Once upon a time, there was a plucky boy reporter for WHIZ radio named Billy Batson. Led by a mysterious dark figure down the abandoned subway tunnel at Slumm Street and Ninth, past grotesques of the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man, to a mysterious cave where the ancient Egyption wizard Shazam awaited him. Sitting on his throne, beneath a stone block hung by a thread, the wizard tells Billy to speak his name and be transformed into Captain Marvel, the world’s mightiest mortal! From 1940 until 1953, hundreds of thousands of children enjoyed the wonderfully ridiculous adventures of the "Big Red Cheese", Captain Marvel. A pulp writer of no particular distinction named Otto Binder hit his stride. As Binder took over the writing, things got weirder and weirder. Captain Marvel already had an arch-nemesis, the cackling, bald-pated mad scientist Dr. Sivana (whose appearance was based on a pharmacist in chief artist C.C. Beck‘s neighborhood), a romantic interest (Sivana’s daughter, Beautia, a Betty Grable lookalike) and a similarly superpowered sister, Mary Marvel (who Beck apparently decided to transform into Judy Garland). Binder took things further. Tawky Tawny, the celebrated talking tiger, appeared as a major character; the sports-coated feline was a good friend of Billy’s. Black Adam, Captain Marvel’s evil counterpart, was the first person given the gift of Shazam, but went evil, as if his name didn’t suggest it. (Billy’s invocation of Shazam’s name gave him the wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus, courage of Achilles, and speed of Mercury; Black Adam relied on distinctly dodgier notables like Shu and Zehoti.) An epic, two-year storyline (in 25 parts!) led Captain Marvel against the sinister Mister Mind, who was in the end revealed to be a superintelligent talking worm. (I can only assume that Stanley Kiesel remembered this when he wrote one of my favorite childhood books.) Beck modelled him on My Three Sons star Fred MacMurray. Although Beck came to have mixed feelings about his most recognized character and denigrated his contributions to the character, the clean, cartoonish feel he mastered made the book instantly recognizable. Captain Marvel’s wholesome yet bizarre world was immensely popular, and that led to the downfall that Sivana could never cause. DC Comics, publisher of Action Comics and holder of the Superman copyright, went after Fawcett in court. A judge agreed that Captain Marvel was a derivitive of Superman (although nothing like some of the Captain Marvel clones that later hit the market). DC failed to lock down the superhero comic market, although the company would later team with Marvel to copyright the word, but the great superhero explosion of the 1960s was still more than a decade off. Fawcett was bleeding money and exited the superhero comics business; DC was waiting in the wings to buy the rights to the character. (A Wonderful Life-esque moment of inattention lost the name to Marvel Comics, who used it for a series of forgettable characters.) But although there was a 1941 Republic serial and a 1975 children’s television series (and, more recently, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid screenwriter William Goldman took a crack at a script), the greatest contribution Captain Marvel made to the world of comics wasn’t the character at all. British writer Alan Moore reimagined a British knockoff of the book from his childhood, Marvelman. Moore’s work, sold in the United States as Miracleman, was a brilliant piece of dying optimism and weary nostalgia. Moore later gave stewardship of the comic book (and the rights) to Sandman author Neil Gaiman, no slouch himself. The publisher went out of business, however, and the rights to the character have (of course) been tied up in nasty legal arguments ever since. Moore would go on to create, with artist Dave Gibbons, The Watchmen, a breathtakingly intricate and clever reimagining of the superhero myth that’s still worth arguing over twenty years later. Moore had to invent his characters, who were clearly based on Charlton Comics‘ lineup of second-tier characters. DC, having again acquired the rights, decided that depicting the characters as homosexuals, psychotics, and existentialist deniers of free will was a bad move, so Moore made art out of whole cloth. Charlton went out of business in 1983; they had bought out the remnants of Fawcett in 1954. But the characters live on, the golden age of the superhero comic is finally receiving a wave of critical attention and praise, and as Dr. Sivana knew, Captain Marvel can’t ever be defeated.