Origins: Shazam!

shazamposter
IMDb

Shazam! comes out tomorrow. I don’t know why anyone felt the need to make a feature out of this one, because the character always seemed like a cutrate Superman to me. Either that, or he brings Gomer Pyle to mind. I never saw Shazam but in little five minute cartoons stations would run as filler. Plus, there’s a glut of comic book movies on the market. Are we at saturation point yet? I don’t know. I quit keeping track. Anyway, it is what it is, and we’re gonna see Shazam!.

Speaking of which, here’s the trailer:

Mmmkay, it looks fun, like Shazam! and Big had a head-on collision.

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Captain Marvel’s debut in Whiz Comics #2, 1940. (Wikipedia)

Only kinda not. Shazam did the teenager-in-an-adult-body thing decades before Josh Baskin tripped the keyboard gigantic. The character has a surprising history, and there’s more to him than meets the eye.

Shazam originated in 1939…as Captain Marvel. Yep. Really. He was originally supposed to be one of six characters, each with a different super power and teenage alter ego, but logistics pared six down to one.

The idea was that Captain Marvel’s alter ego, Billy Batson would speak a wizard’s name, Shazam to become Captain Marvel, the World’s Mightiest Mortal. The character’s face is said to have been modeled on Fred MacMurray or Cary Grant, so he’s got that going for him, too. What’s more, “Shazam” is an acronym for the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Whew. Shazam…er, Captain Marvel is quite a guy.

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Taking out bad guys is fun. (Screen Crush)

The comic book went like gangbusters, selling half a million in a year, so natually, Captain Marvel had to be given his own series. Also naturally, DC Comics got jealous. So much so that in 1941 they sued Fawcett Comics for copyright infringement.

DC had good reason to be jealous. Captain Marvel was so popular that he flew onto the big screen in 1941, while Superman just had some measly cartoon shorts and a weekly ten-minute radio show. The film, The Adventures of Captain Marvel (which can be watched here), was a low-budget wonder produced by Republic Pictures with startling special effects, like Marvel stopping bullets with his chest. It also used very obvious miniatures for some of the flying scenes. In some ways the movie is groundbreaking, and in other ways it’s goofy, but I’m probably speaking with too much hindsight.

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It Came From the Bottom Shelf!

Of course, the movie kicks off with Captain Marvel’s origin story. Teenager Bill Baston (Frank Coughlin, Jr.) is on an archaological dig in Burma. He’s poking around a tomb they’ve unearthed while the men work and pulls a rock aside. Out walks the wizard I mentioned before, looking like a sleepy Father Time, and gifts Bill with the ability to become Captain Marvel.

Bill doesn’t have to wait too long before trying out his new powers–the other men on his team are trapped and need to be rescued. They’ve found a super special scorpion with five lenses for manipulating atoms. Since it’s very dangerous and can’t be used without the lenses, the team divides  the lenses between them, leaving Bill with the instruction manual.

Adventures-of-Captain-Marvel-3
It Came From the Bottom Shelf!

Unfortunately, a villain named Scorpion has gotten wind of what the archaeologists are up to. He’s the leader of a cult who wear what look like turbans with melons sticking out of them. Long movie very, very short, he’s going to get all the lenses back by hook or by crook.

The film is pretty exciting, even if it is dated. It’s also laughable in some scenes. About twenty minutes in, the bad guys infiltrate the expedition’s camp by using a sapling as a catapult. Not kidding. They pull the end of the sapling down so that someone can lie on it, then let it go. We see a body fly wildly through the air, and then a bad guy casually rolls into frame like it’s no big deal.

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Original Captain Marvel costume worn by Tom Tyler. (Flickr)

Captain Marvel (played by Tom Tyler) does a lot of leaping off of rocks and plyometric jumps–in one scene he does a backward somersault and knocks out two of the Scorpion’s henchmen at the same time. The move is not only impressive, but it’s amazing both guys just happened to be standing in the right place (wink, wink).

The movie was meant to be a serial, and it’s still called that officially. Either way, it ended up as a very long, heavily detailed film. It must have been very impressive to 1941 audiences.

220px-CaptainMarvel18
Wikipedia

DC Comics didn’t take Republic Pictures’ feat lying down, filing a lawsuit against the studio and Fawcett Comics. Litigation took seven years, and in 1948 a judge found Fawcett Comics to be in violation of copyright. It wasn’t Captain Marvel that was the problem, but some of the stories were too close to Superman’s. Fawcett pulled Captain Marvel and agreed to never publish any more Captain Marvel stories. Or any other stories, for that matter. The lawsuit, for all intents and purposes, finished Fawcett.

That wasn’t the end of the World’s Mightiest Mortal, however. DC Comics began publishing its own Captain Marvel stories in 1967, and in 1972 bought rights to the character, changing the name of the series to Shazam. They had, in essence, gotten caught in their own trap, as Marvel Comics now owned the rights to the title, Captain Marvel.

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TVparty!

The newly-christened Shazam! became a Filmation TV series starring Jackson Bostwick as the title character, still named Captain Marvel, and the premise was that alter-ego Bill Batson (Michael Gray) traveled around America in an RV with Mentor. Yes, that’s his real name, and he’s played by Les Tremayne. In true Filmation fashion, every episode included a moral at the end. The show ran from 1974 until 1976.

The iteration I remember best is The Kid Super Power Hour With Shazam!, also produced by Filmation. I have hazy memories of Shazam flying around and looking a lot like Superman, which is probably why he didn’t really hold my interest back then. On the plus side, the eighties are where the character’s history gets less confusing, as there’s no more waffling between names after the Power Hour series premiered.

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This is how I remember Shazam. Minus the lion, of course. (IMDb)

Shazam has been revived multiple times in the years since Power Hour (see some of them here). One of the nice things about every version is that there’s always some homage to Shazam’s twisted history and the erstwhile Fawcett Comics. I wonder if the new film will stick to tradition, but it looks like a romp all the same.

My entry for the Doris Day Blogathon is coming up tomorrow, so I hope to see you then. Thanks for reading…

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