I first encountered Captain Marvel through the all-too-short reprint of his origin in The Great Comic Book Heroes, as well as the chapters on Captain Marvel and the Fawcett heroes in All in Color for a Dime, both of which I purchased at the same time on with birthday money many, many years ago, and were both read that same day for the first of many, many times. Those original copies were lost long ago, but have since been replaced. These books made me look forward to DC's revival of Captain Marvel in Shazam! as well as the subsequent Saturday morning live-action show made by Filmation.
But neither of those really captured Captain Marvel in the way I read about him (save for the reprints of the Golden Age comics stories). The stories I had read about were whimsical, certainly, but not out and out childish, as DC's newer stories tended to become (there was one tale where Cap has to deal with an invasion of vegetables from outer space, which I believe was the same story that caused original Captain Marvel artist C.C. Beck to quit drawing the book in disgust). Oddly, it seemed that the new stories featuring Captain Marvel, Jr. and Mary Marvel were more fit to the characters than the Captain Marvel tales.
Over the past year or so, I had the opportunity to read most of the original stories, and they were a revelation to me. As much as I liked Billy and Cap before, that like had been filtered through a number of tales that weren't really “right” for him, especially the more recent ones that shoehorned him into the DC Universe, where I really feel he doesn't fit. Before Crisis on Infinite Earths, when DC had all the Fawcett characters on Earth-S, there were opportunities to have Cap meet up with characters from alternate Earths, but still maintain his own universe.
Let's face it... when you've got villains like Darkseid threatening the Earth, where does Mr. Mind fit in? As much as I liked Jerry Ordway's The Power of Shazam, it still suffered from being stuck in the DCU, and I really feel that Cap and his family belong on their own Earth with its own rules.
This is a complaint that many fans have had, so I don't believe I need to write much more about them. So, let's go on to a different topic for a bit: Are Cap and Billy the same person in different bodies, or are they two different people? And is this the case for Junior and Mary?
I have to take the approach that in the case of Billy Batson and Captain Marvel, they are two different people, although it's possible that Billy's morality has an effect on Captain Marvel. Billy's predecessor, Teth-Adam (better known as Black Adam), was chosen for the Shazam powers as an adult, and it's difficult to tell whether or not Teth-Adam and Black Adam were the same person, as it appears that once he transformed initially, he stayed as Black Adam all the time, as he let power go to his head.
Billy, on the other hand, was a child, maybe 12 or 13 at the oldest. Certainly, Cap could be just as naïve as Billy, making it seem as though that they're the same person... but then again, there were stories that made it more likely that they were different people. For example, there's a Christmas story in which Captain Marvel and Billy buy presents for each other. In another story, Billy whispers his magic word to summon a wraith-like version of Cap to help give him answers for a test in school. These and other stories make it almost seem as if the Cap/Billy relationship is similar to the later Captain Marvel/Rick Jones relationship, where Captain Marvel exists in another dimension of sorts until Billy uses his magic word, and changes places with Cap through the lightning bolt, putting Billy in the other dimension, with both personalities being aware of what happens to both. Or perhaps they're multiple personalities, with the proper personality being present when the bolt changes the body? There's arguments for that, as well – there was at least one story that had Billy in Cap's body, and Cap in Billy's body.
This seems also to be the case for Freddy Freeman and Captain Marvel, Jr. They were always treated as two different people, even though they looked exactly the same. My best example of this would be a tale in which Freddy and Junior were having a disagreement with each other, causing Freddy not to call on Junior. If they were the same person, just that Junior had no disability, why wouldn't Freddy choose to be Junior all the time, just doffing his outer clothing to go into action as Junior? Of course, there's that whole thing where his magic word was “Captain Marvel,” chosen to remind readers of the senior Cap, and that wouldn't be useable as a marketing ploy within the stories.
Oddly enough, it seems that Mary Batson and Mary Marvel are the same person from the stories I've read... this seems clearly established in the introductory story, in which Mary transforms for the first time and then is distracted from her situation by examining her costume and being amazed by her powers. There's no difference in personality, and even the few people who know of her secret treat them as the same person.
On a different matter, one can't help but point out that for someone who has the wisdom of Solomon, Captain Marvel could be a bit of a dolt at times. He could never see through Dr. Sivana's many disguises (even though the readers could, all the time) until Sivana laughs his distinctive “Heh-heh!” For that matter, Billy couldn't, either. The way I look at this is that wisdom is something one has to actually consciously use; Cap does come up with some amazing intellectual feats in the tales, but he usually has to think about it, rather than just instantly coming up with the solution.
There's been only a few takes on Captain Marvel that have really worked for me, but unfortunately neither lasted long. One that comes to mind is the Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil mini-series done by Jeff Smith of Bone fame; the more recent Billy Batson and the Power of Shazam was pretty good, as well. But both of those featured changes to Cap's reality from the original (in the former, Mary was presented almost immediately, and presented as being about six or seven).
DC doesn't seem to have any interest in presenting Captain Marvel as he was, except when it comes to reprints in their Archives series, and at least those reprints provide those who want to read real Captain Marvel tales the opportunity to do so. As with the new comics they're publishing, I can safely avoid the current books featuring whatever they're calling Captain Marvel these days. Maybe the 20-somethings or 30-somethings like the modern takes on the character, but for me, it's not Captain Marvel.
I invite your comments.