Carol Danvers is just one of many heroes to hold the Captain Marvel mantle for Marvel
Carol Danvers is just one of many heroes to hold the Captain Marvel mantle for Marvel
Marvel Entertainment

The Litigious History of DC and Marvel’s Rival Captain Marvel Characters

Carol Danvers is just one of many heroes to hold the Captain Marvel mantle for Marvel
Carol Danvers is just one of many heroes to hold the Captain Marvel mantle for Marvel
Marvel Entertainment

Behind-the-scenes struggles and legal wrangling have played just as big of a part in the history of comic books as the colorful battles on the pages themselves. And one of the most complex and long-lasting disputes in the industry has focused on Captain Marvel—or at least the two distinct versions of the character that have coexisted in a state of confusion at both Marvel and DC for decades.

Like many comic book tangles, this dispute was made possible because of the debut of Superman. Soon after his first appearance in 1938's Action Comics #1, there was a deluge of knockoffs from publishers looking for a piece of the Man of Steel pie. Though most of these were fly-by-night analogues, Fawcett Comics’s attempt at its own superhero wasn’t an inferior model—it quickly became real competition.

ENTER: THE BIG RED CHEESE

Fawcett’s Captain Marvel was created in late 1939 by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck and debuted in Whiz Comics #2. On his first cover, Captain Marvel is shown carelessly throwing a car against a brick wall, as two criminals bolt out of the windows. In Action Comics #1, Superman made his debut by hoisting a similar car over his head and driving it into the Earth, as the criminals inside fled.

The similarities were unmistakable: Here were two caped strongmen with heroic squints and circus tights leaping around cities and battling mad (and bald) scientists. But while Clark Kent got his powers from his Kryptonian physiology, Captain Marvel was, in reality, a young boy named Billy Batson who would receive his powers by shouting the magic word “SHAZAM!” If Superman was the straitlaced Boy Scout, Captain Marvel earned his moniker of "The Big Red Cheese" through sheer camp, a wink, and a nod.

Seniority mattered little to young comic book readers, and once Captain Marvel found his footing, he was outselling Superman at the newsstand and beating him to the screen by receiving his own live-action film serial in 1941. But as Captain Marvel reached larger audiences, DC was in the midst of legal action against Fawcett for copyright infringement. The claim was simple: Captain Marvel was a bit too close to Superman for DC's comfort.

DC wanted Fawcett to cease production of the serial and comics by the early 1940s, but Fawcett fought to delay a court battle for years. It wasn’t until 1948 that the case actually went to trial, with the dust finally settling in DC's favor in 1954. Legally, Fawcett would never be allowed to print another Captain Marvel book. By now, though, the superhero market was near extinction, so for Fawcett, it wasn’t even worth it to appeal again. Instead, the publisher closed shop, leaving Superman to soar the skies of Metropolis without any square-jawed competition on the newsstands.

MARVEL CLAIMS ITS NAME

The next decade would see a superhero revitalization, beginning with DC’s revamped takes on The Flash and Green Lantern in the late 1950s, and exploding just a few years later when Timely Comics changed its name to Marvel Comics and launched a roster of heavy-hitters like The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and The Hulk, all by 1962.

Marvel was a buzzword again, and in 1966, a short-lived company called M.F. Enterprises tried to capitalize with a new character named Captain Marvel—generally considered one of the worst superheroes ever put to paper.

Marvel now needed to stop inferior comics from using its name on their covers, so it obtained the trademark for the Captain Marvel name and went about protecting it by introducing yet another character named Captain Marvel. This new alien version of the hero made his debut shortly after in 1967's Marvel Super-Heroes #12.

The character was born purely for legal reasons. According to comic book veteran Roy Thomas, Stan Lee only created a Captain Marvel at publisher Martin Goodman's insistence: "All I know is the basis of the character came from a resentment over the use of the ‘Captain Marvel’ name."

Comics are nothing if not needlessly confusing at times, and by the early 1970s, Superman wasn’t quite the sales force he used to be. In need of some fresh blood, DC turned to an unlikely source for help: Fawcett. The company had reemerged in the late 1960s as the publisher of Dennis the Menace comics, but its hands were tied when the superhero business revived since it was legally forbidden from producing new Captain Marvel books. So they did the next best thing by agreeing to license the character and his supporting cast to DC in 1973.

