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SHAZAM! (which used to be what he says, not who he is, but is now his official name)
You have to understand this before you proceed: comics weren't always just Super Heroes.
Look — guys in masks only showed up around, say, 1936. Super Heroes only go as far as Superman in 1938. Comics about detectives and daredevil pilots had been inherited from the pulps to great success. No-one thought costumed heroes would take off like they did. So when National Comics hit paydirt with their costumed super heroes, the initial reaction of Fawcett Publications was "Oh boy! We've got to get some of these!"
So, they brought in C.C. Beck to do a story about a team of six heroes who all got powers from various gods. When this was pitched, it was decided that, while Cast Speciation was cool, All Your Powers Combined just looks better. The hero was to be called Captain Thunder. Except they couldn't get the name. So they called him Captain Marvelous, and then shortened it to Captain Marvel, because it sounds punchier. The character first appeared in "Whiz Comics" #2 (February, 1940). Note that #1 was only an ashcan copy, not intended for distribution.
Little Billy Batson is a homeless orphan who is led by a mysterious stranger into a deserted train station, where a train with no driver leads him to a wizard's lair. There, the wizard gives him the power of six gods: 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, which when put together spell F-L-Y-I-N-G B-R-I-C-K. To summon these powers, he must shout the name of the wizard — "SHAZAM!" — which summons down lightning and transforms him into a superhuman adult with a bright red costume with a freakin' sweet cape.
Billy Batson goes on to get a job as a radio announcer (yes, a ten-year-old announcer), but as his Super-Powered Alter Ego, Captain Marvel, fights evil and chaos. He acquired an impressive Rogues Gallery, including diminutive Mad Scientist Doctor Sivana, villainous Super Soldier Captain Nazi, atomic android Mister Atom, former holder of the Marvel mantle Black Adam, and others. But he also had a group of staunch allies known as the Marvel Family, who had also (mostly) been gifted by Shazam; his best friend Freddy Freeman became Captain Marvel Junior, and his long-lost sister Mary Bromfield became Mary Marvel (complete with Mini-Dress of Power). Initially, Mary had her own pantheon of goddesses from which she derived power (including Zephyrus... which was actually a male, but then there aren't many mythological figures whose names start with a "Z"). Later, she switched over to Billy's pantheon. Then there were the Lieutenant Marvels, Uncle Marvel, Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, and Tawny the Talking Tiger...
This was Captain Marvel's Golden Age. His own title regularly sold over a million copies a month (FYI, the best selling comics of today usually top out at around 100,000), Mary and Junior had their own titles when most heroes had to settle for eight-page backups in anthology books. There was even a movie serial. He was arguably the most popular and recognizable Superhero of the 1940s.
Then there was a problem. On the one hand, there was Captain Marvel, a black-haired all-American feller in a costume with a lot of bright red, who can punch through cars and stop robbers... and on the other hand, there was Superman, a black-haired all-American feller in a costume with a lot of bright red, who... well, you get the idea. Admittedly, this described a lot of superheroes back then (and even today!), but Marvel had the flaw of selling more than his inspiration. DC Comics brought the case to court, and Fawcett fought it out for a while. Eventually, though, the superheroes stopped selling so well, and Fawcett decided to throw in the towel; they closed down their comics division and moved on.' The final appearance of the character was '"Marvel Family" #89 (January, 1954).
...only, a few years later, The Silver Age of Comic Books started up, and superheroes became popular again. Fawcett couldn't take advantage of this, because the settlement with DC had specified that they never publish a Captain Marvel comic again, but eventually, DC themselves expressed interest in the character. Fawcett licensed the whole shebang to DC (with the latter eventually buying the rights lock, stock and barrel), and after a couple of tryouts, they put out a new series in 1973. Unfortunately, they couldn't actually call the series "Captain Marvel", because Marvel Comics had snapped up the name in the meantime (and created their own character, and eventually a string of characters, by that name), so they titled it Shazam! and went ahead. The series, though never a hot seller, did fairly well; the Marvelverse (no relation) was slotted into DC's Multiverse as Earth-S, and he occasionally crossed over with DC's other heroes — naturally, the long-debated fight between Cap and Superman was one of the first. Incidentally, it's rather ambiguous who has the edge since Captain Marvel doesn't have Supes' vision and breath powers, but his powers are magic based which is a traditional weakness for Superman.
