Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Return of the Original!

Meanwhile, one day in 1972, Carmine Infantino, at the time publisher publisher of DC comics, decided that he was going to try to acquire the original Captain Marvel for his company. He called up Fawcett Publications and asked them what they wanted. They asked him to make an offer. He believes they were happy to get rid of him. This makes sense, considering they they could not make any money off of him any other way as a result of the lawsuit.

DC Comics leased the rights to the original Captain Marvel and his Marvel Family from Fawcett Publication, but they ran into a stumbling block about the comics they would appear in. Marvel Comics had the name of Captain Marvel trademarked. Therefore, DC could not produce a comic book with the title “Captain Marvel.” So the folks at DC put their heads together and came up with the idea of calling the book “Shazam!” This made sense. After all, the book would have all the members of the Marvel Family (now to be called the “Shazam Family”), so it would be a logical choice for a title. In fact the full title of the first issue was “With One Magic Word... SHAZAM! The Original Captain Marvel.” Marvel Comics threatened to sue over their use of the name of the hero anywhere on the cover, so after a few issues it was changed to “With One Magic Word... SHAZAM! The World's Mightiest Mortal.”

This legal trivia has led to a world of confusion. Since the only way anyone would ever see the name of Captain Marvel would be if they actually read the comic book, anyone who did not read the book would never know that his name was Captain Marvel. Although there were still plenty of people alive who certainly remembered the classic character, most of them were not reading comics any more. When a TV series was made in 1974, it used the title “Shazam!” although they did call the character Captain Marvel in dialog. Action figures could only use the word “Shazam!” on the box. So before long, in the eyes of the non-comic reading public, the red suit with the gold lighting bold was the costume of a hero named Shazam.

C.C. Beck was hired to draw the new comics, but the writers selected to write them, Denny O'Neil and Elliot S! Maggin, did not seem to catch the magic that made the originals so wonderful and popular. They started by explaining how virtually every character form the original Fawcett comics had wound up in suspended animation for 20 years, and played on the fish out of water, man out of time theme. But that was soon forgotten in favor of really silly stories involving everything from a growing gelatin desert to a talking frog to an invasion of “Salad-Men.” Beck was very unhappy. The years he had spent drawing Captain Marvel had given him a sense of propriety over the character, and he could not stand what these writers and the editor, Julius Schwartz were doing to him. They were taking all the fun out and replacing it with absurdity. He and Schwartz did not get along at all. Many years later Infantino said that he would have taken Schwartz off the book and let Beck write his own stories, but that did not happen. One day Beck finished his final story and quit.

The TV series turned out to be the most popular live-action Saturday morning TV show ever. Though remarkably tame and stiltifyingly boring by today's standards, the adventures of Billy Batson (portrayed by Michael Gray) and his Mentor (Les Tremane) touring the country through 28 episodes were repeated over 3 seasons. The role of Captain Marvel was played by Jackson Bostwick for the first 16 episodes and John Davey for the last 12.

Beck was replaced by Bob Oksner and later, Kurt Schaffenberger, who had been the most productive Marvel Family artist after Beck in the old Fawcett days. Reprints of old stories were printed regularly, sometimes filling 80 page issues. The new stories got a little better. With the coming of the Bicentennial, and the popularity of the TV show, they started a series of American history-themed stories while giving Uncle Dudley a mustache and making him Billy's mentor as the two of them toured the country in a Winnebago, just like Billy and Mentor on the TV series.

But the success of the TV series and the topicality of the Bicentennial stories was not enough to save this series. In a last-ditch effort, the old, Fawcett house style of Captain Marvel art was ditched in exchange for a “dynamic new look,” a more modern, detailed, realistic drawing style. After two issues of that, the book was canceled, and the stories of the Shazam Family were moved to the closing feature of World's Finest Comics. The art of Don Newton during this period was very well done, and although realistically detailed, was characterized by whimsical, cartoonish exaggeration. This matched the stories being written, which alternated between comedic romps and serious drama developing the Shazam mythos, which have since been all but forgotten.

Next: Death and other changes


chickcomics said...

Excellent article, but minor mistakes. Jackson Bostwick did 17 episodes, while John Davey did 11. The motorhome was properly an Open Road, not a Winnebago. The show barely captured some of the magic of the old C.C. Beck/Otto Binder/Bill Parker chemistry. I just don't think Capt. Marvel ever recovered from the 1950's lawsuit and D.C.'s subsequent handling of the characters.

Captain Zorikh said...

Thanks for the technical corrections. They will be applied to the published version.