by Christopher Tanis and Ashley Cotter-Cairns
Few superheroes have had the strange and convoluted history that Cpt. Marvel, aka Shazam, aka Billy Batson, has had.
During World War II, Captain Marvel Adventures outsold Superman by a considerable margin, but things have never quite worked out for Captain Marvel to stay as a significant cultural superhero presence.
Spinoff comics, TV series, movies, and even multiple reboots--none have helped keep Cpt. Marvel relevant for modern audiences.
History of the Comics
The character was created in 1939 by artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker for Fawcett Publications' new comics division. Fawcett was known primarily at that point for a bawdy humor magazine that had started in 1919, called "Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang!"
At first, the character's name was to be "Captain Thunder," and the comic book that was to launch him was to be named "Flash Comics" or "Thrill Comics." All of those names were already copyrighted, so Fawcett named the new comic Whiz Comics, and the hero was renamed "Captain Marvelous."
Thankfully, the editors decided to shorten the character's name to "Cpt. Marvel," to save space, and also shortened the Captain's hair, to save Brylcreem. Thus was born the hero that his arch-enemy, Dr. Sivana, would almost lovingly nickname "The Big Red Cheese."
Whiz Comics #2 (there was no Whiz #1 - don't ask why, because no one knows - no one knows, either, why there were two consecutive, different issues of Whiz Comics that appeared with the #3 on them - like we said, don't ask) appeared in February of 1940, and from there, it didn't take long for Cpt. Marvel to take off.
Original Cpt. Marvel in Whiz Comics #2
DC's renamed Shazam! was relaunched in the 1970s
Soon, he was the most popular superhero of them all, and had an entire family of sidekicks who looked like him and had similar powers.
There was Mary Marvel, Cpt. Marvel, Jr., a group of three "Lieutenant Marvels," the non-super-powered Uncle Marvel, and even Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Many more titles followed, featuring the adventures of Cpt. Marvel and the various members of the Marvel Family.
From 1940 through 1953, Fawcett exploited the Marvel franchise for all it was worth, until changing times decreed that most superheroes were shelved in favor of Westerns and mystery comics.
A 1941 Lawsuit by National (erstwhile DC Comics) against Fawcett claiming that Captain Marvel infringed Superman's copyright was dismissed on a technicality. Such, however, was National's anxiety over CM's popularity, that it was purportedly another lawsuit filed by DC that prompted Fawcett to finally give up the comics ghost.
Fawcett ceased publishing comics altogether in 1953, and Cpt. Marvel would not appear in print again until 1972, when DC began licensing the old Fawcett Characters.
By then, however, Marvel Comics had acquired the rights to the name "Cpt. Marvel," assigning it to Mar-vell, the Kree warrior made famous by Gene Colan in the 1960s and Jim Starlin in the 1970s.
DC Comics, at a loss, decided to start calling the old Captain Marvel "Shazam," after the magic word that transformed young Billy Batson into the Big Red Cheese. Of those comics, and of various and sundry retcons, more later.
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Whiz Comics #2 was the first issue to appear on the newsstands. Long story. Suffice it to say that this is really, for all intents and purposes, #1 in any sense that matters. There would be two (yes, two) issued numbered "3" that followed, so really, it all evens out. By issue #4, the numbering is correct, basically. If this gives you a headache, join the club.
In the lead story, Introducing Captain Marvel, we learn how young Billy Batson, newsboy, is approached by a mysterious and shadowy figure who leads him into an abandoned subway station.
Billy follows the man onto a strange, driverless subway car that carries them both to a tremendous cavern known as the "Rock of Eternity." Billy disembarks, and the subway car and the man disappear.
Billy walks down a long passageway lined with monstrous statues depicting the evils that plague mankind, eventually finding a little old wizard with a white beard, named Shazam, who informs Billy that he has been chosen as a new champion of justice.
Shazam shows Billy that he will possess, somewhat acronymically, 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, any time he says the magic word, "Shazam."
Speaking the word sparks a bolt of lightning which transforms Billy Batson from 12-year-old newsboy to fully-grown super-powered man Cpt. Marvel, complete with red costume and an oddly fussy white half-cape. A rock then falls on Shazam, crushing him, but his ghost appears, telling Billy/CM that his spirit will remain in the Rock of Eternity if his advice or help is ever needed.
In this issue, CM also takes on the villain destined to be his arch-nemesis, Dr. Sivana, for the first time.
The writing and pencils were by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck, who also did the honors for most of the other stories in the issue, which introduced most of the rest of Fawcett's line of burgeoning superheroes: Spy Smasher, Ibis the Invincible, Golden Arrow, and so on.
Copies of Whiz Comics #2 in any condition are very rare comics. There are only 22 graded by CGC, of which seven are restored and only 15 unrestored.
