In every Look Back, we examine a comic book issue from 10/25/50/75 years ago (plus a wild card every month with a fifth week in it). This time around, we’re headed to December 1972 for the return of Captain Marvel to the comic book world in Shazam! #1 by Denny O’Neil and C.C. Beck.
As you all know, 1938’s Action Comics #1 changed the comic book industry with its introduction of the superhero known as Superman. His quick and dramatic success (he was starring in his own newspaper strip by the fall of 1939 and had a radio show by early 1940!) led to many imitators. One of the first imitators was Wonderman, a creation of Will Eisner for Fox Publications’ Wonder Comics #1 in 1939. Superman’s publishers (then called Detective Comics, Inc., but eventually National Comics) sued Fox’s parent company, Bruns Publications, Inc. for copyright infringement and was victorious in Detective Comics, Inc. v. Bruns Publications, Inc. Fawcett Publications, Inc. was a successful magazine publisher that debuted a comic book division, dubbed Fawcett Comics. They launched their own Superman knock-off, Masterman, in Master Comics #1. Detective threatened to sue and Fawcett backed down, dropping Masterman. Then, in late 1939, Fawcett Comics debuted their soon-to-be flagship character, Captain Marvel, in Whiz Comics #2. Oddly enough, despite Captain Marvel seeming fairly reminiscent of both Wonderman and Master Man, Superman’s publishers did not sue Fawcett right away. All of 1940 and most of 1941 passed without incident.
The turning point occurred when Superman, Inc. was rebuffed in an attempt to release a Superman film serial with Republic Pictures. You might be familiar with the Superman cartoons that were released by the Fleischer Studios animation studio in conjunction with Paramount Pictures. Those cartoons ended up preventing a Superman live action serial being made by Republic Studios. So Republic turned to Captain Marvel, instead (the fact that they could so easily pivot to Captain Marvel sort of speaks to the whole question of “Was Captain Marvel just a riff on Superman?”). That was the final straw, and Superman’s publishers sued Fawcett Publications, Inc. and Republic Studios for copyright infringement in September 1941. World War II delayed the lawsuit for a number of years, and in the meantime, Superman and Captain Marvel were both selling like gangbusters throughout the 1940s. Captain Marvel’s comic book was averaging a million copies per month at the time!
After the war, the lawsuit then picked back up, going back and forth until finally, in 1951, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that Fawcett had infringed on National’s copyright and sent the case back down to the lower courts to determine how much they had infringed. Sales on Fawcett’s comic book line had dropped considerably in the late 1940s/early 1950s, so rather than continue to fight the issue in court, Fawcett agreed to cease publication of its comic book line (the magazine line continued well into the 1980s) and paid National $400,000 in damages. Fawcett’s last issue of Captain Marvel Adventures came out in 1953.
WHY WAS THE SERIES NOW CALLED SHAZAM!?
In the late 1960s, a few things happened. One, there was a bit of a nostalgia boom for Golden Age comic books that led to an increase in back issue prices, and even temporarily led to a period in Wonder Woman’s comic book where the comic book returned to the Golden Age. This coincided with a boom in the comic book back issue market PERIOD, including NEW comic books, as enterprising people realized that you could buy, say, five copies of a Neal Adams issue of X-Men for a buck, and then sell each of those issues in a month for 50 cents apiece, thus more than doubling your small investment. People soon realized that they could do those sorts of investments on larger scales, as well, leading to a number of comic books being sold “off the books,” as it were.
The other major change was that in 1967 and Marvel quickly jumped in and introduced its own Captain Marvel, securing the Captain Marvel trademark for Marvel Comics…
This meant that Marvel now had the sole right to use the term Captain Marvel as the title of a comic book series. This didn’t mean that you couldn’t also do a comic book ABOUT a character named Captain Marvel, you just couldn’t use the name as the title of the comic. Well, in 1972, DC decided to cut a deal with Fawcett to cash in on the Golden Age nostaliga boom by returning Captain Marvel to comics, and since it couldn’t use the title “Captain Marvel” for the new comic, the choice was to use Shazam!, the magic word that Billy Batson said to turn into Captain Marvel…
DC’s most famous hero, Superman, would reintroduce his old rival, Captain Marvel, back to comics on the cover. Initially, DC also included a small mention of Captain Marvel’s name on the tittle, as well, until Marvel told DC to cut it out and so the company dropped all mentions of Captain Marvel on the cover.
HOW WAS THE MARVEL FAMILY’S ABSENCE EXPLAINED?
Julius Schwartz was put in charge of how to bring Captain Marvel back, and his idea was to ask Captain Marvel’s co-creator, and the main Captain Marvel artist, C.C. Beck, to come out of retirement to draw the series. However, in a strange decision, Schwartz decided to pair Beck with one of Schwartz’s top CURRENT writers, Denny O’Neil, and the combination between O’Neil and Beck was not a great one (both men didn’t like the pairing).
The explanation for where the heroes went is that the villainous Doctor Sivana put them into suspended animation…
However, he inadvertently got stuck in the suspended animation, as well, and they were all trapped for 20 years until they were now released!
The aforementioned Golden Age boom led to Shazam #1 being one of the most hyped new comic books of all-time (to that point) and people speculated like crazy on this book, but as it turned out, the love was really for GOLDEN AGE books, not modern books done in the Golden Age style, and the O’Neil/Beck pairing never quite work, with both men eventually leaving the series, and eventually, DC dropping the whole “Doing the book as if it were still in the Golden Age” approach before the whole series ended after a five-year run. DC, though, would continue licensing the Fawcett characters, and eventually purchased them outright, and have used them ever since!
If you folks have any suggestions for January (or any other later months) 2013, 1998, 1973 and 1948 comic books for me to spotlight, drop me a line at [email protected]! Here is the guide, though, for the cover dates of books so that you can make suggestions for books that actually came out in the correct month. Generally speaking, the traditional amount of time between the cover date and the release date of a comic book throughout most of comic history has been two months (it was three months at times, but not during the times we’re discussing here). So the comic books will have a cover date that is two months ahead of the actual release date (so October for a book that came out in August). Obviously, it is easier to tell when a book from 10 years ago was released, since there was internet coverage of books back then.