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.
While Billy Batson might not be Captain Marvel in the current DC Universe, for many fans, there have been plenty of great tales with him over the last decade…just outside the DCU.
In his follow-up to his long-running creator-owned hit Bone, Jeff Smith told his own Captain Marvel story with 2007’s Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil. The long-gestating story retold Captain Marvel’s origin, pitting him against Sivana and Mr. Mind - with a few twists.
Captain Marvel and Billy were explicitly different people, with the Captain more of a magic entity who needs a human host. Mary Marvel remained tiny and child-sized next to the towering Captain, while Tawky Tawny was a magic spirit called an “ifrit.”
Most controversially, Dr. Sivana was Attorney General of the United States, prone to spewing phrases like “War is profitable.” Readers, even younger ones, picked up more than a little bit of allegory.
Jeff Smith (writer/artist, Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil): “I got a message from Mike Carlin, who was the editor-in-Chief at DC at the time, which said something to the effect of, ‘I know Bone is coming to an end soon - would you like to do a superhero comic next?’ And before I could get back to him, 9/11 happened.
“And I started thinking – I went right back to Pearl Harbor, that feeling of ‘We’ve been attacked.’ Being asked to do a superhero comic right at that moment got me thinking of when the superheroes broke out in the 1940s. You know, when they took off, they were used almost in the war effort as propaganda, whether it was intentional or not - Captain America famously punched Hitler on his first cover.
“So I wanted to explore that idea a little bit, and they had already suggested to me that I use Captain Marvel. So I started thinking of Mr. Mind and the Monster Society of Evil as stand-ins for Al-Qaeda.
“A lot of people compared Dr. Sivana in my story to Dick Cheney, but actually, I only thought of him as a composite government bad guy. At the time Mike called me, Lex Luthor was the president in the DC Universe. So I had the idea that because they were both evil scientists, Lex must have hired his buddy Dr. Sivana to be the attorney general.
“It’s true I didn’t like our real attorney general at the time, but I didn’t mean to make Sivana actually look like the Vice President, that was just my subconscious at work [laughs]."
“I’m afraid that resemblance might have spoiled the book for a few people, but the allegories were only a minor part of the story. For me, the most important thing was finding a tone, and building the right relationship between Billy Batson and Captain Marvel.
“It’s pretty clear to me reading the Golden Age Captain Marvel stories that Captain Marvel is an entity, a power like a genie or something, who is brought forth and called upon when Billy says ‘Shazam!’, and they change places. I’m not the only one who thinks that - C.C. Beck thought that as well. That was the same idea Marvel used with Captain Mar-Vell, and what Jack Kirby did with Infinity Man in The Forever People.
“However, it seems important to me that Captain Marvel does have that childish glee. He can get excited, and he can get embarrassed and chagrined. That’s what’s wonderful about the character, and is completely unique about Captain Marvel and no other hero.
“The idea is Billy’s in there ,and he’s having an effect on this hero, this god, and is making him more human. If I’d had more issues, I’d have explored that more, but you can see Captain Marvel is making more splashy, irresponsible, Billy Batson-esque decisions that are getting him in trouble by the end.”
Elliot Maggin (writer, 1970s Shazam series, Kingdom Come novelization): “I was always careful to present the Captain and Billy as two different people. But really, the Captain was an adult with the sensibilities of an eight-year-old. My feeling was that in the Kingdom Come continuity, he was still like that, even with Billy an adult in civilian life.”
Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, other Captain Marvel stories): “It’s important to remember that they’re two very different people, not exactly the same. The one bad thing that came out of Big, brilliant a movie as that was, was that every writer for the next 20 years said, “Well, that’s how you’ve got to write Captain Marvel."
“I’m not sure that’s the way it is. There might be some mileage you can get out of the kid and the adult being different people.”
Jeff Smith: “I knew Tawky Tawny would be a hard sell to today’s readers, because in the 1940s, he was really just a cartoon funny animal. He was Tony the Tiger walking around with a suit and a hat and a cane. But that didn’t matter back then – the comic-buying public was very different, and people just enjoyed him, and he made trouble for Captain Marvel, which was good and made for fun stories.
“I love talking animals, and I love the idea of a talking animal working with Captain Marvel. He gets his powers from Greek gods and ancient heroes, all of whom go back to ancient myths and Aesop’s fables.
“As I was researching magic words like ‘Alakazam,’ I found ifrits, which are genies that can change from human to animal form and back, and I went, ‘There you go. I’ve got all my Captain Marvel mythology in order. Let’s go.’
“I made the kids younger, because I wanted a greater contrast between the hero and the secret identity. Billy’s a young boy, he’s helpless, and with the magic word, he is the opposite of that, he is powerful and in control and no one can hurt him. He was like that in the early issues of Whiz Comics, he was originally much younger.
“Mary didn’t get as much power as him. She was supposedly Billy’s twin, and yet he transformed to an older, powerful guy, while she stayed a little girl. In the original comics, she did not transform into an adult, so I did the same thing in my comic, but I had her start younger, so she stayed the same age she is. I thought the dynamic worked fine, but other people can do what they want [laughs].”
Animator Mike Kunkel, author of the acclaimed all-ages book Herobear and the Kid, followed up Smith’s miniseries with Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam for DC’s out-of-continuity Johnny DC line.