CAPTAINS IN DISPUTE

Now the world’s two biggest publishers both had high-profile characters named Captain Marvel. But there was a catch: Since Marvel owned the rights to the name, DC couldn’t call its new Captain Marvel comic Captain Marvel. Instead, all of his comics went by the title Shazam, as did the character’s live-action TV revival in the mid-1970s. Oddly enough, the name of the character himself was still—wait for it—Captain Marvel. So DC could retain the character’s name in the stories but couldn’t slap it onto book covers or TV shows. Only Marvel could monetize the name Captain Marvel.

Right after Captain Marvel’s first DC book launched in 1973, there was an immediate hiccup. The full title of the series was the slightly antagonistic Shazam: The Original Captain Marvel. That lasted all of 14 issues before a cease and desist order from Marvel turned the series into Shazam: The World’s Mightiest Mortal. Marvel, on the other hand, found itself in the position to keep its trademark by continuously pumping out more books with Captain Marvel on the cover, which is why the company’s history is littered with reboots and new versions of the character turning up every two years or so.

By the 1990s, DC had outright purchased its Captain Marvel from Fawcett, but it could barely promote him. There are only so many times you can put Shazam on a comic cover but refer to him as Captain Marvel on the inside without confusing your readers. So in 2012, DC and writer Geoff Johns decided to end the decades of confusion and simply rename the character Shazam, because, as John said, “everybody thinks he's called Shazam already.”

In 2019, these two characters that are seemingly forever linked will have another shared milestone when they both make their big screen debuts. Marvel’s Captain Marvel will hit theaters on March 8, 2019, with Brie Larson playing the Carol Danvers version of the character. And after nearly 80 years of switching publishers, changing names, and lengthy legal battles, Zachary Levi will play the title role in Shazam! a month later on April 5.

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Carol Danvers is just one of many heroes to hold the Captain Marvel mantle for Marvel
Evening Standard/Getty Images
8 Actors Who've Played Batman (and What Fans Had to Say About Them)
Evening Standard/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Batman is one of the most beloved superheroes of all time, which has made playing him a difficult task for more than one actor. (Playing characters with rabid fan bases can be a double-edged sword.) Here, take a look back at eight actors who've donned the Batsuit—and how fans and critics reacted to their performances.

1. LEWIS WILSON

Lewis Wilson as Batman
Columbia Pictures

Lewis Wilson was the youngest person to play Batman. He appeared in the 15-part 1943 Columbia serial. Critics complained about everything from his weight to his accent.

2. ROBERT LOWERY

Robert Lowery took over the role in the 1949 follow-up serial, Batman And Robin. He was a forgettable actor in this role.

3. ADAM WEST

Adam West at 'Batman'
Evening Standard/Getty Images

West played the Caped Crusader from 1966 through 1968 in the Batman television series in addition to a film spin-off. Fans were torn: Either they loved his campy portrayal or hated it.

4. MICHAEL KEATON

Michael Keaton's casting in the 1989 Tim Burton Batman film caused such controversy that 50,000 protest letters were sent to Warner Brothers’s offices.

5. VAL KILMER

Val Kilmer in 'Batman Forever' (1995)
Warner BRos.

Val Kilmer put on the suit in 1995 and received mixed reviews. Director Joel Schumacher called the actor “childish and impossible."

6. GEORGE CLOONEY

It's safe to assume Clooney regrets his decision to star in Batman & Robin. It was the worst box-office performer of the modern Batman movies and Clooney once joked that he killed the series.

7. CHRISTIAN BALE


© TM & DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Though Christian Bale is largely favored as the best actor to play the Dark Knight, he was not without criticism. NPR’s David Edelstein described his husky voice as “a voice that's deeper and hammier than ever.”

8. BEN AFFLECK

Most recently: Fans immediately took to the internet to decry the decision to cast Ben Affleck as Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), recalling his previous roles in the poor-performing Gigli and Daredevil.

