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 multi-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 Original Captain Marvel - The Modern Years: 2005-Present (with a few detours), Part One
The attitude of comics in the late 1980s and 1990s was one of darkness, violence and “realism,” which made a character like Captain Marvel an ill fit. For DC Comics, the challenge of using the character involved finding ways to integrate him into this world without losing what worked about the character.
Chip Kidd (author, Shazam!: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal): “I don’t think Captain Marvel has naturally evolved the way Superman and Batman have, and I don’t quite know how that evolution would be possible. There’s no point to me of doing a dark Captain Marvel.”
Jerry Ordway (writer/artist, The Power of Shazam, others): “There’s this idea that superheroes should exist in something closer to the ‘real world.’ Your realism is what you put in there. You can reflect the real world, but when you have a guy who flies, it’s not the real world anymore.
“Even Batman - you can say he’s down to earth, but he exists in the same world as Superman. I think people look for too much reality in situations. It’s one thing for Superman or Batman to question themselves internally, but I don’t think people look for too much realism.
“You have a whole subculture into violent video games like Medal of Honor or Grand Theft Auto - not slamming them, but that doesn’t necessarily have to bleed into a Captain Marvel story or a Superman story.”
Elliot S! Maggin (writer, 1970s Shazam series, Kingdom Come novelization): “The origin is immaterial. It’s the relationship between the kid and the adult that makes it work.”
Chip Kidd: “ The creator who’s come the closest to doing a version of Captain Marvel that speaks to the original but takes it to the next level is Alex Ross. Even when Captain Marvel was brainwashed in Kingdom Come, he was true to the spirit of the character.”
Mike Kunkel (writer/artist, Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam): “Certainly a lot of stuff Alex Ross does is just authentic. There’s a definite authentic feel to how he captures Cap and Billy and that realm, and it’s always inspiring to see whatever Alex does.”
Ross emerged as a major force in comic books in his collaboration Marvels with Kurt Busiek, but what few fans know is that his breakout work was almost a Captain Marvel series.
The lifelong Captain Marvel fan proposed a Marvel Family miniseries back in the early 1990s while Jerry Ordway was working on The Power of Shazam graphic novel, but Ordway’s project was already underway and took precedent at DC. Luckily for Ross, Marvels was approved at Marvel Comics (we know this is starting to read like “Who’s On First”), and a career was born.
Ross’ miniseries (which you can read about here) would have retold a number of classic tales, while updating them for the present and tweaking the darker attitude of the times - in Ross’ vision, Captain Nazi would have looked like Alan Moore’s Marvelman/Miracleman.
Ross and writer Mark Waid gave Captain Marvel one of his most memorable modern-day appearances in the hit miniseries Kingdom Come, (and based him visually on his agent, Sal Abbinanti.)
Set in a future where the DC Heroes come out of retirement to battle back a new, violent generation of vigilantes, Captain Marvel had been gone for years, though Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. had married. Controlled by Sivana and Mr. Mind-esque worms, Captain Marvel brutally takes down Superman in the climax before being freed of the villains’ control and sacrificing himself to save Superman.
It was the most brutal fight ever depicted between the unofficial rivals, with Ross’ splash page of a strong, youthful Marvel standing over an aged, defeated Superman both chilling and iconic. Though Marvel is mind-controlled, he still saves the day - and serves as a reminder to that series’ Superman that humans and superhumans are not separate, but one and the same.
Alex Ross (Kingdom Come, Shazam: Power of Hope, Justice): “In Kingdom Come, I wanted to do much the same as Jerry Ordway did at the time I started work on it (’94), to return the hero to his historic visual roots and hopefully elevate him to a higher visibility within the DC pantheon, if not also the overall pantheon of most important comic book characters.
"Positioning him at odds with Superman in battle in a final ‘Ragnarok’ for DC’s history seemed a powerful position for Captain Marvel and a poignant one. His being the force that Superman has to reckon with as the one person stronger than he is was a point I wanted to make in general about anyone: that there is always someone stronger, faster, better than you who you’ll be put up against, no matter who you are.
“Captain Marvel’s role there, though, was to serve Superman’s storyline as a humbling agent meant to put Superman to his ultimate test.”
After Kingdom Come, Ross collaborated with acclaimed writer Paul Dini on Shazam: Power of Hope, one of a series of Christmas-themed treasury-sized specials where DC’s biggest heroes took on the evils of the real world.
Alex Ross: “Power of Hope was a dream embrace of the original character’s joy and characterization from the forties. Paul Dini and I fashioned a fantasy about what actors, sports stars, and other celebrities have done to visit sick and injured children in hospitals. Having heard that some superhero actors like Christopher Reeve had done this before inspired us to the obvious fit Captain Marvel would make, going to these places.
