A crowd of happily conversing cinema fans exited from the Binderbeck Theater on a Tuesday evening, and among the group that stopped for a moment to linger beneath the brightly illuminated marquee sign was a dark-haired, bright-eyed young man in a red and yellow shirt. He smiled boyishly as he glanced over one shoulder at the posters on the movie house walls.
“That was a swell picture!” he said. “Mr. Morris sure had a great idea in reopening this old theater and turning it into a place where folks could see all those films that came out years ago! Some people weren’t born when they came out, while some of us were trapped in that Suspendium trap of old Sivana’s and missed a lot!”
A pretty and demure strawberry blonde girl in a pink sweater and short skirt took his arm and smiled affectionately. “Billy, Mr. Morris is my neighbor and your close friend and employer, but he’s also a smart businessman! Revival houses are a gold mine for people who love old movies or who suffered through our own situation!”
Billy nodded at Cissie Sommerly and said, “Either way, I liked that film. Rex Harrison made a good Dr. Doolittle! It’s still seems funny to see actors like that as older men, when I remember them best as younger newcomers back before we all lost those years!”
The young man was referring to the fact that he and many of his closest friends, as well as ordinary citizens from around the nation, had been trapped in 1953 within a substance called Suspendium. This amazing invention of the brilliant and deadly Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana had literally put crowds of people into a sleep-like trance from which they had only been freed two decades later, in 1973. (*) Thus, Billy and many, many others had been robbed of the events and experiences that occurred while they dozed during much of the ’50s and all of the ’60s, as well as the early ’70s.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The World’s Wickedest Plan,” Shazam#1 (February, 1973).]
Shaking his head sadly for a moment, his expression then took on a firmer resolve full of youthful idealism and hope. “Holy moley! It’s a good thing folks like the Phantom Eagle, Radar, Shiva, and Master Man kept law and order while so many heroes were trapped, or who knows if there would even have been a world for all of us trapped folks to return to? The Marvel Family and all those other heroes owe those fellows a real debt of thanks!”
Billy Batson spoke with a conviction and wisdom beyond his years, but he could draw upon more amazing experiences than people far older could ever claim for their own. He had seen many bizarre and delightful things during his life since, as both Amalgamated Broadcasting’s star news reporter for Station WHIZ and as the alter ego of the super-powered hero Captain Marvel, he had truly traveled through space and time again and again.
Perhaps the most remarkable journey the young man had ever made was the one that occurred in 1940, when he ventured into a strangely changing subway tunnel to encounter an ancient champion of all things noble and good. This powerful wizard Shazam had welcomed the startled boy and informed him that he had been selected to gain access to the powers and talents of the elders whose names formed the wizard’s own acronymic name. From that fabled moment onward, merely by saying the name Shazam, young Billy would be able to transform into the mighty adult hero Captain Marvel and gain wisdom, strength, stamina, power, courage, and speed beyond mortal understanding.
Now, in the present, he turned to glance at Cissie, who was hiding a smile behind one delicate hand.
“Ulp! Gosh, listen to me go on!” he said. “I guess, like most guys in radio or TV, I was vaccinated with a phonograph needle!”
“My boy, a gift for the gab is not to be frowned upon!” said a portly old man with a balding head and a beaming smile.
“Uncle Dudley! What brings you out tonight?” said Billy. “I know you like to watch Latmock, that TV lawyer show on TV.”
Uncle Dudley placed both thumbs within the lapels of his plaid jacket and said, “Indeed, I do, indeed I do! However, tonight I was paying duty to the sacred obligations of brotherhood and friendship! In short, I was visiting the esteemed Mr. Tawny!”
“Mr. Tawny?” said Billy. “He’s OK, isn’t he?”
Uncle Dudley placed one plump hand on the young man’s arm and said, “Not to worry, Billy. He is as fit as the proverbial striped and furred fiddle. Uh, that made no sense at all, did it? Well, as I was saying, he was a bit lonely, so I thought I’d pass the evening with him.”
Billy nodded and said, “We should have thought of that! He could have joined us!”
Cissie pouted slightly as she envisioned yet another obstacle spoiling her plans for a romantic evening with the somewhat bashful Billy. She gestured at the posters and said, “I don’t know if he’d like the film! A man who talks to animals might seem a bit dull to a real talking tiger!”
Billy laughed and said, “You have a point there! I’ll be sure to drop in on him tomorrow after work! I think he is off from the museum on Wednesdays!”
