The Weird Comic Book History Of Shazam And Why DC Was Right To Make The Movies Comedies

Shazam rules. He may not be as popular as Superman or as gritty as Batman, but he’s genuinely one of the funniest and weirdest superheroes in DC Comics. If you’ve never read any of Shazam’s solo stories, his catalog might seem a little daunting. The Shazam comic books publishing history has been tied up in lawsuits, and for most of his existence, he went by the name Captain Marvel. 

Don’t let that deter you; this superhero with the world’s most memorable catchphrase offers readers of all ages a lot of fun while harking back to the weirdness of the Golden Age of comic books. Shazam has a talking tiger in a leisure suit for a sidekick, a super-powered rabbit at his side, and an archenemy that’s a mind-controlling worm from Venus. There’s no better hero for a super-powered film that's a real comedy instead of a brooding drama.

The 2019 live-action film Shazam! takes a hilarious approach to the character that perfectly fits Shazam's history and his DC Comics persona. The 2023 follow-up, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, follows the same comedic path.

  • SHAZAM Is Actually An Acronym

    SHAZAM Is Actually An Acronym
    Photo: DC Comics

    Shazam isn't simply a collection of letters thrown together to sound cool; it's an acronym for the Greek gods and heroes from whom Billy Batson draws his influence. The letters stand for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. He has the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, the strength of Hercules, the wisdom of Solomon, the stamina of Atlas, and the speed of Mercury.

    Unfortunately for Shazam, the Old Gods have passed in the DC universe, which means Shazam has to find new mystical beings who have the acronymic properties of his original benefactors. These new gods are S’ivaa, H’ronmeer, Anapel, Zonuz, Yuga Khan, Ate, and Mamaragan.

  • Shazam's Alter Ego Is 12-Year-Old Billy Batson

    Shazam's Alter Ego Is 12-Year-Old Billy Batson
    Photo: DC Comics

    Superman has Clark Kent, Batman has Bruce Wayne, and Shazam has 12-year-old Billy Batson. While Billy's backstory changes slightly from decade to decade, in general, he's an orphan who finds his way to a wizard named Vlarem and convinces the wizard he's pure of heart. 

    Vlarem grants Billy the ability to turn into a mythic superhero when he says the word "Shazam." When that word slips through his lips, the 12-year-old is struck by a bolt of lightning and turns into a muscular, adult superhero. 

    Elliot Maggin, a writer for the 1970s Shazam series, said of the duality, "I was always careful to present the Captain and Billy as two different people. But really, the Captain was an adult with the sensibilities of an 8-year-old."

  • Shazam Is The Original Captain Marvel

    Shazam Is The Original Captain Marvel
    Photo: DC Comics

    The words "Captain Marvel" are two of the most contentious in comic book history. The character we now know as Shazam got his start as Captain Marvel in Fawcett Comics at the end of 1939. Until 1954, Captain Marvel was their biggest character, appearing in Whiz Comics

    At the time, Captain Marvel was huge, and DC Comics sued Fawcett in 1941 because they felt Captain Marvel was too similar to Superman. After years of back and forth, DC won in 1954, and Captain Marvel disappeared. In the interim, Marvel Comics created their own Captain Marvel; when DC brought the original Captain Marvel rights in 1972, they had the litigation tables turns on them.

    Though the character was still called Captain Marvel, the title of the book became Shazam! - generating even more confusion. But in 2012, as part of DC's continuity reboot, they officially changed the name of the hero to Shazam as well. 

  • There Was A 'Shazam' Spinoff About A Magical Bunny Named 'Hoppy'

    Hoppy the Marvel Bunny is a magic rabbit who dates back to the days of Fawcett Comics and the original Captain Marvel. Rather than being a straight-up sidekick, Hoppy got his start as a fan of the Captain who lives in a world of anthropomorphized animals. One day, he says the word "Shazam" and turns into a super-powered rabbit whose powers come from the animal-related gods Salamander, Hogules, Antlers, Zebreus, Abalone, and Monkury. He even has his own Black Adam-type villain. 

    Hoppy disappeared around 1953 when Billy Batson and his crew were being sued out of existence, but in 2018, Hoppy returned to the Shazam universe in an accident where he was hit with a little of Batson's lightning, turning him into a super-powered rabbit. 

  • Shazam Is One Of The Most Powerful Characters In The DC Universe

    Shazam Is One Of The Most Powerful Characters In The DC Universe
    Photo: DC Comics

    There's an ongoing debate among DC Comics fans about who's more powerful, Superman or Shazam. If you're not familiar with Shazam, this might sound ridiculous, but he has the powers of gods at his disposal, which means he can't be stopped by natural means. 

    Shazam has been smashed, scattered by in a nuclear detonation, and gone toe-to-toe with Superman. The previous version of Shazam, Vlarem, lived for thousands of years and didn't pass out of existence until he met Billy Batson, which means Shazam can stick around for as long as he wants.

  • One Of His Supporting Characters Is A Talking Tiger

    One Of His Supporting Characters Is A Talking Tiger
    Photo: DC Comics

    Shazam doesn't fight evil alone; he has a group of super pals who work with him. Perhaps the wildest character is Tawky Tawny, a humanoid tiger who wears a tweed suit, can fly an airplane, and likes to drink martinis. He's similar to James Bond - if he were a tiger and dressed like golfer John Daly. 

    Tawky Tawny was eventually phased out of Shazam! stories, but he's been reintegrated into newer comics, specifically Convergence: Shazam, in which he helps his old friends defeat Mr. Mind and the Monster Society of Evil as they attempt to wipe out Victorian Gotham. 

    Illustrator Jeff Smith spoke to Newsarama about his love for Tawky Tawny and how he plays into the underlying mythology of the comics

    I knew Tawky Tawny would be a hard sell to today’s readers because, in the 1940s, he was really just a cartoon funny animal. He was Tony the Tiger walking around with a suit and a hat and a cane. But that didn’t matter back then... and people just enjoyed him...

    I love the idea of a talking animal working with Captain Marvel. He gets his powers from Greek gods and ancient heroes, all of whom go back to ancient myths and Aesop’s fables.