The definitive issue-by-issue collecting guide and trade reading order for Shazam – Billy Batson & Mary Marvel as the Captain Marvel of DC Comics – comic books in omnibus, hardcover, and trade paperback collections. Part of Crushing Krisis’s Crushing Comics. Last updated February 2023 with titles scheduled for release through August 2023.
The Curious Comics History of DC’s Captain Marvel, AKA Shazam!
Captain Marvel and his family once were the top-selling comic heroes of the early 1940s, later became a DC copyright grab living on his own Earth, and later still has been incorporated into DC’s main universe three times over.
This guide uses the modern convention of referring to the character interchangably as Captain Marvel and Shazam.
Captain Marvel was a Fawcett Comics character, created by Bill Parker C. C. Beck, though he would largely be written by Otto Binder starting in 1942. Orphan Billy Batson was recruited by the Wizard Shazam and given the power of six “immortal elders” whenever he uttered the acronym standing for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury
Always whimsical and often beautiful, these Golden Age comics mixed the standard blend of one-off capers and support for World War 2 with oddball flights of fancy. They soon introduced Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr., as well as other recognizable characters like Black Adam and Tawny. The comes were even more wholesome and aimed at readers of all ages than the sometimes grim fantasies of comics like Captain America or Batman.
DC Comics interfered early on, suing Fawcett in 1941 to claim that Shazam was an infringement on their copyright on the similar-looking Superman. The case dragged on for over a decade and never reached a decisive conclusion. In short, the character of Captain Marvel wasn’t an infringement, but some elements of stories might have been. That situation lead the now-beleaguered Fawcett to settle out of court with DC, agreeing to never publish another Captain Marvel comics. They shuttered their comics line in 1953.
(This had the ripple effect of causing British publisher L. Miller and Son to abandon their Captain Marvel reprints and create their own nearly-infringing character, Marvelman – who would be the focus of his own decades of legal wrangling that would lead to him being renamed Miracleman and his rights eventually being sold to Marvel.)
During the early Bronze Age explosion of superhero popularity across all media, DC decided to bring back Captain Marvel, as licensed from Fawcett (who could not publish him themselves due to their settlement). Of course, now Marvel Comics was another big player in the industry, and they had launched their own Captain Marvel to snag the trademark in 1967. As a result, DC’s 1973 Captain Marvel relaunch and every subsequent relaunch was titled, “Shazam” – after Captain Marvel’s transformative word.
This version of Captain Marvel existed on Earth-S from 1973 to 1986 with his complete Fawcett Comics history intact, sometimes interacting with the World War 2 era heroes of Earth-Two.
That changed in 1985-1986 with Crisis on Infinite Earths, which wiped away all of DC’s many accumulated alternate earths in favor of a single unified continuity. In this new continuity, heavy hitters Superman and Wonder Woman were not founding members of the Justice League. Instead, the naive and optimistic Captain Marvel was recruited to serve alongside the likes of Guy Gardner and Doctor Fate.
However, his membership was short-lived, as he didn’t want to make the transition to serving internationally with the team in 1987 (since it might make it hard to keep up his civillian identity as Billy Batson). Billy’s problem with the International league was also DC’s problem: it was hard to focus on the life of a teenager in an ensemble book about adult superheroes.
After his Post-Crisis DC debut, Captain Marvel received a pair of slightly conflicting origin stories – one in 1987 and a second in 1994. Both established him as an orphaned only child in Fawcett City gifted powers by the Wizard Shazam, but the 1994 version hinted at another orphan with connections to the wizard. This was the new version of Mary Marvel, who writer Jerry Ordway would introduce in his series The Power of Shazam in 1995. The series had surprising staying power for a 50-year-old brand in the X-TREME 1990s, lasting 47 issues and far into the comic industry downturn at the end of the decade. The series hewed closely to the Marvel Family’s Fawcett Comics roots, focusing on their lives as children as much as their lives as heroes.
After the 90s, Captain Marvel’s comic history grows murkier. Writer Geoff Johns co-opted the character to join his Golden Age revival title Justice Society of America, though in Post-Crisis comics Captain Marvel no longer has a connection to the Golden Age. While this kept Captain Marvel in the spotlight for another decade, it also made his story intertwined with the increasingly grim DC Universe – leading to some truly off-putting developments for him and his family.
Rather than take the opportunity to correct this in New 52, DC and Geoff Johns doubled down on a new Shazam origin (in back-ups in Justice League (2011)) that focused on a more adult and less whimsical take on his “kid playing adult” heroism. This landed him in the line-up of Justice League for the latter half of New 52. DC Rebirth continued the grounded take on Billy’s tough life as an orphan and how the power of Shazam extended to all of his foster siblings, taking things farther by infecting him with Joker-fueled evil for the grim “Year of the Villain” storytline.
Along the way, that early whimsical magic of Shazam has been entirely lost. He transformed from an even more optimistic infringement on Superman to a kid goofing off in a cruel adult world. The point of his stories stopped being bright-eyed wonder and became about Billy’s continued loss of innocence in the adult world of superheroes.
In 2023, Shazam finally escaped from the reverberations of Geoff John’s two decade grip on his continuity to launch under the pen of Mark Waid, an author known for injecting youthful properties with a renewed sense of joy.