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.
Newsarama's super-sized oral history of Captain Marvel continues today as we look back at Captain Marvel’s return to comic books.
This is one of our biggest installments to date, so let’s get down to…
The Original Captain Marvel - The SHAZAM Years: 1973-1987, Part One
By the early 1970s, Captain Marvel had been gone from newsstands for almost two decades under the terms of Fawcett Publications’ settlement with DC Comics. But DC itself was facing problems as the changing times - and changing style of comic books - made many of their older heroes seem old-fashioned and out of touch.
Longtime DC artist Carmine Infantino was promoted to editorial director and later publisher. His achievements included bringing in such new talents as Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, who brought Batman back to his roots as the Dark Knight, and hiring Jack Kirby away from Marvel, where he created characters such as the New Gods, the Demon and Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth.
But revitalizing the Superman books proved a tough nut to crack, even with Denny O’Neil creating a new, less-powered status quo for the character and Jack Kirby bringing Jimmy Olsen into his “Fourth World” group of books. DC’s solution? In a variation on what they did with Kirby, they decided to hire the competition.
Michael Uslan (Executive Producer of the Batman movies): “In 1972 or 1973, when sales of Superman weren’t so great, DC turned to Fawcett and said, ‘Hey, you can’t do anything with this character without our permission under the terms of the settlement, so how about licensing the character to us, and we’ll publish it?’”
Chip Kidd (author, Shazam!: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal): “I don’t think the irony of this was lost on anyone.”
Of course, it wasn’t as easy as just bringing Captain Marvel back - Marvel Comics now had the trademark to the title 'Captain Marvel.' So DC went with the next best title – Shazam!.
Michael Uslan: “By the time Carmine Infantino and (DC VP, later president) Sol Harrison approached Fawcett about bringing back Captain Marvel, they were stopped from using the name on the cover as a title.
“Now, you’ll find on the earliest issues of Shazam!, the title reads Shazam!: The Original Captain Marvel. And then Marvel sent them a cease and desist letter saying that under trademark laws, you couldn’t even have the name prominently on the cover like that. So they had to then had to change it to Shazam!: The World’s Mightiest Mortal.”
Jeff Smith (writer/artist, Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil): “I had not experienced the character at all, not even reprints of Golden Age stories, until DC did that comic in the 1970s. I remember getting Shazam #1 and seeing ‘The Original Captain Marvel!’ on the cover.”
Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, other Captain Marvel stories): “That was what got me into the character - the hoopla that came with the relaunch of Shazam! in 1972. I had read The Great Comic Book Heroes with the one page on Captain Marvel - legally, that was all you could do! - and I was intrigued by the character.
“I think the reason why I and a lot of other kids were intrigued was because he was a forbidden character. You know, ‘the character that dare not speak its name.’ You couldn’t talk about him because of all the legal ramifications and he’d been sued out of existence and so forth.
“Aside from the character himself, people wanted to see this character who had all this legal stuff behind him and know what all the hype was about. It was a big launch!”
Today, it’s typical for collectors to horde copies of new books in hope that they’ll go up in value. Back then, it was a new idea - and Shazam! #1, with Captain Marvel reintroduced on the cover by Superman himself, was one of the first books that fans just had to have.
Mark Waid: “It was one of the first speculator books. The Green Lantern/Green Arrow stuff, I think, had run into problems with speculators where they were buying extra copies off the stands to create weird sales reports. But Shazam #1 was one of the first, if I recall, where retailers and fans were buying up copies.
“I even bought two copies back then, when I was 10 years old. And now, that 20¢ investment is now worth a cool $3.50, so let me tell you, I had my finger on the pulse.”
Michael Uslan: “I bought 12.”
The first issue revealed that Captain Marvel, along with Mary, Junior and most of the supporting cast had been trapped by Dr. Sivana and his children in a globe of “Suspendium” for 20 years (along with the Sivanas themselves). Finally freed, they adjusted surprisingly well to the new times and set about fighting crime again.
It was just like old times. By the second issue, it was revealed Mr. Mind had survived his trip to the electric chair; later, Dr. Sivana’s 'Reincarnation Machine' would restore the 5,000-year-old evil of Black Adam from the ancient dust to hate again.
The biggest coup was not only having Captain Marvel back, but one of the original creators back as well. C.C. Beck had mostly gone into commercial art after the end of the Fawcett books, though he’d unsuccessfully shopped a Tawky Tawny newspaper strip to syndicates with Otto Binder, and reunited with him on the short-lived Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer.
But now Beck was back on the character that’d made him a hit in comic books, giving DC’s revival an added boost of credibility… and publicity. The book combined new covers and short stories illustrated by Beck with reprints of the Marvel Family’s older tales. It seemed like a surefire blockbuster.
A number of DC’s best young writers were paired with Beck on Shazam!, including Denny O’Neil, E. Nelson Bridwell, and Elliot Maggin.