Kunkel pitted Billy and Mary against the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man and Black Adam, who in this version was a kid like Billy that became a school bully determined to get the magic word out of his replacement. Though the title received excellent reviews, Kunkel’s schedule made it difficult to get the book out on a regular basis.
Jeff Smith: “Mike Kunkel’s stuff was great, though he’s the only guy in comics slower than me [laughs]. I’m kidding, Mike! I loved his stuff, and the artist on the last six or eight issues, Mike Norton, was just fantastic. It was very cool, very fun. I loved that book.”
Mike Kunkel (writer/artist, Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam): “It was a very cool day to get a call from Dan DiDio and Jann Jones. We had a conversation about creating this all-ages line, and they were suggesting different characters, and asked what I wanted to do, and I said Cap was right at the top of my list. And they felt the same way.
“Everything I try to write about, the fun of childhood, the fun of youth, Cap represents that. We started having conversations, and I created a storyline bible, and places to go, and we kept developing from that.
“It was a purposeful thing to follow from Jeff’s series. They obviously recognized the success Jeff had from his series, and wanted to build from that, but also gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to do if I wanted to head in a different direction. However, I wanted to build on it, as opposed to creating a new world again.
“I liked the relationship between Billy and his sister - that’s an archetype I can relate to. And I liked that there was this reality-altering moment about taking down Mr. Mind’s monsters that left a tear in reality, and all these monsters could come through, and that was the a way to bring in Black Adam.
“For me, it seemed like a better fit to have Black Adam as a kid rather than an adult - to have someone Billy had to deal with as a kid as well as Captain Marvel, that bully you can’t run away from, that you have to face.
“It was a lot of work, and I give full credit to Jann for crediting it ‘Writing, art and heart.’ This was a true labor of love - I wrote, penciled, inked, colored, did the covers, because it meant that much to me. I gave it everything I had, and it was very hard doing it on top of having a family and working full-time, but I wanted to give something that had every part of me in it.
"I certainly regret the delays. You always want to give more, but you also recognize that the audience - and I am part of that audience - is a voracious machine that always needs the next book.
“And if you promise a monthly or bi-monthly book, you have to live up to that. At least with my run, I wanted to set something up for future storylines and possibly another creative team. I hope that I gave a good foundation to build on.”
After four issues, Kunkel left Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam. He was succeeded by writers Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani, who continued the book until its cancelation with issue #21. Baltazar, Franco and Norton’s run enjoyed its own share of acclaim, and Kunkel has plenty of Captain Marvel stories he’d like to tell.
Jeff Smith: “I like the team that’s doing it right now! Art Baltazar, Franco and Mike Norton are fantastic.”
Jerry Ordway(writer/artist, The Power of Shazam, others): “Personally, when Mike Norton took over the art, I thought it really bridged the gap from something light-hearted to something closer to the Batman: The Animated Series look. He’s a great artist and a great guy.”
Mike Kunkel: “I think what we set out in the beginning was that it would be on more of a quarterly or bi-monthly basis, but the vision for the line changed slightly, and that was hard to keep up with. I’m sorry about that, but I was very happy to be a part of it. And I loved what Art and Franco did with the book afterward.
“I had a ton of stories and characters planned after my arc. The next villain I wanted to bring in was Dr. Sivana, and dip into the mythology of that character, and build him up in his path as that mad scientist who counters Captain Marvel.
“And I wanted to look at Billy’s world, and bring in Tawky Tawny, and the mythology of the Rock of Eternity and the Wizard Shazam, once we’d established that world in the first arc. As I said, Art and Franco continued with that, and what they have done with Mike Norton is just awesome stuff. Mike Norton has a genuine gift for taking a story and really bringing a lot to the table as an artist/storyteller.
“It’ll probably be a little time before I’ll revisit it. I still love the character and he’ll always be one of my favorites, but I’d have to think about where I am now as opposed to a few years ago, and take a different approach.
“I would love to do more limited series or a graphic novel that would take Captain Marvel on a specific adventure. I like that self-contained path anyway. I also think that it is a great way to present the character in enjoyable bites for new readers with different storytellers.
“Forget about continuity and the regular DCU, just get a bunch of talented creators that love the character and let them each do a limited story on him. How cool would that be to see all these fun adventures coming out!”
Mark Waid: “I thought the Kunkel stuff was brilliant. That was probably the best take on Captain Marvel I’d seen since the 1970s. I think the stuff on The Brave and the Bold TV show was a great take on the character.
“Some stuff doesn’t work as well…a lot hasn’t worked that well. Without naming names, any time you try to get away from the magic and whimsy of the character I think you’re making a horrible mistake, because the character is all about magic and whimsy.”
Michael Uslan (Executive Producer of all Batman movies): “I’ve thought all the revivals of Captain Marvel were terrific, with maybe one exception. And the reason was these guys like Roy Thomas and Jerry Ordway knew their history backwards and forwards, and they loved and had a passion for those characters.
“And Roy knew the creators, Binder and Beck, and editors like Will Lieberson, and the other artists at Fawcett – and the love for the creators came through. Each revival had a different vision, but those visions were respectful to the visions of the other creators as well.
“I really, truly appreciated that, and I’ve truly appreciated it whenever people try to gain some traction with the character.”
Next: Our series finally concludes with a look at Captain Marvel’s future…including a possible visit to the big screen.