Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The True History of SHAZAM! and the original Captain Marvel


Part 1 of several.

Hi friends, and welcome. For regular followers of me, this blog, the Captain Marvel Culture website, the Captain Marvel Culture Facebook group and page, the Captain Marvel Culture YouTube channel, and who may have seen my posts and comments and answers on YouTube, Facebook, Quora, and pretty much any article or blog post that purports to tell the history of any Captain Marvel, what follows should be familiar history. However, what with the upcoming "SHAZAM!" movie in post-production, as well as Marvel's "Captain Marvel" movie following hard upon, it seems that lots of people continue to post inaccurate histories as the authoritative truth.

The latest of these was on https://www.slashfilm.com/history-of-shazam. It was well written, with an air of authority. It seems to me, however, that it was written by somebody who did research on the Internet for a few hours rather than tracking down the source material. There are misconceptions and inaccuracies all over it. I don't want to assume that's what the writer did, but it is obvious that they did not go the extra step to find out the difference between a copyright and a trademark, or that Whiz Comics #1 was merely an ashcan and never released to the public.

There are plenty of other examples of inaccurate info being given as authoritative truth on YouTube, Quora, and Facebook and the mainstream press (which is not to say that they are dealing in "fake news." That's a whole 'nother thing). But rather than log all of them here, I would just like to see if I can straighten this whole mess out and give researchers a one-stop shop for this history.

In 1938, Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, a writer and artist team from Cleveland, Ohio, finally found a buyer for their ground-breaking character, "Superman." Long story short, their character, generally acknowledged to be the first true comic book superhero, first appeared in Action Comics #1. About that time, the publisher, National Allied Publications, was reorganized as Detective Comics, Inc. (after its first all-original, single-subject comic book with ads, Detective Comics) and would later come to be known as DC Comics.

Before long other superheroes appeared, and other publishing companies, either already extant or newly created, started introducing more superheroes.

Fawcett Publications had been started by retired US army captain Wilford H. Fawcett. "Captain Billy," as he was known, had published a pamphlet of patriotic writings and low-brow humor to entertain his veteran buddies in V.A. hospitals in his home town of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The pamphlet was called Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang. This publication became a big hit among the college set in the 1920's, spawning a large, diverse, and successful publishing company. Its titles included, over the years,  Daring Detective, Family Circle, Motion Picture, Screen Secrets, True Confessions, Mechanix Illustrated, and Woman's Day.

Noticing the success of superhero comic books, one of Captain Billy's sons, Roscoe Fawcett, decided to get Fawcett Publications into that racket. Citing surveys that showed the largest audience for superheroes was 10-to-12-year-old boys, he laid out the dictum "Give me a Superman, only have his other identity be a 10-to-12-year-old boy rather than a grown man." He put art director Al Allard in charge of the project with the assistance of editorial director Ralph Daigh, and staff writer Bill Parker and staff artist C.C. Beck were assigned to create this hero (as well as fill up a 64-page comic book with additional stories).

At first, Parker came up with the idea of a team of superheroes, each with a different power. But it was decided that this would be too confusing, so Parker went with the single hero.

The story he wrote began with Billy Batson, orphan newsboy, trying to sell his papers outside a subway station in the rain late at night. A stranger in a dark coat and hat came up to him and asked "Why aren't you home in bed, son?

"I have no home, sir," the boy said. "I sleep in the subway. It's warm there."

Without hesitation, the stranger said "Follow me!"

AND FOR THE FIRST AND LAST TIME THAT THIS WAS EVER A GOOD IDEA the 10-to-12 year old orphan followed the mysterious stranger into the subway.

