A year before Superman met the actual Shazam, he met a strangely familiar version of Shazam named Captain Thunder, but who exactly was he?
One of DC’s first attempts at pitting Superman against Shazam actually involved a character named Captain Thunder, because DC wouldn’t let the heroes meet in battle. Captain Thunder first appeared in Superman #276 in a story titled “Make Way for Captain Thunder.” Written and drawn by comics legends Elliot S. Maggin, Curt Swan and Bob Oskner, the story was the “first” crossover between Shazam and Superman. The comic book world had been waiting decades for this crossover to happen, and not only did it not disappoint, it set the bar for all for future throwdowns between the two.
When Captain Thunder first appeared, DC had been publishing Shazam comics for over a year but had not crossed the character over with the mainstream DC Universe – something which would come later. DC licensed the character after original publisher, Fawcett Comics, folded in the mid-1950s. DC had sued Fawcett years earlier over Shazam being a copy of Superman, and the case contributed to Fawcett going under, making their decision to eventually license the character a puzzling one. Ever since DC began publishing Shazam, fans had clamored for the Big Red Cheese to tangle with the Man of Steel, and this issue gave it to them… sort of.
A young boy named Willie Fawcett finds himself on Earth One in the original DC Comics Multiverse. Immediately sensing something is wrong, Willie changes into his alias Captain Thunder. The problem is that when he transforms, he becomes evil. Despite the malevolent force controlling him, Captain Thunder is Shazam in just about every conceivable way. They have similar costumes (Thunder has a large sun on his chest whereas Shazam has the lighting bolt), similar origins, similar mentors, similar villains and similar power sources; Thunder also bears a strong physical resemblance to Shazam. Where Shazam’s name is an acronym of the classical Gods whose power he wields, Captain Thunder takes his name from the spirits Tornado, Hare, Uncas, Nature, Diamond, Eagle, and Ram. In fact, Willie even has a magic word like Billy Batson – rubbing his belt and saying “Thunder!” to bring on a transformation into his powerful adult form.
Captain Thunder’s presence draws the attention of Superman, who engages Captain Thunder in battle. Realizing they’re incredibly evenly matched, Superman actually triumphs by using his wits, tricking his enemy into saying “Thunder” while using his super speed to generate “lightning” out of static electricity. It’s a clever little story that pits Superman against someone exactly like Shazam, but with the cover making it clear that Captain Thunder is a deliberate stand-in and DC already owning Shazam, why not just include the real thing?
“Make Way for Captain Thunder” set the template for every Shazam and Superman crossover that would follow. Debate had raged in fan communities over who would win in such a fight, and now they were getting a front-row seat to it. But why use a stand-in rather than the actual Shazam? The writers have since revealed that they felt Shazam’s stories were so tonally different from Superman’s that it didn’t make sense to actually mix the two together. Billy Batson was a character first conceived in a different age, and “Make Way for Captain Thunder” underlines this fact by noting he looks twenty years out of date with the world around him. The publications were also pitched at different age ranges, so while DC wanted to give fans the clash they were asking for, they decided to give Superman a version of Shazam who made sense in his world. Ultimately, the gap between the pair lessened, and the two would have many run-ins over the years, and each time they fought each other to a standstill. Each conflict also highlights the differences between the two and reinforces the mutual respect between them.
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