Maggin, one of the few young writers interested in doing Superman tales in the late 1960s, would do many of the Man of Steel’s most memorable tales from the ‘70s and ‘80s, including “Must There be a Superman?,” “The Luthor Nobody Knows,” and the prose novels The Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday. He also did an acclaimed Superman story that pitted him against an obvious Captain Marvel analog named Captain Thunder, after Captain Marvel’s original name.
In writing for Superman’s 'rival,' Maggin, along with the other writers, took a different, more kid-friendly approach.
Elliot Maggin (writer, 1970s Shazam! series, Kingdom Come novelization): “The question we had at the time was whether we should do what they had before and see if it worked. They decided to go that route, and promoted the hell out of it!”
“The first story I did was the Sunny Sparkle story - that was in issue #2. The thing I liked about it was you could do things you couldn’t do with the so-called 'realistic' superheroes. They’re superheroes, there’s nothing realistic about them! [Laughs]
“Sunny Sparkle was a guy who was the nicest guy in the world, and he was so nice that the minute you looked at him, you wanted to give him things. At some point, little old ladies would stuff jewelry in his pockets, and once a week he’d have a truck back up to his house so he could load it up with things people had given him so he could donate it to the Salvation Army, and at some point a criminal walks up to him with a satchel full of cash and stuffs it in his pockets. And Captain Marvel helps him track down these criminals who’d given him his loot because he’s so nice.
“You can’t get away with stuff like that on Superman! [Laughs] Definitely not Batman. That worked pretty well at the time, I thought, so I kept coming up with superlatives. There was a guy who was the world’s dullest human- Dick Giordano drew that like one of his kids. [Laughs].”
Very young readers and older fans enjoyed the retro take on Captain Marvel, but for many readers, the series felt out of place.
Michael Uslan: “It was like being in a time warp. As a fan and collector, and someone who worshipped the Golden Age of Captain Marvel, it was almost tearful - tears of joy - when I saw C.C. Beck’s work gracing the pages of a comic book.
“That said…it was an anachronism. At that time, comics were still in an age of relevancy. The audiences were in a process of getting older quicker. The more successful comic books were beginning to adapt to that, to cater to that college-age audience and older.
“And I think Captain Marvel got caught in the wrong age at the wrong time, and it was not working for the people who were buying comic books. The comic shops were getting underway, distribution was in flux. It was hard to get comics in the hands of kids who could appreciate a cartoony Billy Batson.”
Working with C.C. Beck was a coup for Maggin, but it proved to be a frustrating experience. Beck hated the new, more realistic direction of comic books, but also hated many of the whimsical scripts he was getting.
Elliot Maggin: “When C.C. Beck wanted to do the series, Carmine Infantino and Julie Schwartz jumped on it, because if we were going to do this book with him, we were going to have to do it fantastically. That was the decision point, when he came on. And then he didn’t work out.
“He changed scripts - he made changes in storylines that were very strange. I’ll tell you one specific example. There was a point where Cap was in a circus for some reason, and there were a bunch of elephants stampeding, so the way he stopped them was by tying their trunks together.
“Well, for some reason, C.C. didn’t want to draw that, so he just drew Cap shouldering into an elephant and knocking him over. And you know, that’s okay, but it wasn’t what I’d come up with. And I’m no artist, but I liked the image, and I couldn’t understand why C.C. didn’t want to draw it.
“He would give us notes on our scripts, telling us how to format our scripts better. [Laughs] And I didn’t object to any of this stuff! But after a while, Denny O’Neil and I would sit in the corner and snicker about it. Eventually, he started pulling the same stuff on Julie, and he was out the door.”
Michael Uslan: “The politics were no good internally. You had the war between C.C. Beck and… let’s say everyone, because it wasn’t just aimed at the writers, at Julius Schwartz, it was at all of comics. Let’s not forget he hated Mac Raboy’s stuff. To him, that was illustration, not comics.
“And when you have creative differences - and I know that’s a standard Hollywood phrase being used for everything from contract disputes to creative disputes - but this was truly a creative dispute. He’d had similar problems with Otto when they were doing Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer. There was friction between these two old friends, who’d fought side-by-side in the trenches for so long.
“C.C. Beck was a curmudgeon at this stage of his life, but that’s okay - there’ve been plenty of great curmudgeons in comics. Alex Toth was one for much of his life; Julius Schwartz was one in his own way. But, respectfully, they could afford to be. They knew what they liked, and they knew what worked and what didn’t.
“Sometimes, you can dig in your heels a little too much, and the world around you changes. The times change. And it becomes harder and harder to adapt. And I speak from experience, but thank God I have kids now, and I listen to them, and I’m listening to kinds of music and media experiences and technological experiences I think otherwise I would have turned off to because it’s a different generation. And I think that’s part of what the whole problem was.”
The conflict between Beck and the other creators reached a boiling point when he refused to draw the script for Shazam! #10, which included such lighthearted fare as a Maggin-scripted tale with Captain Marvel helping some talking alien vegetables called 'Salad Men.' DC had enough, and Beck was out.
At Nelson Bridwell’s suggestion, Beck did his own story, “Captain Marvel vs. Evil Incarnate,” pitting the Marvel Family against the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man. Bridwell’s rewrites to the script didn’t set well with Beck, and he washed his hands of the book.
