The Captains Marvel: A History – Updated

Today’s post originated as a comment on a Facebook post, but when it got unwieldy enough, I decided to pull a Hatcher and repurpose it into an article. The convoluted history of the various Captains Marvel (and their knockoffs) is the subject of more urban legends and misunderstandings than probably any other segment of comics history. Throw in the widespread confusion over the difference between copyright and trademark, and it’s a pretty deep swamp. But what the hell, I’m ready to go wading, and with two different movies on the horizon, Marvel’s Captain Marvel and DC’s Shazam! having this in the archives may be useful in a few months.

I first became familiar with the original Captain Marvel through two classic books, All in Color for a Dime and Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, both of which provided some scant details about the first round of legal wrangling. There was a lot more to come.

These two books were the Holy Texts for young nerds in the ’70s.

Captain Marvel appeared in 1941, published by Fawcett, primarily a magazine publisher. DC sued Fawcett immediately, as they did virtually every superhero they deemed too similar to Superman (including Fox’s Wonder Man and Fawcett’s Master Man). Unlike the previous quickly-settled lawsuits, this one went on for over a decade, while Fawcett continued publishing the adventures of Captain Marvel and his rapidly-expanding Marvel Family of supporting players. Within a few years, Captain Marvel’s popularity eclipsed Superman’s; he got a movie deal first, his magic word became a cultural touchstone, and Fawcett raked in the merchandising money.

The lawsuit ground on. DC lost the first round in 1948. The judge ruled that while the Captain Marvel series was a copyright infringement, DC had been sloppy about copyright notices on their newspaper strip, and had therefore abandoned their rights to Superman, rendering the infringement moot. DC appealed, employing superstar attorney Louis Nizer (one of the big celebrity lawyers of the mid-20th century), until finally in 1952 the appeals court reversed the original ruling, stating that the Superman copyright was in fact valid, and that while the Captain Marvel character did not infringe on it, certain stories and plot elements might, and sent the case back to the lower court for retrial.

This meant that both DC and Fawcett had to have somebody wade through ten years of comics and compare panels and covers so they could argue over who copied whom, then compare the same panels to pulp magazines, Little Big Books, comic strips, and any other source that one or the other might have swiped from.

But superhero comic sales had plunged following WWII with the rise of horror and crime comics, so Fawcett said to hell with it and signed a settlement with DC promising never to publish any of the Marvel Family characters again and paying out $400,000 in damages. They let the trademark expire and got out of the comics business entirely. They sold off some of their titles to Charlton and turned their attention to paperback books. Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, with the aid of judicious application of white-out on the lightning bolt emblem and a costume switch from red to blue, became “Happy the Magic Bunny” and soldiered on as the last remaining member of the Marvel family until 1957.

When Fawcett threw in the towel, one of the consequences of their decision was that UK publisher L. Miller and Son, which had been publishing reprints of the stories, suddenly found themselves without a product. They quickly revised Captain Marvel and family into a new series called Marvelman, which basically consisted of a costume change, a new magic (now scientific) word, and a gender-swap for Mary Marvel. Years later, Marvelman would be the central figure in a series of lawsuits that makes the Fawcett-DC dispute look like a Laurel & Hardy pie-fight.

Time passed, and in 1966, M.F. Enterprises produced one of the worst comics ever seen, featuring a “Captain Marvel” who was an android with the ability to separate his body into independent parts, arms and legs flying off to fight crime. This was more an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Marvel Comics than an effort to exploit the fading memory of the Fawcett title.

UPDATE: It appears this comic was part of a bigger trademark dispute. In 1966, comic artist-writer Carl Burgos sued Marvel Comics over the Human Torch, which he had created in 1939, after Marvel created the current Torch as part of the Fantastic Four a few years earlier. The first issue of this comic appeared on the stands the same month that Burgos dropped his suit, but it appears that he may have created his Captain Marvel as a bargaining chip in recovering rights to the Human Torch. In any case it appears that this comic was actually all about claiming the trademark, most likely to block Marvel from getting it, or to trade it to them for the Human Torch trademark.