However, even the best-laid plans of Billy Batson could sometimes go wrong, and a busy day at work prevented Billy from making his visit to the talking tiger. He hurried out of his office at Station WHIZ as his sunny blonde secretary, Joan Jameson, bobbed her head back and forth to a tune only she could hear.
“Got to rush, Joan! I’m due at Kirby Prison!” he said as he passed the loyal woman. “They’re holding an execution, and I’m supposed to be there.”
“Say, that’s right! Tonight they send Slayer Smith to the chair!” she said.
“Actually, his name is Slaughter Slade, but you’ve got the right crook in mind,” said Billy. “He caused a riot at the prison, and some guards were hurt. In fact, he killed another inmate!”
“He’s been in jail ever since Captain Marvel stopped him from kidnapping FDR back in 1940!” said Joan. (*) She knew all about Billy’s secret connection to Captain Marvel, but she maintained the conversational fiction that Billy and the Captain were not related in any way. She was used to Billy’s habit of speaking about his heroic associate as a separate being.
[(*) Editor’s note: See 1st story, Special Edition Comics #1 (1940).]
Billy nodded and said, “Well, he did break out briefly back in ’44 or so. I feel sorry for the old guy, but he is as cold-hearted as Captain Nazi. I guess things worked out for the best!”
As he disappeared down the hall, Billy glanced left and right, then said, “Shazam!”
Instantly, a flash of magical lightning transformed Billy into the tall, muscular, red-and-gold-costumed form of the world’s mightiest mortal, Captain Marvel. So sudden was the change and so blinding was the lightning that no observer would have been able to determine exactly what had occurred. He flew out of the stately building with the speed of Mercury and soared over the city until he reached the prison.
There’s Warden Cleaver! I guess he hates these things as much as I do! he thought as he spotted the elderly prison warden strolling slowly in the yard of the large complex. He looked as somber as any man would at such an occasion.
Captain Marvel landed just in front of the old man in the dark suit.
“Ah, Captain Marvel,” said the warden. “You are here for the passing. I suppose we had best get this over with posthaste! Since Slade’s last request was that you witness his end, we could not fail to at least ask you.”
They entered the prison and walked down halls lined with uniformed guards, including one rather exceptional peacekeeper. A blue-coated police officer stood before the end of the hall, gazing grimly at the pair. He was strong and handsome, with long blond hair and rippling muscles… and the lower body of a horse.
Officer Dion was a centaur, and the mythical hybrid of man and equine had made rapid progress in his career as a police officer following the encouragement of Captain Marvel when that hero had helped the centaur and several of his equally unique friends find work suitable for their curious abilities and natures. (*) He saluted the warden and said, “They are ready. The prisoner is inside.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “There Goes the Neighborhood,” World’s Finest Comics #260 (December, 1979-January, 1980).]
Warden Cleaver nodded and said, “Come along, Cap!”
Captain Marvel frowned and swallowed hard as he saw a sobering sight. The electric chair was ready, and within the binding constraints sat a brutally handsome, even dignified old man with a heavy head of white hair and still obvious vitality and raw power. However, it was not the old killer’s strong body that made Captain Marvel frown. It was Slaughter Slade’s eyes and their palpable look of menace, intellect, and contempt that caught his attention.
He looks as evil as he did back in the ’40s! thought Captain Marvel. Even though I only battled him twice, he was a real threat. He was stronger than any normal man, even if he was not in my league, but he was as ruthless and brilliant as any scientist or schemer I’d ever met. He had a keen mind like Dr. Sivana’s, but he also liked to use his fists. I guess that is what made him the deadliest boxer in the ring in his day. I kind of hoped he might have mellowed since I last saw him. I should have known that any old man who could hurt as many people as he did in his attempt to escape from prison a few months ago would not express any regrets!
Slaughter Slade smiled coldly and said, “Warden Cleaver, I am a patient man, but I have a restless mind and a body that thrives on action. With this in mind, kindly conclude this affair!” He spoke with the same unforgettable diction that had been only one of the many nuances that marked him as one apart from the common run of men. There was no hint of emotion in his voice. He spoke with crystal clarity but without any warmth, malice, humor, or hatred. He was cold, clinical, and detached, and his words came in a weird pace marked by long pauses at totally random places.
“So be it,” said the warden. “You’ve spoken to the priest. You’ve refused to make any final statement. So be it! Surely you do have something to say to Captain Marvel, since he came here at your personal request.”
