November 18, 1999
By Franklin Harris
For those of you who came in late ...
In late 1939, it was becoming obvious that National Periodicals Publications was onto something. Its new comic-book character, Superman, might have been the first superhero, but he wouldn't be the only one -- not for long.
So, over at rival Fawcett Publications, Bill Parker Jr. and C.C. Beck set out to create their own costumed crimefighter, Captain Marvel.
But Captain Marvel's creation was not exactly straightforward.
At first, Parker and Beck came up with six superheroes, each possessing a power derived from a Greek god. Next, they combined the six into one character possessing all the same abilities. But the resulting character, Captain Thunder, never quite saw the light of day.
Just as the first issue of "Thrill Comics," containing the Captain's first adventure, was to go to press, National Periodicals released "Flash Comics," featuring a character named Johnny Thunder. So, a quick name change was in order. Fawcett Publications rechristened its hero "Captain Marvel," and prepared to go to press once again.
But just before Fawcett could release its revised "Thrill Comics" No. 1, Better Publishing came out with the first issue of its own "Thrilling Comics." Curses!
Another quick-change revision, and Fawcett was set. In February 1940, Captain made his debut in "Whiz Comics" No. 2.
Wait a minute! What happened to "Whiz Comics" No. 1?
Well, it never existed. One story is that Fawcett decided to count the aborted "Thrill Comics" as the first issue. Another is that the No. 2 numbering was a trick designed to get the book into Canada, where arcane postal rules insisted that periodicals already be periodic before they could become eligible for discounted postage rates.
Anyway, Captain Marvel was on his way, and soon he would be even more popular than Superman, which, as we shall see, was not entirely a good thing.
When not fighting crime in his red-and-yellow long johns, Captain Marvel had a convincing secret identity: teen-age radio broadcaster Billy Batson.
Endowed with magical powers by an ancient Egyptian wizard, Billy needed only shout the magic word, "Shazam!" to be transformed into the World's Mightiest Mortal. As Captain Marvel, Billy possessed the wisdom of Solomon (who no one seemed to care was neither Greek nor a god), the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.
Captain Marvel quickly gained a second comic book, "Captain Marvel Adventures," and a host of sidekicks. His sister, Mary Marvel, starred in "Wow Comics" while Captain Marvel Jr. starred in "Captain Marvel Jr. Comics" and "Master Comics."
At the peak of its popularity, "Captain Marvel Adventures" had a circulation of over 2 million, while "Superman" topped out at about 1.6 million.
Naturally, the folks at National Periodicals weren't going to sit still for that. They did what all red-blooded Americans do when confronted with competitive pressure. They ran crying to the government for help.
National Periodicals' lawsuit against Fawcett Publications slogged along for about a decade.
In short, National Periodicals claimed Captain Marvel was just a cheap knock-off of Superman. But, beyond the cosmetic similarities -- they were both strong guys who could fly and wore capes -- the two had little in common. Superman's somber adventures bore no resemblance to the wacky, comedic tales Parker, Beck and, later, Otto Binder were spinning out at Fawcett.
Fawcett successfully stalled until the early 1950s, when superhero comics went into a funk and Fawcett had made all the money it was going to off Captain Marvel and the rest of the Marvel Family.
In the end, National and Fawcett settled, with National, now known as DC Comics, taking ownership of Captain Marvel and his friends outright.
From the mid-'50s until 1971, Captain Marvel remained in comic-book limbo. Then, DC Comics decided to re-introduce Captain Marvel. But -- you guessed it -- there was a catch.
In the meantime, DC's chief rival, Marvel Comics, had started publishing the adventures of its own Captain Marvel, an extraterrestrial superhero fighting to save Earth from his own warlike people.
So, when the original Captain Marvel returned, it wasn't in a book called "Captain Marvel," but in "Shazam!" No.1.
As for the new Captain Marvel over at Marvel Comics, well, his is another story ...