As I write this, Captain Marvel’s future at DC comics is uncertain. Before the relaunch, Freddy Freeman was Captain Marvel (or maybe he was going by the name “Shazam” to clear up all those pesky grey areas of name copyrights — Trials of Shazam was never very clear on this point). Meanwhile, Billy and Mary Batson were both powerless. While the comic book Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam is certainly a very charming title for kids, it isn’t designed to take the character in places he has never been before. While many fans will defend Billy as a product of his time period or “too innocent” to deal with the same issues as other more “realistic” characters, I can’t help but feel that this is a cop out. Yes, Captain Marvel was created in the era of soda shops and “gee-whiz” can-do attitudes, but so were all of the other heroes we love, and they have been allowed to explore many different issues of identity and duality that a Shazam comic just isn’t afforded.
This isn’t to say that the work done on Captain Marvel has been bad; in fact, there are so many great stories with this character, I am sure I will miss someone’s favorite and I will apologize in advance for this oversight. The works of Otto Binder, C.C. Beck, Jerry Ordway, Geoff Johns, Mark Waid, Alex Ross, Judd Winick, Howard Porter, Jeff Smith, Mike Kunkel, and so many others have solidified Captain Marvel as being a character worth reading and studying. The problem doesn’t lie within what has been done with the character, but in what has not been done.
At one time, Captain Marvel was outselling Superman hand over fist, but a lawsuit from DC Comics put an end to the Captain’s adventures. Time passed and DC bought the rights to produce Captain Marvel comics, but he’s never been able to get significant traction in the market since his return. Simply put, Captain Marvel has a hard time finding staying power in the market today. He doesn’t have the fan base he once had, but underneath the goofy and charming grin of Captain Marvel lies so much untapped potential waiting to be excavated.
The essential question that drives my research is, “Whatever happened to the Big Red Cheese?” Perhaps the simplest answer lies within his epithet. In ancient times, the Greeks referred to their gods by many different names depending on which aspect of the personality they were calling on. For instance, Zeus was the god of thunder, lightning, clouds, and rain in addition to being the King of the gods. If the Greeks wanted to pray for rain, they would call on “Zeus the Thunderer.” Meanwhile, if they wanted thunderstorms, they would call on, “Zeus Nephelegereta” (also known as “Zeus the Cloud Gatherer). In a completely different aspect, Zeus was referred to as “Zeus Xenios” by travelers who prayed to find a safe place to stay.
Superheroes are the modern descendents of the gods and they have their own epithets. Superman is known as “the Man of Tomorrow,” “the Man of Steel,” and “the Last Son of Krypton.” And while we don’t pray to Superman, we certainly think of him through these different lenses depending on what story is being told. One of the most influential comics of the ’80s invokes Batman’s epithet: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. In that work, Miller is calling on the darkest aspects of the Batman character while completely ignoring the other epithets of the far kinder “Caped Crusader” or the more intelligent “World’s Greatest Detective.”
And then, there’s Captain Marvel’s epithet of “the Big Red Cheese.” Coined by Captain Marvel’s arch-nemesis, Dr. Sivana, the epithet stuck and has seemingly cursed Billy Batson’s career as a hero. To some, Captain Marvel is hokey, out-dated, or (dare I say it?) cheesy. Some view him as nothing more than just a magic version of Superman with no real personality of his own. Obviously, these readers are missing out on a plethora of great stories, but what does it take to change this mentality?
My purpose in writing this series of articles is to analyze all of the greatness that is wrapped up in Captain Marvel, from his deceptively simple origin story to his colorful cast of supporting characters and villains. I hope to provide some insight into the many different issues of duality, identity, growing up, and family that are inherent in the panels of each iteration of Shazam’s magic. Mostly though, I hope to provide a strong argument for Captain Marvel as a legitimate presence in the DC Universe.
This is partially a series of essays detailing what makes Captain Marvel great.
This is partially a manifesto for how to make him better.
Mostly, it’s a fan’s love letter to a great hero.