Monday, August 31, 2009

Marvel Monday- Will the REAL Captain Marvel please stand up?

I had a better topic for Marvel Monday, but my scanner is off-line for the present and I couldn't scan the images I wanted to use. Maybe next Monday. Don't despair, though, I will instead talk about Superman's greatest threat. No, not Lex Luthor, not Brainiac, not Kryptonite, not even The Prankster... I'm talking about Captain Marvel.

See, back in what was called The Golden Age, a whole new sub-genre of Science Fiction had been ushered in when two boys from Cleveland introduced the world to Superman in 1938. It didn't take long before the newsstands filled up with other publishers' takes on this new phenomenon; the superhero. Out of scores of lame copies and blatant rip-offs, there rose one serious contender to the throne: Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel had some similarities to the Man of Tomorrow, to be sure. He was tall, dark-haired, handsome, and he wore tights and a cape. The good Captain was superhumanly strong and he could fly. Sound familiar? Sure. Except that could describe dozens of comic book superheroes, not just Superman. That didn't Stop National Periodical Publications (Today better know as DC Comics)from filing a law suit against rival publisher, Fawcett Comics.

The court case (started in the 1940's)dragged on for years. Eventually, the court found in Fawcett's favor. Captain Marvel WAS similar to Superman, but he was unique enough that there was found to be no copyright infringement.

Which was great news for Fawcett. Except for two things. One: the lawsuit had cost them a huge amount of money. And two: it was now the 1950's and superheroes weren't selling nearly as well as Westerns and Romance comics. The Golden Age of superheroes was over. Fawcett decided to sell their small stable of superhero titles off. Ironically, even though Fawcett had won the right to publish Captain Marvel, they ended up selling him to DC Comics, who (spitefully?) sat on him for 20 years and didn't use him.

But wait, things get weirder. DC decided in the 1970's to revive Captain Marvel and give him his own comic again. They even gave him his own live-action TV show on Saturday morning. The weird part is that they were afraid to call him Captain Marvel.

See, in the interim, while DC was sitting on a formerly hot property without actually publishing it, their newest rival, Marvel Comics, had decided that if nobody else was going to field a superhero named Captain Marvel, the name must be up for grabs, and wasn't it a great fit that Marvel Comics would have a guy named Captain Marvel?? So, Marvel Comics had a comic book in publication already called Captain Marvel when DC decided to bring the original Captain back.

To avoid a legal dispute, DC called the comic series and TV show SHAZAM!, after the aged wizard who gave Captain Marvel his superpowers. This lead to years of confusion. I know, as a kid, I thought Captain Marvel's name was SHAZAM!. His TV Show was called SHAZAM!, his action figure was sold as SHAZAM!, his Pepsi glasses say SHAZAM! on them. Heck, even his mid-1980's SUPER POWERS COLLECTION action figure was sold as SHAZAM! It seems pretty obvious that DC, having dragged Fawcett under due to a copyright lawsuit was afraid Marvel would do the same to them if DC went around claiming they owned the name Captain Marvel.

The saddest part of all of this, in my opinion, is that Captain Marvel was a great comic. It was quirky and fun and extremely creative. And it was destroyed before it's time. The later attempts to revive it and update it in the 1970's seemed cynical and awkward. The more recent attempts to hammer Captain Marvel into the continuity of the DC Universe seem even more ham-fisted.

No, for me, the real Captain Marvel vanished in the 1950's in a crash of thunder and lightning.

1 comment:

  1. No doubt about it: Captain Marvel (I mean the real one, Billy Batson) worked best in simple, tongue-in-cheek stories. DC could never update it or assimilate it without ruining it. BTW, Nelson Bridwell's "What's in a Name? Doomsday!" in Shazam #7 (1973) is a spoof of the copyright glitch that prevented DC from using Captain Marvel's name in the title of the comic.