The stranger took him to a long cavern lined with statues of "The Seven Deadly Enemies of Man" (more on that later). At the end was an old wizard who introduced himself as "SHAZAM!" With a crash of thunder, a display on the wall revealed his name to be an acronym:

Solomon - Wisdom
Hercules - Strength
Atlas - Stamina
Zeus - Power
Achilles - Courage
Mercury - Speed

Shazam proceeded to tell Billy Batson that he knew about his hard life but that since his heart was pure, he would pass on the responsibility for defending the weak and fighting for justice to him. "Speak my name!" he commanded,

Billy did so.

And in a crash of thunder and a flash of lightning, Billy was transformed into the mighty hero...Captain Thunder!


That's right, his name was Captain Thunder, he was to appear in the first issue of Flash Comics from Fawcett Publications, and an "ashcan" issue was produced to secure copyright and solicit distribution.

But All-American Comics (sister company to Detective) had just come out with their new comic by the same title.

So Fawcett decided to re-title the book Thrill Comics and produced an ashcan. But Pines Publishing was coming out with Thrilling Comics.

So Fawcett decided to go with a title that referenced their very first publication, and came out with Whiz Comics, and produced an ashcan. And in all these ashcans, the hero was named "Captain Thunder."

It made logical sense what with the lightning motif and the thunderous transformation. But someone didn't like it.

In testimony in the lawsuit with National (more on that later), Ralph Daigh said he didn't like that name. Comic book historian Jim Steranko reports that it was considered too "clamorous." So the histories say that artist Pete Costanza came up with the name "Captain Marvelous." It was shortened to Captain Marvel and since the Ashcan of Whiz Comics was considered issue #1, the first issue to hit the stands was #2, cover dated February, 1940.

(There seem to be a lot of people who think that the reason for the name change was that there was "Captain Terry Thunder" character in Jungle Comics #1, cover dated January, 1940, but I doubt this. The earliest reference I have been able to find to this theory is a website from 2012. In all previous histories, it has never been mentioned. Steranko, in particular, wrote his history in the early 1970's based on interviews with the surviving Fawcett staffers, and it was never mentioned.) 

The character was a big hit, and before long it was decided to give him a solo title. The first issue was written and drawn by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in a legendary two-week period with some help from their friends when they took a hotel room and did after-hours work while they were creating Captain America for Timely Comics. The title came to be Captain Marvel Adventures.

In time, Captain Marvel developed a family of superheroes around him. There were the Three Lieutenant Marvels, Captain Marvel, Jr., Mary Marvel, Uncle Marvel, and in Fawcett's Funny Animals, even Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny! (click on the names for more about each of them)

Captain Marvel was even the first comic book superhero in a motion picture! Movie serials had made a comeback recently with the success of Flash Gordon, and Republic Pictures was shopping for a comic book property. They opened discussions with Detective for Superman, but it didn't work out, so they closed the deal with Fawcett for Captain Marvel. The Adventures of Captain Marvel movie serial, starring Tom Tyler as the hero, Frankie Coghlan, Jr. as Billy Batson, and Nigel de Brulier as Shazam, is generally acknowledged as one of the best ever made.

Captain Marvel's comics went on to sell more copies than Superman. Bill Parker wound up in the military during World War II and never came back to comics, but Otto Oscar Binder wound up becoming the main writer for the character and wrote more than half of all the stories of Captain Marvel and those of the other Marvel Family characters. It was he who really solidified the character of the hero and the sense of fun and "whimsy" for which the Marvel Family line of characters were known.

Of course, nobody likes a rival to their success, and the publishers of Superman were no exception. By 1941, Detective Comics, Inc. had shut down at least two Superman imitators with lawsuits. With The Adventures of Captain Marvel nearing release, they went after Captain Marvel. They issued a cease-and-desist letter claiming that the similarities between the two heroes were so great that it constituted copyright infringement, and that Captain Marvel stories were copying Superman stories.  This did not stop Fawcett and Republic from releasing their Captain Marvel works. So then Detective sued Fawcett Publications and Republic Pictures in September 1941. The case finally went to trial in March, 1948.

