Ghosts of Comics’ Past: Captain Marvel & Shazam Part 2: The DC Years

By | March 23rd, 2023
Posted in Columns | % Comments

Multiversity’s history column marks the release of Shazam: Fury of the Gods with a two-part overview of the character’s history. Last week we covered his origins at Fawcett. Today, we pick up the thread after he was bought by DC Comics in the 1970s and follow along until concluding with his new title coming out in a few months.

To quickly recap where we left off, in July 1972 DC acquired the rights to the Captain Marvel, formerly the most popular and best selling superhero of the 1940s. However, Marvel Comics had snatched the trademark to the title, forcing DC to find an alternate name for their new magazine. Denny O’Neil was brought in to script and DC created a lot of buzz by hiring Captain Marvel’s co-creator, CC Beck, to return to do the pencils. “Shazam” #1 was scheduled for release in February 1973.

There was a lot of excitement among older fans who knew the character’s history, certain it would only be a matter of time before he would be the top seller again. The mainstream press was running periodic articles about the insane values of vintage comics, especially first issues and first appearances. If “Shazam” really could draw a million readers, some fans reasoned, in a few years there would be a million readers who wanted the first issue. The obvious play, therefore, would be to buy more than one copy. You know, as an investment. DC reinforced this position by advertising “Shazam” #1 as a collector’s item. Speculators bought copies by the case.

That kind of anticipation rarely pans out, and this time was no exception. The series struggled to find an audience as young readers were uninterested in the goofy hero and older readers found the stories to be an inferior version of what they remembered. It was converted to a bimonthly after a year, then to reprints only effective with issue 21 in late 1975. It was revamped at issue 25 as part of DC TV Comics with a cover banner that tied it to the Saturday morning Shazam show, new scripts mostly by E. Nelson Bridwell that mirrored the plots of the show, and pencils mostly by Kurt Schaffenberger doing his best Beck impression. Sales continued to flounder. In issue 34 Schaffenberger was replaced on pencils by Don Newton, who rendered Captain Marvel in a more realistic style for the first time. The series ended at issue 35 in 1978.

In 1977, Harmony Books released the hardcover “Shazam from the 40s to the 70s.” This single volume reprinted a variety of stories and matched similar books themed around Superman and Batman published by Bonanza in 1971. The timing for this release is strange, as the live action Saturday morning show was only airing reruns by this point and the “Shazam” comic book was selling poorly.

Captain Marvel languished in limbo for a few years until DC published “Crisis on Infinite Earths” to streamline its fictional universe and revitalize its comic line. In the follow-up miniseries “Legends,” Captain Marvel was reintroduced to readers in a way that connected him more directly to other DC heroes. That was followed by a four-issue “Shazam” miniseries written by Roy and Dann Thomas and penciled by Tom Mandrake. Sales were not strong enough to support a regular series, but Captain Marvel was elevated in the readers’ conscience. He lingered as a founding member in Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis’ “Justice League” before leaving after issue #7 to star in an “Action Comics Weekly” backup feature. The most lasting change on the character from this period was the elevation of Black Adam, previously a mid-level member of Captain Marvel’s rogue gallery, to primary nemesis.

In the 1990s, the character got another push. DC included him in their Archive line of color reprints, making his 1940 stories more affordable to contemporary fans. He played a significant role in George Perez’s 1991 Wonder Woman event “War of the Gods.” Jerry Ordway and Peter Krause launched “The Power of Shazam” in early 1995 and found an audience to support them for 40 issues. A big part of the series’ appeal to fans was its focus on Captain Marvel’s supporting cast, like Captain Marvel Jr and Mary Marvel. DC used this as a springboard to export members of the Marvel family to other titles like “Teen Titans” or “I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League,” pushing the name toward a franchise. Later that same year, Mark Waid used Captain Marvel as a main character and plot point in the company-wide crossover “Underworld Unleashed” (which oddly didn’t crossover into Ordway’s series) and as a villain in “Kingdom Come.” Also in 1995, the Mile High edition of “Whiz Comics” #2 sold at auction for $176,000, setting a new record for a comic book value.

Continued below

Captain Marvel remained a supporting character at best in the 2000s. Paul Dini and Alex Ross used him “Power of Hope,” an installment in their series of character-focused oversized one-shots. Jeff Smith retold the character’s origin in “Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil.” Captain Marvel also appeared in event books like “Judgment Day” and “Infinite Crisis” and ensemble comics like “JSA” and “52.” In the latter two he was reduced to a foil of Black Adam, who played a larger role in the stories and overtook Captain Marvel as the most popular member of the Marvel family. Judd Winick and Howard Porter’s 2006 “The Trials of Shazam” tried to modernize Captain Marvel and turn the name into a legacy by passing it to Captain Marvel Jr. Meanwhile, Mary Marvel played a major role in the weekly series “Countdown.”

When DC reset its fictional continuity in 2011, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank made another effort to update the character. When he was reintroduced in 2012, the hero’s name was officially changed to Shazam. This decision made business sense, but took a while for fans to accept. DC complicated matters by not fully committing to the rename, letting creators use “Captain Marvel” for alternate versions of the character. It’s also caused a ruckus for the editors at Wikipedia, who have argued amongst themselves about what the title of the character’s article should be. “Captain Marvel” remains the default choice for now.

Johns’ take on the character was used as the basis for the 2019 film Shazam. DC synergized with the attention brought by the film by starting a new “Shazam” comic series written by Johns again. Sales for the comic started off well but were hurt by delayed issues in its second arc. The delays were exacerbated by the Covid shutdown in 2020 and the series ended with issue 15. The character reappeared in the 2021 series “Teen Titans Academy” by Tim Sheridan and Rafa Sandoval before spinning out into a miniseries by Sheridan and Clayton Henry. At the same time, Mary Marvel did her part to support the franchise with her turn in “The Next Champion of Shazam,” a series we voted the second best new series of 2022.

In late 2022, the long-awaited Black Adam film was released to general apathy and reviews wondering why the entertaining Shazam family were left out. With the release of Shazam: Fury of the the Gods this month, DC is giving the character another shot at an ongoing comic. This time, it will be written by Mark Waid with art by Dan Mora. Waid is hoping to find better success this time by returning the character to his roots, even getting as close as he can to the “Captain Marvel” name. Time will tell if this will be a good strategy, but if Waid (and the film) are successful, this might put Captain Marvel/Shazam’s back on top as the king of his own franchise.

//TAGS | Ghosts of Comics' Past

Drew Bradley

Drew Bradley is a long time comic reader whose past contributions to Multiversity include annotations for "MIND MGMT", the Small Press Spotlight, Lettering Week, and Variant Coverage. He currently writes about the history of comic comic industry. Feel free to email him about these things, or any other comic related topic.


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