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.
Holy Moley, it’s finally over! We saved the best for last in our super-ultra-mega-long tribute to Captain Marvel. Today, we ask one simple question: What makes Captain Marvel work, and will the character ever be as big as he once was?
An Oral History of SHAZAM, the World's Mightiest Mortal: The Original Captain Marvel - Epilogue: The Future
The year 2010 saw many new stories for Captain Marvel. He appeared with Batman on The Brave and the Bold cartoon series. His origin was retold again in the recent direct-to-DVD animation Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam. And of course there’s Chip Kidd’s new book, Shazam: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal.
Though one thing many people seem to have forgotten – including, we must admit, your humble narrator until a few months ago – is that 2010 was Captain Marvel’s 70th anniversary.
Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, other Captain Marvel stories): “No one seemed to care. The character just seems to have fallen by the wayside in the last 20 years or so, which is really unfortunate.”
Mike Kunkel (writer/artist, Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam): “…I had no idea. Wow. I’m surprised they’re not promoting him this year.”
Elliot Maggin (writer, 1970s Shazam series, Kingdom Come novelization): “The reason I suspect they’re not publicizing the thing is that they don’t know what to do with him.”
Roy Thomas (writer, Shazam: The New Beginning, others): “No, and they never did.”
Elliot Maggin: “I’m not sure I know what to do with him, though I think I do, not that they’ve asked me.”
Mark Waid: “They don’t have a clue. It has been said to me by management more than once that he is a played-out character, nobody cares, and ‘name one good Captain Marvel story.’"
“There’s a ton of ‘em! But the problem is, once you have guys in charge who think that the character is useless and dumb and stupid and sucks, there’s nothing you can do to change their mind. All you can do is ride it out and wait for the next guy to come along who has vision, and is excited about the character, and really do something with him."
“We all would do that character for almost free! But for whatever reason, the powers that be have decided that the character is for kids and played out and dumb…and by the way, ‘for kids’ is somehow seen as a bad thing."
“Unfortunately, the rap on Captain Marvel is that he’s a second-rate Superman, no one wants to read him, and he’s a sad, played-out character, and talking tigers and evil worms are stupid.”
Alex Ross (Kingdom Come, Shazam: Power of Hope, Justice): “Having done a project positioned (by myself and my collaborators) to celebrate Captain Marvel’s 60th anniversary, with no ability allowed by DC to play up this fact loudly, I’m not surprised."
“DC is systemically afraid of the aging (or aged) appearance of their individual properties and has avoided just about all such attention to the detail of how long we’ve had these characters. The media generally has to be prompted to cover anniversaries like these, and it’s not something the comic companies always get behind.”
Roy Thomas: “I think it was Mike Barr who, during the time when DC was being described as ‘creator-driven,’ said, ‘No, it’s creator-towed.’
“While DC let me do things the way I wanted to do them - they said they wanted a darker Captain Marvel, and that was all the direction I got - and they let Jerry do what he wanted, but should have given him more support and publicized the book - they still don’t know what to do with the character. They seem to want someone to come along and do it for them.
“At some stage, they’ll have to do it. At this phase, the company in general seems to feel what matter are the editors. I’m not saying editors aren’t important, but they don’t matter as much as you’d think, unless they’re Stan Lee or Charlie Biro or Al Feldstein. One of the main things they could do - and this is Roy Thomas, editor, speaking - is to get good people on the character and get the hell out of the way."
“Those comments are just not limited to DC, mind you.”
Mike Kunkel: “Never once did I get a sense of, ‘Oh, we just don’t like this character,’ from DC. There’s a genuine love for him, a genuine sense of ‘We’d love to do something with him.’ They truly felt there was a caring for him, but I could never put my finger on why the concept isn’t a big seller or a big push for them."
“I don’t know why the character doesn’t quite fit into today’s comics. He should be up there - deserves to be up there with the top superheroes. But what was encouraging with the Jeff Smith book, and when they came to me, was their asking, ‘What would you want to do?’ That told me that they did want to do something with it, they just weren’t sure what.”
Jeff Smith (writer/artist, Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil):” I’m not sure I’m qualified to say if DC knows how to use him, but I feel that they would make him a top seller if they could. But he’s not like the modern superheroes."
