Captain Marvel was my favorite comic book action hero, and I was not alone. He was the most popular superhero of the 1940s, outselling even Superman. Captain Marvel was actually Billy Batson, a boy like me, except he always wore a tight red sweater with a yellow bands at the neck and wrists, the same colors he wore as Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel was pudgy, not overly-muscled like Superman or Batman. Even Billy looked to be in better shape. Billy’s frequent exclamation, “Holy Moly!” became part of the English language.
Captain Marvel was a blatant ripoff of the success of Superman. Like Superman, he could fly and stop bullets. He wore boots, a skin-tight suit, and a cape. Only the colors were different. DC Comics, publisher of Superman, also thought the resemblance more than coincidental and sued, ending the original Captain Marvel in 1953. Following complex litigation, he was resurrected years later as a totally different, ridiculously over-muscled super-hero, but that was not who I remembered.
Even the name “Whiz Comics” came from a different earlier publication, Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, a bawdy joke book for military personnel. Having nothing to do with urination, a “whiz bang” was a particular WWI artillery shell. “Captain,” “Billy,” and “Whiz” of the Captain Marvel series are all connected to that earlier publication. Very little about Captain Marvel was original except for bringing together the separate parts.
Billy Batson was a homeless 12-year-old newsboy who, one night, is led to a secret subway tunnel by a mysterious stranger. (Life was more innocent back then.) An empty, driverless subway car appears, Billy stupidly gets on, and the subway car takes him past seven statues, depicting the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man—greed, gluttony, lust, envy, sloth, wrath, and pride—to the den of a wizard (cone hat, white beard, and star-studded robe) named Shazam! who grants Billy the power to become the adult superhero Captain Marvel by simply repeating his name.
(Shazam! is always spelled with an exclamation point. I am thinking of spelling my name as Roger!) The metamorphosis was accompanied with a flash of lightening and a clap of thunder—no telephone booth required. They never explained whether Billy and Captain Marvel were physical variations of the same individual or two different individuals. Or was Captain Marvel the wizard in a different form? No one knows.
Shazam! is an acronym: S for the wisdom of Solomon, H for the strength of Hercules, A for the stamina of Atlas, Z for the power of Zeus, A for the courage of Achilles, and M for the speed of Mercury. No one seemed to notice this strange mix of Greek and Roman mythology, and even a Hebrew king thrown in. Or, that the wizard, himself, did not seem to have these qualities. The Seven Deadly Enemies of Man are simply the Catholic cardinal sins. A synopsis of this origin of Billy’s power began each comic book. Saying Shazam! again changed Captain Marvel back to Billy.
I took all of this to heart. I remember vividly sitting on the back steps of our East Lansdowne home on a summer day trying to say Shazam! all different ways: SHA-zum, sha-ZAAM, sh-AH-zum. Surely, it wasn’t working because I wasn’t saying it right, so I kept trying. It was a long afternoon.
I even tried to copy Captain Marvel’s cape. His skimpy cape, no bigger than a modest bath towel, simply draped a few inches over a thick rope around his neck. I tried tying a piece of clothesline around my neck and a real towel, but it immediately fell off. I was lucky not to have hung myself. I gave up, thinking it would never stay on while flying. If only I could get that Shazam! right. I am still trying. ss-HASEM? Nope, no lightening flash.