An Oral History of DC's CAPTAIN MARVEL/SHAZAM: The SHAZAM! Years, Part 2

Captain Marvel/Shazam!
Credit: CBS
Credit: Dean Haspiel

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.

This is part eight - go back and read part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, and part seven and then onto part nine.

The Original Captain Marvel - The SHAZAM Years: 1973-1987, Part Two

Though DC’s new series Shazam! had hoped to return Captain Marvel to his former glory, the title’s retro approach didn’t catch on, and Captain Marvel co-creator C.C. Beck proved a difficult collaborator.

Credit: Kurt Schaffenberger (DC Comics)

After Beck left, he was replaced on the title by another Captain Marvel veteran, Kurt Schaffenberger. Along with doing the art for a large number of Marvel Family stories throughout Fawcett’s run, Schaffenberger had been recruited to DC Comics by Otto Binder in 1957, where he served as the lead artist for Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane.

Schaffenberger’s rendition of Lois was considered so definitive that editor Mort Weisinger would often have other artists leave Lois’ face blank in their books, so Schaffenberger could draw it in. His work on Shazam! helped give it a look that linked the classic and modern eras.

Credit: Kurt Schaffenberger (DC Comics)

Elliot Maggin (writer, 1970s Shazam series, Kingdom Come novelization): “After C.C. left, my feeling was Kurt Schaffenberger could do anything C.C. could do, and better [sighs]. But after he left, it didn’t make sense to anybody to follow that course anymore, because it hadn’t worked. If we’d started with Kurt, or someone like him, we could have made a go of it.

"Shazam! sold okay. It just didn’t sell well enough to justify the amount of publicity they put into it.”

Alex Ross (Kingdom Come, Shazam: Power of Hope, Justice): “It wasn’t the right instinct to simply resurrect the same approach Captain Marvel had in the ‘40s and early ‘50s with art and storytelling. Marvel Comics had successfully matured the art form and reader base while DC was slow to respond.

“By the mid-‘70s, though, they already knew better. With their own advancement of Batman and the whole look of DC’s books by Neal Adams, they had a template to follow. It took them years before they would give the character over to his best bronze-age benefactor, Don Newton.”

A lifelong Captain Marvel fan, Don Newton earned a large fan base in the 1970s for his work on such characters as the Phantom at Charlton Comics and Batman for DC. In the early 1970s, he’d become good friends with C.C. Beck, who unsuccessfully pitched Newton as his assistant on Shazam!

Newton first took over as artist on Captain Marvel with Shazam! #35, the last issue of that series, then did an additional 30 stories with Captain Marvel as a feature in World’s Finest from issues #253 to 281.

His work on Captain Marvel combined a more modern, realistic look for the character with the whimsical, kid-oriented scripts. Though some felt Newton’s style was an ill fit for the character, others regard his work as one of the highlights of Captain Marvel’s career.

Credit: Don Newton (DC Comics)

Jerry Ordway (writer/artist, The Power of Shazam, others): “I read the first issue, thought it was pretty decent, and then they got into all this silly stuff. But I thought it got great again toward the end, with Don Newton and Nelson Bridwell’s stories.”

Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, other Captain Marvel stories): “I’m a huge fan of Don Newton’s work, and I know he was a huge fan of Captain Marvel, but there was always something very shadowy and gloomy about his work on the character for me. Personally speaking, it always worked on conflict with what Captain Marvel should be for me. But that’s not a knock on him - he was a brilliant, brilliant artist. I’m just saying that run was not to my taste. “

Surprisingly, C.C. Beck was also not a fan of Newton’s work, and was angered that Newton decided not to continue the book in Beck’s style. The friendship between Beck and Newton was permanently soured, but Newton’s work with Captain Marvel is still fondly remembered by many fans, and he remained a prolific artist for Marvel and DC until his untimely death from a heart attack in 1984.

Michael Uslan (Executive Producer of the Batman movies): “I knew Don Newton, and I loved his work. Don and I actually talked about doing a Phantom story together for Charlton about the bicentennial, and it was going to be the Phantom of 1776. I still have the outline for that.

“This was daring, because they knew Captain Marvel wasn’t working, and Beck was off the book. They brought in Schaffenberger, which made total sense, because Kurt Schaffenberger had been there at Fawcett with Binder and Beck. But the style wasn’t working for the mid-1970s.

Credit: Don Newton

“They were doing reprints, the 100-page super spectaculars and the dollar comic treasury editions, and it’s my understanding they sold pretty well. But they had to do something new. And what Don did, as I understand it, just shook the rafters. People weren’t used to seeing a Captain Marvel who wasn’t drawn in a cartoony manner. And all of the sudden there was something very stylized and realistic about it.

“But I think even with all the changes, Don stayed very true to the integrity of the characters, to everything that had come before. But it’s similar.

