to us today because we habitually divide the superhero universes up between DC and Marvel. But back then, DC was mostly called National Comics and Marvel was known as Timely.  

As the good captain’s popularity grew, National started to feel threatened because Captain Marvel frequently outsold Superman. In a series of lawsuits that remain controversial to fans even today, National contended that Captain Marvel was rip-off of the Man of Steel.  Eventually, the declining sales that all superheroes faced in the 1950s and the expense of this lawyering forced out Fawcett out of the comics business. Fawcett agreed to shut down its comics and the Captain faded into obscurity. In the 1970s, when DC wanted to bring Captain Marvel back, they could not use that designation of the cover of their books because Marvel had already published its own Captain Marvel (a Kree superhero who would, eventually, inspire the current Captain Marvel of movie fame).  So DC started calling him Shazam on the cover.

What is in a Name?: “Shazam” is one of the great acronyms of comics and represents the childhood aspirations to be grown up and powerful (yes, kids do not always understand adulthood).  When young Billy Batson says the name of the great wizard who gave him these abilities, he magically becomes the adult superhero and gains the powers of six great champions:  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. Saying the magic word also reverts Shazam back to Billy.  So there are often lots of tricks and schemes played out by his many enemies to keep Billy from speaking. He is probably the most tied up and gagged secret identity on the record books.

The Elvis Connection:  Captain Marvel quickly spun off a number of related characters, creating what came to be known as The Marvel Family.  One of the earliest members of that group was young Freddie Fremont, who was injured by a surprise attack from Captain Nazi.  Given powers to save his life, Freddie became Captain Marvel, Jr., a kind of youthful sidekick for a character who was already in some ways rather youthful himself.  Captain Marvel, Jr. was a favorite of the future King of Rock and Roll. And while there is some debate about stories that Elvis dyed his hair to match his hero or that his sequin capes matched the shorter capes of the Marvel Family, Elvis’ fandom for the character cannot be denied.

Hoppy the Marvel Bunny is a real thing:  The Marvel Family grew to the size of a squadron, with such characters as Mary Marvel, the Lieutenant Marvels (other people named Billy Batson who could somehow say the magic word and get powers), and the powerless Uncle Marvel.  But no Marvel is quite as unusual as the rabbit from another, funny-animal style universe. Hoppy looks like a parody, but he is just as effective as any other Marvel Family member.