Captain Marvel #17, October 1969. Cover by Gil Kane and Dan Adkins. TM & © Marvel
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The name Captain Marvel is a famous one in comics. In 1940, Fawcett Publications introduced the original character in Whiz Comics #2. Originally envisioned as a team of superheroes, each having a different super-power taken from a different mythical character, the powers were consolidated into one superhero, Captain Marvel. And undoubtedly in an effort to appeal to young boys, Captain Marvel’s alter ego was young Billy Batson, an orphan who stumbles upon the tomb of the ancient wizard Shazam, who bestows upon the youngster magical powers, including
- The wisdom of Solomon
- The strength of Hercules
- The stamina of Atlas
- The power of Zeus
- The courage of Achilles
- The horrible singing voice of Madonna
Okay, I lied. M actually stands for The speed of Mercury.
Quite possibly the most popular superhero book of World War II, Captain Marvel was sued out of existence by National (DC) Comics, which eventually brought the hero back in the early 1970s. His first appearance in Whiz Comics #2 (far left) echoed Superman’s first cover on Action Comics #1. TM & © DC.
Every time Billy Batson says the magic wizard’s name, he’s struck by a bolt of lightning and becomes Captain Marvel. The comic book was charmingly illustrated by C.C. Beck, among others, and had a look and feel unlike any other comic of its time. As such, it sold extremely well … so well, in fact, it promptly woke the not-so-sleeping giant of National Comics (DC today) and started a decade-plus lawsuit about the similarities between the Big Red Cheese (Capt. Marvel) and the Man of Steel (Superman). (Let’s face it: That whole tossing the car thing on the introductory cover of Whiz Comics is pretty damn similar to Action Comics #1.)
Eventually Fawcett threw in the towel and shut down Captain Marvel, but not before creating a whole Marvel Family that included Captain Marvel Jr., Mary Marvel, Uncle Marvel, the three Lieutenant Marvels, Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, and— unfortunately for both us and The Rock—Black Adam, the dark side of the whole Shazam family. Fawcett gave up in the mid-1950s, a tumultuous time for comic books in America. The Big Blue Boy Scout beat the Big Red Cheese and peace reigned over the comics land when it came to overly super-powered white male characters. Superman was now also the Big Blue Cheese (which went very nicely with a wedge salad and a fine cut of steak).
In the mid-1960s, during the superhero craze brought about by the one-two punch of the success of Marvel Comics and the Batman TV show, numerous copycat comics started to pop up. Bargain basement publisher Myron Fass sensed an opening and brought out a Captain Marvel comic, thinking the copyright had lapsed on the original Fawcett character. Created by Carl Burgos, who had his own axe to grind with Marvel over the copyright for his Human Torch character, this Captain Marvel had the ability to split his body parts away from his torso. It was not superhero comics’ finest hour. And while DC effectively stopped the continuing publication of Captain Marvel comics featuring the original, Fawcett still owned the rights to the character. But that didn’t stop Fass from producing a grade-Z, in-name-only knockoff in a series of 25-cent comics that premiered in 1966 and lasted only six issues (four regular issues plus two specials).
Myron Fass’s knock-off Captain Marvel drawn by Human Torch creator Carl Burgos, had one of the more disgusting power-sets in comics, even for a robot.
Meanwhile, over at Marvel Comics, publisher Martin Goodman was righteously pissed that Myron Fass had a character called Captain Marvel, basically the namesake of Goodman’s own newly successful line. Supposedly Goodman ordered Stan Lee to come up with their own version of Captain Marvel ASAP, so Stan—along with penciller Gene Colan—quickly put together a science fiction-tinged story of Captain Mar-Vell of the Kree, a space-faring race that had already appeared in the Fantastic Four with a story about a mysterious sentry in issues #64 and 65. Mar-Vell was part of a spy mission to Earth and he was appointed by his evil superior, Colonel Yon-Rogg to go out amongst the earthlings. Meanwhile ol’ Yonny plotted to steal away Mar-Vell’s main squeeze, chief medical office Una, whilst the Kree floated in their invisible ship above the Earth. Stan scheduled this story into the newly-christened 25-cent title Marvel Super-Heroes, which was formerly a reprint title known as Fantasy Masterpieces. Stan quickly handed this comic over to Roy Thomas who continued on it for a few issues until he handed it off to Arnold Drake, who had just come over to Marvel from DC. Fass was paid off by Marvel to the tune of $4,500 when he filed suit for copyright infringement and Goodman had his Captain Marvel, much to—I would imagine—DC’s surprise.
