Marvel and DC Comics have both been around for a long time, and the two major comic publishers have been duking it out for decades since well before the superhero movie renaissance. Though the bitter rivalry between the two is mostly made up nonsense, each one is a business doing what they can to survive and thrive. Sometimes, that means looking at your competitor and telling them that they don’t get to use your property.
Now, on the face of things, that seems like common sense. But, like many dueling brands, many of Marvel’s characters have DC counterparts and vice versa. There’s not a whole lot of battling over characters like those since neither brand would have much of a leg to stand on. Even the most similar of heroes have enough unique identifiers to avoid any sort of copyright battle. But what happens when a brand decides that a competitor’s counterpart is just a little too close to theirs? The battle for the title of “Captain Marvel” began well before Marvel Comics’ Mar-Vell and Carol Danvers started flying onto shelves. And, as it would happen, the opening volley of the battle over the name wouldn’t be between DC and Marvel, but with Captain Marvel’s first publisher: Fawcett Publications.
In the early forties, DC Comics (then known as National Comics Publications) went after Fawcett Publications for their character Captain Marvel. It might be rare for one comic publication to go after another for character similarities now, but there were a heck of a lot fewer back in the day than we have running around our streets now. In this case, the publisher that would later be known as DC had decided that there weren’t enough differences between Fawcett’s character and their golden boy, Superman. Though the first judge wouldn’t rule in their favor, National Comics Publication elected to take the case to a higher court. The second judge would agree with National Comics’ case against Fawcett, but it turned out that there was no need to go to trial in the lower courts for a second time.
Like many comics, Captain Marvel flew off shelves during World War II. Tired Americans needed an escape, and properties like Captain America, Superman and Captain Marvel helped provide that in a medium that wouldn’t take away from the war efforts. Unfortunately, all comic distributors took a hit once the war was over. The boys were back home, and the world returned to as close to normal as it would for any of them. Simply put: the country moved on.
The decline in sales meant that when it came time to fight for the rights to Captain Marvel once again, Fawcett let him go. They agreed to cease use of all Captain Marvel-related characters, and would ultimately shut down their comic book department entirely in the early fifties. Several members of their team would find a home over at DC Comics, and the Captain Marvel drama would die down for a short period of time.
Fast forward to the ’70s, when Carmine Infantino sought to revive Captain Marvel. The famous publisher would run into a snag in his plan, unfortunately. Marvel’s version of Captain Marvel – then Walter Lawson, a.k.a. Mar-Vell – had launched in the interim, making the name no longer available to teams at DC Comics. And thus Shazam was born! That might seem like a big leap in name for those who don’t actively read the comic books, but it’s actually a pretty solid change for the character. “Shazam!” was the term Billy Batson cried to activate his powers as Captain Marvel. The cry is actually an acronym of the six elders who grant Billy his powers: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.
Infantino would attempt to be sneaky by adding in the sub-header “The Original Captain Marvel” into the comic’s first new release but, as you can imagine, Marvel Comics didn’t take too kindly to that. Thankfully, their cease and desist letter was the last bout of major legal trouble to vex the publication.
DC Comics’ acceptance of the fact that Captain Marvel, and the brand work that had been put into it decades prior, were gone ended up working out in their favor. Using the multiverse theory to defend the story differences between the original Captain Marvel and the new Shazam played like gangbusters for the comic giant, and ended up helping keep things from getting ugly with what was left of Fawcett.
Billy Batson has found himself on a whole host of adventures since the drama surrounding his name finally died down. From his first (new) appearance on Earth-S, all the way to the current day Rebirth reboot, the kid hero has successfully carved out a corner of the very franchise he was accused of ripping off all those decades ago. As a fun tidbit: Superman actually appears on the cover of the 1973 issue of Shazam: Number 1. Guess copyright concerns don’t much matter after you take control of the infringing property!
This year, Billy (Asher Angel) will be taking his first leap to the big screen when he transforms into Shazam (Zachary Levi). His first feature film will appropriately revolve around his battles with the evil Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong). Acting as the hero’s very first villain, the mad scientist will wreak all kinds of havoc on the young Billy’s life while he tries to acclimate to this whole “being a superhero” thing. Shazam will act as an origin story, which means we’ll be kicking things off with Billy still as an orphan. He’ll need lots of help on his journey. Thankfully, he’ll have his best friend and foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) there to help him along the way.
It’s been a rough, messy, legal-battle-filled road for Billy Batson and his friends. There are plenty of other publications who have experienced behind the scenes strife, but it really is remarkable that we’re getting the opportunity to see this character on the silver screen. Shazam is such a pure, warm balm in comparison to the grittier superhero representations that the last decade has brought us. What kid didn’t want to be a superhero growing up? Billy Batson shows us what it would be like to live out that dream in every media he’s represented in, and it will be a joy to see his childlike glee light up the big screen in April.
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