How did Shazam become the ‘family’ superhero?

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Cover of Captain Marvel Adventures #18, Fawcett Comics, DC Comics (1942).

Shazam!: Origins, DC Comics (2019)

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DC Films’ latest flick, Shazam!, doesn’t just introduce Billy Batson and his superheroic alter ego to a wide audience. It also makes room for members of the Captain Marvel Family, a set of characters with a long, long history in comics — all the way back to 1941.

For more on all the ways Shazam! pays homage to the Shazam Family past and present, read on, but beware …

[Ed. note: This post will contain spoilers for Shazam!.]

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Billy/Shazam and Freddy Freeman.

Steve Wilkie/Warner Bros. Entertainment

The Marvel Family

Shazam got his first real sidekick in 1941, with the creation of Captain Marvel, Jr. In that era there were two significantly different things about Shazam: For one, his name was Captain Marvel. For another, Captain Marvel and Billy Batson were two different people who swapped places, not Billy and Billy-in-a-grown-up-body.

Captain Marvel, Jr. was a teenage boy named Freddy Freeman — just like the Freddy Freeman of the movie Shazam! — who was severely injured by the diabolical foe of Captain Marvel, Captain Nazi. The Wizard who gave Billy his powers explained that if he really wanted to save Freddy, he could share a portion of Captain Marvel’s power with him. From then on, whenever Freddy said “Captain Marvel” he would transform into Captain Marvel, Jr. — but as Freddy, he never fully recovered from his injury and always walked with a crutch.

Cover of Captain Marvel Adventures #18, Fawcett Comics, DC Comics (1942).

Mary Marvel debuts in Captain Marvel Adventures #18.

C.C. Beck/DC Comics

A year later, long-time Captain Marvel writer Otto Binder and artists Marc Swayze and Mac Raboy introduced Billy’s long-lost sister, Mary Bromfield, who bore a striking resemblance to Judy Garland. By saying “Shazam,” she could become the mighty Mary Marvel.

And though Billy and Freddy scoffed at the notion that the wise wizard Shazam would give his powers to a girl — as you could imagine that young boys on the schoolyard might scoff at girls who read Captain Marvel comics — the wizard set them straight. Mary had all the same powers as them, afforded to her by a different set of six female goddesses and mythological figures, so shut up, boys, and let her play.

After the roles of “Captain Marvel, but younger,” and “Captain Marvel, but a girl” had been filled, the Marvel Family gained some strange — but beloved — additions.

Uncle Dudley, aka Uncle Marvel, was Billy and Mary’s uncle, drawn and written essentially as a W.C. Fields character. Uncle Dudley didn’t have any powers, he just shouted “Shazam” when everybody else did and whipped off his clothing to reveal the Captain Marvel costume he wore underneath. The Marvel Family let him stick around because they liked him and didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

Last but not least, there was Tawky Tawny, a gentlemanly anthropomorphic tiger who wore suits and wanted to learn how to be a part of human society — he’s why you’ll see so many references to tigers in Shazam!.

The Shazam’s modern family are quite a bit different — but they still pay homage to the character’s history.

Shazam!: Origins, DC Comics (2019)

Eugene, Darla, Pedro, Mary, and Freddy transform for the first time in Shazam!: Origins.

Geoff Johns, Gary Frank/DC Comics

The Shazam Family

The version of the Marvel/Shazam Family we see in Shazam! is taken directly from Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Shazam! backup stories in 2011’s Justice League comic, recently collected as Shazam!: Origins. Their retelling of Billy Batson’s origin story was built on a lot of Captain Marvel history — but also on an alternate universe version of the Shazam family from the Johns-written Flashpoint event, which closed the book on DC Comics’ Post-Crisis continuity and paved the way for the New 52.

In the newest Shazam stories at DC Comics, Billy doesn’t adventure alone: He shares his power with his five foster siblings, just like in Shazam! the movie. Mary and Freddy are based on the classic characters of Mary Bromfield and Freddy Freeman, while Pedro, Eugene and Darla are more recent creations.

They’re a Shazam family, but just don’t ask them to tell you what their superhero names are, because if they say Shazam out loud they’ll turn back into kids. I’m not joking. This is a real problem for the group, which Johns and Dale Eaglesham are exploring in their current Shazam! ongoing series.

But whether the Captain Marvel family is six foster siblings or a big brother, a little brother, a sister, and a talking tiger, one thing remains true: The real power of Shazam has always been when Billy Batson shares his gifts with the people he cares about.

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