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An Oral History of SHAZAM, the World's Mightiest Mortal
The Original Captain Marvel - The SHAZAM Years: 1973-1987, Part Three (conclusion)
By the time the television series Shazam! went off the air in 1977, Captain Marvel had found a new generation of fans. The character even appeared in the superhero “Roasts” Hanna-Barbera did in the 1970s, but no sentient being who has ever viewed those wants to remember them. Five words: Ruth Buzzi as Aunt Minerva.
In the mid-1970s, darker versions of Captain Marvel began to emerge. At Marvel, Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes did Omega the Unknown, about an alien superhero linked to a young boy in Hell’s Kitchen. The series contained many thematic resonances to Captain Marvel (a character resembling Freddy Freeman appears in the third issue), but instead reflected how the alien superhero was unable to help this boy struggling to survive the urban environment.Though it only lasted for 10 issues, Omega the Unknown’s enigmatic plotline and depiction of urban reality made an impression on such writers as Jonathan Lethem, who re-imagined the series for Marvel a few years ago.
In prose, Robert Mayer’s novel Superfolks was one of the first works to explore the idea of a superhero in the real world. An acknowledged influence on Alan Moore and Grant Morrison (along with Kurt Busiek’s Astro City), its tale of a middle-aged superhero brought out of retirement included appearances from Captain Marvel himself, along with an analogue called “Captain Mantra,” whose magic word was “Tomato-Herring!”In the course of the book, the villain, Demoniac, is revealed to be the incestuous offspring of Captain Mantra and his sister Mary. While highly influential, Superfolks proved a harbinger of dark times ahead.Elliot Maggin (writer, 1970s Shazam series, Kingdom Come novelization): “I was horrified by it. That stuff in Miracleman was from Mayer? Oh, man.
“I was writing Last Son of Krypton when that came out, and I picked it up because I wanted to see how similar it was to my novel, and I was wringing my hands. I took it to my girlfriend and said, ‘Does this blow my work out of the water?’ She read it and said, ‘Well, it’s not really that good. I think Mayer’s friends at Newsday are hyping it for him.’
“I went to my editor at Warner Books and she said, ‘Yeah, he tried to shop it here. We turned it down because we already had your book.’ That made me feel good [laughs]. I didn’t worry about it after that, but I really, really hated that book!”
Alex Ross (Kingdom Come, Shazam: Power of Hope, Justice): “Superfolks was right along with Alan Moore’s Twilight storyline (that never was produced) in that they took an extremely cynical approach to the kind of comic book universe closure that Kingdom Come also attempted (but quite differently).
“These works were more disheartening to me when I read them, as I knew some historians would dismiss my work as somehow a copycat of their preceding mine and Mark Waid’s.”
In the 1978, the same year as Superman: The Movie’s release, DC finally gave fans a showdown three decades in the making with the treasury-sized Superman vs. Shazam! Written by Gerry Conway and illustrated by Rich Buckler, the battle included some knock-down, drag-out moments, though fans might have wanted to see more than just the heroes manipulated into battling each other by a new villain.
Unfortunately, it was overshadowed somewhat by some other Superman treasury crossovers – including the recently reprinted Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. Hey, he’s the Greatest for a reason.
Alex Ross: “Superman vs. Shazam!, the oversized tabloid comic, begat Kingdom Come in many ways. Captain Marvel just imagining what might happen if he got Superman in the path of his magic lightning had me thinking for years from my childhood.”
Michael Uslan (Executive Producer of all Batman movies, forthcoming Shazam film): “We all knew as fans that from Day One there had been this inherent animosity between Superman and Captain Marvel, that they had battled it out in a courtroom.
“And to see them battling it out in comics other than in the pages of MAD magazine with Superduperman vs. Captain Marbles – which was maybe the most brilliant thing ever done – it was fun, and a chance for Superman to share the spotlight with Captain Marvel.
“I think the timing was wrong, again. Had it been 1963, it could have been a completely glorious, different fate.”
Captain Marvel remained a mainstay of DC Comics, with his friends and enemies located on “Earth-S,” apart from the regular DC Universe. Though his own book was canceled, he occasionally crossed over into the DC Universe.Most notable among these appearances was the Gil Kane-illustrated DC Comics Presents Annual #3, where Dr. Sivana stole his powers to become “General Sivana,” and entered into an epic throw-down with Superman that only Captain Marvel’s intervention could end. Roy Thomas plotted the story, which future editor Joey Cavalieri finished.
