An Oral History of DC's CAPTAIN MARVEL/SHAZAM: The New Beginning Years

Credit: Jerry Ordway
Credit: Mike Wieringo

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 ten - go back and read part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven, part eight, and part nine.

Today, we look at Captain Marvel in the DC Universe in the 1980s and 1990s, with reminiscences from Roy Thomas, Jerry Ordway, and a surprise guest.

The Original Captain Marvel - The New Beginning Years: 1987-2005

Credit: Tom Mandrake (DC Comics)

After Crisis on Infinite Earths merged all the different DC characters into one semi-coherent universe, Captain Marvel was finally on the same Earth as Superman, the character long perceived as his greatest rival. It was time for a new start, an attempt to put Captain Marvel in a more-realistic, less-cartoony setting from the very beginning.

Writers Roy and Dann Thomas, along with artist Tom Mandrake, brought Captain Marvel into the modern day with the miniseries Shazam!: The New Beginning in 1987. In this version, Billy Batson is actually related to Sivana and Dudley, and is given his powers to battle the returned Black Adam, whom Sivana has summoned from the netherworld in a bid for power.

In the end, a disgraced Sivana commiserates in a dive bar that he needs an ally, as we see the odd-looking worm at the bottom of his bottle of tequila. Most interesting is that this began a trend where Billy retained more of his own personality when he was Captain Marvel.

The series did well in sales, but Thomas found his plans to continue with the character stymied by DC.

Roy Thomas (writer, Shazam: The New Beginning, others): “The basic thing is that DC and I felt a great change had to be made to Captain Marvel, though I felt that the best work had been done by Nelson Bridwell with Don Newton on the character.

“My wife Dann and I put our heads together, and came up with the new version, which was the first time that Black Adam had been brought into the origin of Captain Marvel. I don’t know if it sold remarkably well, but what proves it had good sales was that the fourth issue’s sales went up. Usually, sales on a miniseries went down, but by the end of this, sales were higher than the first.

“Dick Giordano, the managing editor at the time, told me it had done well, but there were a lot of false starts with artists. A number of great artists showed interest, but stories never materialized. It kind of got passed around and played out until my contractual obligation to the character ran out, and then they went to Jerry Ordway instead – not that I bear Jerry any grudge.

Credit: Tom Mandrake (DC Comics)

“It should have been given a chance. I can’t go into details, but there might have been some sabotage. It led to a real change in my feelings toward DC, which had already gone downhill over things to do with The All-Star Squadron.

“I suspect one fault Jerry and I both made, along with the lack of marketing and support from DC, was that we were perhaps both too eager to bring back the original characters a little too quickly. You know, originally there was one Captain Marvel for a year or so, then they brought in Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary.

“I would have brought both of them in quickly if I’d had more issues, and Jerry brought them in quickly - and we both brought Black Adam in the first story. We both loved those characters and wanted to write them. But both of those series were more successful than DC gave them credit for.”

Credit: Jerry Ordway (DC Comics)

A few years later, DC acquired the rights to other Fawcett characters such as Bulletman, and decided to relaunch Captain Marvel again. Writer/artist Jerry Ordway was given the assignment, and wrote/painted the 1994 hardcover graphic novel The Power of Shazam.

Set in a retro-styled Fawcett City, the graphic novel tied Black Adam to the deaths of Billy Batson’s parents, and pitted the young hero (again with Billy’s personality in his superhuman form) against Adam and Sivana. The book was a surprise hit, even winning “Best Graphic Album” in a Comic Buyers Guide fan poll.

Jerry Ordway (writer/artist, The Power of Shazam, others): “When I did the graphic novel The Power of Shazam, my goal was to retell the origin while including some things that had been added later in the continuity, such as Black Adam, without changing the overall story.

Credit: Jerry Ordway/Alex Jay (DC Comics)

“It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. It was a side job while I was writing Superman, and I worked on it very slowly, a few pages a month. I was lucky to get into comics at the time when royalties started becoming available. I didn’t get any until I was working on Superman, but I got quite a few from how long The Power of Shazam graphic novel stayed in print.

“The graphic novel was in print from when it came out until just this last year (Editor's Note: 2011). If you want it back in print, write DC! [laughs]! But it sold something like 17 or 18,000 copies, which was unheard of for a hardcover graphic novel at that point, right after the market had taken a big hit. Then it was in softcover for about 20,000 copies, and then there was a slightly cheaper edition...four or five in total, I think. I was grateful it had those kind of legs, that shelf-life.”

Credit: Jerry Ordway

The Power of Shazam was successful enough to spin off into an ongoing monthly series, which Ordway wrote with art by himself and a variety of collaborators, including Peter Krause and Dick Giordano. The series ran for 47 issues and a few one-shots, and even crossed over with DC’s most acclaimed superhero title of the 1990s, Starman.

This version resurrected many of the characters from the classic series, and even began a portrayal of Black Adam that proved popular in recent years - examining him as a corrupted antihero with a sense of nobility.

Ordway enjoyed getting to write the classic Fawcett characters, but was sometimes frustrated by the lack of support from DC, which included interrupting his storylines for company-wide crossovers.

