The second part of our Best Shazam moments list enters modern times with a TV show, animated short, and one hell of a battle with Superman:
5. Shazam Gets A TV Show (1974-1976)
In the late 1960s and 1970s, superheroes had become popular on TV in both live action and animation thanks to the success of Adam West’s Batman, Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, and Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno’s The Incredible Hulk, along with Superfriends and solo cartoons starring Batman, Superman, and Aquaman. Filmation’s Shazam!, which aired on CBS for three seasons on Saturday mornings, combined both those things. The premise of the show was that Billy Batson (Michael Gray) traveled around in an RV with an old man named Mentor (North by Northwest and Forbidden Planet’s Les Tremayne), righting wrongs and teaching moral lessons as Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick, and later John Davey) after saying the magic word “Shazam!”
The wizard Shazam never appeared in the show, and instead Billy would get guidance from animated versions of the elders that gave him his abilities, namely Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, and Mercury (Adam West did the voice of Hercules). The show was structured like an after-school special with superhero elements, and was less action-packed than its more popular contemporary, Wonder Woman. Every episode ended with a “moral” for viewers, teaching basic lessons like to be confident in yourself, not to do drugs, and how to solve your problems through talking and not violence (having a magic-powered superhero as backup helps). Also, if you’re anti-Semitic, you get attacked by mountain lions.
The show ended on a crossover episode with Isis, a show about a female archaeologist who uses a magic amulet to get the powers of the Egyptian goddess Isis. In the finale, Captain Marvel and Isis help a boy not invent the found-footage genre by turning in evidence of a robbery to the police instead of a film festival. Isis would later appear in various Shazam comics and the 2006 weekly comic book series 52, where she was re-imagined as the consort of one of Shazam’s villains, Black Adam. She is also set to be one of the first Muslim-American superheroes on TV in Legends of Tomorrow Season 3, using her civilian name of Zari Adrianna Tomaz.
4. Shazam Gets A Modern Origin in Jerry Ordway’s Power of Shazam! (1994)
In the tradition of Batman: Year One, Wonder Woman: Gods and Mortals, and Man of Steel, DC Comics commissioned writer/artist Jerry Ordway to revamp Captain Marvel’s origin story for modern comic book readers in the Power of Shazam! graphic novel. Ordway had previously drawn the comic book adaptation of the 1989 Batman film and the Infinity Inc series, which featured characters who played a pivotal role in Neil Gaiman’s classic, The Sandman. He kept many of the elements of the original 1940 origin of Captain Marvel, while providing a deeper glimpse into Billy Batson’s psyche, also making his deceased parents, C.C. (named after Captain Marvel’s original artist, C.C. Beck) and Lyn, have a more tragic demise.
Power of Shazam! opens with an extended prologue showing Billy’s archaeologist parents discovering a mystical scarab in the tomb of Pharoah Rameses II, before both stabbed in the back by his brother, Adam, who works for the corrupt businessman Sivana, and wants these artifacts to be on the display at the World Fair he’s sponsoring, not in their native Egypt. This wrinkle in Captain Marvel’s backstory is a nice homage to the archaeologist characters in the Adventures of Captain Marvel serial, and basically turns him into Batman (if he actually smiled and his father was Indiana Jones). It immediately connects Captain Marvel and Black Adam, the differences and similarities in their abilities, and makes them lifelong nemeses based on the simple fact that Adam betrayed his family for gain. It is also nice to see Billy struggle with his powers as Captain Marvel, and even resent the wizard Shazam for thrusting them upon him instead of naively reveling in his super abilities. Timely thought bubbles from Ordway show the difficulty of navigating the world as a kid in adult’s body, although there is room for humor too, like when Billy has Captain Marvel impersonate his deadbeat, money-swindling Uncle Ebenezer at a parent-teacher conference.
The real highlight of Power of Shazam! is the fully-painted artwork of Jerry Ordway, who transforms Fawcett City into an Art Deco masterpiece. Ordway’s figures have plenty of power in their punches and throws too, especially during the battle royale between Shazam and Black Adam, in which buildings are damaged and grappling holds happen. His characters aren’t stiff and static like other painted comic book art.