And then came Crisis on Infinite Earths, merging the DC multiverse, including Earth-S, into a single universe. Hilarity Ensued. The major change is that whereas Billy and Captain Marvel were largely considered two separate people, now Captain Marvel is unambiguously set with Billy's youthful personality. This means to others, this supposedly adult superhero has a personality of a child, albeit guided by the wisdom of Solomon. This has led to awkward situations more than once and when he was forced to reveal his true form to Superman in First Thunder, the Kryptonian made a bee-line to Shazam to confront him about recruiting a child as his champion. Also, the formation of the Marvel Family was reversed with Mary Marvel, who was the last major addition to arrive outside of Mr. Tawky Tawny in the original stories, usually meeting her brother first, then Jr. arrives later with the Lt. Marvels considered strictly afterthoughts if they are included at all. Black Adam was also reimagined as walking the line between Anti-Hero, Anti-Villain, Token Evil Teammate, and so on.
So after a few comics and a brief membership spot in the Justice League of America, Captain Marvel became part of the wider DC Continuity. Whenever they needed a Superman-level fighter who was immune to kryptonite or magic, he was there. Whenever Wonder Woman needed to hit someone we didn't care about, he was there. Whenever villains needed someone hokey to fight, thus proving they were a Superstitious And Cowardly Lot, he was there. His standard shtick was to represent the sunny, old-timey virtues of Golden Age comics in the darkness of The Dark Age of Comic Books. On the other hand, despite the stereotype set by those fights, DC Comics also published First Thunder to show that Superman and Captain Marvel actually get along well in the same Universe: Superman appreciates having an ally with equivalent powers to help him fight supernatural foes that could otherwise lay out him with a shrug, and Billy values having the greatest of the superheroes as a mentor to help him through his double life's rough spots.
Starting in 2005, though, the franchise hit a rough patch. The characters were constantly getting retooled, such as having Captain Marvel take the Wizard's place as "Marvel" and Freddy Freeman taking Billy's place a hero named Shazam, apparently to get around the fact that I Am Not Shazam. Many of these retools were Darker and Edgier, the most infamous instance probably being "Evil Mary Marvel" in Countdown to Final Crisis. There was a bright spot, though, in that Black Adam was one of the leading characters in the acclaimed series Fifty Two, gaining Morality Pets in the form of Isis and Osiris. (They were both killed by the end of the event, but hey, this is comic books, Death Is Cheap.)
At the same time, a more traditional Alternate Continuity take on the Marvel Family came in Jeff Smith's Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil; this was much-better received, and in July 2008, an ongoing series in the same continuity premiered, Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! It is assumed, but has not been confirmed, that this is set on Earth-5, the post-Infinite Crisis version of Earth-S.
Eventually, Captain Marvel's history was wiped clean by DC's New 52 reboot. He's to re-debut in backup stories in Justice League, with these stories focusing on the magical aspect rather than straight superheroics. Oh, and DC said "Heck with it" and properly changed his name from "Captain Marvel" to "Shazam".
This character has had his share of other media adaptations. For instance, he was the first superhero to appear on film. This was in the Film Serial, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, generally considered among the best serials ever made. When DC revived him, he appeared in a Saturday morning live action TV series, Shazam!, and an animated one called The Kid Super Power Hour with Shazam!, both produced by Filmation. He also appeared in Justice League Unlimited, bringing a hell of a fight to Superman. Oh, and he also made his Video Games debut in the Fighting Game Massive Multiplayer Crossover Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Currently, Billy can be found fighting crime alongside Batman in Batman the Brave And The Bold, and fighting Black Adam in the direct to DVD Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam. He's a member of the Justice League in Young Justice, taking a turn as the team's "den mother" in episode 13, where he gave Aqualad a pep talk ("Hey, wisdom of Solomon!") before chasing after a tiger. ("...Speed of Mercury.")
- Spoofed in the 1979 film J-Men Forever (consisting of Gag Dub Republic Film Serial clips) with Billy Batchit, who becomes 'The Caped Madman' by uttering the magic word "SH-BOOM!" which enables Billy to "take on all the vices of a J-Man of the Secret Service: S for Sneaky, H for Hateful, B for Bigotted, O for Obnoxious, another O for Double-Obnoxious, and M for Mean!"
- Similarly spoofed in a classic issue of MadMagazine, where Superduperman got into a fight with him, with "Billy Spafon" becoming "Captain Marbles" by saying the magic word "Shazoom!": Strength, Health, Aptitude, Zeal, Ox, power of, Ox, power of another, Money!
