Thanks to the 2019 film Shazam! and last year’s sequel, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, the character of Shazam!, has become a household name on par with Superman or Iron Man. That kind of recognition would be great if it weren’t for the fact that that isn’t the character’s name—or at least it wasn’t for the first 72 years of the character’s existence. Believe it or not, the hero many DC fans affectionately call “The Big Red Cheese” began life under the name Captain Marvel. But isn’t Captain Marvel a Marvel character?
The hero now known as DC Comics’ Shazam! was originally called Captain Marvel.
In 1939, comic book writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck decided to do what many publishers were doing at the time: create their own ripoff Superman. In 1940, the character of Captain Marvel made his debut in Whiz Comics #2, published by Fawcett Comics. The character had powers similar to Superman, the difference being that they were magical in nature and didn’t stem from an alien physiology.
When young boy Billy Batson shouts the word “Shazam!” he is instantly transformed into a large muscular man with 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—hence the acronym S.H.A.Z.A.M.
The character became so popular that Fawcett’s Captain Marvel comic outsold DC’s Superman for most of the ’40s. Captain Marvel even beat Supes to the big screen as the first superhero to ever be adapted to film. All this popularity didn’t go unnoticed, however, and DC eventually sued Fawcett over copyright infringement.
Fawcett settled out of court for a hefty sum and decided to stop publishing Captian Marvel comics around 1953, partially because of the lawsuit but mostly because by then, superheroes were no longer as popular as they once were, being replaced at the newspaper stand with war, horror and romance comics.
In an ironic twist of fate, Captain Marvel was licensed to DC in 1972, resulting in the company that had once sued Fawcett over their character being too close to Superman publishing said character alongside The Man of Steel.
Marvel’s Captain Marvel
Unfortunately, DC could no longer publish Captain Marvel’s comic under the name “Captain Marvel” thanks to a little company that had sprinted to the forefront of the comic book industry in the years between the end of Captain Marvel’s initial run and the start of the character’s revival at DC: Marvel Comics.
Marvel and DC have stolen names and ideas from each other many times over the years, but this time was different. This time, the company copyrighted the Captain Marvel name, leaving DC with no choice but to call their revival comic Shazam!
In typical legal mumbo jumbo, DC could still call the character that Billy Batson transformed into Captain Marvel, but they couldn’t have the name for the actual comic or anything else it would turn out. In 1974, Filmation made a live-action Captain Marvel TV show, again named Shazam!, that ran for two years and has pretty much been forgotten by the pop-culture consciousness.
Between the show and the revived comics, many fans were confused and started calling the character of Captain Marvel Shazam! despite it making about as much sense as calling the shark from Jaws, Jaws, or the T-Rex from a certain 1993 blockbuster about cloning dinosaurs, Jurrasic Park.
Captain Marvel isn’t even the only character—or technically even the first—that had to change their name as a result of Marvel’s copyright. In the 50’s, a British publisher known as L. Miller & Son was making a killing selling reprinted Captain Marvel comics from the USA.
The Birth Of Marvelman
When Fawcett stopped publishing new issues of Captain Marvel, L.Miller & Sons were reluctant to give up their cash cow so they created the character Marvelman, a direct clone of Captian Marvel, with the only differences between the two characters being the name and the word that Billy Bat—Micky Moran speaks to transform into Marvelman, “Kimota!” which was just “Atomic” backward and with a K for some reason.
Marvelman was a huge hit in the UK up until 1963, when L. Miller & Son ceased publication. The character of Marvelman was resurrected in the ’80s by famed comic writer Alan Moore, who was forced to change the name to Miracleman because of, you guessed it, Marvel’s copyright on the name Captain Marvel. The whole Miracleman saga only gets crazier from there with fights over who owned the character, keeping Moore’s run out of print for decades.
Eventually, the rights ended up with Marvel, who—we kid you not—changed the name back to the original Marvelman for one publication before changing it back to the second name Miracleman for all future projects.
Meanwhile, DC eventually got sick of the confusion, and when the company decided to reboot its continuity in 2011 just gave in and started calling their hero Shazam! since many fans already did anyway. In the comics and movies that followed, Billy Batson only ever turns into Shazam! The name Captain Marvel is no longer associated with the character whatsoever.
Perhaps the sickest joke to come out of all of this is that Marvel’s version of Captain Marvel never saw a fraction of the success that Shazam! or Miracleman did at their peaks. Marvel has created around seven different characters known as “Captain Marvel,” and the only one to gain any sort of measurable popularity is the current Carol Danvers incarnation.
Carol Danvers, who, of course, spent part of her superhero career using the name Ms. Marvel, a name now associated with a completely different character. Oh well, what’s in a name anyway?
A Big Red Cheese by any other name would surely fight as much crime.