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Carol Danvers is just one of many heroes to hold the Captain Marvel mantle for Marvel
Creators Syndicate
8 Things You Might Not Know About B.C.
Creators Syndicate
Creators Syndicate

Debuting in 1958, cartoonist Johnny Hart’s B.C. took a humorous view of Stone Age life that pre-dated The Flintstones by two years. Although Hart passed away in 2007, the strip continues daily, with Hart’s grandson Mason Mastroianni currently at the drawing board. For more on the misadventures of Hart’s cavemen, check out some facts about the strip’s origins, its controversies, and how it changed the face of one California college.

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED SUCK EGG.

After getting encouragement from artist—and future collaborator on The Wizard of Id—Brant Parker in a high school art contest, Hart decided to become a freelance cartoonist. But after seeing Peanuts in print for the first time in the late 1950s, Hart realized that comic strips provided a sequential freedom that single-panel gag cartoons didn’t. Fond of caveman jokes, Hart began designing triangular-shaped characters who could juxtapose primal life with modern day observations. He decided to call it Suck Egg based on an egg joke in an early strip; recalling his wife, Bobby, talked him out of it, the strip was later titled B.C. after one of its lead characters.

2. HART HAD A JOKE-GENERATING STRATEGY.

For the anachronistic punchlines in B.C.—his cavemen had concerns over technology, romance, and religion—Hart enlisted two of his friends, Jack Caprio and Dick Boland, for joke-writing sessions. Hart liked to focus on one concept, like books or jobs, and then write down every word he could think of that was associated with the idea, hoping to turn one or more of them into puns. 

3. HE DREW VERY QUICKLY.

While some cartoonists can take a full day to pencil and ink a strip, Hart preferred to expedite the process. Although writing jokes could resemble a marathon, executing them in panels was a sprint. Aided in some measure by the stylized, spare style of B.C., Hart could draw a week’s worth of strips in a matter of hours.

4. THE CHARACTERS WERE PATTERNED AFTER HIS FRIENDS.

Trying to assign distinct personalities to the cast of B.C., Hart took his wife’s suggestion that he use his friends as inspiration. Working as an art director for GE at the time, Hart created Thor after co-worker Thornton Kinney; Clumsy Carp was the nickname of a childhood friend; the one-legged Wiley was modeled after his brother-in-law, who had lost his leg in World War II. Wiley was an avid athlete, so Hart made him captain of the (prehistoric) sports teams.

5. HART ENDORSED DR PEPPER.

In 1963 and 1964, Hart agreed to design some original characters to accompany print ads for the Dr Pepper soft drink. After drafting a caveman named Harmon—who could eat bottles and extract the caps—he used him as inspiration for the monosyllabic Grog in the B.C. strip. The campaign also involved a 1966 television commercial featuring an animated interlude.

6. SOME NEWSPAPERS DROPPED THE STRIP OVER ITS RELIGIOUS CONTENT.

In the 1980s, Hart experienced a religious conversion, embracing Christianity and using B.C. as a pulpit for expressing his faith. At times, he would use overt Christian symbolism that alienated readers who believed comic strips should be nondenominational. Several newspapers dropped the strip, including the Chicago Sun-Times. Others, like The Washington Post, opted not to run the Sunday installments, which focused more on theology. Following a 2001 strip that depicted a menorah transforming into a cross, some readers took it as Hart implying Christianity was superior to Judaism. In a press release, Hart apologized if the cartoon caused any offense.

7. IT WAS ADAPTED INTO ANIMATION.

Hart’s first involvement in animation, B.C.: The First Thanksgiving, aired on NBC in 1973: The characters go in search of a turkey without actually knowing what one looks like. Preceding Hart’s future focus on religion, B.C. was also adapted into an animated Christmas short for HBO, B.C.: A Special Christmas, in 1981.  

8. IT INSPIRED A COLLEGE SPORTS MASCOT.

Like Snoopy, the personable anteater of B.C. became an early breakout animal character that helped draw attention to the strip. It also inspired a movement at UC Irvine, which had settled on an anteater mascot in 1965 and proceeded to use Hart’s drawings (with Hart’s permission) as the basis for their graphic design. “Peter the Anteater” appears as bronze statues and personal accessories like key chains on campus.

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