DC and Marvel both have a Captain Marvel, what’s the story there? What big differences are there between Superman and Shazam?

On December 3rd, 2014, /u/GypsyMonster asked the following on /r/DCcomics:

I’m very new to the actual comic books themselves, but have a decent grasp so far…but on to my question.

If I do a Google/Google Image search for “Captain Marvel,” I’ll get about a 50/50 split between Shazam (DC) and Captain Marvel (Marvel). Is there a particular reason for both big two publishers to have the name?

Also, what big differences are there between Superman and Shazam? (I know practically nothing about Shazam other than he looks just like Supes).

OK, here we go… “SHAZAM!”

Is there a particular reason for both big two publishers to have the name?

Firstly, yes, there is a reason for why both Big Two publishers have the name – and it actually goes back to a third publisher! After that it’s actually a story of multiple lawsuits.

So, let’s get started. From the Wikipedia for the DC version:

Shazam, also known as Captain Marvel … was created in 1939 by artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker, and first appeared in Whiz Comics #2 (February 1940), published by Fawcett Comics.

Shazam is the alter ego of Billy Batson, a boy who, by speaking the magic word “Shazam”, can transform himself into a costumed adult with the powers of superhuman strength, speed, flight, and other abilities. His name is an acronym of the six figures from whom his magical powers derive: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury.

Based on book sales, Captain Marvel was the most popular superhero of the 1940s, outselling even Superman, and Fawcett expanded the franchise to include other “Marvels”, primarily Marvel Family associates Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr., who can share Billy’s powers. Captain Marvel was also the first comic book superhero to be adapted into film, in a 1941 Republic Pictures serial titled Adventures of Captain Marvel.

Now, we’ll get back to just who DC’s Captain Marvel/Shazam is later, but let’s look at that first lawsuit, National Comics Publications v. Fawcett Publications.

Basically, DC (which was known as National Comics at the time) sued Fawcett because they thought that the character was a copy of Superman. The case was “notable as one of the longest running legal battles in comic book publication history”, and left Fawcett unable to revive Captain Marvel, having agreed never to publish the character again as part of settlement of the lawsuit.

Fawcett ceased publishing Captain Marvel-related comics in 1953 … In 1972, DC licensed the Marvel Family characters from Fawcett and returned them to publication, acquiring all rights to the characters by 1991. DC has since integrated Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family into their DC Universe, and have attempted to revive the property several times with mixed success.

Captain Marvel in DC Comics

So, basically, Fawcett stopped publishing Captain Marvel because DC sued them and then later DC bought them. During which time we have another issue arise. See, Fawcett stopped in the 1950s – this was before DC was even called DC and were still known as National Comics – and the character remained in limbo until the 1970s, right? Well, during the 1960s a company called Marvel came along with a character, book and copyright of its own. This Postal Apocalypse post from i09 has a good summary of what happened next:

Fawcett, publishers of the original Captain Marvel/Shazam comics, stopped making them in the ‘50s. In the ‘60s, Marvel Comics trademarked the name Captain Marvel for their own Kree alien superhero, which meant when DC licensed the Fawcett characters in 1972, they had the Fawcett character named Captain Marvel, but couldn’t call the comic Captain Marvel, so they used his transformation cry “Shazam!” for the title.

This extended to other media as well — DC could not promote the character as Captain Marvel anywhere, even though the character’s named was Captain Marvel. So when Billy Batson made his TV debut in 1974, his show was titled *Shazam (okay, The Shazam/Isis Hour, but you get the point).*

Also, from Wikipedia:

Carmine Infantino, publisher of DC Comics … attempted to give the Shazam! book the subtitle The Original Captain Marvel, but a cease and desist letter from Marvel Comics forced them to change the subtitle to The World’s Mightiest Mortal with Shazam! #15 (December 1974). As all subsequent toys and other merchandise featuring the character was also required to use the “Shazam!” label with little to no mention of the name “Captain Marvel”, the title has become so linked to Captain Marvel that many people took to identifying the character as “Shazam” instead of “Captain Marvel”.

So, that brings you up to speed on a lot of this, but here’s some dot points on what this all means.

  • DC and Marvel are both allowed to have a character called Captain Marvel but only Marvel is allowed to print books called this.
  • Despite how popular Fawcett’s old comic books and characters used to be, a few decades away and not being able to use the name really killed DC’s ability to capitalise on the characters existing popularity.
  • Calling their books and TV shows Shazam! instead created even more confusion – while diehard fans and geeks knew that that was the name of the book and not the character, plenty didn’t. Plenty thought his name was really Shazam.

This last point is what lead, in 2011 with the launch of the New 52, for DC to, after trying to for nearly 40 years to keep the characters name going, bow to defeat and just change the character to Shazam. Now obviously that’s a pretty quick overview but if you click on the stuff – espically the characters wikipedia entry and the one for the lawsuit: you can learn a lot more of the details. I haven’t covered much of all the different versions of the Marvel Comics character, but I might get kicked of /r/DCComics if I did that ;)

Also, what big differences are there between Superman and Shazam?

This is a bit easier. The really short explanation is that Superman is an alien whose powers are based on his different physiology, so science. Captain Marvel/Shazam is instead a boy who transforms into a champion of the Wizard Shazam (now known just as the Wizard since the name change), so magic. As Superman is fairly overpowered in most instances but one of his major weaknesses is a susceptibility to magic, and they do share lots of the same powers (and I’ll admit, some visual similarities), DC has enjoyed throwing the two characters against one another as it leads to some pretty great fights.

This comic on the Comics Alliance gives you a fairly good, quick overview of the characters history, powers and whole dynamic.

Superman and Captain Marvel fight in Kingdom Come

Now, finally, there are a few differences between the pre and post-Flashpoint versions. Before the New 52:

Captain Marvel is the World’s Mightiest Mortal. Originally, he was a orphaned boy named Billy Batson, who was chosen by the wizard Shazam to be a champion of good. Shazam gifted Billy with the power of six legendary Greek figures, and when he spoke the Wizard’s name, he became an adult superhero empowered by six legendary Greek figures.

You can read more about this version of the character on the DC wiki here, and especially his powers in this section.

With the New 52 Billy is still an orphan, and while he meets the Wizard, there are a few differences:

In this incarnation of Shazam/Captain Marvel, Billy is not given the typical powers as he is normally given. His powers do not come from multiple gods but rather all from Shazam himself. One of the missing powers is the Wisdom of Solomon

Naturally, you can read more about this current version on the DC wiki here, and especially his current powers in this section.

The Marvel Family in the New 52

This is naturally a fairly quick overview, especially of the powers and background of Captain Marvel/Shazam and how they related to Superman, but I hope it was helpful :)

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2 thoughts on “DC and Marvel both have a Captain Marvel, what’s the story there? What big differences are there between Superman and Shazam?

  1. Ed says:

    This is probably a stupid question, but why did Marvel Comics want both Captain Marvel and Captain America, when this all started back in the nineteen Forties. The two superheroes seem very similar to me, other than the fact that the characters have different back stories?

    Like

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