“The Taxonomy of Captain Marvel” by Matthew R. McClure, Ph. D


Will the real Captain Marvel please stand up?

No doubt most readers are at least somewhat familiar with the two Captain Marvels (by DC Comics and Marvel Comics), and the irony reaches an extreme level by having both of them as feature-length movies in the same year as Shazam! and Captain Marvel, respectively.


But let me back up a bit and tell a little about myself and why I was compelled to write this: I am a biologist with a specialization in taxonomy, i.e. the naming and classifying of species.  During my career I have named two species, re-named one, and un-named one, so I have seen my share of nomenclatural controversy.  As such, my taxonomy meter is red-lining with this Captain Marvel thing.

The naming and classifying of biological species follows strict sets of rules, and the rule book for animal species is The Code of Zoological Nomenclature (henceforth referred to as The Code).  Hypothetically, the entire taxonomic mess that is Captain Marvel is completely resolvable through the application of the rules spelled out in The Code, and it would go something like this:

The two most important principles in taxonomic naming are priority and availability.  The principle of priority is simple: the first scientific name given (after 1758) is the one that counts.  The principle of availability essentially means that once a species name is given (in this case “Captain Marvel”), it is occupied forever (Article 10.1 of The Code), meaning that the same name can never be used for another species, even if the first species was found to be invalid (Article 10.6).

The name Captain Marvel was first used by Fawcett Comics in 1939 and applied to the Captain Marvel/Billy Batson/Shazam! character created by C. C. Beck and Bill Parker.  For the purpose of this intellectual exercise, this “species name” is written as Captain Marvel Beck & Parker, 1939.

DC Comics sued Fawcett Comics because they considered Captain Marvel to be too similar to DC’s Superman and eventually won in 1953.  In taxonomy lingo, a synonymy is when one species has two names, which is a no-no.  In our analogy, winning the lawsuit essentially made Captain Marvel Beck & Parker, 1939 a junior synonym of Superman Seigel & Shuster, 1938 and thus would be rendered invalid as per Article 24 of The Code.  However, according to Article 10.6, the name Captain Marvel would still be occupied.

Despite this, Marvel Comics gained the trademark “Captain Marvel” in the late 1960s and applied to a completely different character (herein referred by the “species name” Captain Marvel Lee & Colan, 1967), so in essence the same “species name” was given to another “species”, violating the principle of availability in Article 10.6.  Had the rules of zoological nomenclature applied to comic book heroes, Marvel Comics wouldn’t have got away with it.

The plot thickens when the “invalid” original Captain Marvel (Captain Marvel Beck & Parker, 1939) became reinstated as valid when DC Comics obtained the rights to Fawcett’s original characters in the 1970s. In essence, Captain Marvel Beck & Parker, 1939 becomes a valid “species” once again.  (It is for contingencies such as this why the principle of availability is important.)

The result is a taxonomic blunder called homonymy, in which two different species have been given the same name. Captain Marvel Beck & Parker, 1939 (currently of DC Comics) is the senior homonym, and Captain Marvel Lee & Colan, 1967 (of Marvel Comics) is the junior homonym. The senior homonym is legitimate but the junior homonym is not, rendering Captain Marvel Lee & Colan, 1967 as an invalid “species name” (Articles 52 and 53).

Thus, if the rules of zoological taxonomy applied to this scenario, Marvel Comics would have to give their character another name.  According to Article 23.3.5, the best place to start is to look at other names given for the same character (synonyms) and choose the earliest synonym for Captain Marvel Lee & Colan, 1967, which is Captain Mar-Vell .

In the end of this hypothetical scenario, Captain Marvel Beck & Parker, 1939 remains valid, and Captain Marvel Lee & Colan, 1967 gets renamed to Captain Mar-Vell Lee & Colan, 1967 with Marvel Comics no longer using the name “Captain Marvel”.  In other words, DC Comics wins. – Matthew R. McClure, Ph. D

Dr. Matthew R. McClure is a professor of Biology at Lamar StateCollege-Orange (since 1994) and an amateur cartoonist.


International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature

Wikipedia: Captain Marvel (DC Comics) 

Wikipedia: Captain Marvel (Marvel Comics)