The Curious Case Of Captain Marvel – The Weird World Of Comics
If you’ve been reading this columns regularly, you’ll probably have spotted that I’m generally having them link into each other, like a strand of multicoloured handkerchiefs impossibly streaming from a magician’s sleeve. As such, I was going to write about someone who’s died a lot, picking up on the last instalment’s topic, but instead I’m going to follow up a quick aside I made and talk about Captain Marvel.
As you might expect, Captain Marvel is a trademark owned by Marvel Comics, but this wasn’t always the case. Marvel isn’t the only company to have, or had, a Captain Marvel, and it’s a name that often brings about lots of confusion and qualifiers. As with so many confusing comics things, it all starts back in the Golden Age.
Captain Marvel was created by Fawcett Comics in 1940, appearing in Whiz Comics. Typical of the age, he was a big, bold hero that featured in fairly naïve and colourful stories. Captain Marvel’s main selling point was that rather than being a hero that disguised himself as a boring, regular man (like Superman) or a kid that tagged along with an adult hero (like Robin) he was a regular young boy named Billy Batson, who could, after saying the magic word “shazam” turn into an adult super-hero. Shazam is actually an acronym of the gods and heroes of ancient myth that give Marvel his powers – the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury – as well as, oddly, the name of the wizard that mentors him.
Captain Marvel was a huge success and quickly became the biggest selling comic around, spawning a host of spin-off titles (including the all-important Captain Marvel Comics) and characters, including his sister Mary Marvel and the teenage Captain Marvel Jr (both of whom pre-date Supergirl and Superboy) and even getting a film adaptation.
Trouble came when DC Comics decided to sue Fawcett for copyright infringement, claiming that Captain Marvel was a rip-off of Superman. This was a common tactic by DC at the time and most publishers didn’t bother fighting it (frankly because it was often true). Fawcett decided to defend themselves though, which led to a seven year court case.
The outcome was mixed. The judge ruled that Captain Marvel was an infringement on Superman, but that Superman hadn’t been copyrighted properly, so the case was moot. DC appealed a few years later and won, but by this point the bottom had fallen out of the super-hero market, so Fawcett settled and agreed never to publish their Marvel Family characters again.
By the mid-60s, the newly dubbed Marvel Comics were on a massive wave of success. Their publisher, Martin Goodman, realised it might be an idea to grab the vacant Captain Marvel trademark before anyone tried to cash-in on the Marvel name, so had Stan Lee and Gene Colan quickly concoct a character. The result was Captain Mar-Vell of the Kree military, an alien that gets betrayed and stranded on Earth, so decides to become its protector, fighting off his own people.
Mar-Vell quickly got his own book, named Captain Marvel, securing the trademark, but he didn’t really deserve it. The character was never particularly popular, no matter what was done to improve him – a complete face lift; the introduction of a female counterpart, Ms Marvel; the addition of Rick Jones as a teen sidekick he was molecularly bonded to; a broader cosmic story line – nothing helped his book sell that well. It limped out on an erratic schedule until the late 70s, when Marvel finally put it out of its misery. A few years later, they allowed Mar-Vell’s last writer, Jim Starlin, to kill him off in The Death of Captain Marvel.
While dying was the most interesting thing Mar-Vell ever did, it was a strange comic to publish though, as in the early 70s the Fawcett Captain Marvel had reappeared. Fawcett themselves couldn’t publish him, per their agreement, so it was DC of all people who licensed the rights to the character (eventually buying them up completely) and started doing new stories. Unable to get the trademark, they called the comic Shazam! At first, Captain Marvel was off in his own world still, but this was eventually integrated into the DCU universe, with Cap joining the Justice League and Justice Society. All his solo books have been named some variation of Shazam though (such as Power of Shazam).
This is because, despite killing off Mar-Vell, Marvel have managed to consistently keep the Captain Marvel trademark current by using a string of other characters with the name. Sometimes they’ve done the bare minimum. Their second Captain Marvel was a black woman called Monica Rambeau, with entirely unrelated powers and origin to Mar-Vell. Though she was a member of the Avengers through most of the 80s, Monica was never desperately popular and only received the odd one-shot solo story when the it came time to keep the trademark valid.
In the late 90s Mar-Vell’s test-tube baby son, Genis, became Captain Marvel and actually got a decent, but low-selling, Captain Marvel solo series that ran until the early 00s. Genis was also eventually killed, so trademark defence in the late 00s fell to some misguided one-shots purporting to bring back Mar-Vell as part of Civil War and Secret Invasion. Genis’ sister Phyla was technically Captain Marvel at this time, but was barely appearing anywhere, let alone in her own book. Noh-Varr, previously an entirely unrelated Marvel Boy, became Captain Marvel for about five minutes, but like a lot of Brian Bendis’ Avengers plots, nothing really became of it.
It took until last year for Marvel to seize upon the obvious option: make Ms Marvel the new Captain Marvel.
Initially a supporting character for Mar-Vell, Carol Danvers reappeared with super-powers in the late 70s, as a combination attempt to a) appeal to women and b) to claim yet another potential character name with Marvel in it. Carol has a tumultuous publishing history and few writers have every really seemed to know what to do with her, but she has appeared fairly consistently over the decades, as an Avenger and hanger-on of the X-Men, through name changes to Binary and Warbird. But, crucially, she’s been moderately popular through-out and cemented herself a place in the Marvel C or B list.
By the mid-00s, Marvel had decided to make a strong push at selling Carol as, essentially, their premier female super-hero. This effort was undermined by changing her name back to the awful Ms Marvel and letting the thuddingly mediocre Brian Reed write her solo series. The strangely kinky costume didn’t help much either.
Making Carol the new Captain Marvel makes a lot of sense though. It defends the trademark while pushing a good character, one that can be a great role-model for young female readers. With her new less condescending name and less sexualised costume, she has the potential to really break out and I could easily see her being introduced in a future Avengers movie.
But where does that leave DC? It’s easy to get the feeling that they’ve been waiting patiently for Marvel to give up on the Captain Marvel name for years now, ready to pounce on any slip-up or scheduling problem. Until the recent change in management that brought about the New DC 52 that is, as DC have finally caved and renamed not just the book, but the character Captain Marvel as Shazam, which is going to reduce a lot of confusion in the long-run. Although it does make you wonder how he’s meant to introduce himself when his name is the same special word he uses to transform.
So there you go, a concise (cough) history of the name Captain Marvel and the lengths comics publishers will go to keep a trademark.