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Who Is Captain Marvel?


A couple of friends of mine back when I lived in Darkest Iowa were comics fans who ran a gaming group. They mostly ran a super-hero role-playing game called CHAMPIONS, and the husband had designed character stats for most of the characters in both the Marvel and DC Universes. The first time I played with their group, he showed me his file, a large box containing about a thousand laminated character sheets. “Who would you like to play?” he asked.

I did not hesitate. “Captain Marvel,” I said.

My reply puzzled him. “Do you mean Captain Mar-Vell, the Kree Warrior? Or the black girl from AVENGERS?”

“No, no, no,” I chuckled. “The REAL Captain Marvel. Wisdom of Solomon. Strength of Hercules. Stamina of Atlas...”

“Oh, him.”

“...Power of Zeus. Courage of...”

“All right! I got it.”

As it turned out, the character I wanted was one of the few he didn't have; so he gave me Superman's character sheet instead. “Just ignore the part about 'Vulnerable to Kryptonite' and replace it with 'Must Say SHAZAM to Activate Instant-Change'”

But my friend's confusion brings me to the question of Who Is Captain Marvel? It's a question with two levels: the obvious one about which of the many characters to bear that name is the One True Marvel; and a deeper question about the psyche of the World's Mightiest Mortal.

Let's begin, then, at the beginning. In 1939, Fawcett Publications formed a comics division to take advantage of the wave of costumed heroes that followed in the wake of Superman's debut. Fawcett's circulation manager wanted a character like Superman, but whose alter-ego was a 10 or 12-year old boy. Writer Bill Parker and artist C. C. Beck came up with a plucky orphan named Billy Batson who was recruited by an ancient wizard named Shazam to fight for justice. When Billy spoke the wizard's name, he became transformed into a mighty hero, imbued with the attributes of an eclectic pantheon of gods and heroes.

Say them with me, won't you?

Wisdom of SOLOMON
Strength of HERCULES
Stamina of ATLAS
Power of ZEUS
Courage of ACHILLES
Speed of MERCURY

Originally, the character's name was to be “Captain Thunder”, but it turned out that another company was already using that name; a situation which sort of became a theme for Cap. So they re-named him “Captain Marvel”. C. C. Beck gave the character a more stylized, cartoony look than a lot of contemporary rivals of Superman had and later recalled that he and Parker wanted to draw inspiration from old folk-tales and classic myths rather than the hackneyed formulas of the Pulp Magazines which many other comic books emulated.

Captain Marvel soon gained a large supporting cast of Marvelous heroes: Captain Marvel, Jr.; Mary Marvel; The Three Lieutenants Marvel; Mister Tawky Tawny; Uncle Marvel; Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. He also became enormously popular, becoming the first comic book hero to hit the big screen as the star of a Republic movie serial. At the height of his popularity, Captain Marvel's comics out-sold those of his predecessor, Superman.

This could not stand.

Detective Comics and Superman, Inc.; the companies which later formed National Publications and eventually became known as DC Comics, had previously sued Fox Feature Syndicate claiming that its character, “Wonder Man” was a rip-off of Superman. With their success going after Wonder Man, they went after the Big Red Cheese.

The case dragged on for years. National claimed that elements of Captain Marvel, (the super-strength, the invulnerability, the cape and long johns, the alter-ego as a reporter) were clear imitations of Superman. Fawcett argued that both characters were derived from super-strong heroes of legend and earlier comics, such as Hercules, Tarzan and Popeye the Sailor.

The initial ruling went in Fawcett's favor based on a technicality. National had at one point authorized a licensed SUPERMAN comic strip, and the syndicate producing the strip had neglected to put a copyright notice on some of the strips. Therefore, the court ruled, the character had fallen into the Public Domain.

National appealed the ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, presided over by the famed jurist Judge Learned Hand. (Yes, his first name really was “Learned”. He had a brother named “August” who was also a judge and who was involved with the original case.). The Appeals Court ruled that National should not be penalized by the syndicate's negligence and that they still held a copyright to Superman. Moreover, he ruled that Captain Marvel was indeed a substantial imitation of Superman and infringed on Superman's copyright. This has always seemed to me like a pretty superficial interpretation, but then, since I hadn't been born yet, Judge Hand never asked me. He sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

Rather than go through yet more litigation, the two parties decided to settle out of court. In order for the lower court to rule on what kind of monetary damages National was owed, they would have to go through a decade's worth of both title to determine how much exactly Cap had swiped from Superman – and how much Supes had swiped from Cap, such as the ability to fly, or having a bald mad scientist as an arch-enemy. The only ones who would profit from this kind of panel-parsing were the law firms who would be paid by the hour to have their clerks scour the funnybooks; and both sides agreed that it would be more hassle than it was worth,

More importantly, by this time, a decade had passed since the suit was originally filed and in the intervening time, super-hero comics had dwindled in popularity. Captain Marvel was no longer the money-maker he had been previously, and Fawcett decided to cut its losses: pay a four hundred thousand dollar settlement and agree to cease publishing the character. They shut down their entire comic book division.

