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.

How Did Casper the Friendly Ghost Die?

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

The star of dozens of animated shorts and specials, hundreds of comics, and one big-screen feature (which spawned a couple of straight-to-video follow-ups), Casper the Friendly Ghost has enjoyed a great deal of spooky success since he debuted in 1945. An affable spirit, the seemingly pre-adolescent blob of ectoplasm only wants to make friends. Unfortunately, people are consistently wary of his ethereal qualities. In the earliest shorts, he preferred to hang out by himself near a tombstone.

Does the tombstone belong to him? By virtue of being a ghost, doesn’t that mean Casper was once a real, live boy who suffered a tragic fate at a young age?

The Ghost With No Name

When Casper was created back in 1940 by Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo, the question apparently didn’t come up. Reit and Oriolo planned to have Casper—who did not yet have a name—be the star of an illustrated children’s book, with Reit writing and Oriolo illustrating it. They never got the chance. The two, who worked at Fleischer Studios on animated shorts, were both drafted to serve in World War II. When they returned, Fleischer Studios had been purchased by Paramount, renamed Famous Studios, and wanted complete control over the intellectual property of work created by employees. The two sold Casper and other characters for a total of $200 to Paramount.

When Casper made his animated debut in the 1945 Famous Studios short “The Friendly Ghost,” he finally got a name, but no mention was made of his origins. The short references his “brothers and sisters” who enjoy scaring people but offers no other details of his private life.

A second short, 1948’s “There’s Good Boos To-Night,” shows Casper leaning on a tombstone while reading a book, with a “Love Thy Neighbor” sign hanging nearby. The ghosts in the cemetery are referred to as his “neighbors” and appear to rise from their respective resting places when it’s time to go haunting. This would imply Casper is relaxing at his own gravesite, though his name doesn’t appear on the tombstone. If so, it would support the idea he once occupied the land of the living.

As Casper moved into another medium, however, a case began to be made for his existence as something other than human. In 1949, St. John Publishing produced five Casper comics. In 1952, Harvey Comics took over the license. In an effort to expand Casper’s world, Harvey gave him a ghost family, including a mom and three uncles. None of them were named until 1955, when the uncles were dubbed Fatso, Fusso, and Lazo. What wasn’t clear, however, was whether Casper’s relatives were all deceased as well or whether the Casper mythology implies ghosts are simply "born" ghosts.

The Pneumonia Theory

When the Casper feature film starring Christina Ricci was released in 1995, producers apparently thought moviegoers would be confused by a lack of explanation, and so the Casper of that film was portrayed as a boy named Casper McFadden. He was said to have died of pneumonia at the age of 12 after staying out in cold weather for too long playing with a sled he had just received as a gift.

There is one alternative, and slightly darker, theory that was purportedly first floated by The Simpsons. In the 1991 episode “Three Men and a Comic Book,” Bart and Lisa speculate that Casper is the ghost of Richie Rich, another Harvey Comics icon. (The two bear a resemblance.) Lisa believes that his realization of “how hollow the pursuit of money really is” caused Richie to take his own life. Other observers have speculated that perhaps Richie’s parents killed their son for the insurance money.

This is, of course, virtually impossible, as Richie Rich wasn’t created until 1953, 13 years after Reit and Oriolo conceived of Casper.

So what is Casper—former boy or forever ghost? Given his comfort hanging around a tombstone and his pleasant nature preventing him from besmirching the grave of another, it seems likely he was once human. To date, only the 1995 feature has attempted to detail what led him to the afterlife. Considering Casper's appeal as a children's property, that's probably for the best.

The Far Side Is Officially Online—And New Art Is Coming

Courtesy of FarWorks
Courtesy of FarWorks

In September, a cryptic update to cartoonist Gary Larson’s The Far Side website hinted that something new might be in store for fans of the popular single-panel comic strip. This week, Larson and his syndicate, Andrews McMeel Universal, made it official. The irreverent cartoon, which originally ran from 1980 to 1995 and explored the perils of anthropomorphic cows and science run amok, will now be available online for the first time. But it won’t be strictly archival material: Larson plans to periodically revisit his bizarre world with new art.

In an open letter posted to the site, Larson explained that he was initially taken aback by fans using scanners and posting his work on the web without permission. According to Larson, part of his reluctance to share his catalog of work was due to the questionable resolution of older computer screens, which might miss some nuances of his artwork. With new displays making that concern obsolete, the artist decided to enable readers to enjoy the strip without having to go looking for illicit files.

In a interview with The New York Times, Larson also addressed his plans to supplement his collection with new panels, though readers shouldn’t expect anything resembling a schedule. “I’m not ‘back,’ at least in the sense I think you’re asking,” he said via email. “Returning to the world of deadlines isn’t exactly on my to-do list.”

Fresh artwork will likely be seen in 2020. But for the moment, The Far Side site will be home to a revolving library of content, from random daily posts to curated and themed collections. Larson will also post sketches and other ancillary material.

Larson is not the only iconic cartoonist to make a return. In 2014, Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame ended a near-20 year sabbatical from the comics pages to ghost-pencil cartoonist Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine. And in 2015, Berkeley Breathed resurrected his Bloom County for Facebook.

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