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The Saturday Comics: Shazam! Family Oddities

16 Mar

March 16, 2013

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Whoa! Captain Marvel sure let himself go!

Today, DC’s Captain Marvel, better known these days as Shazam, is a second-tier hero at best. It wasn’t always that way. In its prime, Captain Marvel, published by Fawcett, outsold everyone, including Superman. Hie title regularly sold over one million copies each month. That’s right, one million, and well over. Today if a title sells a third of that it is a smash success, and most comics don’t break 20,000.

Despite outselling Superman, it was Superman that stopped Captain Marvel’s reign. DC successfully sued Fawcett (and many others) claiming that Captain Marvel was a Superman ripoff and tread on their trademarks and copyrights. A judge agreed, and not only did Fawcett stop publishing Captain Marvel, DC acquired the rights a few years later. For obvious reasons, although they kept Captain Marvel as the character’s name, the title of his book became Shazam!, or a variation thereof, like The Power of Shazam!

Of course, no character carries a book on his own. It takes a cast of well-rounded characters and great villans. Where would Batman be without Robin, Commissioner Gordon, and the Joker? And Batman’s cast of rogues is on par only with Spider-Man and The Flash, two other rather successful titles.

So who did Captain Marvel have? A pair of younger heroes, Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Junior.And great enemies like Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind, a giant worm whom DC used as the basis of a big company-wide crossover not long ago.  Quick aside- Elvis claimed his pompadour and jumpsuits were inspired by Captain Marvel Junior.

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One of the things that made Shazam stick out was the fact that the title was not always serious, and the Captain Marvel universe plenty of room for sillier characters, like Tawky Tawny, an intelligent tiger who walks upright and dresses in human suits.

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From the ever-lovable wikipedia, whose veracity as about as good as your average North Korean dictator:

Tawky Tawny started out as a normal tiger living in the jungles of India. When his mother was killed, he was raised by the son of a missionary. When the tiger had grown to full size, he was accused of killing someone. To prove his innocence, the village hermit gave the tiger a serum that not only gave him the ability to speak, but allowed him to stand upright like a human. Upon hearing about the city years later, Tawny decided to travel to North America and live there. He snuck onto a boat bound for Fawcett City. He tried to fit in, but as a full-grown tiger, inadvertently caused a panic, which drew the attention of Captain Marvel. After the two talked, Captain Marvel realized that Tawny was a peaceful and reasonable person who did not mean to cause any trouble, and got him a job as a museum curator at the local museum.

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For my money, even better than Tawky Tawny was Uncle Marvel, a fat old man with zero powers who nevertheless squeezed into a Captain Marvel suit and ran into danger with them. The other Marvels, knowing he had no powers, humored him while keeping him out of trouble.

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An old, rotund man named Dudley, Uncle Marvel did not have any real superpowers. He found Mary Batson’s good deed ledger which she kept to record her good deeds but had dropped and read it, learning her secret. Claiming to be the uncle of Mary Batson, Mary Marvel’s teenage alter-ego, from California, Dudley attempted to con his way into the Marvel Family. The Marvels, possessing the wisdom of Solomon, saw through Dudley’s machinations, but since he was, in their opinion, such a “lovable old fraud”, they allowed Dudley to join the team as their manager, Uncle Marvel, and humored his pretense of having Marvel powers. When asked to make use of his supposed superpowers, Dudley would always complain that his “shazambago” was acting up and was interfering with his powers, though the Marvels always knew better.

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A live-action Shazam! television series, which aired on CBS Saturday mornings from 1975 to 1978, featured Captain Marvel and his young alter-ego Billy Batson, accompanied by an old man known as “Mentor”. The Mentor character was loosely based upon Uncle Marvel, who in concurrent 1970s issues of the Shazam! comic book began sporting a mustache to resemble Les Tremayne, the actor who appeared as “Mentor” on the Shazam! TV show.

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Today, DC keeps trying to do something, anything, to make Shazam popular but seems to strike out at every turn. Once the world’s best-selling hero, he is barely more than a historical footnote now.

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