First Appearance Flashback: Black Adam

Superheroes have been around a long time, and most of the characters and genre conventions are pretty well established. But did every character always look and act the way we expect them to today? In this series, I’ll be looking at the first appearances of iconic superheroes to see what’s familiar, what’s fallen by the wayside, and what’s goofy as heck. Today: Black Adam!

The cover of Marvel Family #1, showing Shazam, an elderly wizard, pointing at Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel, Jr., Mary Marvel, and Uncle Marvel, who are lined up like soldiers. A caption box at the bottom reads "Mighty Marvel Family Joins Forces vs. Black Adam!" A large book leaning against Shazam's throne reads "In full color: Capt. Marvel, Capt. Marvel Jr., Mary Marvel, and Uncle Marvel."

Black Adam, like all of the Marvel Family, has a complicated history. I’ve written about it at length here, but the short version is that back in the 1940s, a publisher called Fawcett Comics introduced a character named Billy Batson, who could turn into the grown-up hero Captain Marvel by speaking the magic word “Shazam!” The character was a hit and soon outsold Superman, so of course DC promptly tried to sue Fawcett into the ground. While DC and Fawcett were busy in court (this took decades), Marvel Comics went ahead and grabbed the trademark “Captain Marvel.” So DC eventually emerged with the character of Billy Batson/Captain Marvel, but couldn’t use the name “Captain Marvel” as the title of his comics; Marvel owns the trademark “Captain Marvel” but it refers to different characters; and Fawcett, well, went out of business. DC finally gave up in 2011 and renamed their character Shazam, but he’ll be referred to as Captain Marvel throughout this post. It has nothing to do with Marvel Comics, Carol Danvers, or Brie Larson. Got all that? Good, now explain it to me.

Black Adam, the subject of today’s First Appearance Flashback, will be starring in his very own movie on October 21, where he’ll be played by the Rock. This is technically a spinoff of 2019’s Shazam!, although tonally very different, as Black Adam is by turns a villain and a tormented antihero. The movie’s been in the works in one way or another since about 2006, so I’m very interested to see what they’ve finally come up with. But what did this broody, complex, top-tier DC villain look like when he debuted in a Fawcett comic? Let’s take a look!

A splash panel from Marvel Family #1. Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel, Jr., and Mary Marvel fly towards Black Adam, who is standing on top of a mountain hurling rocks down at them. One bounces off of Captain Marvel's head. The panel says "THE MARVEL FAMILY" and "THE MIGHTY MARVELS JOIN FORCES" in huge letters, and a scroll at the bottom says "Capt. Marvel! Capt. Marvel Jr! Mary Marvel! Each of these names, alone, makes a great story! But now, all three Marvels combine in the greatest adventure of all, as the mighty Marvel family wages grim battle against the most frightful menace of the ages - Black Adam!"
BONK.

Black Adam first appeared in The Marvel Family #1 (1945), and was created by Otto Binder and C. C. Beck. Golden Age Captain Marvel comics are still beloved for Beck’s appealingly cartoony art, and looking at this page it’s not hard to see why. That rock bouncing off of Billy’s head! I’m charmed.

The story is narrated to us by Shazam, the mighty wizard who bequeathed his powers to Captain Marvel. He’s telling us the tale by carving it into the Rock of Eternity, the mystic mountain where he lives, so it’s weird that the story is, like, incredibly rambling. If I were carving words into solid rock, I’d want them to be as succinct as possible, you know?

First, Shazam explains how he first came to grant powers to Billy, a virtuous orphan/wunderkind radio newscaster:

Two panels from Marvel Family #1.

Panel 1: Shazam sits on his underground throne, looking at Billy.

Shazam: I am Shazam, an Egyptian wizard! I have summoned you, my boy, in order to pass along to you my powers! For my hours are numbered! Come closer!
Billy: Y-yes, sir!

Panel 2: Shazam points at Billy.

Shazam: Pronounce my name, Billy Batson!
Billy: Shazam!
If you’re thinking, “This must make things really complicated for Billy now that his codename is Shazam”…you’re right.

In the present day, Billy has heard about a mysterious object approaching from space, so he decides to discuss it with his friend, newsboy Freddy Freeman, who uses a crutch. This is a great opportunity for Shazam to exposit at length about how Freddy became Captain Marvel, Jr.:

Six panels from Marvel Family #1.

Panel 1: Billy stands before the ghostly Shazam, who is seated on his throne. Freddy lies unconscious between them.

Shazam: Yes, my son? Why do you summon me?
Billy: This boy, Freddy Freeman, is dying! Can you save him, sir?

Panel 2: Shazam stands.

