Editor’s Note: With talk of Warner Bros.’s Shazam beginning filming next year, and the character - possibly even by his original name, Captain Marvel - returning to the DCU with Dark Nights: Metal, Newsarama has dusted off our 2011 Oral History ot DC’s Captain Marvel out of the archives with a fresh coat of paint. This 13-part series, originally done for the character's 70th anniversary, will run over the course of the next few weeks, talking with many of the key creators of this character - going back even before he was a DC character at all.
The Silver Age portion of our Captain Marvel/Shazam oral history ends on a down note, as the Big Red Cheese loses both his name and one of his most important creators. We’re dedicating this piece to Otto Binder and his family, and to all their contributions to comics.
And now, on to:
The Original Captain Marvel - The Lost Years: 1954-1973, Part Three
Though lightning didn’t strike for Lightning Comics, two more characters would take Captain Marvel’s name, if not his place. The first is regarded as one of the worst superhero comics of all time.
Myron Fass created a fly-by-night company called M.F. Enterprises that put out a book called Captain Marvel, created by Carl Burgos, who created Marvel's original Human Torch. The character…oh, this part is hard to type.
He was a human-looking android from another planet who could separate his arms, legs and head from his body to fight independently by yelling “Split!”and reformed with the word “Xam!”
Yes. This was a comic book.
This Captain Marvel teamed up with an Earth boy named Billy Baxton, where he battled villains with such names as Plastic Man, Dr. Fate, and Doctor Doom. Marvel and DC were not amused. The character lasted all of four issues and a one-shot, but he may have changed Captain Marvel’s history forever.
Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, other Captain Marvel stories): “I’d seen the Captain Marvel who yelled “Split!” when I was five or six years old, but that never really registered on my radar. Terrible character.”
Michael Uslan (Executive Producer on Batman films): “Oh, God. I consider that to be one of the worst comics in history. It was probably the poster boy for bad, anti-creative comic books.
“When that book came out, Bobby Klein and I knew this fly-by-night company, M.F., was in the rip-off business – this bastardized version that was designed to cash in on the Captain Marvel name.
“If you look at the comics in that series, the characters had names like the Ray – which DC sent them a cease and desist letter, or when he was called The Bat, and then DC sent them another one saying they owned that as well. Dr. Fate, Plastic Man…it was just a rip-off.”
The fallout from this character might have led to Marvel Comics creating a Captain Marvel of their own.
Roy Thomas (writer, Shazam: The New Beginning, others): “There is a relation between the characters, but it’s hard to say exactly what it was. No one was happy because there was such a bad character called Captain Marvel. There was a lawsuit, but I don’t remember much of that.”
Michael Uslan: “It was a case of the constructive abandonment of the trademark ‘Captain Marvel’ by Fawcett after a certain period of years of no use. Stan was sharp enough to realize this, and snapped it up.
“You can bet that over the years as Marvel continued to grow and sold themselves to Disney, they were sure to trademark anything with the word ‘Marvel’ in it. They’ve done their homework, everything they could to keep that word ‘Marvel’ as theirs.”
Shortly after the limbless Captain Marvel ceased publishing, legal actions took place that allowed Marvel Comics to use the name 'Captain Marvel.' The result was a new character, an alien soldier named Mar-Vell, who was sent to Earth as a spy and switched sides to save the human race. His own book, Captain Marvel, ran on and off from the late 1960s through the early 1980s.
Roy Thomas: “The real thing is that Stan Lee and I have very different memories as to why Captain Mar-Vell came about, and my memories aren’t as direct, and Stan’s are suspect, as even he’ll admit.
“He’ll say that he felt he wanted to protect the name for Marvel Comics, and that made a certain amount of sense, even though Martin Goodman was the one who was making those kinds of decisions at the time.
“Then again, Stan did think of the Daredevil character (after the original version by Lev Gleason), so at least subconsciously knew there was a character with that name and an audience for him.
“I have definite-but-unproveable memories of Stan telling me, at that time, that he didn’t want to do a Captain Marvel character, but Martin Goodman wanted him to use that name so no one could use that character outside of Marvel Comics. At any rate, rather it was Goodman’s insistence or Stan’s idea, the character came about.
“An animation fan wrote me recently to say that an animation company had contacted Marvel about doing the character so they could adapt him into a cartoon, and they’d requested that he have a ray gun, which is why Captain Marvel wound up being from another planet and having a ray gun. But I have no memory of that happening. All I know is the basis of the character came from a resentment over the use of the ‘Captain Marvel’ name.”