C.C. Beck remained active, attending cons, doing cover recreations and writing columns for The Comics Journal until his death in 1989. He remained dissatisfied with comic books and Captain Marvel’s treatment in until the end.
In an editorial written in 1987, published in Alter Ego several years ago, Beck lamented of DC, “They were trying to kill Captain Marvel, bury him, and drive a stake through his lifeless body. Now, at last, they have succeeded.”
Sales were already in decline, and a few issues later, Shazam! became nothing but reprints.
Roy Thomas (writer, Shazam: The New Beginning, others): “I think the times had just changed, and the stories weren’t quite right. If they’d brought Otto Binder back to write them, they might have fit better, but I don’t know if they’d have caught on.
“It’s hard to get back into something after you’ve jumped out of it, and almost two decades had gone by. Even with Otto writing it - well, I think it would have done better, and caught on better with people. And Beck’s artwork wasn’t as good as it had been, not just because he hadn’t been working on it for a long time, and because it was at a smaller size than the original comics.
“In addition, toward the end of the original run, I believe Beck was being assisted by Pete Costanza, who gave his work a look that wasn’t necessarily more realistic, but a bit less of a cartoony look than it had in the early-to-mid-1940s.
“And I think that a look that was closer to Beck and Costanza combined - which was close to what Kurt Schaffenberger got to do - might have succeeded better than Beck’s work by itself, which was so cartoony that no one but the youngest kids would find it appealing.
“Beck might have been able to pencil a story if someone else had inked it. And I know he had problems with the writing, what Denny and Elliot and other people did, but he wasn’t the best judge because he didn’t write those original stories! He took what Otto and the others wrote, and drew it, which is what he’d always said he’d done.
“But he decided these new stories weren’t good enough, and refused to draw them. Now, on the other hand, he might have been curmudgeonly because they were new, younger writers. If they had sent Beck a script and told him it was by someone else, maybe he would have liked them better! Who knows?”
Jerry Ordway (writer/artist, The Power of Shazam, others): “When I got the assignment to do Captain Marvel, I went back and reread the 1970s series as part of my research, and I thought it was pretty well done. I told Denny O’Neil this, and he thanked me, but indicated that he didn’t feel like he had the right grasp on the characters - that the book was an assignment by Julius Schwartz because, you know, he was one of Julie’s star writers.
“But I thought it was a lot of fun, reading it again, and underrated in what it attempted in recapturing the feel of the 1940s book.”
Jeff Smith: “I think the change of the times was a problem. It wasn’t fair to ask someone at the height of their powers, at the height of their fame, to just stop, and to come back 20 years later to try to recapture that lightning.
“You just can’t do that. I couldn’t jump back in and start writing Bone again. There was that moment in time in the 1990s where I could just feel the story in my mind and my readers with me. I couldn’t just recapture that, and it wasn’t fair to expect that of C.C. Beck.
“Plus, as I said, times had changed, and readers had changed. He was coming out at the same time as Neal Adams’ work! I can only imagine what it was like to look at a Neal Adams Batman page and then look at this seemingly cookie-cutter-shaped superhero with this cartoony look. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what people were looking for at that time. “
Mark Waid: “I loved the 1970s series - I liked Nelson Bridwell’s stuff a lot, and what Elliot Maggin was doing, and the first Captain Marvel Jr. story of the 1970s where Dave Cockrum did the art - great-looking story. They knocked him off the book after one issue - what a dumb move! But it was a great series.
“C.C. Beck and I would disagree on this, but C.C. Beck was also a legendary curmudgeon who by anybody’s recollection never agreed with anything anybody ever did ever, ever, ever. On the one hand, you want to give his opinion weight, because he was one of the creators of the character and its shepherd during its most successful 13 or 14 years.
“On the other hand, you look at his writings and treatises and screeds and rants in the years since and think, ‘Well, maybe you didn’t have the most objective perspective, Mr. Beck.’
“I think that I liked the 1970s stuff because I was 10 years old, and I was a fan, and there was no DC comic I didn’t like at age 10. But looking back, I think that stuff has a great sense of humor and whimsy and holds up with some of the better Captain Marvel stories of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Certainly the visual continuity was there, with Bob Oksner doing his best C.C. Beck and Kurt Schaffenberger carrying the torch.
“I thought the stuff held up, and after the TV show came out, they started foundering and going ‘let’s make it more like the TV show, let’s tie it in,’ and it kind of lost its way and became a little too serious. And you get near the end of that run, and they’re doing anti-wacky stuff with Don Newton and Alan Weiss and other darker artists.
“I really felt that after the first 15 issues, they didn’t know what to do with it.”
Mike Kunkel (writer/artist, Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam): “The thing I remember is that it was fun. That’s the main thing I remember – the fun-ness of it.”
But Captain Marvel would soon get a second wind…on the small screen.
Next: The Shazam Years, Part 2. Jackson Bostwick recounts bringing Captain Marvel to life on Saturday mornings, while Don Newton brings a new artistic style to the Big Red Cheese.