Yup. “Split!” This was a real comic.

Marvel sued, a settlement was quickly reached, and shortly thereafter, Marvel owner Martin Goodman ordered Stan Lee to create a Captain Marvel of their own in order to secure the trademark. He didn’t want to see the word “Marvel” on any other company’s comics, so he would make sure nobody could publish a Captain Marvel but Marvel. The result was Mar-Vell, a Kree soldier sent to Earth as a spy who “goes native” and becomes a hero.

Within a few years, Roy Thomas reworked him into more of a direct copy of the original, sharing space with former Hulk sidekick Rick Jones. The two are joined by “nega-bands, ” with one of them shunted off to limbo while the other exists in reality; when they both smack their bands together, they trade places in a flash of lightning. The new Captain Marvel even took up a red and gold costume. Mar-Vell went in and out of print, appearing often enough to keep the trademark active, until finally he died of cancer in 1982.

In 1971, DC, looking for new properties, decided to reach out to the revived Fawcett Comics (their sole title was Dennis the Menace) and license the Marvel Family and the other remaining titles among Fawcett’s holdings, including Bulletman & Bulletgirl, Spy Smasher, and Ibis the Invincible, reviving Captain Marvel and friends under the Shazam title. They paid a fee per use for each Fawcett character for the next 20 years.

Fawcett sold off portions of its other enterprises over the next few years; their magazine line ended up at CBS, and the paperback book division became part of Ballantine. In 1992, DC finally bought the characters outright. The Fawcett name remained as a Ballantine imprint for some time afterward, but the company is long gone.

In the meantime, Marvel has dutifully maintained the validity of their trademark by making sure that there was a character and/or comic book called “Captain Marvel” in print. When one version of the character declines in popularity, they create another one and keep going. After going through Mar-Vell, they came up with Monica Rambeau, a young African-American woman who acquired light-energy powers and eventually became the first black woman to lead the Avengers. When Marvel decided to try again with a character tied to the Mar-Vell story, Captain Marvel was unceremoniously renamed “Photon” and shoved out of the Avengers; she later changed her hero name to Pulsar, then Daystar for a minute, then eventually became Spectrum. When last seen, she’d been dumped into a limbo dimension, then somehow returned to pop up as a supporting character in the current Captain Marvel’s run. Her mom is in the upcoming movie.

Marvel’s second generation of Kree heroes was Genis-Vell (Mar-Vell’s genetically-engineered son), who showed up and claimed the Captain Marvel name without so much as saying “excuse me.” Some time later, he decided to rename himself Photon, rudely taking Monica’s name, but she couldn’t go back to Captain Marvel, because Genis’ sister Phyla-Vell decided to grab it for herself. When she failed to catch on with the public, Marvel whipped up Khnn’nr (a Skrull locked in the form of Mar-Vell and brain-wiped to think that’s who he is), and Noh-Var (another Kree warrior hunting Skrulls), before they finally hit paydirt with Carol Danvers, a character that had been around under a variety of names since the 1970s.

Carol Danvers was introduced as an Air Force officer in Mar-Vell’s series in 1968; she was a pretty minor character for a few years. After Ms. Magazine became popular, somebody at Marvel realized that it was only a matter of time before somebody came up with a Ms. Marvel, and it better be Marvel. They looked around, found Carol Danvers, and one convenient Kree-technology accident later, Ms. Marvel was born.