Though Mar-Vell wore a green-and-white outfit and carried a ray gun in his initial appearances, he later adopted a red-and-blue outfit, and entered into a 'shared-life' partnership with Marvel Comics’ perpetual teen sidekick character Rick Jones. All resemblances to the original Captain Marvel were purely intentional.
Elliot Maggin (writer, 1970s Shazam series, Kingdom Come novelization): “I remember Gerry Conway was writing that when I was doing Shazam, and he had a Doctor Savannah, spelled like the city, and a couple of other elements that were like left-handed bows to the real Captain Marvel.”
Roy Thomas: “Oh yeah, that was a homage. The Captain Marvel we had at Marvel wasn’t going anywhere for a variety of reasons, and we handed it to Archie Goodwin, who might have taken it in an interesting direction.
“The whole look of the book was off, including the green-and-white color scheme, which I am ashamed to say was my idea - I suggested it to Gene, which was a mistake, and he took off with it. There were just so many things that weren’t gelling about the character, and one weekend I woke up and had the idea to turn it into kind of a science fiction version of the Fawcett character.
“I called up Stan and told him this idea that I thought just might save Captain Marvel. So we yanked it back from Archie, gave him something else to do. As luck would have it, a few days later Gil Kane walked in and mentioned that he’d like to work on Captain Marvel, being unaware of any changes that might be taking place with the plots.
“It was our first collaboration when we did that book, and we got along very well. The book was canceled a couple of times over the course of five issues - because the sales on the issues Gil and I did were so much higher than what the book had been doing before.”
Mar-Vell’s new direction would lead the character to some of the most acclaimed comics of the 1970s in such tales as “The Kree-Skrull War” and Jim Starlin’s tales with the villain Thanos. Though the character died in 1982, his metaphorical offpspring Carol Danvers and Kamala Khan have grew into the names Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel themselves, respectively (and incidentally, kept that 'Captain Marvel' trademark alive for Marvel).
As all this went on, Michael Uslan remained close friends with Otto Binder and his family.
Michael Uslan: “When you consider at that point in time all of these must be discussed in the context of their times, the majority of the readers were eight-to-12-year-old boys.
“Bobby Klein and I, we probably felt like kids sitting around a campfire and having a camp counselor just pull us in with the greatest stories ever. It was like being at the feet of your grandfather as he told stories of the family.
“And the greatest advantage for me at age 13 or 14 [laughs] was that here was a guy who had the most beautiful blonde of a daughter in the world, who was about my age, though she seemed a lot older, who didn’t look at Bobby and me as geeky comic book nerds! His daughter was Mary, and she was named after Mary Marvel.
“Her dad and her uncle were in the comic book business, and she even corrected me once, when I said Otto wrote Captain Marvel. She said, 'No, it was Captain Marvel Adventures.' [laughs]. I remember saying, ‘Oh, boy, this is the girl I’m going to marry! A girl who knows comics! This is great!’
“It was a wonderful family. His wife, Ione, was a wonderful, warm hospitable woman as well. Mary and I never dated. I was too shy, too in awe of her to ask her out, are you kidding?
“By the time we were 16, there was a terrible, terrible tragedy. Mary was getting ready to go into school one morning, and a car jumped the curb, and went into the driveway in front of the school and killed her.
“Otto never recovered. His wife never recovered. She had a breakdown, and Otto started drinking, and eventually he dropped dead of a heart attack. And the three of them were gone, like in a flash.”
Otto Binder died in 1974, but not before 'meeting' the character he had written for so many years.
In February 1973, on a comic book page drawn by C.C. Beck, a young man passed an older fellow carrying a briefcase with the initials “O.O.B.” “Morning, Mr. Binder!” chirped the young boy. “Morning, Billy!” waved the man, before realizing that he was talking to Billy Batson, who’d been missing for 20 years, and hadn’t aged a day.
Captain Marvel was finally back, published by DC, the company that had helped put him out of business. And comic fans were geared for the return of the hero who had once been the biggest of them all.
Next: The Shazam! Years, 1973-1987, Part One. Captain Marvel returns to comics with classic creator C.C. Beck on the art – but changing times lead to growing pains. And in days to come – TV brings Captain Marvel to a new audience, and new creators retell his origin for a modern audience.