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Feature Article

Who The Hell Is Shazam?

Get to know Billy Batson, AKA Shazam.

If you're a more casual comic book fan, you've probably been hearing more about Shazam this year than you have in your entire life. That's OK--it's not your fault. The story of Shazam is a particularly weird part of superhero history, and a cautionary tale about how even Earth's Mightiest Mortals can be brought low by the dreaded red tape of bureaucracy.

Strap yourselves in, this one is kind of a doozy.

This first thing you need to understand: Shazam is actually nearly as old as Superman, making him one of the earliest superheroes to ever exist. But back in the 1940s, his name wasn't "Shazam," it was Captain Marvel. No, he had nothing to do with Marvel Comics, Carol Danvers, Mar-Vell, or any of the other more popular name associations you might have--this was way before any of those things even existed as we know them today.

Captain Marvel was published through a company called Fawcett that, for a time in the '40s, was one of the most popular and profitable comics publishers in the country. He even beat out Superman for a time in sales and fan recognition, something that competitor National (who would later go on to become DC) weren't exactly thrilled about. Later, after a series of complicated, on-again off-again legal battles that lasted through the early '50s, Fawcett agreed to stop publishing any and all Captain Marvel related comics. Years later, DC bought the licensing rights to Fawcett's characters and absorbed them into continuity. That's why Captain Marvel exists in the DC Universe today--and why, traditionally, he's from a place called Fawcett City.

The name change from Captain Marvel to Shazam unofficially started in the '60s and '70s when DC attempted to revive his solo book, but found themselves up against the newly formed Marvel Comics and all their copyrights. They named the book "Shazam!" but didn't actually change the character's name on the page. The official name change came in 2011 with the line wide continuity reboot of the DC Universe, the New 52. The name Captain Marvel was dropped completely, in theory to save everyone the headache of trying to specify which character and company they were talking about at any given moment.

Of course, old habits die hard, and some fans still use the name Captain Marvel. You may even run into some diehards who uses the nickname "Cap" (he predates Captain America by two years, after all) just to really keep everyone on their toes. Just pay attention to context clues. This one is probably never going to get easier.

But don't worry. Not every part of Shazam is legal battles or name confusion.

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The original story went like this: a young plucky orphan named Billy Batson was granted the fantastic ability by a wizard to speak a "word of power" and be struck by magical lightning. The process transformed him into an adult superhero named Captain Marvel. The word--"Shazam!"--was actually an acronym with each letter standing for one of Captain Marvel's abilities: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. When transformed into Captain Marvel, saying "Shazam!" reverts him back into normal Billy Batson, giving him a built in secret identity to play with.

The wizard -- named the Wizard Shazam, just to keep that confusion train rolling -- resides in a magical extra dimensional place called the Rock of Eternity. There, he's charged with keeping an eye on the imprisoned Seven Deadly Sins represented by giant monsters bound in place as statues by the wizard's magic. As Captain Marvel, Billy's job is to be the Wizard's champion and protect humanity from all sorts of corruption, from the influence of the Sins themselves to the megalomaniacal stylings of the evil Dr. Sivana.

Basically, he's Superman, but powered by magic rather than Kryptonian genetics and yellow sun radiation--which, coincidentally, was the basis for a lot of DC's old lawsuits against him. Also, just because the magic word physically transformed Billy into an adult, it didn't actually change him into a new person. This is not a Dr. Jekyll/Mister Hyde situation, it's literally a superhero version of Tom Hanks in Big. Billy's still a kid, even when he's got the body and powers of an entire pantheon of Greek heroes--though, of course, the wisdom of Solomon does make him considerably smarter than your average punk pre-teen.

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Billy's vintage popularity promptly spun off into new characters with similar powers in the '40s and '50s. Captain Marvel stories formed the first ever superhero family. Fawcett introduced characters like Captain Marvel Jr., Mary Marvel, Uncle Marvel, and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny (no, really), who received their own ensemble book called--you guessed it--The Marvel Family. They phased in and out of continuity for years after the DC license buyout, with some of the most absurd parts (sorry Uncle Marvel) disappearing entirely. Their influence, however, is still around.

Since the New 52 Shazam rebrand, a lot of Billy's history has been modified, but his powers remain the same. He's still an orphan, but has been given rougher edges and made part of the foster care system. The Marvel Family--now the Shazam Family--still exists, but is made up of Billy's foster siblings--and sadly, there are no anthropomorphic bunnies to be found. This is the version we're going to be seeing on the big screen with the upcoming Shazam! Movie, which made its debut at San Diego Comic-Con 2018.

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