If you didn’t know before, there are two Captain Marvel characters. Actually, there are more than just two, but both DC Comics and Marvel Comics each own a character best known for the name. One started off as a direct copy of the Man of Steel himself. The other is a cosmic powerhouse with plenty of attitude. But, regardless of which Captain Marvel you prefer or grew up with, there is a lengthy comic book history associated with that name — a history that can get a bit convoluted and confusing. Hopefully, with the Wisdom of Solomon, we can fix that.
This year already saw the release of Shazam!: Fury of the Gods and we’re slated to witness The Marvels next month, but before you dive head-first into some of these super-powered sequels, it might be time to brush up on your Captain Marvel history. Both DC Comics and Marvel Comics publish different characters associated with the name, and though DC might not traditionally use the Captain Marvel moniker now, the Shazam! character’s association with it (and recent returns to the classic “Captain”) sometimes make things a bit difficult to work through. But, without further ado, let’s fly into the pages of Captain Marvel and discover just who came first and why there’s so much convolution today!
In 1939, just a year after the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1, comic book writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck were hired by Fawcett Comics to develop a “Superman” of their own. It wasn’t long before the character who eventually became Captain Marvel was born, first officially appearing as “Captain Marvel” in Whiz Comics #2 (which is technically the first issue, but that’s a different rabbit hole). After a few false starts, the character became an instant hit, eventually gaining his own solo series and headlining the Fawcett Comics brand. Soon, sidekicks and spin-offs were invented, and, eventually, Captain Marvel became just as famous as Superman, if not more so.
It wasn’t long before Captain Marvel spawned a large supporting cast that included his sister Mary Marvel, his best friend Freddy Freeman (aka Captain Marvel, Jr.), his talking tiger Tawny, Uncle Marvel, and yes, even Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. Just about every recurring cast member was given the power of Shazam, which only sparked more adventures and plenty of action-packed entertainment. Captain Marvel sold well during World War II, giving the American people hope during a darker time. Since Marvel Comics (known until the 1960s as Timely Comics) had Captain America under its belt, there was no pressing need for a “Captain Marvel” of their own. In fact, the Marvel brand had yet to be invented, and as such, Fawcett’s Captain Marvel was the only comic book superhero to hold that name for decades.
In 1941, DC Comics (who were known back then as National Comics) sued Fawcett Comics for copyright infringement, claiming that Captain Marvel had been based on Superman. Of course, he kind of had, but the fact remained that Captain Marvel was also vastly different from the Man of Steel. For one thing, Captain Marvel wasn’t “super” all the time. His alter-ego, Billy Batson, was an adolescent boy who used a magic word to gain his superpowers. Contrast this with Superman, an alien pretending to be human, and whose powers come from his alien biology. Not only that but their color schemes and personalities were different as well. Nevertheless, DC wouldn’t budge.
Thankfully for the Captain, DC had failed to keep up with the copyright on Superman, and though it was decided that Fawcett had ripped DC off, the case was dropped a decade later. But that didn’t stop DC, who attempted to appeal the judge’s decision in 1952. However, instead of returning to the legal battlefield, DC and Fawcett settled out of court. According to RetroFan Magazine, Fawcett was barred from publishing any more Captain Marvel stories going forward without DC’s express permission. Thus, Fawcett’s publication of Captain Marvel, namely Captain Marvel Adventures and The Marvel Family books, ended in January 1954.
But, after years of cheap knock-offs and discounted “Marvelmen,” the original Big Red Cheese returned in the newly titled Shazam! series, published by DC Comics in the early 1970s, having been licensed by Fawcett (they wouldn’t actually purchase the character until the ’90s). But this was only the beginning of the feud between DC and Marvel over the use of “Captain Marvel.” While the character was still called Captain Marvel in the pages of “Shazam!,” Marvel Comics fought to keep the hero’s full superhero identity off the title page (at first, the Shazam! book rightfully branded itself “The Original Captain Marvel”), for reasons that will soon be obvious.
After Fawcett could no longer use the character, the “Captain Marvel” name went unclaimed for over a decade. That is, until the recently rebranded Marvel Comics claimed it for themselves in 1967, publishing the first issue of their Captain Marvel series the following year. Created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan, the Kree warrior Mar-Vell had many of the same powers as Fawcett/DC’s version, only he was an alien being with cosmically-endued abilities. He wasn’t exactly the Big Red Cheese, but he did have a younger sidekick of his own (Rick Jones of The Incredible Hulk and Captain America fame) who was cosmically bonded to the new Captain.
But Captain Marvel wasn’t a hit at first, and his series was initially canceled after the 21st issue. The publisher attempted to push the character into more significant storylines, which brought back Captain Marvel for 40 more issues. Eventually, Marvel introduced the Ms. Marvel character (Carol Danvers, in her original superhero identity) to renew interest, but it wasn’t enough. Though Marvel’s Captain became a fan favorite over time, his adventures were eventually cut short. Though, to keep the copyright, Marvel published the new Captain’s adventures off and on throughout the ’70s.