Record sale: $280,000
Minimum value (poor but complete): $2,600
With Whiz Comics #25, Fawcett set out to create an entire family of Marvels. Cpt. Marvel's popularity was immense, and sales of Whiz were through the roof. Clearly, the iron was hot, as they say, and so Fawcett struck.
Whiz #25's lead story was called The Origin of Captain Marvel, Jr., and was illustrated as usual by C.C. Beck, and written by Ed Herron. The story introduces a teenager named Freddy Freeman, who is critically injured by villain Captain Nazi in the course of a battle with Captain Marvel.
As Billy Batson, he goes to the hospital to see Freddy, and sneaks him out to the Rock of Eternity, where Shazam's ghost explains that while he cannot heal Freddy, that Billy can sacrifice some of his powers as Cpt. Marvel to help heal Freddy.
Billy transforms into Cpt. Marvel, and when semi-conscious Freddy sees him and says "Captain Marvel," he is transformed into Cpt. Marvel, Jr.
Unlike the Big Red Cheese, Freddy becomes a Marvel the same age as his normal self, but with super powers and no injuries. Also, instead of saying "Shazam," he must say, "Captain Marvel." This leads to the ironic reality that he cannot introduce himself to people without changing back to Freddy Freeman. In his regular identity, he heals slowly, and remains lame in one leg from his injuries.
Cpt. Marvel, Jr., would go on to star in the Fawcett title Master Comics, and in his own title, which would both be written and drawn in a somewhat more adult, less cartoonish style than Whiz. He would also become a fixture in the Marvel Family Comics when they appeared.
This comic does not command the same price as Whiz #2, but its rarity and historical importance, combined with the generally high values for any Golden Age superhero comic in good condition, make it a nice find.
Record sale: $7,000
Minimum value (poor but complete): $200
Cpt. Marvel got his own comic book in the early 40s. Cpt. Marvel Adventures #1 is a classic, simple cover.
This blue cover is hard to find in any condition, but high-grade copies are unknown. The best-known is only graded 5.0 out of 10 by CGC.
There is also a Wheaties giveaway promotion of this comic book that turns up from time to time.
Record sale: $11,300
Minimum value (poor but complete): $1,000
Cpt. Marvel Adventures #18 (December, 1942): Mary Marvel Joins the Marvel Family
By the end of 1942, Fawcett knew they were onto a good thing, and decided to follow DC's venture into female superheroes with a female Marvel. Based on Judy Garland's appearance by artist Marc Swayze, Mary Marvel was introduced in Captain Marvel Adventures in December of that year.
In the story, called Captain Marvel Introduces Mary Marvel, by Otto Binder and Marc Swayze, young Mary Bromfield finds that she can transform into a Marvel by saying the word "Shazam."
Mary, it turns out, is actually Mary Batson, the long-lost, adopted, forgotten twin sister of Billy Batson. Conveniently, since she is a Batson, Shazam's gifts to Billy apply to her as well.
Unlike Billy, who becomes an adult when he turns into Cpt. Marvel, Mary stays a teenager (by this time Billy and she are roughly 14) when she says "Shazam." She and Cpt. Marvel, Jr., would become the permanent and most important allies of Captain Marvel.
Mary soon became the lead feature in Wow Comics and then her own title. She also appeared every month in The Marvel Family alongside the other Marvels.
Mary Marvel was the most popular female superhero of the 1940s, and although she is largely forgotten today, her premiere appearance will sell strongly in good condition.
Record sale: $3,450
Minimum value (poor but complete): $100
Whiz Comics #155 was the end of the line for Fawcett's comic book publishing division.
Driven by a changing market that was moving away from superhero comics into westerns and adventure stories and by ongoing litigation from DC, Fawcett packed it in with the June, 1953 issue of Whiz.
The story, titled Captain Marvel Battles the Legend Horror, does not tie up the continuity of the characters. Written by Otto Binder and illustrated by the ever-present C.C. Beck, this was a typical issue of Whiz in every way.
There isn't much that's special about it, except that it is the last appearance of Captain Marvel until 1972, when DC began licensing the Fawcett characters.
Once rebooted, however, the Marvels would not overlap with the DC continuity exactly. At first, they would be kept completely separate, but eventually, the world they lived on would be designated "Earth-S," and incorporated into the whole complex of Earths One, Two, Three, Prime, and sundry others.
Things would change drastically after the Crisis of 1986, and retcons aplenty would change the fates and origin stories of all the Marvels dramatically, in ways far too numerous go into here.
This issue is scarce, but less desirable to collectors than earlier issues simply because of its date.
Record sale: $450
Minimum value (poor but complete): $20
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