Today, we look at DC poking fun in a 1973 issue of Shazam! at the fact that it could no longer call Captain Marvel’s comic book series Captain Marvel because Marvel now had the trademark on that name.
In Meta-Messages, I explore the context behind (using reader danjack’s term) “meta-messages.” A meta-message is where a comic book creator comments on/references the work of another comic book/comic book creator (or sometimes even themselves) in their comic. Each time around, I’ll give you the context behind one such “meta-message.”
So first, let’s set the scene over why there was even a problem over the use of the name “Captain Marvel.” I’ve written about this many times over the years, but I’ll just regurgitate much of what I wrote about the subject back in 2019, when both the Shazam! movie AND the Captain Marvel movie were released into theaters.
Action Comics #1, which introduced the world to Superman, wasn’t just a hit, it was a sort of cultural phenomenon, with Superman appearing in his own nationally syndicated newspaper comic strip by September 1939 (which is sort of amusing, as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster only turned to comic books because they couldn’t sell Superman to any syndicates as a comic strip) and his own national radio program by February 1940. Clearly, with success like that comes many imitators and a number of comic book companies started up to try to compete with the publishers of Action Comics.
One of the first imitators was Wonderman, a creation of Will Eisner for Fox Publications’ Wonder Comics #1 in 1939. Detective Comics, Inc. sued Fox’s parent company, Bruns Publications, Inc. for copyright infringement and was victorious in Detective Comics, Inc. v. Bruns Publications, Inc. Fawcett Publications, Inc. was a successful magazine publisher that debuted a comic book division, dubbed Fawcett Comics. They launched their own Superman knock-off, Masterman, in Master Comics #1. Detective threatened to sue and Fawcett backed down. Then, in late 1939, Fawcett Comics debuted their soon-to-be flagship character, Captain Marvel, in Whiz Comics #2 and so the troubles began.
Oddly enough, despite Captain Marvel seeming fairly reminiscent of both Wonderman and Master Man, Detective Comics. Inc. (by this point, they had also created a new company just to handle their Superman-related products, dubbed Superman, Inc.) did not sue Fawcett right away. All of 1940 and most of 1941 passed without incident. But after a Captain Marvel film was made, the company sued Fawcett Publications, Inc. and Republic Studios for copyright infringement in September of 1941. The companies went back and forth in court trying to prove whether Captain Marvel was similar enough to Superman to infringe on his copyright. In 1950, the court ruled in favor of Fawcett, but only on a procedural issue (some of the Superman comic strips were accidentally released without copyright notices on them, thus the court ruled that National had abandoned its copyright). Even while ruling in favor of Fawcett, the court noted that it believed that Fawcett had infringed on National’s copyright, it just believed that National had abandoned that copyright, so it didn’t matter.
In 1951, National appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where Judge Learned Hand, one of the most famous judges in American history (who had only recently been appointed to the Court of Appeals. He had actually presided over the aforementioned Detective v. Burns case years earlier), overturned the initial ruling and found that only the copyright on those individual mislabeled comic strips had been abandoned, not the general Superman copyright. Hand, too, found that Fawcett had infringed on National’s copyright and sent the case back down to the lower courts to determine how much they had infringed.
Sales on Fawcett’s comic book line had dropped considerably in the late 1940s/early 1950s, so rather than continue to fight the issue in court, Fawcett agreed to cease publication of its comic book line (the magazine line continued well into the 1980s) and paid National $400,000 in damages. Fawcett’s last issue of Captain Marvel Adventures came out in 1953.
Marvel then introduced its own Captain Marvel in 1968 and quickly trademarked the name.
Thus, when DC cut a deal with Fawcett to license Captain Marvel into comics again in 1973, the company couldn’t use the name Captain Marvel as the title of the series, so instead, DC named the comic Shazam! (DC still included a sub-heading mentioning Captain Marvel. They kept that up for a year before Marvel reminded them that that wasn’t allowed, either, so DC changed the sub-heading to Earth’s Mightiest Mortal).
Okay, so that takes us to Shazam #7 and a story written by E. Nelson Bridwell and drawn by Captain Marvel’s original artist, C.C. Beck (I recently wrote about how much Beck hated the scripts he was given on the Shazam! series, but this was one of the notable exceptions to his disdain. He thought that this one was quite clever).
Two criminals move into the same boarding house that Billy Batson lives in and one of them tells the other one he doesn’t want to hear the name “Captain Marvel” anymore because he feels they are cursed because Captain Marvel broke up their gang. The lady who runs the boarding house hears them and thinks that the one criminal just collapsed due to saying the name…
She tells her husband, and he doesn’t believe her until he accidentally sees Freddy Freeman say HIS magical word that turns him into Captain Marvel Jr., which is “Captain Marvel” (and yes, everybody knows how silly that is as a magic word. If I haven’t written about it before, I’ll do so in the future) and Freddy disappears!
So now he’s a firm believer and he tells EVERYONE and the game of Telephone makes it much more serious in every retelling…
Amazingly, even Doctor Sivana believes in this rumor and he is freaking out in prison, afraid of saying Captain Marvel’s name in his sleep.
In the end, the crook accidentally says “Capped in Marvelous silver” and that sounded enough like Captain Marvel that Captain Marvel, listening to hear SOMEone say his name, was alerted to the illegal sale taking place…
A very clever riff on DC not being able to use the name Captain Marvel. Bridwell could be a really clever guy.
If anyone else has a suggestion for a future Meta-Messages, drop me a line at [email protected]
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