Story Title: “Introducing Captain Marvel!” (or simply just “Capt. Marvel!”)
Published: February 1940
Writer: Bill Parker
Artists: C.C. Beck
After DC Comics (then known as National Comics) saw incredible success with their benchmark superheroes, Clark Kent/Superman and Bruce Wayne/Batman, the comic book industry was ripe for a whole slew of new costumed heroes to take the stage. Not wanting to miss out on the action, Fawcett Publications set about establishing their own colourful superheroes, each sporting the powers of Greco-Roman Gods, but it was Ralph Daigh who decided to combine them into one superpowered entity to directly oppose Superman, which he initially dubbed “Captain Thunder”. Taken by the concept, both writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck saw the concept as a chance to tell a story that hearkened back to the folk-tales and myths of old. Initially, Captain Thunder debuted in the pages of a comic published as both Flash Comics and Thrill Comics but, when trademark issues arose concerning all of these names, artist Pete Costanza suggested the alternative name of “Captain Marvelous”, soon shortened to Captain Marvel, and the Big Red Cheese proved to be a massive success when his debut issue sold over 500,000 copies. Sadly, legal issues would continue to dog the character even after Fawcett was absorbed into DC Comics and Captain Marvel started rubbing shoulders with the Man of Steel and the Justice League, creating some confusion about the character’s name since Marvel Comics had since established their own Captain Marvel, leading to the Big Red Cheese often being dubbed “Shazam” instead. Whatever you want to call him, Captain Marvel has quite the legacy; he’s shared his powers with a colourful extended family (including a bumbling uncle and a talking tiger!), clashed with Superman and been involved in some of DC’s biggest crossover and Crisis events, and his phenomenal success on the big screen in 2019 led to not only a sequel and a spin-off but a newfound surge in popularity for the magical man/boy superhero.
Our story begins with a youngster in a bright red jumper and jeans hanging around outside the city subway trying to sell newspapers. He’s approached by a mysterious man in a black overcoat and fedora and we learn that, despite his clean-cut appearance, the boy is homeless and sleeps in the subway to stay warm. The mystery man bids the lad to follow him into a danky subway tunnel and, naïve as he is, the boy goes along; there, he boards a strangely garish-looking subway car and thinks absolutely nothing of it when he’s transported to an ominous subterranean cavern. Seriously, the boy barely says a word and seems perfectly happy to be whisked away by this darkly-garbed figure to the bowls of the city. His youthful trust (or stupidity, you decide) leads to him entering a vast underground hall where crude, cartoonish carvings of the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man (Pride, Envy, Greed, Hatred, Selfishness, Laziness, and Injustice) adorn the walls of the cavern, which is lit only by flaming torches and home to an enigmatic, heavily bearded old man who sits on a huge marble throne. The old man (who bares more than a passing resemblance to God) introduces himself as Shazam and demonstrates his all-knowing demeanour by identifying the boy as Billy Batson. Even more incredibly, upon speaking his name, Shazam causes a bolt of lighting to fill the cave and the names of six Gods and their attributes to magically appear on the wall behind him: Solomon (wisdom), Hercules (strength), Atlas (stamina), Zeus (power), Achilles (courage), and Mercury (speed).
Shazam explains that he has utilised the powers of these Gods to defend the Earth from the forces of evil for three-thousand years; in that time, he claims to have “seen everything – known everything” and, rather than using his incredible magic to prove this, falls back on a “historama” – a “super-television screen capable of depicting past, present and future events” – to show how Shazam watched as Billy was driven from his childhood home after the death of his parents by his wicked uncle, who sought to get his grubby hands on the money and bonds Billy was willed by his father. This is, apparently, enough of an explanation as to why Shazam brought Billy to his mysterious cave; after battling injustice and cruelty for centuries, Shazam is looking for a successor to carry on his work as “the strongest and mightiest man in the world”, Captain Marvel. Upon speaking the old man’s name, Billy is transformed by a magical lightning bolt into a tall, physically powerful adult male in a bright red costume and fancy side-cape and unquestionably pledges to continue Shazam’s legacy. After Captain Marvel speaks the magic word once more, however, Shazam appears to be crushed under a massive granite block that’s randomly suspended over his head. Okay… Anyway, in a flash of lightning, Billy’s back to his normal self and outside the subway with his newspapers, and left thinking that it was all a dream. The next morning, a couple of no-good gangsters buy one of Billy’s papers to read up on their boss’s handiwork: a madman known as “The Phantom Scientist” has threatened the United States radio system and is demanding $50,000,000 for…something. Suspecting the two, Billy follows the gangsters to “the swanky Skytower apartments” but is turned away by a pushy doorman. He then tries to get word to the radio “head”, Sterling Morris, by dashing into his office after the receptionist tries to shoo him away. Unfortunately, Morris dismisses Billy’s story as hogwash simply because the gangsters are holed up at somewhere as reputable the Skytower apartments.