“As a very simply tale meant to be the complete contrast of all contemporary publishing, we wanted people to see the wonder of simple escapism as Captain Marvel embodied it. His physical sameness to my earlier depiction in Kingdom Come was meant to seem ironic, as I hoped to use the success of one project to lead into the other.”
Most recently, Ross included Captain Marvel - and his enemies - as part of his take on the Justice League of America, Justice, with collaborators Jim Krueger and Doug Brathwaite. For Ross, it was the opportunity to tell the full-on Captain Marvel superhero story he’d always wanted to do.
Alex Ross: “In Justice, I completed a bit of a promise to myself in embracing and depicting almost all of the key players in the expanded 'Marvel' universe. By finally taking on the Marvel Family, Black Adam, Sivana, and Mr. Mind, I felt somewhat fulfilled, even though it was couched inside of a Justice League tribute project.
“When one notices, a lot of Justice’s story shows an intersection with the mostly non-JLA-related Captain Marvel in fairly obsessive ways. Having him save Superman in his moment of greatest need (mirroring my splash shot of him doing the opposite in Kingdom Come) and both fighting and eventually trading places with Superman were all checklist items that served a certain agenda I was lacing throughout the series.
“If I wasn’t going to do a full series with Captain Marvel (which I did know wouldn’t happen at this time), then I would at least take my best shot to spotlight him within the confines of this larger epic.”
Throughout the 1990s and the past decade, many characters resembling Captain Marvel have passed through comics. Malibu’s Ultraverse had a hit in the 1990s with Prime, the tale of a teenager capable of growing goopy, over-muscled superhero bodies around himself.
A more satirical take on Captain Marvel (and the look of most 1990s superheroes), Prime enjoyed action figures, cartoons and even a very bad video game. Like Marvelman/Miracleman, he’s currently stuck owned by Marvel.
Erik Larsen had Mighty Man, a take on Captain Marvel in his Savage Dragon and Freak Force books, whose alter-ego was awkwardly passed on to a woman. And of course there have been many parodies/analogues of Captain Marvel over the years, such as the sacrilegious satire Son O’God from National Lampoon, Thunderbunny in the 1980s, Jack from Jupiter in Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys and most recently, Mark Millar and Leinil Yu’s Superior, where a boy with disabilities is turned into his favorite adult movie superhero.
(We probably missed a few, but that’s what our comments section is for.)
But some writers found that the best 'Captain Marvel' stories were the ones that just tried to capture the original’s imaginative tone.
Elliot S! Maggin: “A book that really captured that Otto Binder spirit was Supreme, when Alan Moore was doing it. A friend of mine who wrote some Superman stories kept calling it 'The Atrocious Supreme.' I actually kind of liked it! I tried writing a story with the character a few years ago, when Awesome had the rights to it, but they went under.”
Jeff Smith (writer/artist, Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil): ”I tell you, I think the best Captain Marvel comic in recent years was Alan Moore’s Tom Strong - I know he’s not doing it anymore, but that is Captain Marvel in disguise, basically.
“It has the flavor and adventure and curiosity all the Captain Marvel comics had - and things like Terra Incognito are like the Rock of Eternity. There’s even 'Warren Strong,' after Hoppy the Marvel Bunny.”
Back in the DC Universe, Captain Marvel underwent many changes. After spending some time in the Justice Society of America, Captain Marvel’s status quo was shaken up with the "Day of Judgment" crossover, which saw the wizard Shazam’s spirit destroyed, Billy ascending to his role, and Freddy Freeman taking over as Captain Marvel - later officially named 'Shazam!'
This version of the character is still Captain Marvel in the DC Universe - though many characters still call him Captain Marvel.
Though Alex Ross was behind many of the most successful modern Captain Marvel stories, DC surprisingly failed to get back to him on a proposal for a new series, Say My Name…Shazam! in the aftermath of "Day of Judgment." Ross would have done covers and art-directed the project, which would have been written by DC’s most popular writer, Geoff Johns.
The tale would have involved a depowered Billy Batson reclaiming the scattered powers of the wizard Shazam from different individuals who had received them and were misusing them.
One of these, a black youth, would actually use his powers wisely, and Billy would allow him to keep his powers, turning him into Vulcan, the first black member of the Marvel Family - modeled after the Black Vulcan, a character from the Super Friends cartoon.
DC had their own ideas about what they wanted to do with the character, and Johns and Ross’ proposal was met not with rejection, but outright radio silence.
