Superman was the first multi-powered hero. A lot of the others which followed had one particular power: strength, speed, vision, the ability to fly. Supes had it all and National Periodical Publications, as DC was then known owned the copyright.
Fawcett publications wanted a piece of that action, so they had their people come up with Captain Marvel, the transformed version of a little boy whose powers included most of Superman's. The biggest differences would be the transformation from child to adult and the origin of his powers.
Superman had a quasi-scientific origin story - the last alien survivor of a doomed planet. Billy Batson, on the other hand, got his powers by saying a magic word - SHAZAM! - and taking on the abilities of a mixed pantheon of heroes: Solomon for wisdom, Hercules for strength, Atlas for stamina, Zeus for power, Achilles for courage, Mercury for speed. The change was accompanied by a flash of mystic lightning which signals Billy's metamorphosis into a fully grown adult with an adult, though somewhat naive, personality.
For a time, the Big Red Cheese, as he was sometimes known, was more popular than the Big Blue Boy scout. That led to lawsuits and DC shutting down the Fawcett operation. Decades later, DC bought out Fawcett and wanted to revive the character, but could not call the book that because Marvel comics had copyright control over the name, used my them to describe another alien ( called Mar-Vell) living on Earth who happened to trade atoms regularly with a teenage boy - stop me if this sounds familiar - by clanging two metal armbands together and causing a lightning bolt to appear.
So DC called the new book Shazam instead, even though they could still call the character Captain Marvel.
There have been several revivals of this book, some hearkening back to the tone of the 1930s and 40s, others painting a darker character more in line with the 90s. The Captain was always a bit more cartoonish than Superman originally, and some revivals reflected that, while others strove to be more realistic. The best of the latter breed was probably Jerry Ordway's graphic novel of about a decade ago.
Jeff Smith, who is best known as the creator of the award winning fantasy saga, Bone, has gone in the other direction, returning Billy and the Captain to the origin story created by Otto Binder and C.C. Beck.
In his notes at the end of the book, which originally appeared as a four issue mini-series of double sized issues, Smith says he started with the notion that the the story of the Captain was really like the story of Aladdin in a lot of ways, only in this case the boy sort of became the genie for a time.
Billy is an orphan who lives by his wits on the street and makes his home in an abandoned tenement building where he faces a lot of threats from low-life bullies. It is while escaping from some of them that he finds his way to a mysterious subway tunnel beneath the city and, boarding a marvelous train, is transported to a mystic cavern where the wizard Shazam gives him his magic word and triggers his first transformation.
This is a story about origins, about learning the limits of power, about finding family (for Billy has a sister he didn't know he had) and about learning how to battle evil effectively.
Evil comes, not in the form of some super powered bruiser, but in the more subtle form of Dr. Sivana, a wizened dwarf of a man who is nevertheless a genius. There is also a giant alien called Mr. Mind, but he turns out to be a bit of a surprise as well.
Smith gives us this story with a lot of humour, which has been notably absent from most comic books ever since Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created Watchmen back in the 1980s. While Smith's work is a fine piece of graphic art and cracking good story, it is also a comic book or, as we used to call 'em, a funny book.
This one of those rare graphic novels that can be enjoyed by kids of all ages. If you prefer a more realistic looking version of the Captain, he's been turning up in the Justice League of America and the Justice Society. The more cartoony version is also available in a version produced specifically for younger readers.