This week I’m back with my first new DC Comics collecting guide and reading order of 2023 for CK’s Plegeonaut Patrons on Patreon! This guide is for one of DC’s oldest characters, though really he has only been a DC character since the Bronze Age… or since Crisis, depending on how you count. I thought that would make for a confusing muddle of continuity. Instead, it turned out to be a delightful research project putting together this new Guide to Shazam, DC’s Captain Marvel!
Guide to Shazam, DC’s Captain Marvel
This guide is now available to all readers thanks to the magical support of Patrons of Crushing Krisis!
Here is what I knew about Shazam before researching his 83-year history for this guide: He’s really called Captain Marvel but we don’t call him that anymore (for reasons). He’s a Fawcett Comics character who DC (legally) stole. A wizard gave young Billy Batson the power to effectively become Superman (which is why DC stole him, legally), with the knowledge of Solomon and some other stuff that spells Shazam.
Oh, and: Geoff Johns is obsessed with him.
Honestly, that’s not a bad place to start with Shazam knowledge, but it turns out he’s both much simpler and much deeper than that.
Shazam is simple because, in his way, he’s the character who has continued the most-purely in every era of DC Comics. He’s not like Wonder Woman with a cascade of differing origin stories. And, he’s not like Batman, who attempts to keep everything in continuity but makes constant small adjustments.
Shazam’s Golden Age stories still existed for him during his brief Bronze Age comeback. There’s no Earth One / Earth Two conflict for him before Crisis on Infinite Earths, because his Pre-Crisis continuity was based on Earth-S.
He was rebooted after Crisis, but his new story more or less followed his old one in broad strokes, including the additions of his family members Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr., and his signature foe Black Adam. Like everyone else at DC, he got much grimmer in the 00s, but Infinite Crisis didn’t fundamentally alter him.
And, like everyone else at DC, he was re-rebooted for New 52 in a somewhat joyless fashion, and may or may not have changed at all with Rebirth.
That means there are three big, obvious eras of Shazam to read: Golden and Bronze Age (because he has no Silver Age stories), Post-Crisis, and Post-Flashpoint.
If Shazam’s continuity is that simple, and if he’s just a kid playing hero, then what’s so deep about him?
It’s not the confusing legal situation over his likeness to Superman, his name, and his publishing rights. Nor is it about how he unwittingly spun off into Marvelman who became Miracleman.
No, the depth to which I’m referring is how the character started compared to what he has become.
The original Captain Marvel was the purest form of wish fulfillment. He was an orphan child in a world just emerging from depression and plunging into war. Suddenly, he could magically become Earth’s greatest hero by uttering a single word. As a hero he was an adult – cunning and strategic, but beautifully optimistic. He surrounded himself with a found family with Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. (and the goofy Uncle Marvel), so he was never alone.
When DC brought Captain Marvel to their main universe after Post-Crisis, they changed two things about that – one by necessity and one with intent.
First, bringing Captain Marvel to the DC Universe meant it was necessary that he was no longer Earth’s primary hero. Now he lived in a world with Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lanterns, and more – not to mention the brooding Batman. That meant he had to form lasting relationships as an adult character with other adults.
Yet, the other change DC made is that Billy remained present and in control both as a child and as Shazam. That meant that when he arm-wrestled Superman or argued with Guy Gardner, there was a sense of a kid playing in grown-up’s clothes.
That intentional change worked well for Shazam’s first 15 years in the new Post-Crisis DC Universe. But, as the 90s pressed into the 2000s and comics got increasingly adult-oriented for an adult audience, Shazam began to feel out of place. To adapt his character to a world of high drama, life or death stakes, and adult relationships would always be a dim parody of what Alan Moore achieved with Miracleman. And, it just felt wrong to see Shazam at the margins of a story about sexual assault in Identity Crisis, or a Grant Morrison mocking Mary Marvel’s lack of bodily agency in Final Crisis.
Part of that is the cost of Shazam existing primarily as an ensemble member and guest star rather than in his own book. It’s not as if we get a lot of Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne in Justice League, so when Shazam is in the Justice Society Billy Batson also takes a back seat.
Geoff Johns tried to remedy this with a back-to-basics origin reboot in New 52, but it all occurred within the pages of Justice League. Shazam’s impending team membership always loomed over his stories, now ripped out of Fawcett City and placed in a somewhat grimy version of Philadelphia drawn by Gary Frank. His foe Black Adam was more brutal than ever.
Even when Johns brought back the more whimsical elements of Shazam’s Fawcett Comics in Rebirth, they were paired with a story about the potential return of his deadbeat dad. Later, Shazam was infected by an alternate-universe Joker and became a being of pure evil. And, in the subsequent movie version, Shazam was a superhero version of Big, making jokes about his newly-developed body and visiting a strip club.
As with most of DC’s comics and signature character in the past 20 years, they’ve completely sucked all of the joy out of what was once the top-selling comic superhero in the entire world. I thought the Shazam I had been reading for the past 12 years was simply how he has always been. Now that I’ve read some of his Fawcett material and Jerry Ordway’s brilliant mid-90s run on the character for my Guide to Shazam, I can’t help but be disappointed by how watered-down and cruel the world of our Captain has become.
It’s almost as if the X-Treme 90s have just caught up with him, 30 years after the fact.
Luckily, it will take years if not decades for DC to produce as much Captain Marvel material was was released by Fawcett Comics from 1940 to 1953. While most of it is not available as conventional reprints, due to the dubious copyright claims on the Fawcett Comics they are widely available as crowdsourced scans and even print-on-demand paperbacks!
That said, if DC ever did the comes of those Fawcett years the justice they are due by retouching them into beautiful omnibus editions, I would seriously consider adding them to my shelf.
Plegdeonaut Patrons of Crushing Krisis can enjoy the Guide to Shazam right now, a part of Crushing Comics Guide to Reading & Collecting to DC Comic Books. For as little as $1 a month or $10.20 a year, Patrons currently have access to…
Exclusives for Crushing Cadets ($1/month): 29 Guides!
Marvel Guides (23): Alpha Flight, Angela, Beta Ray Bill, Black Cat, Blade, Captain Britain, Dazzler, Domino, Dracula, Elsa Bloodstone, Emma Frost – White Queen, Heroes For Hire, Legion, Marvel Era: Marvel Legacy, Mister Sinister, Sabretooth, Spider-Ham, Thunderstrike, Valkyrie, Vision, Weapon X, Werewolf by Night, X-Man – Nate Grey
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All of the 29 guides above, plus 30 more…
DC Guides (17): Animal Man, Aquaman, Books of Magic, Catwoman, Doctor Fate, Flash, Harley Quinn, Houses & Horrors, Infinity Inc., Justice League, Justice Society of America, Mister Miracle, Nightwing, Outsiders, Shazam – Captain Marvel, Suicide Squad, Swamp Thing
Indie & Licensed Comics: None right now (ask again in March 😉 )