- DC Comics themselves had a character called Captain Thunder, a Captain Marvel Expy (real name Willie Fawcett) with an origin based on Native American spirits and the magic word "Thunder!" (Tornado, Hare, Uncas, Nature, Diamond, Eagle and Ram) who teamed up with Superman before Earth-S made its debut.
Captain Marvel provides examples of:
- Action Girl: Mary Marvel.
- Adult Child: How Captain Marvel often comes off to other heroes, especially those who don't know his secret.
- Analogy Backfire: Peter David's comment on the "Wisdom of Solomon": "Question: God directly orders you to build no temples to other gods. Do you build temples to other gods? If you said yes, congratulations! You have just displayed the Wisdom of Solomon!"
- Arch Enemy: Sivana and his family.
- Ashcan Copy: His first published appearance was in Whiz Comics #2. #1 was an unpublished issue created solely for promotional and copyright reasons.
- Attack of the 50 Foot Whatever: Sabbac these days.
- Alternate Company Equivalent: Originally Fawcett's version of Superman. Now effectively an expy, since DC now owns both characters.
- Badass Family: Billy and Mary.
- Badass Crew: What they become once you throw Freddy into the mix.
- Badass Grandpa: World War Two veteran Minuteman.
- Bald of Evil: Ibac, Sabbac and Sivana.
- Big Good: With one notable exception, Captain Marvel's basically the moral authority to the entire DCU, even over Superman.
- Blond Guys Are Evil: Captain Nazi.
- Brains Evil Brawn Good: Captain Marvel and Dr Sivana.
- The Brute: Ibac.
- By the Power of Greyskull: He and Mary say Shazam, Freddy says Captain Marvel. Basically, say the name of your benefactor, and off you go. Ibac and Sabbac say, well, Ibac and Sabbac in order to get similar results.
- The Cape: Captain Marvel obviously, but Mary and Jr. likely qualify too.
- Captain Superhero
- Card-Carrying Villain: Sivana. He regularly describes himself as evil.
- Clark Kenting: Freddy Freeman/Captain Marvel, Jr/Captain Marvel III. The only difference between his real appearance and his alter ego is that the former is crippled and the latter isn't. Mary did this in her early apperances, but now changes into an adult, like her brother.
- Daddy's Little Villain: Two of Sivana's children.
- Death By Origin Story: Freddy's grandfather was murdered by Captain Nazi in the middle of a battle with Captain Marvel.
- Demon Lords and Archdevils: Sabbac is powered by six of them: Satan, Any, Belial, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, and Crateis.
- Development Gag: The Alternate Timeline of Flashpoint has the Shazam powers shared among six kids (Billy, Mary, Freddy, and newcomers named Paco, Eugene, and Darla) who can summon "Captain Thunder" - Sound familiar?
- Dumb Muscle: Ibac.
- Distaff Counterpart: Mary Marvel to Captain Marvel.
- Embarrassing Nickname: The Big Red Cheese.
- Meet the fierce and terrible Ibac, a villain empowered by Satan himself with the vices of four of the most evil men who ever lived. His nickname? "Stinky."
- Embarrassing First Name & Embarrassing Middle Name: Thaddeus Bodog Sivana. No wonder he's evil.
- Evil Counterpart: Black Adam. Though Adam's "evilness" tends to vary. A lot. Then there's Ibac, who gains his powers from four brutal historical figures, and Sabbac who takes his abilities from six Demon Lords.
- Evil Costume Switch: When Mary accquires Black Adam's powers, her costume turns black and she gains a new level in moral ambiguity.
- And a much higher hemline!
- Evil Laugh: A lot of Captain Marvel's recurring enemies do this.
- Expy: In Love and Capes, Captain Marvel's analogue is Major Might. Mark gets grouchy around him because he thinks he's a "copycat", until the Major's child self reveals that he chose powers like the Crusader's out of admiration. Awww.
- For the Evulz: As Merlyn once put it, "Joker and Sivana do it for kicks."
- Flying Brick: One of the earliest.
- Follow the Leader: An obvious wannabe of Superman, debuting not too long after the Man of Steel.
- Which then began to run backwards when Superman himself started copying elements from Captain Marvel, such as a female counterpart, the power of flight, and a bald Mad Scientist arch nemesis. And then DC sued Fawcett for making The Captain too similar.