Credit: Jerry Ordway (DC Comics)

Jerry Ordway: “The only direction I was given for the series was to integrate it into the DC Universe somehow, and take it to the next level. The good part was that let us create his own little corner of the DC Universe with Fawcett City and its heroes.

“The bad part was every crossover they did - there were five or even six company crossovers over the four-year run of the book - derailed whatever story we were doing to tie into 'Underworld Unleashed' or 'The Final Night' or 'Genesis.'"

Credit: Jerry Ordway (DC Comics)

“It would give you a bump of about a thousand copies for that month, but then the people who were reading the regular book would become irate - we’d get letter-writers complaining about the number of crossovers - and the sales would be lower than before. It becomes a test of the readers’ endurance. That’s me speaking as a reader, someone who still goes to the comic shop every Wednesday. I can’t even read an X-Men book anymore! [Laughs]

“Looking back on the series, I’m occasionally amused that I was allowed to do the types of stories that I was allowed to do. I was working in a pretty good protective bubble. There were no expectations for the book. We won a Parents’ Choice Award, and I have a certificate to prove it, but DC did nothing to promote that – it was an all-ages book in a different era.

Credit: Jerry Ordway (DC Comics)

“For the first couple of years, it was a moderate success, and right up until the cancelation was announced - which was when we had about eight issues to go, and that helped everyone jump off before the last six issues - I got a lot of support.

“The editor was Jonathan Peterson, who had edited the Teen Titans books. He and I were into the 1940s Captain Marvel serial a great deal, and things like the Indiana Jones movies. We tried to make it more of an adventure comic, and some of those 1960s Marvel comics we’d loved as a kid.

Credit: Jerry Ordway

“When I did the series, my idea was that Captain Marvel had been around for a while, and that included the Justice League stories of the 1980s, which had been popular. I tried adopting the 1960s Marvel Comics model for the stories. It was still retro, but I think it was moving away from the 1940s era, into something I thought the fans would still enjoy.

“I gave Billy all the problems Peter Parker had, back when he was in high school. That was my goal - if Fawcett hadn’t stopped publishing the book, they would have had to adapt to the times somehow. You would have had your silly period, but I think they would have rolled with it and done what Marvel was doing in the 1960s.

“When Mike Carlin took over the book, we got along well - he maybe injected more humor into the book, but it wasn’t silly humor, just a lighter tone. Maybe that hurt the book, as fans seem to want either something dark and heavy or something that’s been done before, and something that has humor in it is seen as not worthy or something. A lot of other writers ran into this as well.

“I started working on the graphic novel around 1990, maybe, and there were still enough fans around who had read Captain Marvel in the 1940s, and were very vocal about what they wanted to see with the character. It wasn’t like today with the Internet, but there were people writing to the editor. You had this group of people who loved the core concept, but in a way, it was always frozen in time.

“The sales were never bad, but they were flat, and when they let me know they were canceling the book, they said it was because they wanted to move on. I still feel that if they’d continued on with the book with a new team, they would have maintained that audience.

“The book also came out of that time frame where the crossover 'Zero Hour' went on, and we were definitely in the midst of a dark superhero era. We might have been going against the grain, but looking at the other books that came out of 'Zero Hour,' many of them died quickly and we lasted almost four years.”

Peter Krause: “(Here’s) a copy of a letter we received after Power Of Shazam was launched. It was from Frank Coghlan, Jr., who played Billy Batson in the 1941 Captain Marvel movie serial. What a thoughtful and nice letter. I never got to meet Mr. Coghlan, who passed away just about a year ago at the age of 93.

“(Here’s) a sample page of script from Jerry Ordway. Those are my thumbnails in the column. This was before you emailed scripts - I would receive them via fax. I'd read the story and make the little layouts in the margins.

“Jerry Ordway was a joy to work with. Very supportive, and got me through what was my first high-profile assignment.

"Jerry would often do concept sketches of new characters we were introducing in Power of Shazam. I've included one set of those sketches here.

Credit: Jerry Ordway

“Jerry drew marker roughs for covers, sending those in for approval. I think the cover rough here is for Power of Shazam #4 - although it could be #5 or #6. I don't have my copies nearby, so I can't check that.

“I also included a copy of Jerry's pencils from issue #42. Jerry was the penciler on the book after I left until it was canceled by DC.

“Mike Manley was our inker for the first half of my run on Power of Shazam! Occasionally, he'd do pencils, as on the Shazam! Annual here. I believe this story dealt with a female descendant of Billy/Cap, who was in the Legion of Superheroes.

"Colleen Coover drew this Mary Marvel for me at last year's Heroes Con in Charlotte. If you've never been to Heroes, I highly recommend it — a great show with a huge artists' alley.

"As I was putting things away, I discovered my copy of the Mr. Mind Decoder Card. When Mr. Mind made his appearance in Power of Shazam!, we had some of the messages in Venusian.

"You had to send away to DC to get the decoder card. I forget how many thousand DC printed and sent out. Kinda fun, isn't it?”

Next: The Modern Years, 2005-Present, Alex Ross talks Kingdom Come and his other Captain Marvel projects (including two you didn’t read).

And as our series concludes: Jeff Smith and Mike Kunkel on their all-ages takes on Captain Marvel, and everyone we’ve spoken with for this series offers their thoughts on Captain Marvel’s future.

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