The first three appearances of Marvel’s Captain Marvel, brought about when publisher Martin Goodman had Stan Lee come up with their own version ASAP. TM & © MARVEL.
Captain Mar-Vell quickly graduated to his own series and meandered around the Marvel Universe until Roy Thomas returned with issue #17 alongside artist Gil Kane. Thomas augmented the character with the addition of Marvel’s perennial bridesmaid, Rick Jones, who now shared space with Captain Marvel. Discovering a pair of golden bracelets in a cave, Rick Jones is compelled by a force in another dimension to don them and bang them together, and—SHAZAM!—the “Sensational New” Captain Marvel is born, replete with a spiffy new costume. Cap and Jones share the same consciousness and communicate with each other, but only one at a time can exist on Earth, relegating the other to the Negative Zone (another Fantastic Four creation) once the wristband-clashing commences. This neat little plot device by Thomas brings Marvel’s Captain Marvel just a bit closer to the original Billy Batson/Big Red Cheese dynamic, where a kid is the Captain’s alter ego, albeit Rick Jones is the Marvel Universe’s oldest teenager.
Gil Kane’s explosive pencils (with Dan Adkins inking), along with Roy Thomas’s scripting, finally made Captain Marvel a great book. Too bad is was so short-lived. All of the above pages are from CM #17.. TM & © MARVEL.
I don’t know what happened to Gil Kane’s art in the late 1960s, but it was definitely a change for the better. Always one of DC Comics’ more popular artists on titles like Green Lantern and The Atom, Kane adhered strictly to the staid, slick, modernistic style at DC, but something happened when he moved over to Marvel: His art became looser and his page layouts more dynamic … explosive, even. His work on Captain Marvel #17 features no fewer than five splash-like pages with amazing layouts and incredible figure work that just pop off the page. Kane would co-create Adam Warlock with Roy Thomas (another great costume design), revamping the character known only as “Him,” from Stan Lee/Jack Kirby stories in Fantastic Four and Thor. He would also go on to become Marvel’s go-to cover artist in the early 1970s, penciling far more covers than anyone else at that time.
The rest of Kane’s Captain Marvel run (issues #18 through 21), plus a couple of the covers he continued to draw after he left the series. TM & © MARVEL.
Kane would eventually return to DC and do a series of Superman stories in Action Comics with writer Marv Wolfman and a few Superman Specials, along with a fantasy-tinged reboot of the Atom called Sword of the Atom with writer Jan Strnad. It was around this time that he started using markers to ink his own work. In the late 1980s, Kane re-teamed with Roy Thomas as they adapted the Wagner opera The Ring of the Nibelung, in a series of prestige-format books. He’s also known for his own creations, such as His Name Is Savage! (1968), which he self-published in magazine format and which is regarded as an early prototypical graphic novel; Blackmark (1971), published in paperback form by Bantam Books, also an early contender for first graphic novel honors, and the syndicated comic strip Star Hawks, which had the singular quality of being an unusually formatted two-tiered daily strip. Most of these projects had Archie Goodwin involved as writer at some point, too. Kane continued to draw comics up to his death at age 73 in early 2000.
Gil Kane’s work at DC Comics in the early 1960s was always enjoyable on titles such as Green Lantern and The Atom, but he really started to stretch when he published his own creation, His Name Is Savage! in 1968, followed by Blackmark in 1971 (from Bantam Books); Will Eisner and Gil Kane at San Diego Comic-Con in 1975, and one of his double-tiered Star Hawks daily strips in the bottom row. Art TM & © Respective Owners.