Power of Shazam! is full of the magic, escapism, and the strong moral compass that is the signature of classic Captain Marvel tales, but Jerry Ordway expands upon his tragic backstory, adding some self-doubt to go with Captain Marvel’s big, cheesy grin. The graphic novel spawned a monthly Power of Shazam! comic that Ordway wrote from 1995 to 1999. The writers of the upcoming Shazam film should definitely consider using it as source material for their screenplay.
3. Shazam Has A Tragic, Epic Battle Against Superman in Kingdom Come (1996)
One of the best comics featuring Captain Marvel – and flat out one of the greatest (and densest) superhero comics of all time – is the four issue miniseries Kingdom Come, by writer Mark Waid (The Flash, JLA) and painter Alex Ross (Marvels, the opening credits of Spider-Man 2). It also inspired the name of Jay-Z’s 2006 comeback album. Kingdom Come tells the story of an aged Superman trying to come to terms with a new generation of superheroes (based on the edgy anti-heroes of the 1990s, like Spawn and Youngblood) after one of them destroys his home state of Kansas in a presumptuous superhero battle. Superman and Wonder Woman’s solution to the problem is to build a superhuman gulag for the offending villains and antiheroes, which predictably angers Batman, and he bands together with an unlikely group of allies, including Green Arrow, Lex Luthor, and a host of young legacy heroes to oppose him.
Among them is Captain Marvel, who is being mind-controlled by Lex Luthor via a psychic worm he borrowed from one of his old villains, Sivana. Captain Marvel is susceptible to mind control because the combination of his magical abilities and growing up is too much for him to handle, and Luthor plans on using him to blow up the superhuman gulag to spawn chaos. Ross draws him creepily and vacantly slinking around Batman’s allies until Luthor gives him the go-ahead to “tumble down the walls of Jericho” (Kingdom Come loves its allusions to the Bible even more than DC Comics history).
Eventually there is a titanic, earth-shattering, thunder-and-lightning battle between Superman and Captain Marvel that is one of the most memorable in superhero comics, as two of the brightest lights of the genre battle and bring on a kind of apocalypse. Superman has always been weak to magic, so Captain Marvel is more than enough for him, and Alex Ross paints many close-ups of the Man of Steel bleeding while he pleads with Captain Marvel to find his senses. Kingdom Come #4 has a host of double-page splash pages featuring superheroes in combat, but Superman and Captain Marvel grappling are always center stage, like they’re battling for the soul of the superhero genre.
The end of their throwdown is definitely something out of the Book of Revelation, with thunder, explosions, and one last powerful “Shazam!” as Captain Marvel finds redemption and sacrifices himself to save some other heroes from nuclear annihilation. Mark Waid gives him an integral, character-defining moment before his tragic death when Superman says that as both Billy Batson and Captain Marvel, he bridges the world between humans and superhumans, gods and mortals. Superman always has his heat vision and invulnerability even in disguise as Clark Kent, but Captain Marvel has to turn back into the little powerless boy, Billy Batson. His character and sacrifice inspires Superman and the remaining heroes to work closer with both superhumans and humans in the years after the cataclysmic battle between Superman and Captain Marvel, as Wonder Woman becomes a teacher, Batman opens a hospital in Wayne Manor, and Superman goes back to being a farmer. In the final scene of the comic (set at a superhero-themed restaurant), Clark Kent drinks milk from a Captain Marvel pint glass in memory of the World’s Mightiest Mortal (and the Big Red Cheese), who taught Superman to believe in the human race and his own humanity again.
In Kingdom Come, Mark Waid and Alex Ross show that Captain Marvel isn’t just some cheesy, nostalgia hero for the 1940s, but an icon that inspires Superman himself, while both deconstructing and reconstructing him as a character.
