Alright, so this week’s installment is actually a complicated one. We will be taking a look at the comparisons between Superman/Shazam/Captain Marvel/Ms. Marvel. It is a crazy, convoluted area that maybe we can all make some sense out of. Regardless of the confusing beginnings for the characters, they have turned out to be a great part of the superhero mythology. How confusing is it? Read on to find out!
Powers/Abilities: Super strength, speed, durability, longevity, superhuman vision, heat vision, electromagnetic vision, microscopic vision, x-ray vision, telescopic vision, infrared vision, superhuman breathe (freeze and wind), and flight.
One of the most well-known superheroes of all time was possibly created from a horrible tragedy. First seen in Action Comics #1 in April of 1938, Superman was created by Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster. The Telegraph reported that on June 2, 1932, Siegal’s Jewish immigrant father died during a night-time robbery at the store he owned. The police report claimed that gunshots were heard, yet the final report said that he died of a heart attack…Could this have been the reason a young Siegal created a bullet-proof superhero? Even though Siegal never mentioned his father’s death in connection to his creation of Superman, author Brad Meltzer thinks so and even writes about it in his research of Siegal in his book, The Book of Lies. Meltzer had revealed more of his research on his website revolving around the release of his book:
“But think about it. Your father dies in a robbery, and you invent a bulletproof man who becomes the world’s greatest hero. I’m sorry, but there’s a story there.”
“Although Superman did not appear in print until 1938 on the cover of Action Comics, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Shuster originally came up with the character, first dubbed The Superman, six years earlier, ‘just weeks after Jerry Siegel’s father was killed.'”
Superman even rushes to the rescue of a man being held up by a masked robber in some of the character’s early work, which prompted Meltzer to continue:
“America did not get Superman from our greatest legends, but because a boy lost his father. Superman came not out of our strength but out of our vulnerability.”
This horrible tragedy made the way for a new revolution in comics. DC Archives: Superman expressed that in the 1930s, comics were predominantly seen in the funny papers, and comic books needed a Superman to establish itself as a legitimate genre. It all happened by chance as early comic pioneer M.C. Gaines was looking to establish what would later become the Golden Age of comics and had Seigal and Shuster’s material on his desk. He wanted the comic strip format to be changed into a magazine format which he had reserved space to make an extended comic. The result? Action Comics #1 with Superman lifting a car on the front cover.
To further the foundation of the character, Superman was also inspired by by Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator and his origin also paralleled the concealment of a child (like Jonathan and Martha Kent did for a baby Clark) to that of Moses’ concealment from the Pharaoh in the Bible, substituting outer space for the Nile. Also, the idea of aliens coming to earth was nothing new at this time as many were familiar with Votaire’s Micromegas and H.G. Wells’ War of Worlds. From that, we got the hero we all know and love.
Powers/Abilities: Magic powers give Billy Batson the abilities of the wisdom of Solomon (intellect, knowledge, and focus of the gods), the strength of Hercules, the stamina and invulnerability of Atlas, magic lightning, immortality, energy manipulation, and spell-casting of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, the speed of Mercury, and teleportation from the Rock of Eternity.
Originally known as Captain Marvel, Billy Batson, was created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck in December of 1939 by the former Flash Comics. The company later changed their name to Thrill Comics, and finally, Whiz Comics, and the character was released with cover art in February of 1940 in Whiz Comics #2. The character was made to rival Superman and actually out-sold the character in the early 40s. One of the primary reasons for the character’s popularity wasn’t because of Shazam himself, but the protagonist of Billy Batson. This was a smart move as many young readers at the time empathized with the character and dreamed of what it would be like to have a superhero counterpart.
The DC Archives: Shazam noted that even though the character was extremely popular, publisher Fawcett Comics (established by WWI veteran Captain “Billy” Fawcett) stopped publication in 1953 based on a copyright infringement suit from DC stating that the character was a rip-off of Superman. DC licensed the character from Fawcett in 1972, and returned him and the other Marvel (not the brand) family characters to publication. The rights to the characters had finally been acquired by DC in 1991, and by that time Marvel Comics were already represented by The Sub-Mariner and Human Torch dating back to 1939, and wanted to continue to follow the success of characters such as Superman in Action Comics and Batman in Detective Comics so they went on to establish Captain Marvel in Marvel Comics, so in order to avoid trademark issues, DC began referring to the character as Shazam, which had become a main reference for the character dating back to 1972.
Shazam gained his looks from popular actor of the time, Fred MacMurray, while the long-running villain, Dr. Sivana, was taken from Max Shreck (no, not Christopher Walken from Batman Returns) from the original Dracula, Nosferatu.
Captain Marvel (1967) — Powers/Abilities: Superhuman strength, speed, endurance, flight, cosmic awareness, solar energy absorption and projection, and nega-bands.