Undeterred, Billy vows to find the Phantom’s laboratory and even manages to convince Morris to award him a job as a radio announcer if he succeeds in this goal. Since he can’t enter Skytower apartments directly, he takes the elevator to the rooftop of the nearby office building and, deciding that he didn’t dream up his extraordinary encounter the other night after all, transforms to Captain Marvel with his magic word. Captain Marvel easily clears the gap between the two buildings with a mighty leap (like Superman in his first appearance, the Big Red Cheese can’t fly yet) and, in an astounding piece of luck, finds himself right outside of the Phantom’s laboratory. Inside, he learns of the Phantom’s true identity: he’s Sivana, a balding, gnarled little man who operates through a number of hired goons and plans to put an end to any and all radio broadcasts at midnight unless his hefty ransom is paid. Having seen enough, Captain Marvel bursts in, hurling one of Sivana’s men into his complex “radio-silencer” machine, smashing it to smithereens. The other man flees to a private elevator but to no avail; Captain Marvel rips the door from its hinges and then hauls the elevator up with his incredible strength, laying the goon out with a wallop to the back of his head. With the mooks tied up, Captain Marvel addresses Sivana directly using the mad scientist’s gigantic television screen, with both vowing to confront each other again…though only Captain Marvel delivers a death threat to the odd little madman. With Sivana’s plan thwarted, Captain Marvel turns back to Billy and calls Morris over; though perplexed, Morris is suitably impressed by Billy’s actions and the plucky boy earns himself a job as a radio reporter, while also vowing to continue fighting the good fight as Captain Marvel!
I’ve not read much of Captain Marvel. I think the only solo stuff of his I’ve read prior to this was the initial Power of Shazam (Ordway, et al, 1995 to 1999) run. Other than that, he’s rarely cropped up in other DC stories and crossovers I’ve read, but I’ve always wanted to read a little more from the character as I find him pretty interesting as a source of wish fulfilment. What kid hasn’t wanted to become a superhero, after all, and the idea of a homeless little boy suddenly being able to transform into a literal superman has a great deal of appeal. As ever with Captain Marvel’s stories, the art is of a slightly different calibre to his contemporaries, favouring a more whimsical and cartoonish style that, for all the colour and pop-art appeal, really falls flat when it comes to portraying backgrounds and environments. Shazam’s cave, for example, is quite poorly rendered compared to the other, more realistic locations. C.C. Beck shines in rendering facial expressions, his work being very reminiscent of pulp stories and characters like Samuel Bradley/Sam Bradley, and he even brings to like quasi-science-fiction elements like Sivana’s technology in adorable detail that is perfectly in keeping with the technology of the time, but just a touch more fanciful but not in a way that’s needlessly overdesigned like some of Jack Kirby’s work.
Narratively, Captain Marvel’s debut is a bit wonky, however. We don’t really get to learn much about Billy beyond what Shazam shows us with his “historama” and it’s really odd that he so willingly went along with the dark stranger. Who even was that, anyway? He just disappeared once they got to Shazam’s cave and there was no real explanation behind him. I think having it be Shazam himself might’ve been a little better, but it kind of made Billy look like a naïve fool. His reaction to meeting Shazam is also very one-sided in the old man’s favour; Billy questions none of it, instantly accepts his new mission, and yet doesn’t even explore his superpowers since he dismisses it all as a dream. He has some pep to him, I’ll give him that, in the way he barges in to see Morris and hoodwinks the guy into giving him a job, but there’s not much to Billy and no personality shift between the boy and his superpowered alter ego. Captain Marvel himself looks great, but we don’t really see many of his powers on show; he does a leap, tosses some goons around, and that’s it, so he’s hardly on par with Superman in terms of abilities in the context of this issue. Sivana’s plot was also a bit low-key; I mean, disrupting radio stations for money? Is that really the best he can come up with? Overall, though, I did enjoy it, even if the narrative is a bit scattered and questionable; I definitely think subsequent retellings and revisions have made Captain Marvel’s origin and personality more interesting and diverse, though.
Were you a fan of Captain Marvel’s debut story? What did you think Billy’s presentation and the depiction of his first meeting with Shazam? Were you impressed by Captain Marvel’s powers and costume? What did you think to Sivana’s threat? Which of the Captain Marvel family is your favourite? What are some of your favourite Captain Marvel stories and moments? Whatever your thoughts Captain Marvel, feel free to leave them below or drop a comment on my social media.
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