Roy Thomas (writer, Shazam: The New Beginning, others: “It was a good one. I'm sorry I didn't push to find time to dialogue it myself.”The character even returned to TV in another Filmation series, this one animated. The Kid Power Hour with Shazam! ran on NBC on Saturday mornings from 1981 to 1982, and included the extended Marvel Family with many classic villains, including Black Adam, Mr. Mind, Mr. Atom and the Sivana Family. Airing alongside the cartoon Hero High, it didn’t quite capture the same audience as the live-action version from just a few years before, and ended after 13 episodes.
Around this time, there was also an unrelated lawsuit that might have saved Captain Marvel back in the 1950s. DC sued ABC and producer Stephen J. Cannell to prevent them from airing the series The Greatest American Hero, which they believed was a knock-off of Superman. Cannell and ABC won at trial and on appeal, helping set a precedent for future copyright cases. For Captain Marvel, it was a decision several decades too late.
In the early 1980s, one writer began a run that would redefine superhero comics – and the medium of comics itself – with Warrior #1. The British comics magazine included two serials from a young man from Northampton named Alan Moore. One was a tale of an anarchist in a future Britain called V for Vendetta. The other was Marvelman.
Reprinted as Miracleman in the states (Marvel Comics wasn’t thrilled about the name), Marvelman revived the story of the British Captain Marvel knock-off, as a 40ish Mickey Moran recalled his repressed past at an anti-nuclear protest.
One of the first stories to really explore the conflict between idealistic superheroes and the modern world, Marvelman entered into an acclaimed run by Moore and later Neil Gaiman before succumbing to rights issues that Marvel Comics is currently attempting to untangle. This piece is long enough, but trust us, it’s complicated.
In one of the worst kept secrets in the comics industry, Moore also wrote a proposal for a crossover called Twilight of the Superheroes, set in a future where different “Houses” of heroes were in conflict. It’s been taken down many times, but do a quick Google and you’ll find it.
Alex Ross: “I took great inspiration from Alan Moore’s work with Miracleman, and that made its definite impact in crafting Kingdom Come. I disliked the human foibles of Alan’s flawed superhuman and only desired a return to heroic idealism all the more because of his work.
“The characters who have pulled successfully from Captain Marvel show how the basic ideas do have resonance with contemporary audiences, even if DC can never seem to find that connection themselves.”
Chip Kidd (author, Shazam!: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal): “With Marvelman/Miracleman, that was the tenor of the times. I mean, Alan Moore is a genius, and to take a Billy Batson character in his 40s, who has grown up and has amnesia, and sees the word ‘Atomic’ in a mirror and realizes “Kimota’ was the word that made him into this god... I think Moore made very compelling stories – are they Captain Marvel stories? Well, sort of, but you wouldn’t want to give those to small kids.
“And then there was Twilight of the Superheroes, with the House of Thunder and House of Steel as great rivals, where Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel were married.
“Certainly, Captain Marvel presents the opportunity to represent a more interesting time…though of course you’ve got plenty of covers with titles like ‘Captain Marvel Swats the Japs!’ There’s a submachine gun in the serial. For as light-hearted as the stories were, he had his moments in the service of the war effort and propaganda that are sort of savage and brutal and very un-Captain-Marvel-Like.”
In 2009, Marvelman’s return through Marvel Comics was one of the biggest announcements of the San Diego Comic-Con. In some ways, this dark mirror of Captain Marvel has gained a higher profile with modern comic fans than the character that inspired him.
Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, other Captain Marvel stories): “I think that has everything to do with the context that people are afraid of Captain Marvel and don’t know what to do with him.
“I don’t think there’s anything terrifying about him, but there’s that fear that he’s a childish character, and we can’t do superhero comics that aren’t for 45-year-olds living in their mothers’ basements. I think that’s a stupid fear, but that’s a big part of it.”