“Captain Marvel was a very whimsical character from the 1940s. He doesn’t really fit in the world of superheroes beating each other up and hating each other, or in some cases going bad and hitting other superheroes and killing or raping…that sort of world is so much different from what Captain Marvel represents. The very qualities that make him fun don’t work if you try to make him realistic.”
Elliot Maggin: “They’re not trying to keep him off the market, as they have with other properties they’ve bought, but they don’t know how to sell him. They don’t know what it is about him that makes him appeal to an audience, what slot he fits into.
“He’s one of those 50 characters in the popular consciousness that fits into a slot. People get information in one way - through a story. There are only about 50 characters who fit into stories, and we’ve given them names, like Superman and Einstein and Batman and Mickey Mouse. But in another character, they’ve got the same characters with different names - Superman could be Thor or Zeus and Captain Marvel could be Hephaestus."
“There’s a slot for Captain Marvel in the modern consciousness. It’s the all-powerful character with no guile at all. It doesn’t occur to him that there’s anything wrong with people - there are things that could be fixed, but it doesn’t occur to him that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with anything. He’s that character, the person who believes that. And he’s the only one. Until someone does it better, he’ll be that guy.”
Alex Ross: “To be fair to DC, in the many years they’ve had the character, DC has applied countless approaches to his interpretation. Even if you dislike one approach or another, they have put some genuine investment into trying to make him a successful property for them, with varying results. It’s really much more complicated than damning their efforts with a ‘no.’
“I think that they are genuinely confused as to what the best course is to take with the character, but I’ve let go of the belief in any kind of conspiracy from Superman’s parent company to somehow weaken Captain Marvel’s usage."
“As I said before, they have tried countless approaches that one could make arguments for or against, and nothing has ever seemed favored by fate.”
Jerry Ordway (writer/artist, The Power of Shazam, others): “Honestly I think Captain Marvel is a hard character to know what to do with, because if you change anything, the few purists out there who like the original version will be mad at you, but if you change it, you lose what was special about the original."
“I think DC tries something every couple of years, but I don’t think they have a vested interest in making the character a popular character. My own theory is that Captain Marvel sold millions of copies for DC’s competitor, but it didn’t necessarily sell millions for DC."
“They’re not like the parents looking out for a child - it’s like they’re neglecting an adopted child. They don’t see the potential in him, because the major success was so many years ago.”
Michael Uslan (Executive Producer of the Batman movies): “Somebody’s gotta be the keeper of the flame. And it’s important to keep looking for the right creators to handle the character in that contemporary marketplace while preserving the essence of those characters."
“We all just have to acknowledge that there are business decisions. The folks at DC are keepers of brands, and they have maintained a lot of brands for 75 years. There have been different changes over the years, but magically, these people have been bringing comic book fans back to the comic book store every Wednesday since 1934. That’s an incredible accomplishment."
“When you have comic book characters who’ve been published continuously like Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman that keep bringing fans back for 70 years, that’s astronomical! Thousands and thousands and thousands of stories, and you’re still finding new things to say with those characters."
“I maintain Captain Marvel is the Harry Potter of superheroes. There’s a charm to it, a wish-fulfillment to it. And when it all comes down to it, it’s all about the meaning of family. But for the Marvel Family, there could be no Fantastic Four. There could be no Incredibles."
“Everything that has had anything to do with the theme of family in superheroes in comic books comes directly from the Marvel Family. Superman didn’t have it; Captain Marvel did. Superman didn’t have that sense of humor; Captain Marvel did. And as a result, Superman later emulated that sense of humor and that sense of family…and then there was the Batman Family…and it all comes from Captain Marvel.”
So, what would it take for Captain Marvel to succeed in his own comic book again?
Elliot Maggin: “The modern audience has to be under 10. And nobody wants to write for them."
“The character has to be written toward kids, but that doesn’t preclude other age groups. I thought Harry Potter was some of the best writing in years. The medium works for kids; it just doesn’t work for some adults.”
Jeff Smith: “I don’t think it’s impossible to write that kind of a comic. It’s just harder to write that kind of comic in the modern marketplace."
“He’s a very versatile kind of character. He can save someone in trouble, or he can get tapped inside an Impressionist painting [laughs]! You can put him in all kinds of situations a character like Batman just couldn’t pull off.”
