Last time, we learned about the revival of the superhero genre of comics in the mid 1950s (the silver age of superhero comic books). We learned about the British rip-off of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, Marvelman (written by Mick Anglo and published by L. Miller & Son). We learned about how Fawcett’s copyright of Captain Marvel lapsed and was snatched up by Marvel Comics so they could introduce their own alien version of Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell). AND we learned that DC comics eventually bought the rights to Fawcett’s Captain Marvel and began publishing him again in a comic entitled SHAZAM! (in order to avoid legal battles with Marvel Comics who now owned the copyright to the name Captain Marvel.) And if you thought all of that was confusing… just you wait.
By the early 1970s, superhero comics were being handed off to a new, younger generation of writers and artists. With this shift of creative talent there came a shift in tone in the comics themselves. The end of the silver age of superhero comic books happened gradually as writers introduced more cynicism and world-weariness into the stories they wrote. Social justice and drug abuse were explored in the pages of Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Amazing Spider-Man. The rigid boundaries of the comics code authority were challenged and pushed. But the last nail in the coffin was when Spider-Man failed to save his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, from his arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin. “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” (Amazing Spider-Man #121, published June 1973) marks the definitive end of the silver age of superhero comics. Never before had a superhero failed to save his girlfriend. It was the end of an era, and the beginning of the bronze age of superhero comics.
It was during this shift in the comics world that writer and artist Jim Starlin began writing Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell) for Marvel Comics. During Starlin’s run, Captain Marvel gained a cult following among fans. Before this, he had never been a popular character, but Marvel Comics continued to publish his book in order to hold on to the copyright! Starlin’s most famous Captain Marvel stories set him against Thanos, the mad alien from Titan who was in love with Death and sought to destroy all life in the universe in order to impress her (yes, Death is embodied in a female cosmic entity and Thanos literally loves her).
In 1982 Jim Starlin wrote and drew “The Death of Captain Marvel”, Marvel Comic’s first graphic novel, published in the style of European “albums” or as we now know them, trade paperbacks. In this story, Mar-Vell finds out he has cancer and struggles with the reality of dying of a disease rather than on his feet as a warrior. Mar-Vell remains one of the few comic characters who has never been revived from death. Of course, Marvel Comics still needed to keep the copyright to Captain Marvel, so a string of other heroes quickly followed him, taking up the mantle.
The same year Marvel killed off Mar-Vell, the head of their division in Great Britain left Marvel to publish his own comics. Dez Skinn worked for Marvel from 1979-1980, republishing their books for the British market. In 1982, Skinn founded his own publishing company, Quality Communications, and launched a monthly anthology comic entitled “Warrior”. One of the features that Skinn wanted for this anthology was a relaunch of Marvelman. Marvelman had been out of print since 1963 and the publisher L. Miller & Son had folded. So Skinn purchased the rights from the official receiver in the court system. According to Skinn, he also went to the original writer of Marvelman, Mick Anglo for permission who told him to do as he liked. That’s exactly what Skinn did. Warrior #1 launched in March 1982 written by Alan Moore. Moore also wrote another feature for Warrior, entitled “V for Vendetta.”
Moore’s version of Marvelman was much darker and more adult than Anglo’s original run. The stories are graphic, violent and cerebral, exploring the real world implications of super-powered beings, to horrifying conclusions. These early stories by Moore set the stage for his deconstruction of the superhero genre when he wrote Watchmen for DC in 1986. (This was one of the major markers of the end of the bronze age and the beginning of the modern age of superhero comics.)
In 1984, Skinn’s company Quality Communications published a Marvelman Special #1 reprinting the original Marvelman stories from the 1950s. Marvel Comics accused them of trademark infringement since it had Marvel in the title. On top of this, Moore and Skinn had a falling out over financial issues. This led to Marvelman no longer appearing in Warrior after issue #21. When the comic was canceled after issue #26 due to poor sales, Skinn licensed Marvelman and many of the other characters from Warrior to an American comic publisher called Pacific Comics. Pacific went out of business a few months later, and a second American publisher, Eclipse Comics picked up the rights.
