Some Shazam backstory

Some Shazam backstory 150 150 Paul Levitz

In the early ‘70s, Superman was still the heart of DC’s publishing program, but his power was growing weaker every year.  His decline was steeper than the general, and that point slow, ebbing of the newsstand comics business in general, and there’s no research from the time to indicate which factors were most critical.  A few years earlier, the S-symbol was powerful enough that even LOIS LANE and JIMMY OLSEN were outselling anything in the Marvel line.  It’s possible that decreasing syndication of the ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN television series starring George Reeves was the dominant factor, with the Saturday morning SUPERMAN cartoon also ending its brief run.  Or maybe it was that the last years of Mort Weisinger’s incredibly successful run as Superman’s editor had run out of steam at last, or simply couldn’t change to capture the readership’s developing tastes that were giving Marvel momentum.

Regardless of the cause, it was the critical problem for DC’s publishing profitability.  Carmine Infantino had inherited the mantle of leadership, and began to influence factors that might help.  Neal Adams began doing covers for the super-titles, allegedly over Weisinger’s resistance, bringing a more dynamic visual style to them.  Art assignments were juggled, with Ross Andru promoted from the very strong selling METAL MEN (and the less well selling WONDER WOMAN) to join the Krypton chroniclers.  Nothing was working to reverse the trend, and with Weisinger retiring, Carmine had the responsibility of making a more radical change.

Julie Schwartz was promoted to be the primary Superman editor, although the titles were scattered among several of the DC staff.  Julie had played a critical role in the revitalization of super heroes as a genre in the ‘60s, and put together a team that would be very critically acclaimed in fandom: Denny O’Neil, Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson.    Shifts in the mythology found Clark working in television as a more modern aspirational occupation than newspaper reporting, and his alter ego relieved of his Kryptonite weakness, which Julie viewed as a story crutch.

Unfortunately, the applause from fandom didn’t translate into sales reversing the decline.  Superman was still a star property, but could no longer carry a handful of titles to the top of the charts.

The next bet Carmine made in the replace Superman’s slipping sales sweepstakes was to get a license for Captain Marvel, the only super hero who significantly outsold Superman at points in the Golden Age.  His publisher, Fawcett, had given up the comics business in the mid-50s when the whole field was shrinking, and had settled its long litigation with DC by agreeing not to publish the character any more.  Fawcett had concentrated on its magazine business, and in the years since been sold to CBS, and was rebranded as the CBS Magazine Group.  Since the Big Red Cheese couldn’t be published without DC’s consent (and it’s not clear that there would have been any other bidders, as the super hero category shrunk after the Batman craze faded), it wasn’t a tough deal to negotiate.  DC Business Manager Bernie Kashdan did a license with the publishing terms largely on their traditional basis, and off they went.  But uniquely, DC would also control all the licensing and media rights, sharing proceeds with CBS.

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight and unprovable insight, I’d argue the return of Captain Marvel suffered from three challenges: first, the name of the hero himself was unavailable as the trademark had lapsed and Marvel had wisely jumped in with their own Captain Marvel; second, editor Julie Schwartz arranged a really bad marriage for the creative team, putting Denny O’Neil (who favored serious melodrama) together with C.C. Beck, the hero’s original artist (and a determined proponent of the tongue-in-cheek humor that was the series’ trademark); and most seriously, misjudging that the audience had simply moved on from the innocence that appreciated the charm of the original, with its talking tiger and menacing worm mastermind.

Fan speculation fueled sales of the first issue (I recall buying a stack off the newsstand to ship over to Nick Landau, the British fan entrepreneur who would co-found Forbidden Planet and Titan Distributors), but wasn’t enough to sustain the series.  Beck was more and more frustrated, and a succession of talented creatives never found a great balance or tone.  Notwithstanding that, it would turn out to be an excellent arrangement for DC, with two television series launched and some attendant merchandising.

Flash forward to the next decade.  DC still hadn’t found a reliable creative direction for Shazam, but there were still lots of talented folks who wanted to try.  One barrier to establishing him successfully in comics seemed to be that original license.  It’s provisions hadn’t really imagined nesting him deeply in the DC universe of characters: it provided that the royalty rate would be pro-rated for a team-up like a BRAVE & BOLD appearance or the eventual SUPERMAN VS. SHAZAM tabloid, but had a ‘floor’ on the royalty rate that made it impractical to have him as a member of a group like the Justice League, or appearing in some massive mash-up (my memory isn’t clear on whether we were already thinking of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS yet).

By now I was managing the business side of DC, so after discussions with Jenette Kahn and Dick Giordano, off I went to solve this.  The most practical solution was to simply buy out CBS’ interest in the property: they weren’t going to ever go back into the comics business (in fact, they’d sell off their magazine division not long after), and while it was nice to get a modest royalty check every year, it seemed a do-able deal.  I negotiated with an only slightly older accountant for their magazine division, David Pecker.  David would go on to an illustrious career in magazine publishing, ending up running American Media, the publishers of NATIONAL INQUIRER, where his exploits would come to a controversial end.  He would also be a generous donor to Pace University, especially to its publishing program, where I’d coincidentally serve as the “David Pecker Distinguished Visiting Professor” for a year in the 21st century.  We worked out a buyout, and not only of Captain Marvel but of all of the remaining Fawcett comics assets, including stacks of comics that would find their way to the DC library.

The renewed efforts to make Shazam an integral part of the comics’ universe met with mixed results over the following decades, but with one film having scored a box office over $365 million, a second in production, and BLACK ADAM opening next weekend to great anticipation, I guess that deal worked out.  I don’t have access to the information (or, frankly, the analytic skill) to figure out the return on investment, but I think it’d beat any reasonable financial test.