The arguments included the fact that both heroes had tight costumes, were super-strong, super-fast, and had alter-egos in journalism, and fought against injustice (Clark Kent was a newspaper reporter, and Billy Batson had become a radio reporter). Other similarities included flying and the fact that their arch enemies were bald scientists (Lex Luthor for Superman and Dr. Sivana for Captain Marvel) but in those instances, Captain Marvel came first. Instances were also shown of Captain Marvel doing things that Superman had done previously.

Fawcett countered by pointing out the differences between the two characters (the color of the costume, the age of the alter ego, and the fact that while Superman was a visitor from another planet, Captain Marvel was a product of magic, for instance, and that there was no "Lois Lane" romantic angle in Captain Marvel stories and no villain as prevalent in Superman stories as Dr. Sivana was against Captain Marvel). They also showed examples of not only Captain Marvel doing certain things before Superman did them, but heroes of literature and mythology, like Tarzan, Popeye, and Hercules doing things like these before both of them.

Fawcett also pointed out that the McClure Newspaper Syndicate, which distributed the Superman newspaper strip, had failed to print the required copyright notice on a bunch of Superman strips. There were also certain irregularities with the copyrights of the material in certain issues of Superman comics. Therefore, they claimed, the Superman character's copyright had been abandoned, and it did not matter whether or not Captain Marvel or his stories violated it.

McClure Syndicate Superman strips without proper copyright notice

By the time the decision was handed down in 1950, Detective and it's sister company, Superman, Inc., had reorganized to form National Comics Publications, Inc.

The U.S. District Court (93 F. Supp. 349) ruling recognized the similarities and differences between the characters and held that the character was not in violation of National's copyright. It did find that though there were conflicting testimonies by Fawcett employees as to whether there had been orders to copy Superman and Superman stories, the court was satisfied that copying did happen. However, the failure of Detective and McClure to ensure that appropriate copyright notices were affixed to at least 160 newspaper strips did constitute abandonment.

Thus, Fawcett won the case. Of course National appealed.

In 1951, Judge Learned Hand of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals (191 F.2d 594) decided that the inadvertent copyright omission did not constitute abandonment, and though Fawcett was not trying to deceive customers into thinking that Captain Marvel was Superman, copying of stories did happen. Copying of stories is an infringement of copyright. So National won. Now all that was left was to determine damages. Damages were to be determined by finding every instance in which Fawcett's Captain Marvel stories copied National's Superman stories.

This would have required many hours of cataloging over a decade's worth of comic books. By this time, sales of comic books had declined since their WWII peak, particularly in the area of Superheroes (though Captain Marvel was still popular). So Fawcett made the business-wise decision to settle with DC for $400,000 and agree not to publish Captain Marvel ever again. They closed down their comic book division, sold off a few of their properties to Charlton Comics, and their last issue was Marvel Family #89, cover dated January, 1954.

(Some folks say that Fawcett folded, or went bankrupt, or into receivership, or dissolved as a result of the suit. Nothing could be further from the truth. By settling with DC, Fawcett had unloaded a great legal expense and a division that was not nearly as profitable as it had been, even without the lawsuit. They went  on to contnue publishing magazines and expanded into paperbacks and other media, until selling out to CBS Publishing for $50 Million in 1979.)

(It is not true that DC acquired the rights to Captain Marvel as a result of the settlement. I have found no evidence to back that up, and lots that makes no sense if it were true. Find out the surprising person who did say it was true in the next episode!)

NEXT: What happened next! Other Marvels! Other Companies! Other lawsuits! Aliens and androids and...oh my!


seangodschild said...

Awesome job at laying out the history/chronology of these comics. One minor thing I would like to ask/point out though... isn't the attribute from Mercury supposed to be SPEED? Strength is from Hercules, but I believe speed is from Mercury.

No disrespect- just trying to help. :-)

Captain Zorikh said...

Whoops! Typo. Thanks! You get a No-Prize and credit for reading the post! I will fix it ASAP.