Whatever Happened to the Big Red Cheese, Part 1:

The Naming Curse

Night in the city.

“Papers!” a boy calls out into the storm ravaged night. He takes shelter in the entrance of the subway station as the crowd rushes on to dryer destinations without so much as a second glance his way.

“Paper, sir?” the boy asks a dark figure.

“Why aren’t you home in bed, son?” the dark figure asks.

“I have no home, sir. I sleep in the subway station. It’s warm there.”

Without hesitation, the dark figure commands, “Follow me!”

"You seem like an honest fella."

Everyone knows the origin of Billy Batson. Even if they don’t know the specifics of how Billy became Captain Marvel, the basic framework for the character is imbedded in our collective subconscious. This is because at his core, Billy Batson is just like Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter and Neo from the Matrix. Billy’s path to the power of Shazam is the stuff of myth. It follows the basic pattern of mythology, but in a way that was very modern in its day.

Over time (and a few reboots) the origin of Captain Marvel has evolved and changed with some aspects of the origin taking prominence over others. Like all good myths, Billy’s journey has evolved and changed over time as new writers have added elements to flesh out his origin more, but no matter who is writing the story of Billy Batson’s first meeting with the Wizard Shazam, the idea of mythology is always there as the framework.

Before we get into the actual analysis of Billy Batson’s transformation, it’s worth noting that Captain Marvel was originally named “Captain Thunder” and his first real appearance was technically Flash Comics #1. According to Richard Lupoff’s foreword to volume 1 of The Shazam Archives, “A black-and-white ‘ashcan edition” was published, but alas, rival All-American Comics hit the newsstands with their own, full-fledged, Flash Comics in the same month.” Fawcett then tried to rename the comic to Thrill Comics except that Standard Magazines released Thrilling Comics just before. Finally, they settled on Whiz Comics – a name that evokes both child-like wonder (one can almost imagine a kid in 1940 exclaim “gee whiz!” as he thumbs through its pages) and also the unfortunate slang name for urination. In February 1940, the first issue of Whiz Comics featured the debut of Captain Marvel rather than Captain Thunder. For some reason (perhaps because of the ashcan edition of Thrill Comics being the first issue), the issue wasn’t Whiz Comics #1, but instead, it was Whiz Comics #2.

Compare Captain Marvel’s first appearance to Superman’s just on the surface level of the title of their respective comics and it’s almost laughable. Action Comics is thrilling. Whiz Comics is childish.

"I'm smashing a car to the right!" "I'm throwing a car to the left!" - And people wonder why National hit Fawcett with a lawsuit

From his very creation, names have haunted Captain Marvel. His own comic was renamed twice and his super-hero name was renamed once. His debut comic was given the unfortunate name of Whiz Comics #2 (perhaps solidifying his #2 status after Superman) and his epithet is “the Big Red Cheese.”Even the name “Captain Marvel” is a curse in a sense because Marvel comics prevents the hero from using his own name as a title for a comic. When one really gets down to it, these conflicts of names lead to a larger problem of branding. Without proper branding, a super-hero can never get any traction or fans. All of these curses in naming are further enhanced by the focus of Billy Batson’s super-powers – the name of Shazam.

But, back to the origin story.

A boy sells papers in the rain outside of a subway station. A shadowy, mysterious figure approaches and asks the boy why he isn’t home in bed to which the boy responds, “I have no home, sir. I sleep in the subway station. It’s warm there.” We don’t even know the boy’s name yet, but already artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker have tapped into an archetype familiar to the reader’s subconscious – the hardworking orphan. Our nameless protagonist has had three lines of dialogue thus far and already we understand the character because the idea of him had been mapped out before by Horatio Alger Jr. and Charles Dickens. Our protagonist sells newspapers and is homeless – he is hardworking and sympathetic and therefore needs no further characterization for readers to relate, so the narrative moves on.

Without hesitation, the figure shouts, “Follow me!” and the two descend into the subway.

Parents today would throw a fit over a comic where the central premise is that kids should follow strangers because they give away magic powers.

The boy asks,” Where are we going?”

To which the figure replies, “Wait and see” – which would be a sure sign to me that I was about to be either raped or murdered, but our homeless, optimistic and still nameless protagonist is seemingly mesmerized by this shadowy figure.

They arrive at a strange looking train with “headlights gleaming like a dragon’s eyes.” Strange sigils are painted on the side and within. The two enter and speed off into darkness until the car stops at the end of the line which happens to be a cavern.