Eclipse began reprinting Marvelman in 1985, renamed Miracleman to avoid legal trouble with Marvel comics. After the reprints, Moore wrote ten more issues before leaving in 1988. British comic writer Neil Gaiman (who would go on to write Sandman and American Gods) took over from Moore and continued the series until Eclipse went bankrupt in 1994. Gaiman’s planned Miracleman run was cut off in mid-story, with a handful of issues written, but never published.
In 1994, Eclipse Comics’ assets were purchased by Todd MacFarlane (who is famous for his Spider-Man art in the 90s and for being one of the founders of Image Comics, where he published Spawn). The $50,000 he spent made him the sole owner of Miracleman, or so he thought. He introduced the character in his comic Hellspawn (of which Spawn is the star) and was promptly sued by Neil Gaiman who claimed he owned the rights to Miracleman, and that Eclipse never had. Moore went on record saying that he had given up his rights to the character to Gaiman when he left the book in 1988.
This legal battle went on until 2009 when Marvel Comics announced that they had purchased the rights from Mick Anglo, the original writer of Marvelman, who had apparently owned the rights all along. Moore accused Skinn of stealing them from Anglo and deceiving him into working on a comic they didn’t have the right to publish. Skinn reiterated that he had obtained Anglo’s blessing. Who knows what really happened. Marvel worked out a deal with both MacFarlane and Gaiman and began reprinting Miracleman. The plan was to reprint the entire run of Moore and Gaiman stories and then continue with Gaiman’s run as it had left off in 1988. The final reprint was published in January 2016 and Miracleman fans waited expectantly for the new stories from Gaiman. But they never came. The new issues were promised and solicited, but then the dates came and went and the solicitations were pushed back several times. As of summer 2017, the latest word is that they are coming, but not yet. Gaiman has stated on his facebook page that an unforeseen legal snag has presented itself, preventing new issues of Miracleman being published. Apparently Marvel is working to untangle the issues, but the truth is that the reprints didn’t sell as well as Marvel was hoping, so we’ll see if it ultimately is worth it for them to invest time and money into Miracleman.
In the meantime, DC’s Captain Marvel, the original, continued to be published under the title SHAZAM! This has led to much confusion over the years, as many people thought that Shazam! was the name of the superhero. Finally, in 2011, when DC relaunched their titles in the New 52, they bit the bullet and just renamed Captain Marvel, Shazam!
The next year, over at Marvel Comics, Carol Danvers, Ms. Marvel, took up the mantle of Captain Marvel (after five other characters since Mar-Vell had used the name). This decision, and the new series that resulted launched Marvel’s Captain Marvel to critical acclaim that it had never known before.
Movie producers have been trying to get a live-action Shazam! movie off the ground since the early 2000s. In 2014 Warner Brothers announced a Shazam! movie would be released as part of the DC Extended Universe. The movie will star Zachary Levi as Shazam! It is currently being filmed and is set to be released April 5, 2019.
Marvel Studies also announced their Captain Marvel film in 2014 as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It will focus on the Carol Danvers version of Captain Marvel and, as such, will be the first female-led movie in the MCU. The film stars Brie Larson as Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers. It is also currently filming and is set to be released March 8, 2019.
And there you have it, the long, complicated history of Captain Marvel and/or Shazam! It’s a tale that spans the entire history of comics, involves some of the most iconic characters and creators of the industry, as well as some of the most obscure. It involves legal battles, and copyrights, and some straight-up copying. But it also involves original and creative twists on the older concepts that have had huge impacts on the comics medium. If you go see the movies next year, I hope you think of this story and realize how many people worked hard and struggled for decades to make the movies a possibility. It truly is a tale of marvel.
God bless my friends!