Shazam: There is only one way! You, as Capt. Marvel, must pass along to him some of the powers I gave you. Speak my name, Billy!
Billy: Shazam!

Panel 3: Captain Marvel stands over Freddy, who is awake and propping himself up. Shazam is gone.

Shazam's Narration: I vanished as the magic lightning brought the World's Mightiest Mortal, and when the injured boy regained consciousness...

Freddy: Why, it...it's Capt. Marvel!

Panel 4: A bolt of lightning cracks against a dark sky, with a "BOOM!" sound effect.

Shazam's Narration: As the wondering boy murmured his hero's name, there was a blinding flash of lightning that changed him into Capt. Marvel Jr.!

Panel 5: Freddy stands, looking like a teenage Captain Marvel in a blue costume.

Captain Marvel, Jr.: I'm strong like you!
Captain Marvel: Henceforth, you too will fight the evil that exists on Earth!

Panel 6: Shazam carves the following words on the mountain: "And that was how Capt. Marvel Jr. the world's mightiest boy, came into being! But now, after saving Billy Batson from the car, Capt. Marvel Jr. is faced by a terrifying menace!
Fun fact: Freddy was Elvis Presley’s favorite comic book character and the reason he started wearing a cape. You can kind of see it, can’t you?

But back to the mysterious object! It’s Black Adam, of course, who arrives in Billy’s city and explains that he has returned to Earth after flying for 5000 years “from the farthest star, where I was banished by old Shazam!” He’s extremely straightforward about his plans:

Two panels from Marvel Family #1.

Panel 1: Adam stands in the middle of a city street while cars honk at him.

Adam: The world it certainly different today from what it was when last I knew it! But I will conquer and rule it!

Panel 2: A cop shakes his fist at Adam.

Cop: Hey, you! Get off the street! You're blocking traffic!
Adam’s expressions and body language are utterly delightful.

Black Adam mixes it up with Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel, Jr., but realizing that they are evenly matched, he hides himself in a crowd. He’s savvy enough, however, to spy on the heroes, watch them transform back into relatively helpless boys, and follow them into the abandoned subway tunnel where they go when they need to summon Shazam’s ghost (just go with it).

Finally we get the long-awaited origin of Black Adam, which is that 5000 years ago, Shazam granted powers to a man named Teth-Adam, who he thought was a good dude, but who turned out to be a megalomaniacal jerk. Disappointed, Shazam banished the newly renamed Black Adam to a distant star:

Three panels from Marvel Family #1.

Panel 1: Shazam appears before Black Adam, who is sitting on a throne. There's a pyramid in the distance.

Narration Box: But old Shazam appears angrily!
Shazam: You have turned evil, Mighty Adam! I change your name to Black Adam! You must be punished!
Adam: How can you punish me? Nothing can harm or destroy me!

Panel 2: Shazam points and Adam levitates, looking surprised.

Shazam: No, but I can banish you from the Earth! Go, Black Adam...to the farthest star in this universe!
Adam: Gasp!

Panel 3: Adam is shot into space toward the reader, with the planet Earth tiny in the distance.

Adam: I am being hurled through space, to the farthest star! But I will return some day, if it takes all eternity! I will return for revenge!
Very good hats on everyone in this comic.

Once the wizard’s ghost vanishes, Black Adam comes out of hiding and promptly gags the boys, preventing them from speaking the magic word that will give them their powers back. Killing them, he figures, will be sufficient revenge against Shazam.

Luckily, at this precise moment, Billy’s twin sister Mary gets a call from his boss, wondering where he is. Mary and loveable comic relief family friend “Uncle Dudley” go looking for Billy (and Freddy) and arrive at the abandoned subway tunnel just in time.

They speak the magic word and transform into: Mary Marvel and Uncle Marvel! Mary can turn into a Marvel just like Billy because that’s how twins work, apparently:

Six panels from Marvel Family #1.

Panel 1: Mary Marvel stands in the foreground in costume, while in the background, Uncle Marvel, also in costume, kicks his outer clothing away.

Narration Box: Mary Marvel and Uncle Marvel!

Panel 2: Shazam carves the following onto the mountain: "But before we go on let me tell you about the origin of Mary Marvel! One day Billy Batson received the thrilling news from a dying nurse, that he had a long-lost sister, Mary Batson!"

Panel 3: A man grabs Billy, muffling him with a gag. A second man holds on to Mary. Both children are struggling.

Shazam's Narration: Mary was later captured and held for ransom by crooks. Billy came to her rescue, but was nabbed also by the desperadoes!
Billy: Shaz-ugg!
Mary: Billy! Shout your magic word!