Slaughter Slade, the killer who had murdered strong men with his bare knuckles, the genius who had transferred the wisdom of global minds into the body of a huge gorilla, and the schemer who had once tried to conquer America through sheer violent daring, looked directly at the hero and said, “In fact, I do have something to say to the great Captain Marvel!”
Captain Marvel leaned forward and waited. He would not speak until Slade finished in his odd and nerve-wracking manner.
“I… will… return!” said Slaughter Slade.
Captain Marvel stepped forward, only to wait and then step back again as the final actions were taken, and the lethal current surged into the killer. He gasped as the current flashed before his eyes in very visible shades of fiery green.
Moments later, the chair was empty. No body could be found. No warmth, no smell, no trace of the condemned man could be detected.
“Holy moley! He’s gone!” muttered Captain Marvel.
Indeed, Slaughter Slade was gone. He had vanished from his place of execution and now looked remarkably well and unsurprised by the fact. He stood within a dark and misty void beyond dimensions, and he raised one eyebrow as he spotted four shadowy figures.
“You were punctual,” he said. “You kept your word. I am impressed. I would not have expected to have found so much as a grain of honor or truth among the lot of you. However, you do need me.”
A suave man in Renaissance finery said, “You attribute the fact that we acted upon our previously extended offer and saved you from death to the fact that there is something in it for us, eh? You have studied my philosophy as described by Machiavelli within The Prince!”
Slade smiled coldly and said, “Yes, I read the work. It amused me during my childhood.”
Cesare Borgia frowned as the three more burly figures with him laughed harshly.
“He is not afraid to show his true opinion of you! I like that!” said a handsome man with an aristocratic manner who wore a toga with odd hob-nailed sandals.
“Caligula likes you! That is a frightening thought! said a warrior of Mongol stock who had a large head with only a few hairs in his chin in place of a more traditional beard.
“Yes, Attila,” replied Slaughter Slade. “I recall his affections took many strange paths, and that is why I will merely ask why you have brought me here. I have work to do!”
Attila the Hun eyed him with a hungry look and said, “We learned of you through your experiments with magic. We think you are worthy of our favor. We used our magical fire to whisk you from your prison, and now, in exchange for that boon, we want you to serve us!”
“I knew as much,” said Slade. “I merely expected freedom and power without these tedious preliminaries!”
The fourth shadowy figure stepped forward and scowled in disgust as he addressed the cocky Slade. “You presume much when you speak to the tsar in such a manner!” he bellowed.
“Ivan the Terrible, who now finds himself reduced to sharing a lifeless void with three other former tyrants,” said Slade. “Is this all your once-great Oprichnina has been reduced to?”
“You mock my domain?” cried Ivan. “You are foolish or brave! Either way, I do not like you!”
“And yet we may use him!” said Caligula. “He already shows more wit and courage and spirit than our doltish Ibac!”
“When you contacted me in the prison and promised to free me, I knew it was due to the fact that I offered you something your last pawn could never deliver!” said Slade. “I promised to destroy Captain Marvel for you, and I will do so!”
“So be it!” said Attila. “As our green fire once transformed Stanley Printwhistle into the mighty Ibac, so shall it now grant you great power! Speak the acronymic name that comes from our own names!”
“Ibac!” said Slade. Green fire washed over him without illuminating the darkness of the void, and he was transformed. He stood before the evil foursome in a dark suit, and his body was now as young and strong as it had been forty years before.
“He does not look as Ibac did!” said Attila.
“Ibac’s gruesome visage came from within the nightmares of Printwhistle’s mind,” said Slade. “I have no need for such a brutish form, since I would not wish to be anything else than myself!”
“He is handsome and strong,” said Caligula. “He is smart and cunning. He will do more for us than the savage Ibac ever did!”
“That is my plan,” said Slade. “I will destroy Captain Marvel, and I will do it by hurting him more than he has ever been wounded before!”
“You will crush his bones and feed upon his flesh!” said Attila.
“I do not share your cannibalistic nature,” said Slade. “I also have loftier aims than to merely humble Marvel physically. No, I will use the power to hurt him where he is most vulnerable.”
Borgia smiled and said, “You will strike at him through his idealism! Where the old Ibac would merely smash him, you will eviscerate him!”
Slaughter Slade nodded and said, “I will use the green fire to destroy the hero, and in doing so, I will avenge myself upon him.”
Laughter echoed within the void, and Slade vanished in a puff of green flame.