Thomas and Kane stuck around on Captain Marvel for only five issues, #17 through #21, which, due to the on-again, off-again publishing schedule of the title (it was cancelled at least once), took over a year to be published on a bi-monthly schedule. When he took over the book again with issue #17, Thomas had already submitted a redesign of the costume before he knew that Kane was going to draw it, and Kane tweaked it a bit. Here’s Thomas talking about Captain Marvel in the middle of a tribute to the recently-deceased artist in 2000, from Alter Ego Vol. 3, #4 (click here to read the whole article).
Marvel’s alien super-hero named Captain Marvel was going nowhere, and I—as his second but not current writer—came up one Saturday morning with the notion of turning the Kree warrior named Mar-Vell into an echo of the original (Fawcett) Captain Marvel, only with science-fiction trappings this time instead of magical ones, and with young Rick Jones as his “Billy Batson.”
My several-page plot synopsis for CM #17 and a costume redesign … were already in the hands of penciler Don Heck when Gil walked into Marvel’s offices for the first time, I believe, in some months.
By sheer coincidence, he told Stan he’d really like to take over the Captain Marvel book, an obvious loser, and see what he could do with it. Since the mag was now basically in my charge, Stan brought Gil out into the bullpen to talk with me. I sparked at once to the notion of his doing the book, and either Stan or I decided to retrieve my plot (which Don had not yet begun) and give Heck a replacement feature so he wouldn’t lose any income.
Gil and I conferred, and I let Gil fine-tune my costume re-design slightly before he started drawing the story. I doubt if he was particularly thrilled to be working with me, whom he hardly knew, but we got along from the start.
It took Jim Starlin (top row)—and later writer Kelly Sue Deconnick—to unlock the true potential of Captain Marvel. Deconnick’s reboot would go to become the template for the Brie Larson-starring character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Monica Rambeau (bottom row, center), was an interim Captain Marvel in the 1980s. TM & © MARVEL.
Marvel eventually cracked the code on Captain Marvel. Jim Starlin took over the book with issue #25 and introduced Thanos into the storyline, making the good Captain one of Marvel’s most cosmic superheroes, a gift he also bestowed on his revamp of Warlock a few years later. He revisited Captain Marvel in 1982 and created Marvel’s first original graphic novel, The Death of Captain Marvel, in which he—you guessed it—killed off Mar-Vell, in a surprisingly original fashion (no spoilers here … just go read it). A couple of related characters popped up in the Marvel Universe, including Carol Danvers’ Ms. Marvel, who got her powers from an explosion of the Kree spaceship early on in CM’s first series. Monica Rambeau would become Captain Marvel for a time, before settling into a stint as Photon. Carol Danvers would return as Captain Marvel in a series created by writer Kelly Sue Deconnick, which would serve as the basis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie character played by Brie Larson, which incorporates a number of things from the original character into her origin.
DC tried and tried and tried again to reboot Captain Marvel, never quite getting it right. Jeff Smith’s version (center) came closest. The jury is out on the new Mark Waid/Dan Mora version which debuted in May 2023. TM & © DC.
DC eventually decided to revive Captain Marvel, but they were too late: They had to settle for renaming the title Shazam!, after his magic word, with the tagline, “The Original Captain Marvel.” While they wisely hired C.C. Beck to draw the new series, it never really caught on past the initial speculation craze of the first issue. DC has repeatedly tried to revive the character and modernize him, succeeding only a couple of times—in my humble opinion—in capturing the wit and charm of the original 1940s series, and that was with Jeff Smith’s Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil mini-series, published in 2007. Previous to that was Jerry Ordway’s successful reboot of the series in the 1990s. However, I am hopeful for the new series (premiering this week) by Mark Waid and Dan Mora.
My fondest memories are reserved for that Gil Kane version, though. There’s just something about that costume (which, of course, inspired the later one worn by Carol Danvers), and Kane’s incredibly dynamic layouts and art. It was just another brief and shining moment in the continuing parade of Marvel Comics in the late 1960s, but a vast improvement over what the Captain Marvel title originally was.
Next time: I talked about Bat-Baby a while back (click here for that ‘60s DC gem), but did you know there was another bizarre baby character from DC based on Wonder Woman? There isn’t a more charming or childlike character in any of DC’s kid-versions of the 1960s … Meet Wonder Tot in our next post!
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