“Batman has gone through so many changes over the years, to use a comparison. It started as the creature of the night stalking criminals from the shadows. Then in comes Robin, and it’s two guys punning their way through adventures and hopping on giant typewriters and battling this grotesque Rogue’s Gallery.

“Then there’s Bat-Mite, Batwoman, Ace the Bat-Hound... and then came the Superman-Batman of Planet X, the Bat-Genie, and the whole “Pow!” “Zap!” “Wham!” and the entire 1960s camp movement before reverting to his darker roots.

“There’ve been so many interpretations of Batman, each relevant to the generation for which it was published. I think if Captain Marvel would have been continuously published, like Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman, there would have been different interpretations and variations in the history of Captain Marvel. Because of that, you’ve got to say that Don Newton’s interpretation was entirely valid.”

DC tried a number of their best artists on Captain Marvel, but nothing seemed the right fit. Dave Cockrum, who went on to co-create Marvel’s successful X-Men revival, did one Captain Marvel Jr. story that got good reviews, but was removed from the book because DC felt his style wasn’t suited for the character.

Other artists who tried their hand at Captain Marvel had to contend with the conflict between the cartoony look older fans were used to, and the more realistic look known to the readers of today.

Credit: Ron Lim

Alex Ross: “As I said before, Don Newton was a gift to Captain Marvel’s translation into the modern age. Rich Buckler delivered the Neal Adams-type of art that I believe was sorely needed to aid him in the transition to these times. Jerry Ordway and Jeff Smith each kept aspects of art and history alive to pass on to the next generation. Most people that touched the character did so because they were passionate to do so, and that’s not the way it always works.”

Michael Uslan: “It was a market that was growing up, that was becoming more mature in its stories, where the art was in the styles pioneered by people like Jack Kirby and Neal Adams and Jim Steranko. Comics were growing up and appealing to an older, more sophisticated audience, and the timing wasn’t great.

“If it wasn’t for the Shazam! TV show, I think it might have fallen by the wayside even earlier.”

Indeed, Newton and other artists might not have had the chance to work with Captain Marvel if he hadn’t found a new audience on TV.

Filmation, who would go on to do such cartoons as Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, had a hit with the Saturday morning series Shazam!, which ran from 1974 to 1977 on CBS, later paired with the new female superheroine Isis.

The low-budget series depicted a teen Billy Batson (Michael Gray) traveling around the country doing good deeds with Mr. Mentor (Les Tremayne), turning into Captain Marvel to solve whatever crisis had erupted that week. Jackson Bostwick portrayed the Captain, and for many, his remains the best portrayal in other media.

Credit: CBS

Jeff Smith (writer/artist, Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil): “I loved that show. I was probably 11 or 12 when it came out. It made a big impression on me.”

Alex Ross: “I probably saw him on television first in 1975 or so, in the form of Jackson Bostwick. I would say that simultaneously I did get one or two of his comics then when I was about 6-years-old, with the more classic comic look to him to compare the live action actors against.

“I loved the Saturday morning TV show, its actors, its music, but I quickly grew to love the fantastic world of the comic book version more. Plus, I got the Mego doll.”

Jackson Bostwick (TV’s Captain Marvel): “I grew up with Captain Marvel from the Golden Age of comics as one of my childhood heroes, along with the Lone Ranger and Tarzan, Lord of The Jungle, who I listened to on the radio . I came to find out when I came on board that I was more familiar with the Good Captain than the producers and writers of the Shazam! TV show.

“And I was told by Julie Schwartz, the editor of Shazam!, that the comic wasn’t finding a big audience until the series was brought to television. He also said, 'Why do you think you got on the cover of the limited collector’s edition of Shazam! - because of the show’s over-the-top ratings.” (We had ratings in our time slot that were higher than I Love Lucy, the prime-time heavyweight of its day.)

“C.C. Beck became a very good friend and we were constantly in touch with each other by mail. He made me a Shazam! sword and he told me, as well as others, that he was very happy with the way I portrayed Cap, and that it was how he had envisioned the character when he was drawing the comic.

“I think I became aware of the show’s popularity when I couldn’t go to Disneyland, or practically anywhere, without being stopped for an autograph, so I think the character had now found a new generation of fans to carry on the tradition.

Credit: CBS

“To me, the most effective part of the show was not even in the initial episodes when they first started airing, but which eventually became the icing on the cake for the series. It was the end tags, when Captain Marvel flies back and talks to the audience about what they learned in that week’s episode.

“Right after they first aired, I told the producer, Bob Chenault, that they missed the boat by not having the hero come back and wrap things up, a la The Lone Ranger, Cisco Kid, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, etc.