By 1980, “Ms.” was falling out of fashion as a branding gimmick, so Marvel decided that Carol Danvers was disposable. What followed was a solid 30 years of abuse heaped on her; she was brainwashed, date-raped by a villain, impregnated, and carried off to another dimension (by said villain, whom she had given birth to a few days prior), had her memories and powers stolen (by Rogue, later to join the X-Men), acquired new powers (and a new name, Binary), lost her powers, got her old ones back (changing her name to Warbird), became an alcoholic, joined the Averngers, got thrown out of the Avengers, got dumped into an artificial reality, came back, fought alien bug-creatures, lost her powers again, got dumped into space, before finally getting handed over to a woman writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick, who turned her into the Captain Marvel we’ll see on screen in 2019.

While all that was going on, DC tried a bunch of different things to keep their Captain Marvel a viable character, apparently just to spite Marvel, since they couldn’t use the character’s name in any marketing, advertising, or promotional materials. Numerous attempts at a Shazam series came and went, the most successful being Jerry Ordway’s The Power of Shazam! which ran from 1994 to 1999. After a number of other efforts, they decided to dwell on the magical aspects of the character’s powers, eventually DC decided to promote Freddy Freeman to the hero role and moved Billy Batson up to take over for the wizard who formerly carried the Shazam name.

Finally, in 2012, Geoff Johns decided that since “everybody thinks he’s called Shazam anyway,” they might as well rename the character. For the latest iteration of the character, he added the usual multi-ethnic group of orphan kids who share the powers as the S!H!A!Z!A!M! team. (Sort of “filing the numbers off” the old Captain Planet cartoon.)

So now, after almost 80 years of wrangling, both DC and Marvel have movies coming to the big screen. Captain Marvel opens March 8 with Shazam! following on April 5.

Updated to include more information about the Marvel-Burgos trademark dispute, and to correct a couple of timeline errors regarding the fate of Monica Rambeau and the sequence of events in the Shazam! series.

8 Comments

  1. Rob Allen

    Originally posted at classiccomics.org:

    I’m a big fan of all Captains Marvel
    Except for the one who said “Split!”
    The others are popular icons
    But that one just isn’t worth sh-

    -aving cream! Be nice and clean!
    Shave every day and you’ll always look keen!

  2. I think the best DC Shazam run was Bridwell’s. He seemed able to balance the whimsy of the character and his long history with current (for the time) superheroic style better than anyone.
    A good overview, though aren’t the last couple of paragraphs out of order — Johns’ orphan-team reboot came after Freddy Freeman as Shazam. Which I would have liked if it had been a new character — it didn’t work for Captain Marvel Jr. but a lot of Judd Winick’s ideas were good.

  3. Edo Bosnar

    “…they finally hit paydirt with Carol Danvers…”
    Yeah, it took them long enough. Unfortunately, that whole clusterf**k from Avengers #200 had already been done by the time the death of Captain Marvel GN was published – because it seems to be the most obvious solution to have Danvers assume the ‘captaincy’ once Mar Vell departed.
    I love Monica Rambeau, by the way; she’s great character with a great power-set. I know she was created to maintain the trademark, but it’s a pity such a cool character had the hand-me-down name. (She was put to awesome use, by the way, in Nextwave.)

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    No love for the excellent Billy Batson and the Power of Shazam? Beats Geoff Johns any day. That suit is seriously ugly! Looks like the survivor of a dodge ball attack!

    Now Tomt Tyler; there’s a suit you could set your watch by! Superman kills Kryptonians? Captain Marvel threw people off of buildings and mowed ’em down with machine guns! No wonder he was dubbed the Caped Madman, in J-Men Forever!

    Of the two films, the Marvel one looks to be something that could really be interesting. The Shazam film still looked pretty borderline, in the trailer. They really need to think less Big and more The Tick.

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        Yep, that’s the one. I haven’t read the whole thing, but, I liked the first few that I did read. Jeff Smith’s Monster Society of Evil was good., if not quite what I was hoping for. I wish Alan Moore could have had a serious crack at it as I think he would have had fun with it. He covered some of its territory in Tom Strong (like the rabbit version, Warren Strong) and did that quite well. A pairing of him and Chris Sprouse (as on Tom Strong) would have been interesting to read.

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