- Gendered Outfit: Mary Marvel's outfit has a skirt, unlike the rest of the Marvel Family.
- Henshin Hero: Billy has to switch between his normal form and superhero form by using a magic word.
- Homage: The Post-Crisis reboot had several to Calvin and Hobbes, including Mr. Tawky Tawny being a stuffed tiger brought to life and Billy having a teacher modeled after Mrs. Wormwood.
- Hot Scientist: Caitlin Russo, who Freddy briefly roomed with.
- I Am Not Shazam: Trope Namer. No longer applies, though. As of the DC relaunch, he's now called Shazam. (As of the time of this edit, there is no information on what the wizard Shazam has been renamed, or whether he still exists at all)
- In the Hood: The New 52 incarnation turns his cape into a full cloak.
- Kick the Dog: Captain Nazi, in the middle of a battle with Captain Marvel, took time off to murder Freddy's grandfather and cripple him. Why? For the heck of it. He later came back and tried to finish Freddy off? Why? Once again, for the heck of it.
- And between these two acts, he took the time to telephone Hitler himself to boast about how much fun he was having. Even the Fuhrer seemed a little frustrated by his agent's pettiness.
- Knight Templar: Mary after gaining Black Adam's powers. Black Adam himself a lot of the time.
- Legacy Character: The Captain Marvel title is bestowed on a Champion selected by the previous wielder. The Sabbac title has also been passed from Timothy Karnes to Ishamel Gregor, at the latter's insistence (Timothy, needless to say, did not survive the transfer).
- Legion of Doom: The Monster Society of Evil, the Ur Example.
- Let's You and Him Fight: Whenever he's in a comic with Superman.
- Lightning Can Do Anything: As long as you say the word.
- Limited Wardrobe: Billy has multiple copies of the same shirt and pants hanging in the closet in Superman/Shazam: The Return Of Black Adam.
- In Superman/Shazam: First Thunder, Billy (still a homeless child) explicitly tells his friend he buys his clothes by the dozen because it's cheaper.
- Mad Scientist: Sivana and his family.
- Mini-Dress of Power: Mary.
- Older Alter Ego: Captain Marvel to Billy, and nowadays Mary Marvel to, well, Mary. Averted with Captain Marvel Jr/CM3 who looks exactly the same age in and out of uniform.
- Out of Focus: In scope of the larger DC Universe.
- Playing with Fire: Sabbac gains flames from one of his sponsors.
- Reality Subtext: Whenever Superman and Captain Marvel are in the same comic together, it's a pretty good bet one of them is going to punch the other. This is a reference to their famous court battle, where DC sued Fawcett over similarities to Superman.
- Scary Shiny Glasses: Sivana.
- Seven Deadly Sins: Sabbac can command the "Seven Deadly Enemies Of Man", a slightly modified version of the usual seven.
- In the original comic, Shazam had the Seven Deadly Enemies Of Man trapped in stone from inside the Rock Of Eternity. Modern day stories seem to switch between the Enemies Of Man, and the typical Deadly Sins Depending on the Writer.
- Super-Hero Speciation: The obvious redundancy with Superman has finally been worked out in modern times with Supes valuing an ally whose similar, but magic and gods based, powers makes him very welcome company against supernatural foes while Cap enjoys him as a mentor.
- Superheroes Wear Capes (until the New 52 reboot, anyway)
- Super Family Team: With Mary and Freddy.
- Superpower Lottery: A major winner.
- Super Soldier: Captain Nazi.
- Teens Are Monsters: Georgia Sivana and Thaddeus Sivana Jr. are their dad's henchmen in most stories.
- Those Wacky Nazis: Captain Nazi, his Mad Scientist brother, and his equally evil niece.
- Ungrateful Bastard: Freddy and his grandfather saved Captain Nazi from drowning. He promptly killed the latter and crippled the former. Why? As he puts it, "Might as well ask, 'Why is the sky blue?'"
- Wearing a Flag on Your Head: Minuteman wears the stripes on his shirt, and the stars on both sleeves. Captain Nazi has the swastika on his chest in most apperances.
- Will They or Won't They?: Him and Stargirl, again. They nearly kiss in the most-recent JSA/Marvel story, but it's broken up, and she goes back to crushing on Atom Smasher shortly.
- A Wizard Did It: Literally.
- World Domination: Sivana wants to be a Time Lord.
Oh, and by the way, HE WAS NOT SHAZAM. .....but he is now