Shazam #1

Shazam! #1, February 1973

A certain “Mr Binder” is surprised to meet Billy Batson on the street. It seems Billy has been missing for twenty years—but hasn’t aged a day! “I must be flipping my gourd!” exclaims Binder as he staggers away, leaving Billy alone with his thoughts to helpfully recount the origin of his super-alter ego.

Shazam #1 splash page, CC Beck

In the flashback a mysterious stranger beckons the homeless Billy into an abandoned subway station—and the young lad follows (hey, it was a more innocent time!). There, a brightly-decorated train appears and whisks the pair away. At the end of the line there is an ancient cavern that contains carved statues of the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man. Similarly ancient is an old guy with long white hair and beard sat beneath a huge stone block suspended by a thread. He explains his name is Shazam and that Billy is to be his successor. Billy repeats the old man’s name and is transformed by a bolt of lightning into Captain Marvel.

With that, the thread breaks and the block falls, killing Shazam instantly! “Holy Moley!” shouts Cap, “Poor old guy…” He seems not too concerned that a pensioner has just been crushed to death right in front of his eyes. However, the ghost of old Shazam materializes, “…my spirit lives on in ethereal form!”

Coming out of his reverie, Billy changes to Captain Marvel and stops a couple of hoodlums. He’s recognized (“Pardon me, Sir. Aren’t you Captain Marvel?”) and the townspeople want to know where he’s been for the last twenty years. Cap casts his mind back and remembers a day when he, Captain Marvel Junior and Mary Marvel, along with a fair few other folk, were transported into a spaceship by arch villain Dr Sivana.

Captain Marvel revived, Shazam #1

Sealed in a huge bubble of Suspendium, those kidnapped are left to spend eternity in suspended animation. However, Sivana’s ship goes out of control and also ends up trapped in the bubble. Two decades pass, as the bubble orbits ever closer to the sun. One day the Suspendium begins to evaporate and Captain Marvel awakes. He is quickly able to free Junior and Mary, and all three return the townsfolk to Earth—all unaware that twenty years have passed.

Cap tracks down Dr Sivana and his family and everyone has a good chuckle as the baddies are carted off to jail.

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DC had forced rival publisher Fawcett out of the comics market in 1953 following years of legal battles over the supposed similarity between Superman and Captain Marvel. Twenty years later, and ever on the lookout for a much-needed hit, DC publisher Carmine Infantino bought the long-defunct Fawcett characters and quickly set about getting Cap back into print. In his heyday Captain Marvel had outsold Superman by a respectable margin, and hopes were high that the Big Red Cheese could be just what the doctor ordered in DC’s sales battle with the upstart Marvel Comics.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Although Captain Marvel was relaunched with much fanfare there were problems right from the start—not least that the Captain Marvel trademark was now owned by Marvel Comics. That meant that Cap’s comic had to go out under the Shazam! title, but DC made sure to get “Captain Marvel” in as a strap line. Shazam! #1 was also one of the first comics launched in an era when it was becoming clear that early Golden Age comics could command vastly inflated prices due to their genuine rarity. As the first issue of a revival of a once much-loved character expected to be a success it has been claimed that many copies of the premier issue of Shazam! never made it out the front door of distributors, instead heading out the back door in dodgy deals as collectors stockpiled the comic in the hopes of making a financial killing. The truth behind this is probably difficult to verify, but it’s hardly a rare comic to this day.

The story itself is undeniably slight stuff. The original Captain Marvel stories were always rather undemanding, but even they weren’t quite this undemanding! Julie Schwartz was the master of the revived Golden Age hero having scored crowd-pleasing hits with the Flash and Green Lantern and overseen successful major direction changes for both Batman and Superman, he was clearly the go-to guy for this re-imagining. It was however something of a rare misstep for the veteran editor, who couldn’t get a handle on the lightness of touch necessary for this character. A similarly miscast Denny O’Neil seems to have written this issue in his sleep. Original Cap artist CC Beck turns in a lovely art job, effortlessly stepping into the role he’d vacated twenty years before, but even he can’t do much with the material presented to him. He allegedly became ever more unhappy with the scripts as time went on, until he finally refused to do any more.

Interesting use of marketing on the cover: Superman doesn’t actually appear in the comic at all, nor is he even so much as mentioned. Indeed, later on, it came to pass that all Captain Marvel stories took place on Earth S, well away from the established DC Universe. While CC Beck drew the Billy and Cap figures, Nick Cardy drew Superman.

In addition to the story outlined above, this issue also features a Golden Age Cap reprint from 1946, with art by Pete Costanza. It is, perhaps not surprisingly, superior to the new material. Indeed over the course of the run of Shazam! reprints would become increasingly important.

The “Mr Binder” who appears right at the start of the story is, of course, a tribute to major Marvel Family writer, and Mary Marvel’s co-creator, Otto Binder.

Images ©2012 DC Comics