  • “…Saturday morning SUPERMAN cartoon also ending its brief run. ” – 3 seasons of new episodes 1966-1969 (18-8-8) and a season of all repeats (1969-1970) is hardly a “brief run”!

    Hey, I’m spoiled…measured against SUPER FRIENDS?

    • I completely agree. I bristled at that as well. Many historians tend to downplay the importance of the Filmation cartoons in the success of keeping the characters alive. but in addition to keeping Superman on the air for three more years of adventures (and one of reruns), the shows then went into syndication as well, where they ran for another twenty years, worldwide. That’s hardly inconsequential.

  • One thing that I’ve always wondered about was the thought processes behind the ’70s Shazam TV show, with its’ “Mentor” character who was but wasn’t Uncle Marvel, personifications of the Seven Gods never seen before or since, and no Freddy or Mary.

    I wasn’t anywhere near that process, but I’d assume the encyclopedic Nelson Bridwell had been called on to provide reference on all the originals, and the Filmation crew and/or network execs just added their own “improvements.”

    • I always thought that Mentor was intended to be Shazam as the wizard never appeared in the series by name. Calling the Wizard, Mentor, allowed Billy to say his name without changing.

      • In the bible for the Shazam! series, and heavily implied in one episode, Mentor was the EARLIER version of Captain Marvel, and the powers had been passed on to Billy. To do a live-action show that represented the comics directly would have been impossible, both logistically (the effects didn’t exist yet), and logically (unless they wanted tot urn it into a Krofft show, talking worms, tigers, and caterpillars would have been ridiculous in live action). Additionally, the strictures against violence in children’s television meant that battles the super-villains or crooks were not allowed. So, Filmation did the best it could given the restrictions of the time and network, and created a show that still resonates today.

  • Very interesting detaols of a story I thought I was more familiar with. Thanks for sharing this info!

  • Hi, Paul– do you know if another artist or style was considered for the Captain Marvel book before reaching out to C.C. Beck to return to his creation, and if so, would you tell us more about it?

    • Don’t know, but that’s before I was in the halls as anything but a fan hanging around, so I probably wouldn’t have heard.

  • I thought I had a pretty good handle on Captain Marvel’s history but I had not heard of the sale to CBS before now. I’m sure that made the deal easier without any Fawcett holdovers and whatever resentments they might have still harbored. I’m sure it made the TV deals that much easier as well as it was basically “in house” for CBS.

  • Mike Tiefenbacher October 17, 2022 at 5:47 am

    For me, the puzzle in the acquisition of rights to all of the Fawcett characters had always been that it only became public knowledge when THE POWER OF SHAZAM in 1995 began to freely use the non-Marvel family characters. By that point, CBS hadn’t published anything for eight years, having been bought out by Diamandis Communications in a leveraged buy-out in 1987. David Pecker had been a CBS employee since 1979 and remained with Diamandis, which was bought out by Hachette in 1988, and he eventually became CEO of Hachette’s American division circa 1992. Because no non-Marvel family heroes appeared in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, it had to have happened after 1986, and knowing that Pecker was still in the accouting department and that the company was still called CBS Publications means that it couldn’t have occurred any later than 1987. So that narrows it down conderably. While the ancillary intellectual property has yet to yield much profit. it’s impossible to say it never will. It’s just too bad nobody knew that CBS also owned the Standard-Pines Comics heroes at the time, or they could have been thrown in as part of the deal for a song.

    • But other Fawcett superheroes appeared in JLA #135-137 in 1976, and later in the Shazam feature in WORLD’S FINEST, characters like Minute Man and Bulletman showed up — so somehow they were available for use before the buyout from CBS.

      I can only assume we used them under the Shazam license somehow, or no one paid attention.

  • I was production manager on RUDDER MAGAZINE in 1974-75, when Fawcett was sold to CBS. The only comics stuff they were doing was Swedish and Finnish editions of Walt Disney titles. I still have some of these, in Swedish.

  • Fawcett went back into comics in the late 1950s, when they bought Halden, the publisher of Dennis the Menace comics. They continued Dennis until they were bought out by CBS, which ended the line in 1980.

    Forgot that! Thanks, Steven.

  • I’ve always wondered exactly how things went from Fawcett to DC through the years. I really appreciate the insight! And yes, I’d say you made a fantastic deal for DC & fans alike!

  • HI Paul, when Warner purchased the Popular Library from CBS in 1982, did that also include all of the Standard Comics characters like Black Terror and Fighting Yank? If so, why did DC never used them? It appears that CBS did renew all the copyrights under their ownership. If DC did have access to these characters, would they still have them or have they moved on to Grand Central Publishing with the rest of Popular Library/WarnerBooks?

    The Fawcett Books deal had no relationship to the Fawcett comics deals, and I don’t think we knew that Fawcett had any interest in the Standard characters.

  • What was the story behind the appearance of Captain Thunder in Superman?

    I don’t recall in any detail…I think it was simply Elliot Maggin having fun?

    • The legend i am familiar with is that DC wanted to try put the idea od CM fighting Superman, so they created the pastiche character tas a test.

      Alter Ego magazine revealed that there was actually a plan for a “Captain Lightning” book, with a character that was essentially that Captain Thunder with a different name and slight tweaks to the origin. A first issue was in the works until the plan was scrapped during the “DC Implosion.”

      • I don’t think this is the case. I have no memory of anything like this ever being in actual works. Roy or Elliot or someone may have wanted it to happen, but it never would have made it past my desk.