Our hero’s descent into the subway is meant to mimic the Greek and Roman heroes who entered the Underworld in order to reap reward. The hero is never alone – he must always have a Psychopomp (guide) to take him to his destination. Greek mythology had Charon as he led souls to Hades. Luke Skywalker had Obi Wan Kenobi as he entered the Deathstar. Our unnamed protagonist has an unnamed shadowy figure who only appears for two pages then mysteriously disappears to never be seen again. Of course, like all good mythology, the shadowy figure’s identity is eventually revealed in later retellings of the story, but in its first, initial creation, he was merely a shadow who appeared and disappeared.

As our hero enters a long cavern featuring statues labeled, “The Seven Deadly Enemies of Man,” the narrative reads, “Mustering his courage the by enters an ancient underground hall carved out of solid rock grotesquely lighted by flaring torches” which further emphasizes our hero’s Dickensian optimism.

An old, old man sits on a throne of white marble. His image makes it seem as if he is God himself, but the connection is further enhanced by the large globe and scrolls on one side of his throne and a large book on the other. A large cube seems to be floating above his head. He says, “Welcome Billy Batson.” Notice that it isn’t the narrative that tells the reader who our protagonist is – it’s the old, old man who looks like God which solidifies the character as all-knowing.

After setting down his giant globe and big book, the only place to put his white marble throne was right under the granite cube.

“H-How do you know my name?” Billy Batson asks.

“I know everything. I am – Shazam!” the old man shouts as a black

cloud appears and strikes lightning. When the cloud dissipates, the name “Shazam” appears on the back wall and it is revealed to be an acronym for:

Solomon – Wisdom

Hercules – Strength

Atlas – Stamina

Zeus – Power

Achilles – Courage

Mercury – Speed

It’s certainly a curious list seeing as how the Judeo-Christian character Solomon is listed along with characters from Greek mythology, but it’s at this point that Beck and Parker are hitting the reader over the head with the mythological motif. If the Psychopomp and journey to the underworld were too subtle, the statues of the Seven Deadly Sins and the characters who make up the name of Shazam are overt enough that everyone should be on board.

Apparently, Shazam had been battling the forces of evil for over 3,000 years and he has chosen Billy Batson as his replacement. Through the use of his “Historama” – a device that the narrative states is a “super-television screen capable of depicting past, present and future events” – Shazam shows Billy his own past. The reader learns that Billy Batson’s uncle kicked Billy out of his house after Billy’s parents had died “in order to get possession of the money and bonds your father willed to you.”

In a sense, it’s a strange take on the idea of morality. Yes, the reader knows that Billy Batson is a hardworking, homeless orphan, but the narrative seems to suggest that he is a good person because of these things rather than inherently being a good person. Then again, a more optimistic view (and the one probably more in line with the intentions of the creators) is that Billy Batson is a morally righteous boy despite all of the terrible events in his life. He has every excuse in the world to be a bad person, but Billy walks a path of moral righteousness and is rewarding by gaining super-powers.

The mysterious floating cube is addressed. It hangs by a slender thread above Shazam, Billy says the Wizard’s name and is transformed into Captain Marvel for the very first time. Marvel says the Wizard’s name once more and he returns to being Billy Batson. As he does, the thread on the granite cube breaks and crushes the Wizard and Billy finds himself back outside the subway station. He says, “Gee! It all seems like a dream” which seems to explain why he isn’t horrified that he witnessed an old man being crushed to death by a giant block.

Billy created Captain Marvel by saying the wizard Shazam’s name and then killed the wizard by doing the same. Creation and destruction all with one name – but the power of names doesn’t end there. In fact, they are a common motif throughout the character’s long history.

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Cody Walker graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelors and a Masters of Science in Education. He is the author of the pop culture website PopgunChaos.com and the co-creator of the crime comic NoirCityComicBook.com . He currently teaches English in Springfield, Missouri.

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Also by Cody Walker:

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


The Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh: Understanding Grant Morrison\'s Batman


Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide

editor, contributor


  1. David Balan says:

    Awesome article – I know next to nothing about Captain Marvel (pretty much just scanned Kingdom Come and that’s about it) so I look forward to the continuation!

  2. I love your point about creation and destruction being intrinsic to the character and his transformation. Having reread this material in the last year, as part of my thinking about Miracleman, it’s a joy to read your own thoughts on the matter. Thanks for a fun article!

  3. I have to confess, like David, I know little about Captain Marvel / Shazam. However, I’m familiar with the basic concept of “The Big Red Cheese” and I do think there would be room for bringing a character like this a new lease on life. I’ve often found some of the more successful characters, comics, and stories in general are those that can take the old archetypes and provide a slightly new, fresh interpretation of them for newer audiences. I imagine that there would be plenty of room for a character who would serve as a source of identification for newer, younger readers… providing the “right” creative team was at the helm.

    Great article!

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