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 THE CAPTAIN MARVEL MYSTERY

The name “Captain Marvel” carries one of the most convoluted histories in the time line of American comic books, the inspiration for many great characters and many great conflicts. But just who is the real Captain Marvel? How many Captain Marvels are there—and why more than one? Yes, a debate that many of you, no doubt, have stayed up long into the night, blanket wrapped around you by the fireplace as your last log burned well past midnight. Your thoughts all a blur with: Who? What? Where? When?

 

Well, maybe not, but if you’d really like the nuts & bolts on the Captain Marvel controversy, just out of curiosity, you’re in the right place.

 

 

The first comic book to actually sport the word “Marvel” in its title arrived on the newsstands in 1939 with a cover date of October, 1939. The comic: Marvel Comics No. 1, featured the new comic book characters: The Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner. Marvel Comics was publisher Martin Goodman’s first comic book offering from his new imprint Timely Publications.

 

A note on Superman is necessary here: Superman, the first of the real “superheroes” debuted in print in Action Comics No. 1, (June, 1938). As we all know, Superman was an immediate big hit and the genesis of a new genre of hero that spread like a super powerful Kryptonian plauge. 1938 was a tough time. As a nation we were coming out of “great depression” and entering into a “great war.” Therefore, the darker and more mysterious pulp action heroes didn’t stand much of a chance when compared to the bright beacon of hope that the colorful red, white, and blue Superman offered. (Jack Kirby & Joe Simon would soon stamp that color formula on a guy named Captain America).

 

So, it follows that Martin Goodman witnessed an exciting new opportunity by following the National Publications comic book, “Action” with his similarly colorfully titled “Marvel.” But another magazine company took notice as well.

 

 

Fawcett Publications released Whiz Comics, featuring the first superhero with the Captain Marvel name. Notice the similarity in titles: Action, Marvel, Whiz. The publishers wanted buzz words that would grab the kids. Fawcett released Whiz Comics beginning with No. 2, because they had produced two black and white comics to secure copyrights, but they were called Flash Comics and Thrill Comics and the lead character was called “Captain Thunder,” not “Captain Marvel.” Fawcett couldn’t use Flash Comics because National Publications already had a Flash Comics and I suppose “Whiz” sounded more exciting than “Thrill.” Nevertheless it appears the publishers at Fawcett liked the sound of Marvel Comics and opted to use that word as well. This no doubt irked Martin Goodman. Think about it. It would be the equivalent of someone coming out with “Action Man” just months after Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics. Technically, there really isn’t an infringement issue. It’s just annoying.

 

 

However, Fawcett, in creating a character that borrowed heavily in character from National’s Superman and borrowed in name from Timely, well, they set themselves up for complications. According to Marvel’s Rascally Roy “the boy” Thomas there were rumors in the 1960s that Goodman and Fawcett had come to some sort of an agreement on the usage of Marvel. Yet we may never know what exactly took place. Although, we do know National took a very aggressive stance. By today’s standards National didn’t really have a solid case against Fawcett—even though Captain Marvel was an outright knockoff. “Ideas” are not copyrighted. Characters names, images, and the specific publications connected to them get copyrighted, but not the general idea. This is why a former Coca-Cola employee was able to invent Pepsi. The formula was protected but not the idea. Since Pepsi’s formula is slightly different from Coca-Cola, well, you understand.

 

But in America anyone can and will sue if motivated and financially capable. A twelve year battle ensued and Fawcett ultimately folded under the pressure by 1952. For superheroes, the 50s were like those days in rock & roll when everyone seemed to have either died, been jailed, or got religion. The world was without a Captain Marvel …

 

 

Well, not exactly. Captain Marvel actually had split the country and took up residence in England as a slightly revamped character called “Marvelman,” published by L. Miller and Son until 1963, and would later be revived as “Miracleman.” Yet, that was still not the end for the Captain Marvel moniker …

 

 

A few years later in 1966 comic artist/publisher Myron Fass and Human Torch creator, Carl Burgos, created yet another hero named Captain Marvel. This hero would yell “Split!” and send his body parts bashing into bad guys. I’m not yet sure if I think that’s super cool or super stupid. Captain “Split!” Marvel only lasted a few issues (six) in 1966, but now Martin Goodman finally saw his chance. Timely Comics had been Atlas Comics in the 1950s, but was now called Marvel Comics—and Goodman wanted a Captain Marvel.

 

 

Goodman ordered Stan Lee to create a Captain Marvel for 1967 and quickly set about trade-marking the name once and for all. This version of Captain Marvel was created by Stan Lee, Gene Colan, and Roy Thomas. I add Roy’s name to the list as he came up with Saturn logo idea and the green/white color scheme for the character. He was also the primary writer for Captain Marvel after Stan got the ball rolling in Marvel Superheroes No. 12. This new Captain Marvel was actually an alien (another one of those aliens that remarkably looks like a white skinned human) named Captain Mar-Vell. Mar-Vell was an officer in the “Kree” military and comes to Earth because the Fantastic Four had kicked butt on some of their robots, etc.

 

 

You would think now that Marvel actually owned the trademark to the character that the convoluted mess might end, but not so. In 1972, DC Comics (formerly National) licensed the rights to C.C. Beck’s original Marvel Family (and would own it outright by 1991) and brought the Fawcett Captain Marvel back into publication under the title: Shazam! Shazam is the magic word (not unlike Split!) that changes young Billy Batson into Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel was still called Captain Marvel, but DC couldn’t use the name on the cover title because of the Marvel comic Captain Marvel.

 

 

So, for the first time, there were actually two Captain Marvel’s coexisting on planet Earth. The Shazam version got his own TV show in 1974 and inspired a spin-off show for the ladies called The Secrets of Isis, starring a foxy babe named Joanna Cameron.

 

 

Overall, the DC Comics Shazam Captain Marvel has pretty much remained true to C.C. Beck’s original creation, but over at Marvel, Captain Marvel evolved many times. After the 1960’s Captain Mar-Vell—Roy Thomas and Gil Kane revamped the character into a more colorful creation, sporting blonde hair and a red, blue, and yellow outfit, but by 1982 the new sporty Captain Marvel caught cancer from Jim Starlin—and died.

 

I know, sad.

 

 

Anyway, you can’t keep a good character name down, so Marvel came up with a new version, this time a woman. I don’t know much about the Monica Rambeau Captain Marvel, but I do remember she joined the Avengers, and I believe there have been a handful more of Marvel Captain Marvels, but this article’s already given me a headache and a need for a double Mystery Island “Shazam!” vodka drink.

 

Is there a conclusion to this article?

 

No, I don’t think there ever will be. Just let the Captain Marvel magic flow into eternity …

 

Hey, remember when Gomer Pyle used to yell: “Shazam!” Yeah, that was pretty funny.

 

Okay, bye now.

 

PS: If you want to experience some of that Captain Marvel magic for yourselves, both DC and Marvel have reprint books out. You can find the Fawcett Captain Marvel in both the Archive Editions and DC Showcase and the Marvel Captain Marvel is featured in Captain Marvel Vol. 1 from the Marvel Masterworks series.

-Bradley Mason Hamlin
brad@retrocrush.com