Mark Waid: “The thing comics have a history of forgetting is that sometimes the time is right for a character, and sometimes it’s wrong for a character. And if the time is wrong for a character, don’t pave over what’s there and try to put a gun in his hand and make him grim and gritty to make him work for today – just hold off for a while, and maybe that character’s time will come around again.”
Michael Uslan: “Speaking generally, there comes a point in time where if something’s not working, rather than change things for the sake of change, and ignoring 25, 45, 65 years worth of mythology and history, maybe it’s best to just move on and let things be dead, and develop new mythology with new characters, rather than let things go on and have them become a polar opposite of everything they were and stood for.”
Mark Waid: “The best example of this is the Hulk. Remember, the Hulk only appeared for six issues in 1962 and 1963. And it went nowhere - nowhere! No one bought the Hulk, but Stan Lee decided, ‘Let’s let the Hulk lie low for a while.’ And sure enough, the Hulk got his own book again, and 15 years later he had his own hit TV series. Nothing had been done to change the character."
“If you’re going to take Captain Marvel and make him ugly and grim and ‘adult’ and so forth, then I have an idea - why don’t you just create your own damn character?"
“Of course, it’s easy for me to say all this - I’m not the one writing the checks. I’m not the one bankrolling the relaunch of Captain Marvel. But I’d like to believe that there’s still mileage in that character.”
Alex Ross: “Captain Marvel is the superhero character I consider to be my ‘personal favorite,’ meaning in some ways that besides the obvious affinity I show to Superman and other major icon superheroes, Captain Marvel’s importance to me feels like he is apart from the others, mainly because he seems unknown to the general public. His appeal has been infectious without always being aided by popular support.”
Chip Kidd (author, Shazam!: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal): “My book is a time capsule – it’s like opening up a doorway to 1944. And you’d need that kind of atmosphere, that kind of excitement, in order to make the character work. It’s as easy and simple as the idea that it’ll take the right creative team to make it work."
"(And yes, I’d love to write Captain Marvel, but it’d be more of a one-shot than an ongoing series.)"
“I’m a designer, so I have to say – he’s a great design, in form and content, both the way he looks and what the story is. It’s brilliantly conceived."
Jerry Ordway: “You can’t say enough about the continuous publication of characters, because every time you start over, you have a new first issue, and a new confusion over which older stories count and which don’t. I think from a reader’s point of view, there’s a lot to be said for some consistency, and Captain Marvel hasn’t had that consistent publication.
“They’ve kept books like Wonder Woman going even during periods where they’ve been poor sellers because there’s that tradition, that commitment to a Wonder Woman book, to a Superman book. You haven’t had that with Captain Marvel. If you always wait five years and then put out another number one, how do you know which number one is the right number one?”
Mike Kunkel: “There are ideas that can seem very rooted in the past, but you just have to take a look at the core of that idea, see what was good and exciting about it, and develop that. And I think Cap falls into that category. He’s so optimistic and innocent and brazenly honest, and that’s not the norm of superheroes today, so to make him relevant to today is always a challenge.”
Alex Ross: “I believe Captain Marvel and his ilk will survive and eventually thrive again. It just seems that with so many people who have cared and tried to solve this riddle that one day it has to be solved. His return to glory strikes me as something that will have to be delivered someday.”
Mark Waid: “Writing that character is like falling off a log. If anything is hard to remember, it’s that he has the wisdom of Solomon, and it’s easy to forget about that because it’s not visual. But it’s easy to forget that he’s very wise and sage as an adult, and that is a key component of the character.”
Plans have been in the works for a Shazam! movie, to be executive-produced by Michael Uslan, for several years now. Two-time Oscar winner William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride), wrote a draft of the script in 2003 that was ultimately passed on.
Mark Waid: “The spirit of Goldman’s screenplay really works - the core of it, to say a magic word and become a grownup, with all the power and problems that come with that, is there. I think it would have been the greatest superhero movie of 1987, before Batman."
“For whatever pluses and minuses the William Goldman script had, the love he has for Captain Marvel shows. And that’s a big step above a lot of people.”
Later, frequent Tim Burton screenwriter John August (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) was brought on for a new draft, which was rumored to feature Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Black Adam. Again, the script fell through.
Currently, Geoff Johns is working on a version of Shazam! that might find its way to the big screen, or possibly as another TV series. Details are sparse, but we decided to ask: What would be necessary to make a Captain Marvel film work, and could it put Captain Marvel back on top?
