Gomer Pyle used it as an exclamation of excitement and today many know it as the name of an app that identifies music you encounter. But the word “Shazam” originated in comic books as the source of power for Billy Batson, the hero originally called Captain Marvel and now more recently simply called Shazam. Not only is it magical, it’s also an acronym!
In late 1939, C.C. Beck and Bill Parker introduced Billy Batson in the pages of Whiz Comics #2. Billy Batson is an orphaned boy who is led onto a magical, futuristic-looking subway train that takes him to the lair of a wizard named Shazam. The ancient wizard says that Billy will be his champion and will wield great power. Billy simply has to shout “SHAZAM” and he will become the adult hero Captain Marvel, gifted with: the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. The names of these patrons make up the magical acronym.
Originally, Captain Marvel was going to be called Captain Thunder. Some reports have said that the name was changed because Captain Thunder was thought to be too scary for kids, but more likely it is because another character named Captain Thunder had recently appeared in comics and they decided just to avoid any legal troubles or brand confusion. Billy’s adventures as Captain Marvel were a hit, leading to spin-off characters such as Captain Marvel Jr. (who inspired Elvis Presley’s lightning logo and Las Vegas costumes) and Mary Marvel. When Mary Marvel shouted “Shazam,” she called on other people for her superhero qualities.
Likewise, there was the renegade champion of Shazam who was originally called Mighty Adam but then earned the name Black Adam for his dark deeds. When Black Adam’s story was revised in the 1990s, it was said that he called on yet another group of beings for power when he shouted Shazam. In his case, the acronym stands for: Shu (stamina), Hershef (strength), Amon (power), Zehuti (Thoth) (wisdom), Anpu (speed), and Menthu (courage).
Now, just to clarify one last point. Billy Batson is a different character than any of the people of Marvel Comics who have used the name Captain Marvel. When Billy came out, there was no company called Marvel Comics. The company was called Timely Comics and one of their book series was entitled Marvel Comics (later Marvel Mystery Comics). Timely became Atlas in the 1950s. Then in the 1960s it became Marvel Comics, by which point Billy Batson and his family of characters were no longer being published. The name “Captain Marvel” was up for grabs so Marvel Comics created their own character Mar-Vell who adopted that name. After his death in the 1980s, he was followed by various other heroes who took on the name, the latest being Carol Danvers who gets her own Captain Marvel movie in just a couple of years.
Meanwhile, DC Comics got the rights to Billy Batson and the Shazam characters and wanted to publish new stuff with them. So they called the new comics Shazam or The Power of Shazam, but the interior stories still referred to Billy’s superhero self as Captain Marvel. But after a while, they decided to just simplify things. So in 2006, Billy stepped down as a superhero and Captain Marvel Jr. took on the mantle of champion, deciding to call himself Shazam instead of “the new Captain Marvel.” In 2011, DC Comics rebooted its continuity. In Billy Batson’s new origin, he always just calls himself Shazam once he assumes the role of champion and the ancient wizard dies.
It all would’ve been a lot simpler if they’d just called him Captain Thunder.