I’ve always maintained that the best superheroes have the best origin stories, and the best origin stories are the simplest. With that in mind, let’s look at the origin of the one true Captain Marvel (known to most of you New 52 slackers as just “Shazam”), as presented by writer Bill Parker and artist Charles Clarence Beck in the pages of Whiz Comics #2, in February 1940.
The story opens with young orphaned newsboy Billy Batson selling newspapers on a street corner on a rainy night in the big city. Beckoned by a mysterious stranger in a hat and cloak, Billy follows him down to the subway station, where a weird-looking train pulls up and whisks Billy away to a mysterious cavern unlike any subway station.
Along the walls of the cavern are a panoply of grotesque figures, bearing the carving above “THE SEVEN DEADLY ENEMIES OF MAN.” And at the far end of the cavern sits an ancient bearded man on a throne, with an enormous stone block suspended over his head by a fraying thread.
The man welcomes Billy by name, and introduces himself as Shazam, an ancient wizard who had summoned Billy there to pass on his magical powers to him, to be used as a force for good. Commanding Billy to speak his name, Billy does so, and in a flash of lightning and thunder is transformed into the fully grown Captain Marvel. Shazam salutes his new successor and gives him his mission: “to defend the poor and helpless, right wrongs and crush evil everywhere.” I like it. Nice and simple.
Shazam commands Captain Marvel to say his name again, and when he does, the thread snaps, dropping the cement block on Shazam, crushing him. Billy later thinks the whole experience to have been a dream, until he gets caught up in his first encounter with the man who would be his lifelong nemesis, Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, at the time attempting a rather pedestrian radio-station extortion scheme (at least compared to the countless world-conquering plots we’d see him later come up with). In the course of trying to foil Sivana’s plan, Billy gets in a pickle, says the magic word and becomes Captain Marvel, discovering that his gift from the wizard Shazam was very real. Billy manages to parlay his successful defeat of Dr. Sivana into a job in radio, becoming a roving news reporter for radio station WHIZ, and getting him off the streets and into a decent life.
Later retellings of Captain Marvel’s origin story would add two very important facets: first, the derivation of Captain Marvel’s fantastic powers from Shazam’s name. To be specific:
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
M, for the speed of Mercury
The second new detail to be retroactively added was the return of the old wizard Shazam as a spirit, to provide guidance and counsel, with the lighting of an incense-burner all that was necessary to request an audience with his ghostly self.
Which was good, because without him, we’d never have had the origins of Captain Marvel’s two sidekicks, Captain Marvel Junior and Mary Marvel. Come on back next week and I’ll tell you all about it.