Jackson Bostwick (TV’s Captain Marvel): “The most important element would the humor. Not Ha-Ha humor, but the same fun you have watching Sean Connery playing James Bond."
“The biggest mistake would be to cast a name actor in the role of Captain Marvel. Find an unknown who is charming and doesn’t look like a pro wrestler. After all, Cap is the alter ego of Billy Batson, who was selected by the old wizard Shazam because he was pure of heart and as a result wouldn’t transform himself into some Philistine thug on steroids. Captain Marvel doesn't need massive muscles; he has the magic and power of five gods and a Jewish king. That in itself is imaginative.”
Chip Kidd:” Iron Man wasn’t on anybody’s radar for a long time, and now how big is he? But you can’t just do it, it has to be really good, otherwise you wind up with something like The Shadow, or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which is a supreme achievement that did not connect with the public. You need to get the tone right in a way that connects with the audience in a big way. It’s hard to do this stuff [laughs].”
Jeff Smith: “Who would have thought Iron Man would be relevant again? But the movie just completely worked. It was just magical and brought him back. The right team on a book or a movie could bring him back to the top, who knows?”
Alex Ross: “Any live adaptation of Captain Marvel is going to have to find and capture that invisible quality of difference from any other superhero. He’s not a kid in an adult’s body, and he’s not a living cartoon or comedic character – those to me are the worst ways to interpret him.
“Can I make the case for something heartfelt in his handling, to be made without the cynicism of our modern age? Would it be successful? Maybe, maybe not.
“Sometimes, though, one can capture the zeitgeist of the moment by being true to a unique vision, without it seeming foolproof on paper.”
Michael Uslan: “Let me put on my Hollywood hat: If, in the first 20 years of new comic book movies, you take Batman and Superman and maybe Spider-Man and X-Men out of the equation, maybe the biggest successes of comic book movies were books that never sold more than 5,000 copies an issue: Men In Black. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Mask.
"You do not need a 25 or 50 or 75-year history to make a great comic book movie. What you need are great stories and colorful characters and great filmmakers who are passionate about a particular character and have a vision for it and are able to execute it. And that’s where the magic comes.
"That’s why Iron Man was so great. That’s why Green Lantern has a great chance of succeeding. And that’s why now the second bananas are going to have their turn in the spotlight – Thor and Captain America and the Flash. And Captain Marvel will have his day.”
But what keeps the fans coming back in each new incarnation of Captain Marvel? We decided to ask the man who played him on screen a simple question: What, in his opinion, is the message that Captain Marvel sends out to fans?
Jackson Bostwick: “Never let the child in you die. That is where your imagination lies. It is the foundation on which your spirit for life is built. It is your calling to the hero’s journey.
“And being able to read about and follow a superhero of fantasy and fiction like Captain Marvel into his perilous, yet fanciful, domain as he battles against evil and injustice can momentarily transport one out of their own oft-time worrisome world of reality into a realm where selfless gallantry, virtue, honor and bravery rule the day.
“The endless fight for good over evil must never be lost and the heroic adventures of Captain Marvel, as well as a few other superheroes of comics and film, subliminally hearten the child within us that all is not lost; you can be rewarded with being ‘the best you can be’ if you will choose to travel down the paths of virtue and honor.
“Captain Marvel slips this message to the kids, and the kid within us, by entertaining us through whimsical stories and fantastic characters, and not with the strong-armed, stark realism that permeates the over-the-top, steroid-induced, superhero brutes that too often infest the comics and films of today.
“Kids can identify with Billy Batson, and dream to possess his ability to say one magic word that instantly transforms him into a superhero that can whip up on the bad guys. That in itself is a major childhood fantasy that lives within the human spirit until one dies. And this appears to be missed by DC as probably being one of the chief factors as to why Captain Marvel outsold Superman during the Golden Age.”
Kind of says it all, don’t you think?
No matter what happens next, in comics, film, television or other media, there’s seven decades of fans who still love Captain Marvel, who eagerly await new adventures in comics, film and elsewhere, and who want to wish him a happy 70th birthday. Whether it’s a film, a new series, or reprints of his classic tales, we’re here and ready for anything, from talking tigers to evil worms.