Whatever Happened to the Big Red Cheese, Part 3:

The Name of Captain Marvel

Everyone knows the origin of Freddie Freeman. Even if they don’t know the specifics of how Freddie became Captain Marvel Jr. in Whiz Comics #25, the basic framework for the character is imbedded in our collective subconscious.

A boy and his grandfather are fishing on a quiet lake when suddenly, a green-suited Nazi dive-bombs into the water near them. The unsuspecting fishermen pull the villain into their boat only for him to instantly recover, murder the grandfather, and knock the boy overboard and unconscious with an oar. The boy is then rescued and taken to the hospital by the story’s real hero only for the hero to find that the boy is going to die. So, the hero steals the boy and takes him to a magic cave where an infintesimally powerful wizard sadly informs the hero that the boy can’t be saved unless the hero gives up part of his power. And so, the boy is saved and takes the same name as the hero only he adds the word “junior” at the end to differentiate himself.

A story as old as time itself.

Wait . . . no it isn’t.

Freddie Freeman’s origin admittedly doesn’t make a lot of sense which is probably why it’s hardly ever referenced, but the character himself is absolutely vital to the idea of lineage that is present in the various incarnations of Captain Marvel. But, even though Freddy Freeman as Captain Marvel Jr. is the most famous character in the lineage of Shazam, he is by no means the only one.

In Whiz Comics #21, Billy Batson meets a trio of boys who just so happen to also be named “Billy Batson.” The tallest of the three elects to be called “Tall Billy,” the short and fat one with a ridiculous Brooklyn accent wants to be called “Fat Billy,” the redneck of the three takes the name “Hill Billy”, and they decide that our hero will be called “Real Billy.” They promptly decide to start their very own “Billy Batson club.” When Real Billy transforms into Captain Marvel before his new friends, Fat Billy starts to say the magic word “Shazam” only to be shushed by Hill Billy. Captain Marvel says, “Better be careful, boys. Great powers should be carefully used.”

Perhaps in order to demonstrate using power responsibly, Captain Marvel takes the three Billys along with him to stop a robbery. As a speeding car, turns a corner, Captain Marvel stands in its way as the car plows into the hero throwing its passengers every which way – because nothing shows great responsibility like using your powers to commit voluntary manslaughter. Captain Marvel then takes the three Billys away from the scene and when Fat Billy asks if Cap is going to wait for the police, he replies, “I never wait for the police – that’s part of the fun” which further goes to show the mixed messages that Captain Marvel seems to be teaching his new friends.

Eventually, all of the Billys are kidnapped by Dr. Sivana. The evil doctor ties and gags them to a log headed for a buzz saw. With Billy gagged, he is unable to say his magic word to transform . . . until he sticks his face into the buzz saw to cut off the gag. The sound of buzz saw is too loud, however, so he and the other Billys have to all shout “Shazam!” at the same time which allows all of them to transform.

Once again, a very nontraditional and strange origin story that attempted to expand the Shazam mythos. Though the lieutenant Marvels made a few appearances over the years, the idea of four Billy Batsons isn’t one that would go over in the comics industry today because it wouldn’t be seen as “believable.” Sure, the idea of ONE little boy with a magic word that gives him the power of the gods is plausible, but three more boys with the same name and powers when they say the word at the same time is somehow ridiculous.

The three Billys perfectly exemplify the true problem with Shazam today – comic audiences are too hyper-critical for their own good. Instead of laughing at the funny and ridiculous idea of three Billy Batsons that somehow found one another and wanted to hang out with radio announcer Billy Batson, audiences today wouldn’t put up with such whimsy. Ever since the 80′s made comics grow up, it has been a difficult road to go back to the days before readers over thought their comics.

As imaginative and fun as the origins of Captain Marvel jr. and the Lieutenant Marvels were, they did nothing to build upon the theme of mythology that made the series unique. They’re both great stories in that they are bizarre and delightful, but neither story built upon the lineage. It wouldn’t be until the 1996 Power of Shazam Annual that the true heir to the Shazam legacy would be established in the “Legends of the Dead Earth” crossover event.

The premise for “Legends of the Dead Earth” reads, “Earth is dead. Those who once might have called it home are long scattered to the endless stars. But in that scattering, on a  thousand different worlds, by a thousand different ways . . . Earth’s greatest legends live on.” So, on a distant world in a distant time, Captain Marvel’s legacy will live on – which is probably the only way it could properly be done.

On the planet Binderaan (clearly named after one of Captain Marvel’s most famous writer’s, Otto Binder), there is a war between science and magic. Caught in the crossfire between magic-loving rebels and robot guards, a young blonde girl by the name of Cecebeck (clearly named for Captain Marvel co-creator C.C. Beck) is transported to the Rock of Eternity where she finds an elderly Captain Marvel asleep at the Shazam’s old throne. After some back story via the Historama, Captain Marvel tells Beck to say his name so that she may be given his power.

To further connect the story to the Shazam mythology, a man loyal to the scientists finds the Three Faces of Evil – Terror, Sin, and Wickedness – and he becomes empowered by them. And so, the story that began with a somewhat strange premise of an alien war and science versus technology eventually boils down to the familiar territory of  the power of Shazam battling Evil.

Make no mistake, just because the story becomes simplistic in the end doesn’t mean that it is bad – far from it. In this one issue, Jerry Ordway proved that Shazam could be about so much more than a boy with powers, but he did so without ever stepping on the toes of previous creators. By naming the planet and main character after the two most influential creators to work on the character, the issue expertly builds upon its own mythology and pays respects to the creators before.  And with the inclusion of Evil as the primary villain, there is the thematic tie to World‘s Finest #262. While World’s Finest #262 was about the legacy of the past, this comic is about the future and while the former might have been about how Evil will always return, this one is about how good always will as well.

Lastly, the theme of science vs. magic is almost a meta-critique of the way comics were being constructed. Today, comics have a very scientific manner of how they are made. Veteran readers can methodically work out story beats before stories are over and if those preconceived notions of how a story should unfold are not met, many fans aren’t pleased. This is the problem with our modern and almost scientific sensibilities – we have too many expectations.

Looking back at the origins of Captain Marvel Jr. or the Lieutenant Marvels, there is a sense of magic in them. Perhaps a better way to describe them would be a sense of dream logic present within their pages that modern comics don’t have. Don’t mistake this as a call to arms for more simple stories, but there are certain advantages to the way comics were written back then that we’ve lost.

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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

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1 Comment

  1. Enjoying this series, have tweeted it, and am glad you’re doing it.

    Any reaction to the news that Johns and Frank are going to relaunch the Big Red Cheese as a Justice League back-up?

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