In the mid-1980s, DC had gerrymandered enough characters from now-defunct comic companies that their process of organizing them into a “Multiverse” of different Earths was starting to confuse even them.The result was Crisis on Infinite Earths, a massive event that ran 12 issues and approximately 4 billion crossovers, where a lot of the Earths got exploded, and some didn’t, and then there was just one Earth where everything had started over except for all the stuff that had still been around for a while, and no one knew what the deal was with Hawkman, and then there were like three other crossovers to explain the inconsistencies and then there were a bunch of different Earths again anyway because Mr. Mind turned into a butterfly or something.
That’s the short version.
Captain Marvel valiantly led the heroes of Earth-S against the forces of evil. In the aftermath, his history started over again – this time on the same Earth as Superman. Captain Marvel was portrayed as part of the Justice League International, where his clean-cut style contrasted with the more cynical members (earning him the nickname “Captain Whitebread”).
Elliot Maggin: “It was a mistake, I think, to bring him into the DC Universe with the other characters. I tried doing it, I think, in the 1970s, by creating a new character, Captain Thunder.
“Cary (Bates) was all excited because he’d gotten the artwork back on a story with his character Captain Strong. He ran around all morning with the art going, ‘Curt (Swan) drew Popeye as though he existed in the real world!’ I thought that was funny, so I had Curt draw a Captain Marvel story, as though he existed in the real world.
“I couldn’t justify, I think, having Captain Marvel and Superman in the same world. Nelson (Bridwell) wrote later, ‘We weren’t ready to do that yet.’ I was never ready to do it. I did use him quite a bit in the Kingdom Come novel.”
Mark Waid: “I’ve always said what a horrible mistake it was to bring Captain Marvel into mainstream DC. He doesn’t belong in the same universe as Superman and Green Arrow and Green Lantern. He just doesn’t.
“I don’t know. I’ve talked at great length with Grant Morrison about some of the stuff he wants to do with Captain Marvel down the road in the Multiversity book, and I think he can get back to what makes those characters work. But, eh, it’s a long road home.”
Jeff Smith (writer/artist, Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil): “Absolutely he should be in his own universe. As a kid, I hated it when they tried to push all the superheroes together. It just seemed pretty unbelievable that Batman would show up to a board meeting at the same table as Aquaman! It never worked for me.
“That’s especially true for Captain Marvel. He is the king of his universe. It just doesn’t make sense to have other superheroes in it. They don’t deserve to be in his universe [laughs].”
Alex Ross: “I’m of two minds about Captain Marvel in his own universe. In one way, he is served better by being his world’s Superman, never to be contrasted and compared against. On the other hand, there is a great deal of fun to that contrast in stories I’ve enjoyed by others, and by ones I’ve been directly involved with. In some way, having both would be best.
“Could the return of alternate earths for DC give him back his own kingdom? Would it be better to ghettoize him there or always make him available for crossover? I’m really not sure if there is a perfect answer.
“I’ve always wanted Captain Marvel’s place in DC to be seen as one of the ‘Big Four,’ since that’s kind of the placement DC pushed him as in the mid-‘70s when I first encountered him. I’ve done the best I could to try and reassert that.”
Next: We head into the home stretch with The New Beginning Years: 1987-2005. Roy Thomas and Jerry Ordway each take Captain Marvel back to his origins, featuring a ton of original art from Ordway and Peter Krause.
And in days to come: Alex Ross talks about his unrealized Captain Marvel projects, Jeff Smith and Mike Kunkel talk their all-ages version of the character, and everyone we’ve spoken with chimes in on Captain Marvel’s future.
Legal versions of Miracleman are hard to come by, though we recommend The Miracleman Companion from TwoMorrows for more information.
Superfolks was reprinted by St. Martin's Griffin in 2005 with a forward by Grant Morrison; it’s available from such outlets as Amazon.
Both versions of Omega the Unknown were reprinted by Marvel.
Jeff Lemire (www.jefflemiere.com), who’s busy in the DC Universe himself these days, provided the art page from DC Comics Presents Annual#3. The story was reprinted in the 2008 compilation The Greatest Shazam Stories Ever Told from DC.
Brian Morris provided the pieces by Rich Buckler.
Jim Clancy provided the piece by John Byrne.
Dwayne Dush provided the storyboards from the 1980 Shazam! cartoon.
Greg McKee provided the piece by Tony DeZuniga.
Kenneth Zenuk provided the piece by Dave Cockrum.