“He told me that the network didn’t want to give up the 60 seconds of commercial time. Well, after the fan mail started arriving and indicated that they wanted to see more of Captain Marvel (not just in the last 15 minutes of the story), the gang at CBS in New York finally relented and we went back and filmed those tags for those first 15 episodes in one day out at Franklin Canyon Reservoir in Bel-Air.

“Subsequently, these tags then began appearing in the episodes that hadn’t yet aired and, eventually, in the reruns of the already aired earlier shows. (It was important) not to preach to the kids and to give them a friend and someone to look up to, like I had with Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger when I was growing up.

“[The best thing about working on the show was] the incredibly good luck of being able to portray a superhero that I grew up with, and, then, to be able to present it to a whole new generation.”

Credit: CBS

Bostwick was abruptly recast at the start of the second season after taking a day off to go to the doctor for an injury he had incurred the day before on set. Filmation, figuring this was a plot for more money, fired him and replaced him with actor John Davey. Bostwick later successfully sued Filmation over this, and stayed on good terms with Davey.

Jackson Bostwick: “We were in line for a screening of a show. I don’t remember the feature (Star Wars, I think), but I was standing in line outside the Writers Guild Theater for the Screen Actors Guild Film Society’s screening of the film when John and his boy, who were also in line, came up to me and John introduced himself.

“We had a very enjoyable conversation and in the course of our talk he mentioned how he had asked his son, when he had been offered the part, what he thought his dad should do. And he told me his son cheerfully replied, ‘Oh, that’s okay, Dad, you’re just going to be doing it until the real Captain Marvel comes back.’”

The show proved successful enough that new DC Publisher Jenette Kahn revived the Shazam! comic, with a storyline mirroring the TV show that took Billy and Uncle Dudley around the United States. Of course, not everyone was happy with the show’s stripped-down take on the comic character’s mythology.

Elliot Maggin: “Just awful [laughs]. Didn’t work. Poorly cast.

“I think the TV show probably did give the comics a boost. I don’t know that the comics gave the TV show anything. I tried to write a couple of episodes, but I never managed to bang through the wall.

Credit: DC Comics

“I remember when they first cast it, we used to get these free copies of everything the distribution company put out, and there was a copy of Tiger Beat with the new Captain Marvel and Billy Batson in it. I ran over to Carmine Infantino’s office and showed it to him and went, ‘This is the new face of childhood innocence?!’

“We didn’t have any input at all in the show. They made other deals with production companies later, and sometimes we had more input, and sometimes we didn’t.”

Michael Uslan: “You’ve got to place that in the context of the times. The feds were putting the screws on the networks for Saturday morning television. They were demanding that programming on Saturday morning lose the violence and they wanted to see ‘educational’ stuff and see ‘positive’ things.

“And in response to the outcry of the day - that outcry that has become a witch hunt that has gone from comic books to rock n’ roll music to Saturday morning TV to rap music to video games, something’s always a target - Filmation had to make do with those constraints and a limited budget.

“If you look at it, there was a moral in every single story. It was positive. There was action, but really no violence in that thing. And there was no feeling by anyone - and you can see this in what Hanna-Barbera was doing with the superhero roasts and their cartoons - that the integrity of something had to be respected, that its history had to be respected. So Filmation felt totally free to make whatever changes they wanted.

“So as a kid, you would be intrigued when you saw someone like Hawkman or Green Lantern on screen, and alternately thrilled and horrified by what you were seeing.”

Alex Ross: “In many ways the series was just right for its time. It was successful, popular, and in many ways could have redirected the comics from the start. It was deeply flawed, no doubt, being hampered by extensive rules on kids’ television entertainment and budget limitations, as well as a poor choice in mid-series recasting. All of this, though, didn’t diminish the overall impact it made on kids like myself.”

One person who wanted to see more of the comic in the show was Captain Marvel himself.

Credit: Harmony Books

Jackson Bostwick: “Now I think the main element that would have taken the Shazam! television show even higher than it was would have been with the old wizard Shazam character. Mr. Mentor, the role that was created to comply with the children’s programming bosses who wouldn’t allow a young boy to be traveling the highways and byways un-chaperoned in a motor home, was always to me a big swing and a miss.

“If, instead, they had made Billy’s companion to be Shazam, who would only appear to Billy when he was alone as a hologram from the Rock of Eternity - then to appear in a solid form and normal dress when others were present - then, Billy would have his chaperone as well as a now ethereal mentor (not those six papier-mâché, psychedelic Elders who only moved their mouths) from whom he could seek his weekly words of wisdom...

“Hmmm. Now to me, boys and girls, that would have easily opened us up into some of the truly imaginative fun, fantasy and magic found in those wonderful original Golden Age stories.”

But for a new generation of young fans, Captain Marvel was once again the hero who could be them.

Next: The Shazam Years conclude as Captain Marvel and Superman finally throw down, and darker versions of Captain Marvel emerge in the popular culture.

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