Stan Lee and Gene Colan created the Kree superhero Mar-Vell (Captain Marvel) in December of 1967 in Marvel Super-Heroes #12. Thanks to Fawcett Comics stopping publications in 1953 due to their suit with DC in 1951, Marvel quickly took advantage of the lapsed trademark, and when they created Captain Marvel in 1967, they made sure to trademark the name right away. Taking on the same name as the original Captain Marvel (Shazam), there were other similarities between the two characters. According to Marvel: Year-To-Year, Captain Marvel wasn’t originally a hit with readers, so they made a slight character revamp in Captain Marvel #17 with the young sidekick, Rick Jones, who would become bonded to Captain Mar-Vell similar to Billy Batson and Shazam. This was a pivotal moment in the plot moving into the Kree-Skrull War in the 1970s that ran from The Avengers#93-97. Mar-Vell would reach his death in 1982 and eventually, fans would receive the Captain Marvel many will know of today (especially due to the recent movie), but not before she was…
Ms. Marvel (1968 then 1977)
Powers/Abilities: Superhuman strength, speed, endurance, stamina, energy projection and absorption, and flight.
Not to be confused with Marvel Girl, which was Jean Grey’s original moniker that she went by (wow, the word Marvel sure was popular…) made her first appearance in January of 1977 in Ms. Marvel #1. Both Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel were not immediate hits among readers, but Marvel continued to publish their comics, even at the expense of lacking some direction, in order to keep the trademark name (yeah, it would be pretty bad if a rival company had a character using the other companies name, right?). Carl Danvers first appeared in March of 1968 as a NASA security chief in the Captain Marvel series Marvel Super-Heroes #13 and was created by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan. A Kree device called a Psyche-Magnetron exploded with Danvers nearby and as a result, she became half-earth woman and half-Kree turning into Ms. Marvel. The character would later get her own series in 1977 titled Ms. Marvel #1. By Ms. Marvel #20, the character was receiving a new costume because she had been voted “Worst Female Superhero Costume” according to Marvel: Year-To-Year (yikes). Chris Claremont had a history of writing smart and capable female characters teamed with Dave Cockrum, known for costume design, and gave the character a much-appreciated costume upgrade, although it wouldn’t be the last.
Ms. Marvel would continue to climb the ranks as she became a part of one of the New Avengers (this gets confusing as well). There was a time known as the “Heroic Age” which at one point had the numerous titles such as Secret Avengers, The Avengers, The New Avengers, Avengers Academy, Dark Avengers, The Mighty Avengers, The New Avengers, and Avengers: The Initiative. As the last four were canceled, The New Avengers made the cut and consisted of: Luke Cage, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Man, Wolverine, The Thing, Jessica Jones Cage, Mockingbird, Iron Fist, and Hawkeye. A pretty badass team if you ask me.
As Carol Danvers began to slowly gain popularity, she got a much-deserved promotion. She had been through numerous costume, and name, changes over the years including: Ms. Marvel, Binary, Warbird and back to Ms. Marvel (hence the lack of direction mentioned earlier). Eventually, she stopped being a supporting character to the original Captain Marvel and took over the mantle. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Dexter Soy made Danvers finally accept her destiny as Captain Marvel and donned the suit we all know today, which was an impermeable fabric made by Tony Stark.
According to ComicChron results for January of 2019, Captain Marvel shipped an estimated 123,157 units, Shazam shipped 44,892, and Superman shipped 50,713. Yes, you read that correctly. The interesting part is that the Shazam and Superman shipments were fairly consistent from their December shipments while Captain Marvel made an enormous jump from a mere 28, 249 the previous month (yes, I triple checked the numbers). As the promotions leading up to the March 8 release of the Captain Marvel movie amped up, so did the sales in preparation! It will be interesting to see if Shazam follows suit.
A GoogleTrends search comparing the three current superheroes shows Superman’s continued strong following, while Captain Marvel had a huge spike closer to the release of the film, and Shazam has had some minor spikes, more than likely associated with next week’s film release.
Alright, so that was a lot. Since the names are so convoluted, I have provided a quick recap below:
Superman came first and a rival company (Flash Comics, which had to be changed to Thrill Comics, then Whiz Comics because of DC’s character) was originally supposed to be the brand’s version of Superman who they were going to name Captain Thunder. Before they published the comic, he was renamed Captain Marvel. When DC later bought the rights to the character they then had to change his name again, this time to Shazam, because of the Marvel brand coming to fruition and they didn’t want people to associate the character with the other brand, nor did they want any legal name issues. From there, Marvel created a character named Captain Marvel and a female lead named Ms. Marvel. Ms. Marvel would eventually take over the mantle when Captain Marvel died, but do not get her confused with Marvel Girl, which was the original moniker of Jean Grey…wow, that’s exhausting.
What did you think of this week’s comparison? Could you follow it? Also, what were your thoughts of Captain Marvel? Are you planning on seeing Shazam on April 5? Are they character rip-off’s or inspirations? Does it really matter? Leave your thoughts in the usual spot, and thanks for reading!
I would like to dedicate this series of articles to my dad for showing me the magic of superheros and being able to share that hobby together. He has also helped me with a good deal of the research, although it was probably to finally shut me up after asking him so many years ago the age old question involving our beloved characters: “Who would win in a fight?” which we still ask ourselves to this day. My hope is that you have someone to share the love of comics as I do.