Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury: Shazam!. Billy Batson, or rather his alter ego Captain Marvel, donned the famous—or not so famous—red, gold and white costume. Shazam! wasn’t always a DC Comics property and the history of his rites and identity is a strange one. Uncle Geekly will take a hot minute to recap it for those of you who care to know.
Captain Marvel got his start with Fawcett Comics in the late 1930s and ironically, Fawcett had to stop publishing Captain Marvel and his Marvel family of comics (there were other superheroes in the Marvel line like Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel) due to a 1953 lawsuit won by DC Comics that claimed he was too similar to Superman. Hmm.
So, Captain Marvel faded into obscurity for a couple of decades until DC licensed the characters from Fawcett (in 1972)—Why bother with just licensing the characters from a defunct publishing house?—and eventually bought them outright in 1991—I guess it takes two more decades for a buyout. DC Comics wanted to reboot the character as Captain Marvel, but by that time another Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell, Marvel Comics rendition of Captain Marvel) already existed and Captain Marvel had to change his name to Shazam. You know, the acronym of the six “immortal elders” who grant Billy his powers.
Wow. I could go on with more domino copyright infringement cases that led to other famous comic book characters changing their name (as a result of the Captain Marvel ruling for Marvel Comics) like Marvelman to Miracleman, but this starter story writeup is for the 14-year-old boy with the body of a jacked Zachary Levi. That’s another odd phrase I never thought I’d say: a jacked Zachary Levi. Shazam! indeed.
The Power of Shazam! Vol. 1 (written by Jerry Ordway/art by Jerry Ordway; 1994)
I’ll skip the Fawcett years because DC Comics retconned (changed the origin and details) of the character so many times after Shazam became a DC Comics property and I’ll hop over some of those other abandoned versions of the character(s) to get to a version of Shazam that had a little more staying power, so I’m landing on The Power of Shazam!. While you could pick up the second volume of this series (which was an ongoing title that introduced the rest of the Marvel Family members), the first volume includes an updated retelling of Shazam’s origin with a minor tweak that gives Black Adam and Billy Batson a personal tie. Honestly, it makes them more natural enemies.
Ordway’s story is the closest to the original Fawcett origin story; it also happens to be easy to understand, straightforward and if I was to bet on a story that the upcoming Shazam! movie will pull the most inspiration from, it’d be The Power of Shazam!. All the major players are here.
Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil (written by Jeff Smith/art by Jeff Smith; 2007)
I’m not sticking with one Shazam origin story, you can’t make me. Jeff Smith (of Bone fame) retold the story again about a decade later. In this telling, Smith used far less space to show Batson’s origin and focused more on the character dealing with the repercussions of magic on the unsuspecting people of Fawcett City (DC tipping their hat to the original creators). There’re also aspects of government untrustworthiness; it’s subtle, but Dr. Sivana (mad scientist and archnemesis of Shazam) is the Attorney General of the United States. Of course Sivana is secretly behind the horrors of Fawcett City, but it’s a nice twist for the character and Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil does more to develop Billy’s sister Mary (as in Mary Marvel) as a character.
Shazam! Power of Hope (written by Paul Dini and Alex Ross/art by Alex Ross; 2005)
I included Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth in my “Wonder Woman Starter Stories” write-up a few weeks ago and here’s another selection from the DC oversized graphic novel series that featured Alex Ross’s artwork. Like most of the other stories in this line, Dini and Ross focus more on real world and human issues.
In Shazam! Power of Hope, Billy visits children in a hospital. He gets the impression that one kid in a wheelchair is being beaten by his father and being a kid and knowing how children can feel powerless around adults, Billy attempts to the threaten the kid’s father. By the end, Billy realizes that he’s part of the cycle and learns that he can help just by visiting these children and giving them hope.
Yes. It’s sappy, but Shazam! Power of Hope has some nice character moments. It also reminds readers that Billy is still a kid, even if he looks like Superman. It also shows the character as the inspiring superhero he is.
Superman/Shazam: First Thunder (written by Judd Winick/art by Joshua Middleton; 2006)
There’s only one thing to take away from Superman/Shazam: First Thunder and it’s an important one: how Superman and Shazam interact. DC Comics likes to show how these two iconic and most powerful men in their universe differ and this retelling of Superman and Shazam’s first encounter shows what makes these two characters unique and why DC would pay to have two characters with similar—and yet dissimilar—superpowers.
Shazam! The New 52 (written by Geoff Johns/art by Gary Frank; 2012-2014)
Okay. This is yet another telling of Shazam’s origin story; this character changes origins more frequently than I change underwear. But of course, he’d have another origin story, Uncle Geekly, what would you expect from the alternate Earth of the New 52?
In this tale, Billy Batson is more obnoxious and angsty than his previous incarnations as this is a more reality-based take on a 15-year-old orphan who was stuck in the foster care system for many years and lacks the trust of the adults in his life that the other versions of Billy share. This is also a more modern version of Billy. Don’t expect any “aw shucks” moments.
Shazam! The New 52 delivers on an epic showdown between Shazam and his archnemesis Black Adam (who will be played by The Rock in upcoming DCEU films), and if the DCEU continues its line of edgier superhero films, this may be the film version of Billy Batson.
I thought I’d add a few more stories to this list, but there are too many interpretations of Billy Batson/Captain Marvel/Shazam!/The Other Superman that it could muddy the waters further than I believe is necessary.
Judd Winick’s The Trials of Shazam! is another excellent story, but it casts Billy as the wizard who gave him his powers and Captain Marvel Jr. must assume the role as the new Shazam. There are the original stories and those other DC versions of the character throughout the 70s and 80s and there were some good stories there too, but I think the above stories do the most to ground readers in who this character is.
I’m sure I may have missed a story or two. Let me know of any ones you’d add to this list in the comments.