The Superhero Name Game: Is It “Captain Marvel” or “Shazam” and Why?

One of the biggest – and most controversial changes – made by DC Comics during their “New 52” relaunch in 2011 was the announcement that, going forward, the superhero character formerly known as “Captain Marvel” was going to be renamed “Shazam” across all media. Shazam!, of course, was the trademark and brand name under which the character had been promoted since his introduction into the DC Universe in late 1972, but given the character’s age (2015 marked Shazam’s 75th anniversary) and legacy, many fans saw it as an affront.

Shazam’s new origin story, as depicted in backups of the Justice League comic book published in 2012 and 2013, further divided comics fans due to its depiction of Shazam – a character who is the alter-ego of a teenaged boy, Billy Batson, who says the magic word “Shazam!” to become an adult superhero – as brash and moody when the character had previously been the archetype of the Golden Age white-bread smiling symbol of hope.

Many, however, still hadn’t gotten over the name change, questioning why it was necessary in the first place. More casual comic book fans are probably wondering how and why DC ended up with a character named “Captain Marvel”, given the trade name of their key competitor, in the first place. This article will address both – how DC came to own a character named “Captain Marvel”, why they don’t own his name, and why they decided to change it.

Fawcett Comics vs. DC Comics, or, Captain Marvel vs. Superman

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On the left, Action Comics #1 (1938), featuring the debut of Superman. On the right, Whiz Comics #2 (1940), featuring the debut of Captain Marvel. Is it any wonder DC sued? Art by Joe Shushter (left) and C.C. Beck (right) (Image: DC Comics)

Captain Marvel was created in 1939 for a publication called Whiz Comics by Fawcett Comics (at the time, the company today known as Marvel Comics was called Timely Comics, and Marvel Comics was the name of  their breakout publication). His first appearance was in Whiz Comics #2, cover-dated February 1940 and on the newsstands in December 1939. DC Comics (then called National Comics, but we’ll call them DC throughout this story for consistency) sued Fawcett in 1941, because DC had a habit of cease-and-desisting every comics publisher who dared to print a book featuring a superhero similar to Superman. They’d actually gotten Fawcett to stop using a character named “Master Man“, in Master Comics, who was a Superman clone, but Fawcett’s other Supermanesque character, Captain Marvel, was proving popular enough that Fawcett decided to fight DC over it. The straw that broke DC’s back was Republic Pictures’ production of a movie serial called The Adventures of Captain Marvel which became a huge hit; Republic was a co-defendant with Fawcett in the suit.

National Comics Publications, Inc. v. Fawcett Publications, Inc., et al. didn’t go to court until 1948, and without getting into the blow-by-blow of the original case and then the appeal, Fawcett ended up losing in 1953. Before damages were assessed, Fawcett made an agreement with DC to pay DC $400,000 and stop publishing anything related to the Captain Marvel characters (the franchise had grown to include not just Whiz Comics, but Captain Marvel Adventures, The Marvel Family, Captain Marvel Jr., and publications that had been canceled such as Mary Marvel and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny).

Marvel Gets the “Captain Marvel” Copyright

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Marvel’s “Captain Marvel” franchise can actually use the “Captain Marvel” title on the covers, since Marvel registered the trademark while Fawcett’s character was dormant. Captain Marvel #7 (2012) by Dexter Soy & Jamie McKelvie (Image: Marvel Comics).

Therefore, the last Fawcett Captain Marvel publication, The Marvel Family #89, was published late in 1953 and Fawcett thereafter shut down its superhero comics department. Fawcett’s Captain Marvel remained dormant long enough for the “Captain Marvel” trademark to lapse in 1963. A publisher named M.F. Enterprises tried their hand at a Captain Marvel comic book in 1966 (their Captain Marvel used the magic word “Split!” to turn into individual, but still animated, pieces of himself).

Taking notice of this, Stan Lee of Marvel Comics decided that if anyone was going to have a “Captain Marvel” superhero character, it was going to be Marvel, and to that end created a “Captain Marvel” who was an alien Kree warrior (the female counterpart of that character is the one Marvel is making a movie about for release in 2018). Most importantly, they trademarked the name “Captain Marvel” in 1967, and even though Marvel’s Captain Marvel took decades to catch on, they kept revamping it to keep it in publication and avoid letting anyone else grab the trademark. As it turns out, this would end up very quickly being beneficial for Marvel.