Captain Marvel was still popular in Great Britain, where a company called L. Miller & Son held the rights to publish black & white reprints of the Fawcett comics. Now that no more reprint material was forthcoming, Miller & Son hired a comic packager named Mick Anglo to create a knock-off named “Marvelman”, who was similar to Captain Marvel in many ways except that he was blond and said the word “Kimota”, (“atomic” spelled backwards, sorta), in order to transform.

Another decade passed, and with the dawning of the Silver Age, the super-heroes returned. Fawcett was no longer in the comics biz, but another company, F. M. Enterprises, borrowed the Captain Marvel name for one of the weirder characters in comics history. This version of Captain Marvel was an android from a distant planet, sent to Earth to escape the atomic destruction of his homeworld and to protect his new planet. He had the standard portfolio of super-powers: super-strength, super-speed, and nigh-invulnerability; but he had one unique power: when he shouted “Split!” he could detach parts of his body from his torso to do stuff, re-attaching them when he shouted “Xam!” I suspect the creator of the character was thinking of possible Captain Marvel toys; but the character did not last long and the company quickly folded.

The Silver Age also saw Timely/Atlas Comics, the company which published CAPTAIN AMERICA back during the Golden Age, re-name itself Marvel Comics and revolutionize the whole super-hero comics genre, beginning with FANTASTIC FOUR, and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and exploding from there. Editor Stan Lee decided that Marvel Comics really ought to be publishing a character named “Captain Marvel”, and shortly after the demise of the “Split/Xam!” Cap, Marvel acquired the trademark for that name.

The Marvel version of Captain Marvel was a Kree Warrior named “Mar-Vell”, a soldier from an alien empire locked in an interminable war against the Skrulls. Mar-Vell is sent to Earth as an observer, but comes to ally himself with the inhabitants of our Small Blue Planet and defects from the Kree Empire to act as Earth's protector.

After a while, the character was re-vamped by writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane. Mar-Vell was exiled to the Negative Zone by the Kree's Supreme Intelligence. He was able to escape the Negative Zone for brief periods by exchanging atoms with Professional Sidekick Rick Jones, using special wristbands. This somewhat recalled the dynamic between Billy Batson and the original Captain Marvel, of a boy able to summon a hero at need and essentially switching places with him.

The character was re-tooled further when he was handed over to Jim Starlin, who made him into a more cosmic-themed character. Because Cosmic is what Jim Starlin does. It was for this version of Captain Mar-Vell that Starlin created the character of Thanos, the Mad Titan, who became a major villain in the Marvel Universe.

Starlin also made the character the center of Marvel Comics's first graphic novel, titled THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL. In it, Mar-Vell learns that he has developed cancer and must come to grips with his own mortality. The story is a thoughtful, introspective one without a lot of fights and explosions; and Starlin drew upon his own father's struggles and death from cancer in writing it. And in the end – not a spoiler; it's right in the title – Captain Marvel dies.

Not wanting to leave a good trademark unused, Marvel created a new character, a black police lieutenant from New Orleans named Monica Rambeau who could transform herself into any form of energy. She became a member of the Avengers, and for a time the group's leader. She eventually ceded the “Captain Marvel” name to Mar-Vell's son, Genis-Vell. Since then, there have been a handful of other Marvels, few with a whole lot of staying power.

The current holder of the title is Carol Danvers, the former “Ms Marvel”: an Air Force officer who gained super-powers when caught in an explosion from a piece of Kree technology. She was created in the late '60s as a kind of token feminist; got written out of the Avengers in an incredibly ignominious fashion in the '80s; returned long enough to give the Avengers a well-deserved scolding and to give a portion of her powers to Rogue from the X-Men and then faded back for a while. In the last decade or so, she's become more prominent, though, taking on the “Captain Marvel” name and becoming an important player in the Avengers. Her current characterization plays up her military background and has her acting more in leadership roles, protecting the Earth from intergalactic threats and acting as a diplomat to alien races.

But while Captain Mar-Vell and his successors where having cosmic adventures over at the House of Ideas, the Fawcett Captain Marvel wasn't quite dead yet. At the same time this was happening, Billy Batson was making a comeback. Or trying to...

NEXT: “With One Magic Word...” Crisis on Infinite Re-Boots


Kurt Wilcken draws the webcomic “Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine” at and writes a weekly blog about obscure Bible stories, “The Ones You Didn’t Hear in Sunday School” at: He also sometimes refers to himself in the third person and he lives for feedback.