In 1940 Billy Batson, or Captain Marvel, "The Big Red Cheese," first appeared in all his hammy glory in Fawcett Comics' Whiz Comics #2, creating a future collectible gem. The Fred MacMurray look-alike, Billy Batson's alter ego, immediately caught the comics-reading public's fancy, resulting in a newsstand success that at times even outsold Superman.
A few years later, in Whiz Comics #25, Fawcett decided to expand on that success by introducing Freddy Freeman, the pathetically emaciated newsstand proprietor who was none other than Captain Marvel Jr.! Freddy, too, was a success, thanks in part to the dramatic figurative draftsmanship of comics legend Mac (Flash Gordon) Raboy.
The Big Red Cheese gets a sister: That same year, the Marvel lightning would strike yet again with Mary Marvel, created by Otto Binder, the Fawcett workhorse who wrote a staggering fifty-seven per cent of the entire Marvel Family output. Mary debuted in Captain Marvel Adventures # 18 (December, 1942). The next month she would begin her long run in Wow Comics, finally gaining her own title, Mary Marvel in December 1945. Like her brother, the new heroine wore a red outfit with a white cape and yellow boots. Her origin, like Billy's and Freddy's, was a strange one, even for comic books.
Separated and orphaned shortly at birth, Billy and Mary Batson are twins. The woman responsible for their parting, nurse Sarah Primm, substitutes Mary for the dead infant daughter of a wealthy couple, the Bromfields, but on an impulse leaves one half of a locket with each infant. Years later, Mary Bromfield appears on a Radio W.H.I.Z. program hosted by Billy, who spots the locket. Billy and Freddy Freeman follow Mary in their guises as Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel Junior. Foiling an attempt to kidnap her, the boys revert to their mortal identities in Mary's presence, telling her who she really is.
The family reunion is cut short when one of the kidnappers revives and gags both boys before they can yell out the magic word. "Shazam!" Mary shouts in desperation and then is transformed into a super-powered woman who foils the crooks ("It happened! I changed! I feel strong! Powerful! My! What a lovely costume!")
Later the wizard Shazam explains to the three youngsters that Mary is getting her powers from the female gods: grace from Selena, strength from Hippolyta, skill from Ariadne, fleetness from Zephyrus, beauty from Aurora, and wisdom from Minerva (go to the head of the class if you've heard of even half these goddesses).
Mary Batson Bromfield, or Mary Marvel, was something of an unliberated woman (unlike Sheena or Wonder Woman) even for those times. Poor Mary never had even the hint of a romance, despite the fact that girls and women were buying great quantities of romance comics. Binder didn't seem to have a flair for fictitious females, although his brother Jack, who handled a great deal of the art for Mary Marvel's exploits, portrayed her with more flair than his other artistic attempts (Jack Binder's primary skill seems to have been organizational, perfecting the techniques of comics production necessary to keep a comics company running).
In Wow Comics #18, Binder introduced yet another member of the Marvel family, "Uncle" Dudley, a loveable old fraud who claimed to be related to Mary and who possessed no super powers. The Marvel family adopted him as their mascot and helped him maintain his transparent hoax --a super hero suffering from "Shazambago."
Mary would help battle the entire pantheon of Captain Marvel villains, from Black Adam and Dr. Sivana, to Ibac, King Kull and Sivana's evil sister. She would appear in Wow Comics for a total of 58 issues and in her own title from December 1945 to 1948, for 28 issues; collectibles which range in value from $17 to $1750. And, aside from guest appearances other Fawcett titles, she would regularly star in another comics collectible,The Marvel Family, which ran for 93 issues, debuting in December 1945 and ending nine years and one month later.
From time to time Mary and the rest of the Marvels have appeared in DC Comics series, brought back in 1972 with the explanation that they, and the Sivana family, had been trapped in a "suspendium sphere." Mary only made occasional appearances in Shazam! comics from 1973 to 1978 but figured more prominently in another Marvel series in the mid-nineties, The Power of Shazam!, written by Jerry Ordway, with pencils by Peter Krause and inks by Mike Manley.
Unfortunately, like previous attempts,
the newer series lacked the charm of the Golden Age Marvel titles, especially
those written by Otto Binder and illustrated by the illustrious C.C.
Beck. It seems that the old Fawcett Marvel magic, like Shazam, is hard
to recapture, but I certainly hope comics creators never stop trying. After
all, they may get it right some day!