DC revives the original Captain Ma–uh, Shazam! franchise

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With Shazam! #1 (1973), DC Comics introduced Captain Marvel into their comic-book multiverse (though they quickly found they were not able to legally use his name in the subtitle), paying Fawcett a licensing fee-per-use until finally buying all of the Fawcett superhero characters circa 1990.

In 1972, following a lull in sales, DC publisher Carmine Infantino decided to revive the original Fawcett Captain Marvel, since legally Fawcett could only use the characters if DC said so. DC licensed the rights to use the Fawcett characters – paying a fee-per-character-per-use (until DC bought all rights to the characters circa 1991), but of course the book could not be called Captain Marvel because of Marvel Comics’ trademark on the name. They instead named the book Shazam! after the magic word young Billy Batson uses to transform into adult superheroic Captain Marvel; they tried to use “The ORIGINAL Captain Marvel” as the subtitle, but was hit with a cease-and-desist from Marvel Comic after a few issues and changed the subtitle to “The World’s Mightiest Mortal”. All subsequent Captain Marvel series or one-shots were titled some variant of Shazam!The Power of Shazam!, Shazam! The New Beginning, Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!, and so forth

The way American trademark law works, DC could call Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr, and the others by their original names only within the context of the comic books (and when the comic book was adapted for television twice by Filmation, within the context of the episodes). However, since Marvel had trademarked both “Marvel” AND “Captain Marvel”, neither of those names could be used prominently on the exteriors of the books without Marvel’s permission (and likely a payment to Marvel as well). You will notice all toys and merchandise related to the Captain Marvel characters from 1973 forward lacks the names “Marvel” or “Captain Marvel”: Captain Marvel toys call him “Shazam!“, Mary Marvel toys call her “Shazam! Mary”, “Mary Batson”, or just “Mary”, and Captain Marvel Junior toys call him “Captain Jr.” or “Shazam Jr.

Cross-Marketing Complicates Things, So Here We Are

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The modern Shazam and the Shazam Family fighting their arch-enemy Black Adam in a Gary Frank panel from Justice League #21 (2013). (Image: DC Comics).

This led to the casual fan calling the character “Shazam” rather than Captain Marvel, which wasn’t a big deal until work began on a Shazam! movie in the 2000s and Warner Bros., DC’s parent company, began wanting to make better use of the characters across all media and merchandise. Therefore, doing something about Captain Marvel’s unspeakable name (ironic for a character for whom speaking names is so important) became a priority at DC. The first two (unproduced) versions of the Shazam! movie indeed intended to call the character “Captain Marvel”, but it was clear that selling related merchandise (always as big or a bigger moneymaker than the superhero film it’s based on; ask any parent with young kids) was going to be difficult.

They first attempted to change Captain Marvel’s name to “Shazam” in a 2006-08 miniseries titled The Trials of Shazam!, which saw Freddy Freeman, the former Captain Marvel Junior, move up to the main chair. The name change – and the entire format change with Freddy as the main hero – wasn’t terribly successful, and by 2010, writers were referring to Freddy’s character as both “Shazam” AND “Captain Marvel”, depending upon who was writing the book.

When DC rebooted its universe in 2011 during the three-year-long “New 52” event, their Chief Creative Officer, Geoff Johns, made sure that the character formerly known as “Captain Marvel” was introduced as “Shazam” from the start. Following Billy Batson and Shazam’s reintroduction in a Justice League backup feature that ran from 2012 to 2013, the character was renamed “Shazam” in all media from that point forward (this primarily affected his appearances in DC Comics based TV shows and direct-to-video animated movies; anyplace else was already referring to him as “Shazam”). Mary (the old Mary Marvel) and Freddy (the old Captain Marvel Junior) have appeared in superhero form in this new continuity (also see above), but new code names have not been given yet.

The old Fawcett versions of Captain Marvel and friends still exist in at least two alternate universes (think dimensions) within DC Comics’ multiverse (Earth-S and Earth-5, which are both based in part on the old, dormant Fawcett Comics universe of the 1950s), and they’re still allowed to be called “Captain Marvel” – just not, of course, on the covers of the books. The primary “Shazam” version of the character continues to appear in DC Comics publications on a regular basis.

And for the comic-book nerds, sorting out in-universe technicalities:

In the old comics, one of Captain Marvel’s weaknesses was that he could not say his magic word – “Shazam!” – without transforming back into non-powered Billy Batson. In the current incarnation, both Shazam and Billy can say “Shazam” without activating the spell, which requires the word to be said with intent. In superhero form, Shazam can also say “Shazam” to cast magic spells, though he has little control of this power so far.

So, that’s that.