Once more popular than even Superman or Batman, Captain Marvel — aka Shazam — is one of the oldest and arguably most powerful superheroes in modern existence. Born in the pages of Fawcett Comics’ Whiz Comics #2 in 1940, Billy Batson has gone under several retcons through the years, but his story has, essentially, stayed the same.
The orphaned Batson, selling newspapers to make some pocket change, is approached by the wizard Shazam, who grants him the powers of the "immortal elders" because he is pure of heart. Upon uttering the word "Shazam," Billy Batson is turned into the adult superhero Captain Marvel, who has 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.
Created by artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker, Captain Marvel was so popular when he first arrived in the pages of Whiz Comics that they soon launched Captain Marvel Adventures, selling millions of comics in the process. But the character soon went through some tough times. In the early 1940s, DC Comics filed a lawsuit that claimed Captain Marvel was too similar to Superman. Eventually, the case was settled in 1953, with Fawcett settling with DC Comics.
The character lay dormant for almost 20 years before DC Comics editor-in-chief Carmine Infantino licensed the character in 1972 and ushered in a new age for Captain Marvel, who was rebranded as Shazam!
So, where do you start if you’re interested in learning more about Captain Marvel, aka Shazam? Ahead of the Shazam! movie opening this week, SYFY WIRE picked a handful of Shazam comic book issues and arcs you should read to get a sense of who Billy Batson really is.
Shazam!: Power of Hope (2000)
Writer: Paul Dini
Artist: Alex Ross
The third in a series of Dini and Ross collaborations, Power of Hope focused on Billy Batson, who is exhausted and unhappy with being Captain Marvel. Warned by the wizard that a child will face despair and look to Captain Marvel for hope, he begins to answer mail from sick kids at the City's Children Hospital. As he begins to help them, Batson realizes that despair can strike anywhere.
Beautifully written and illustrated, Power of Hope is an inspiring tale that is also a refreshing read. After Billy Batson spends a few days in the ward, he tries to cheer up the sick kids by taking them on flying escapades and amazing them with stories of his exploits. A classic.
Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil (2007)
Writer & Artist: Jeff Smith
In 2007, Bone creator Jeff Smith, a longtime fan of Captain Marvel, created a great all-ages entry point to the character in Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil. Smith not only tackles the essential mythology of Captain Marvel but also returns to one of his primary enemies, Mister Mind and the Monster Society of Evil. Simple and captivating, Smith's run is the perfect combination of 1940s nostalgia, classic superhero tales, and charm. Billy Batson is still a child underneath it all, and Smith has fun playing off the juxtaposition of a child's mind in an adult's body.
In Smith's retelling, Batson is still learning how to be a superhero when he sets off a chain of events in which Mr. Mind and his band of villains threaten the very existence of the world. Smith also tackles original Captain Marvel staples like Billy's sister Mary, the evil Dr. Sivana, and Mister Tawky Tawny.
Monster Society is a fun, engaging look at one of DC's most accessible superheroes.
The Multiversity: Thunderworld #1 (2014)
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Cameron Stewart
Touching upon almost every corner of DC's multiverse, this entry featured a retelling of the Captain Marvel origin and a throwback to the wholesome humor of the 1940s. One of comics' best historians, Morrison manages to tell an original, modern tale of Captain Marvel while keeping readers entertained and wanting more.
In the story, Captain Marvel must face off against Dr. Sivana, who mounts an attack at the Rock of Eternity with his own version of the interdimensional mountain, usurping Billy Batson's source of power and capturing the Wizard. Thunderworld stood apart from the rest of Morrison's "Multiversity" stories, taking Captain Marvel back to the dawn of the superhero.
The Power of Shazam! (1995)
Writer: Jerry Ordway
Artists: Peter Krause, Mike Manley
A fan favorite, The Power of Shazam!, written by Jerry Ordway, again told a new version of Captain Marvel's origin in 1987. This time, Batson's parents are murdered while working on an archeological project in Egypt by their associate Theo Adam. Orphaned and left by his cruel uncle, Billy Batson meets a stranger on a magic subway car one night, who introduces him to the wizard Shazam. Billy is then struck by a magic bolt of lightning, transforming him.
In the story, Billy must defeat Doctor Sivana and Black Adam at the Sivana-funded Fawcett World Fair. The series also includes a moment in which Billy later learns that the stranger who led Billy to the Wizard was the spirit of his father. He also learns that his sister Mary is still alive.
The popularity of The Power of Shazam! led to a new series that reintroduced many of the characters from Fawcett Comics into current DC continuity.
Justice League (Vol. 2) (2011-2016)
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gary Frank
In a modern take on Captain Marvel, Geoff Johns tackled the character during the New 52 period, following Billy Batson in the pages of Justice League as well as his own self-titled mini-series. In Johns' version, Billy is more akin to the version seen in the trailers to the new movie.
In the New 52, Billy is troubled, brash, sarcastic, and at times a bit rude. While Johns starts Billy in the modern, real world, he slowly brings in the world of Shazam issue by issue.
If you're looking for a version of the Captain Marvel from the movies, then this version of Billy is probably the best to start out with. Johns' story could be the most modern in tone but still has the classic Golden Age Shazam comics sensibilities.
Shazam!: The New Beginning (1987)
Writers: Roy Thomas and Dann Thomas
Artist: Tom Mandrake
After relaunching Captain Marvel in the pages of Secret Origins #3 in the 1970s, Roy Thomas returned to DC for another reintroduction to the character in 1987. According to Thomas, DC was clearly looking for a new approach, so he and his wife Dann started over with yet another origin for the post-Infinite Crisis Earth.
In this version, like the Secret Origins version, Billy Batson was Captain Marvel, just enhanced. In addition, New Beginning was the first time that Black Adam was tied into Captain Marvel's origin.
"I don't think anyone had ever given Dr. Sivana a connection to the pre-CM Billy Batson, either. But of course most of these things have been part and parcel since, beginning with Jerry Ordway's series," Thomas told SYFY Wire via his business manager John Cimino. "I believe that, for a time, Black Adam was even slated to be in the just-released Shazam! film, though they changed their minds on that later."