Jerry Ordway: “I was really surprised DC didn’t take it, because who could you get that’s bigger than them? It just really goes to show how even with that level of talent, they basically said, ‘We don’t have any confidence that this could sell.’ I was amazed.”
Alex Ross: “I was approached by DC a couple of times about my rejected pitch, in part because I got it in print, but also because I never stopped bellyaching about it.
“Sadly the problem of ever revisiting it feels like a moment in time for my own inspiration that was dismissed to never be fully recaptured. I was angry and hurt for too long about something that was not my professional and personal right to get to do, and I never could get over that.
“I may have handled it badly, but I’ve learned that you shouldn’t get quite as lost as I did over something you have no control over. Also, the very ideas of my storyline would cover ground that the Trials of Shazam series did to such a similar degree that it would be either redundant or force me to craft a completely different approach.”
In recent years, Captain Marvel has been somewhat adrift in the DC Universe. Mary Marvel played a major role in the Countdown and Final Crisis events, where she was possessed by evil magic and wore a black leather outfit that many found very, very creepy, perhaps not in the sense that the creators intended.
Elliot Maggin: “Mary Marvel just does not appear in inappropriate dress. That is all there is to it [laughs]. Supergirl, maybe, but not Mary Marvel.”
Captain Marvel’s biggest foes all played a key role in the popular year-long weekly miniseries 52. Dr. Sivana and his family figured into the plotline about the DC Universe’s mad scientists being kidnapped to build a group of super-weapons, while Mr. Mind was revealed to be behind a time-travel conspiracy that helped rebirth the Multiverse.
Most prominent was Black Adam, who received his own plotline. Having become the benevolent dictator of the fictional country of Khandaq in JSA, Black Adam took in a refuge and her brother, empowering them to become Isis (an homage to the character who shared airtime with the Captain on the Shazam! TV series) and Osiris, his 'Black Marvel Family.'
After they were killed, Adam went on a killing spree dubbed “World War III” before being depowered. He got his powers back pretty quickly, and set out to reunite his shattered family. Though 52 was one of DC’s best-selling and most acclaimed titles in recent years, it perhaps had the unintended side effect of making Captain Marvel’s archenemy more popular than him in the DC Universe.
Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, other Captain Marvel stories): [groans] “I know, I know! The irony!”
Alex Ross: “Given the bleakness of the times, it’s no surprise that Black Adam has slowly taken over the role of patriarch to the Marvel Family legacy in the DCU. I feel that this too is fleeting and won’t be what we always see. It has a lot to do with the unsure course that DC has taken for a lot of their iconic properties.”
Later, Jerry Ordway returned to the Marvel Family to collaborate with Geoff Johns on “Black Adam and Isis” in Justice Society of America which saw Mary cured, the wizard restored, Billy and Mary stripped of their powers and Black Adam and Isis turned into stone.
Now, Osiris is not-dead and trying to cure them. And Freddy-as-Shazam returned in the one-shot Shazam #1, meaning there’s still plenty of drama ahead for the Marvel Family.
Elliot S! Maggin: “People like to piss in corners in New York City. Everybody does that, except a few people. The trick is preserving the continuity. Anyone can piss in the corner. Every time someone tries to preserve the continuity like Alan Moore or Geoff Johns, I sit here and cheer.
“These guys go out of their way to justify in contemporary terms all these eternally confusing, unjustifiable things. It’s a much better trick, just because nobody’s tried to do it with the Marvel Family.”
Jerry Ordway: “The Marvel Family’s been busy in the DC Universe, but it’s been all over the place. Geoff Johns set up an intriguing story for Black Adam in JSA, and that was followed up on in 52 and other books, and Mary Marvel had these plots in these different titles, but it’s almost like strip-mining in a way, jumping around and taking bits and pieces rather than preserving the whole of the continuity.”
Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind remain thorns in the side of many DC heroes, and Freddy Freeman’s still hanging around. There’s long been talk that Grant Morrison will tackle the character in his miniseries Multiversity.
But it’s been about five years, and many are wondering if Billy Batson will ever be the one to wield the lightning again. Of course, people once wondered that about Hal Jordan as Green Lantern…
Alex Ross: “This may prove to be a curious time we look back upon, like when Superman had long hair.”
Next: In our penultimate installment, Jeff Smith and Mike Kunkel talk about their all-ages takes on Captain Marvel in Monster Society of Evil and Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam. Featuring rarely-seen behind-the-scenes art and an all-new piece from the artist of one of the year’s most acclaimed graphic novels.
And in our final installment, the creators we’ve spoken with discuss Captain Marvel at 70, how to fit him into modern comics, and his potential future in film.