Panel 4: A closeup on Mary.

Mary (thinking): Billy can't! He's helpless and can't change to Capt. Marvel! But wait...maybe I can change too! After all, I'm Billy's sister, so maybe the magic power will work for me too! I'll try it...shazam!

Panel 5: A closeup of lightning with a "Boom" sound effect.

Shazam's Narration: Mary Batson said the magic word for the first time and instantly there was a blinding flash of lightning and Mary Marvel appeared!

Panel 6: Mary stands in costume.

Mary Marvel: It happened! I changed! I feel strong and powerful! Now I can tackle those thugs!
Another fun fact: Mary’s design was based on a young Judy Garland.

And Dudley…well, Dudley doesn’t have any powers, he just runs around in a Marvel costume. But he’s such a lovable old coot, no one has the heart to argue with him about it. This is actually great and more superhero franchises should have a character like this.

While Mary fights Adam, Dudley frees the boys, and a general free-for-all breaks out:

One panel from Marvel Family #1. Black Adam stands triumphantly in the center, hands on his hips. Mary Marvel is flying at him and punching him in the head. Captain Marvel, Jr. is punching him in the stomach. Captain Marvel is standing behind him, winding up like a baseball pitcher for a punch, and Uncle Marvel stands behind Captain Marvel, looking worried.

Adam: Keep it up all day if you like! I don't feel a thing!
Narration Box: But even the mighty Marvel family is unable to defeat Black Adam!
God, this panel is so good. Billy’s windup! The movement! I’m in love.

Meanwhile, Dudley summons Shazam and asks for help. Shazam tells him to get Black Adam to speak his name. Dudley easily tricks Black Adam into doing so, and he transforms into a mortal, who Billy promptly knocks out. Then he withers to a 5000-year-old skeleton and dies right in front of them and no one cares:

Five panels from Marvel Family #1.

Panel 1: Lightning flashes down at an alarmed Black Adam.

Adam: Ulps! No, I didn't mean to say that word! I was tricked! I take it back - gulp, too late!
Narration Box: The magic lightning blasts down!

Panel 2: Captain Marvel punches a transformed Teth-Adam in the face while Uncle Marvel watches.

Narration Box: And Black Adam changes to his other form of Teth-Adam!
Captain Marvel: Good work, Uncle! And now, before this blackguard can say the word again...
Teth-Adam: Shaz-uggg!

Panel 3: The Marvels and Shazam look down at Teth-Adam, who is now a withered corpse on the floor.

Captain Marvel: Look! He's turning into a withered old man!
Shazam: Yes, my children! You see, he is over 5000 years old! The moment he changed back to his mortal form of Teth-Adam, he aged! He will only be a skeleton in a moment! Black Adam is destroyed!

Panel 4: Shazam stands and addresses the Marvels.

Shazam: My deepest thanks! You have destroyed my most terrible mistake! I am glad I have left my powers in the hands of the great and good Marvel Family! Farewell!

Panel 5: Shazam carves this conclusion on the mountain: "And thus was Black Adam destroyed by the mighty Marvel family! But that is only one of their many great deeds! There are many more chapters of the Marvel family story to record on the Rock of Eternity, for their fight against all evil is waged tirelessly and unceasingly!"
Shazam. My dude. THAT WAS SO MUCH UNNECESSARY CARVING.

What in the heck.

Black Adam would be resurrected 32 years later, after the franchise had been purchased by DC. In the modern era, he has become one of DC’s most popular and complex villains, with a compellingly tragic backstory and motivations that can sometimes seem more reasonable than the supposed heroes’.

Absolutely none of that is on display here, in a story that takes about twice as many pages as necessary, and consists almost entirely of exposition that is being slowly carved into the side of a mountain for some reason. There is nothing in this comic that would make anyone think that this character would have his own feature film 77 years later. It has zero substance.

But friends, that’s art! Every panel is more charming than the last. I would gladly sit through dozens more of Shazam’s pointless meandering mountain-carving stories just to look at C. C. Beck’s delightful work. No wonder DC was threatened!
Black Adam does not look to be appearing in next year’s Shazam!: Fury of the Gods, so it’s anyone’s guess when we’ll see Billy vs. Adam, if ever. Even if it bears no resemblance to this comic, I’m excited for Black Adam, and interested to see where this odd little franchise goes next. Someday you’ll get to bounce a rock off of Billy’s head, Adam! Someday!

Catch previous First Appearance Flashbacks, including SupermanCaptain AmericaHarley QuinnArchie AndrewsWonder WomanHawkeyeSpider-ManBatmanThorDoctor Strange, and She-Hulk.

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