2. Shazam (Sort Of) Gets His Own Animated Solo Film (2010)
Captain Marvel got his first solo(ish) film in decades as part of Warner Bros Animation’s DC Showcase of half-hour short films. Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam was directed by Justice League Unlimited‘s Joaquim Dos Santos, and had George Newbern and veteran character actor Jerry O’Connell reprise their roles as Superman and Captain Marvel from that cartoon. Billy Batson was voiced by the future Steven Universe himself, Zach Callison, while The Mummy‘s Arnold Vosloo played the villain with a god complex, Black Adam, and the wizard Shazam was voiced with regal dignity by James Garner (in his last film role).
Superman/Shazam introduces its two protagonists in their civilian identities, Clark Kent and Billy Batson. Clark is doing a newspaper story on the homeless children of Fawcett City and interviewing Billy, who lives a hard life, but is kind, stands up to bullies, and feeds the rats in the apartment he squats in. Dos Santos establishes Billy’s good heart before he gets his magical abilities as Captain Marvel, and it’s like the future Captain America: First Avenger film with more fairy tale elements. Also, the Superman and Captain Marvel team-up is just plain fun, free of angst (except when Billy thinks about killing Black Adam, and Superman reminds him of the moral compass that has guided him up to this point). Newbern has a great fatherly cadence as Superman in this situation, without being condescending.
In addition Captain Marvel’s heroic journey, Superman kicks it Golden Age-style, moving the course of a mighty river, and there is a cameo from a classic Captain Marvel supporting character. Black Adam is a little underdeveloped as a villain, but he is an example of having godlike powers and no empathy, unlike Superman and Captain Marvel. Sadly, Captain Marvel didn’t get another animated film, but he appears as a member of the Justice League in the films Justice League War (2014) and Throne of Atlantis (2015), and is voiced by Sean Astin. He gives Aquaman his name, and perhaps his innocent, wide-eyed-yet-very-powerful self will be joining the live-action version of the Justice League in future films (and get Henry Cavill’s Superman to loosen up a little bit).
1. Shazam Returns to His Weird, Imaginative Roots in Multiversity: Thunderworld (2014)
If Fawcett Comics hadn’t folded after being sued by DC Comics and survived until modern times, it may have produced a comic like Multiversity: Thunderworld, a special one-shot written by the legendary Grant Morrison (All-Star Superman, Invisibles) and talented artist Cameron Stewart (Batgirl, Fight Club 2) that is set in an alternate universe where the only heroes and villains are the ones that appeared in Fawcett Comics. Superman and Batman are comic book characters in this universe, but in a meta-fictional twist the main bad guy, Dr. Sivana, uses actual comic books to come up with a nefarious plan to use the lightning that gives Captain Marvel his powers and create a special eighth day called Sivana Day for the purpose of killing Captain Marvel and his family. The comic is part of a loosely interconnected series called Multiversity, but is mostly a standalone story.
This plot is super silly, and Morrison and Stewart embrace the unbridled optimism, escapism, and even the clean lines of the original Bill Parker, Otto Binder, and C.C. Beck Captain Marvel series in the comic. Nathan Fairbairn adds a buoyant primary color palette to make your smile even bigger, while Morrison and Stewart’s sense of humor is a little more sophisticated, with fourth wall-breaking quips and jokes about the multiverse. For example, one of the Sivanas is a dead ringer for Hannibal Lecter, and frighteningly enough, is the only one of the “team” to kill his universe’s Captain Marvel.
If you’re tired of Shazam in his main DC Comics series grimacing and glaring, and the edginess for edginess’ sake of many of the films based on DC Comics movies, Multiversity: Thunderworld is an excellent palette cleanser. There are traces of Pixar films, good episodes of Doctor Who, and Fantastic Four storylines in this comic – and remember that Captain Marvel predated these things by decades.
Multiversity: Thunderworld is proof that there can be good Shazam stories in the 2010s, and Grant Morrison piles enough heart, powerful punches, and wacky supervillain plots to make you grin from ear to ear like the Big Red Cheese (or the bumbling Uncle Marvel), believing in superhero stories and their power to incite the imagination once again.
In case you missed it, here’s Part One of our list!