As we all know, Shazam is really Bally Batson, the young orphan boy who is pure of heart and worthy of the power of six mythological champions. But Billy isn’t the only mortal who was able to tap into the power of Shazam. There were a number of other Shazam family members, but today we are going to focus our attention on the most badass recipient of the ol’ Shazam magic, Black Adam. Black Adam is truly the most complex (and violent) character to spring from the Shazam mythos and has been the center of some of DC’s best tales of the past 20 years. Black Adam has become one of DC’s greatest anti-heroes, a godlike being of profound honor and with an immense capacity for violence.
The strange thing about Black Adam is that until recently, he had only a handful of appearances to his name. He was an afterthought until the 1990s, but he has developed into one of DC’s greatest. Dwayne Johnson has been attached to play Black Adam in an upcoming DCEU movie for several years now, and with Shazam! now in theaters, it’s only a matter of time before we finally see him on the big screen. December 16, 2021 to be exact.
The Early Days
Black Adam first appeared in 1945 and was created by Otto Binder and the creator of all things Shazam C. C. Beck. In his first story, Adam was established as an ancient pharaoh and the first mortal to be granted the powers of Shazam. Although, with Adam, the acronym stands for something a little different, with a more Egyptian theme: Shu (stamina), Hershef (strength), Amon (power), Zehuti (wisdom), Anpu (speed), and Menthu (courage). Teth-Adam (which means Mighty Human) is corrupted by the Shazam powers, and after cutting a swath of destruction across Ancient Egypt, Adam is exiled into space by the Wizard.
Adam returns in the modern age to find that the Shazam powers had been gifted to Billy, Freddy, and Mary, and a true epic of the Golden Age follows as Black Adam is finally tricked into saying the Shazam magic word and reverts back to Teth-Adam. Sadly for ol’ Teth, he is now five thousand years old and instantly turns to dust. Yikes.
Oddly, for such an important villain, this was Black Adam’s only Golden Age appearance. I guess none of the Fawcett writers could think of a way to un-dust Adam so he was a true one hit wonder. When DC Comics revived Shazam in the 1970s, Black Adam returned thanks to Dr. Sivana’s Reincarnation Machine (why not) and became part of the DC Universe proper. He’d return again in the late 1980s as part of the short lived Shazam: A New Beginning era of the characters, but it wasn’t until 1994 that Black Adam would realize his true poential.
The modern Black Adam made his debut in Jerry Ordway’s The Power of Shazam which establishes that Teth-Adam was one of the greatest warriors serving Pharaoh Rameses II, catching the eye of the Wizard who grants him powers. Adam serves as Egypt’s guardian for centuries until he is corrupted by a demonic entity known as Blaze. Blaze is kinda like Marvel’s Hela and Marvel’s Mephisto combined. The Wizard strips Adam of his power after the whole “seduced by a demonic succubus” thing and places the Black Adam power in a scarab (as one does).
The big takeaway here, other than the fact Ordway’s Shazam was beyond awesome, is that the writer/artist established Black Adam as a once noble soul. Black Adam was Egypt’s greatest champion (sorry, Hawkman), and until he was corrupted by Blaze, Adam was the model of heroism in the early days of the DCU. The tale of Black Adam is almost biblical in scope as he rises a champion and falls a corrupted soul that murders the family of a boy destined to be a hero.
A True Anti-Hero
The time of Black Adam as dark protector, homicidal king, and complex anti-hero would truly begin under writers Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer and artist Marcos Martin in the pages of JSA. Adam joins with the JSA villain Johnny Sorrow (if Sorrow looks at you, you die, it’s intense) and almost defeats the JSA until Black Adam’s original, Teth-Adam nature reasserts itself. He helps the JSA defeat Sorrow and a repentant Adam asks to join the world’s first super team.
With Black Adam aboard in the JSA, this is where things get truly awesome. As leader of his own nation, Black Adam shows that he is all about the harsh biblical justice of old. This story retcons a few elements from The Power of Shazam, moving the place of Adam’s origin from Egypt to the fictional North African nation of Kahndaq. In addition, the writers tie the character to Hawkman as Adam served side by side with Prince Khufu, the first incarnation of Hawkman.
They also tweak Adam’s origin, losing the “corrupted by Blaze” elements and replacing it with conquering of Kahndaq by Ahk-ton and the immortal Vandal Savage. During the sacking of Kahndaq, Adam’s family is murdered. Driven by vengeance and the good of his people, Black Adam returns to Kahndaq and gets all sorts of Old Testament on the invaders. This level of violence shocks the Wizard, who strips Black Adam of his powers and murders him. That’s some dark stuff. This change of origin stripped Black Adam of his true villainous roots and made him more akin to Magneto or Namor: a leader who will go to any lengths to protect his people.
Billy tries to befriend Black Adam during this period, sympathizing with his longtime enemy. It doesn’t go well. Things get tense between Adam and the JSA due to Adam’s great weakness: his ego. When Kahndaq is under attack, the JSA comes to the nation’s aid, but Black Adam tells his people that it is the JSA who is the threat because he cannot admit he needs the help of other heroes to protect his homeland. Adam and the Justice Society also come into conflict because Adam believes the heroes should simply kill the villains they face and be done with it to prevent future threats. Yes kids, Black Adam is basically Frank Castle with the powers of six gods. Adam does forge enduring friendships within the JSA particularly with JSA member Atom Smasher. Atom Smasher lost his mother to supervillain violence and agrees with Adam’s views on killing.
While Billy Batson has long had his own family, in the classic series 52 (2006) by Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, and Keith Giffen, Black Adam gains a family of his own. But like many parts of the Black Adam story, boy, does it end tragically.
52 introduces Adrianna Tomaz, a beautiful slave who is offered to Black Adam, the ruler of Kahndaq, by a group of criminals known as Intergang. Black Adam doesn’t take kindly to slavery and violently murders the gang. He falls in love with Tomaz and even shares his powers, transforming her into the hero known as Isis (a nod to Saturday mornings of yore as the character Isis used to share a live action programming block with Shazam back in the 1970s). Eventually, the lovers find Tomaz’s brother Amon dying from injuries suffered from a horrific beating. Black Adam shares his powers with the young boy who becomes Kid Osiris. This all sounds great until Kid Osiris is eaten by a talking, bipedal crocodile. Later, Isis is also killed, telling Adam in her dying breath that she was wrong for trying to soften him and that he should avenge her. And, God help us all, he does just that, going on a rampage around the world, killing a number of international heroes, until the mystic heroes of the DCU drain Adam of his powers as Billy changes the magic word that grants Black Adam his mystic might. No more Shazam for Teth-Adam.
Of course, that has all changed since then, with Adam back in charge in Kahndaq in the pages of Doomsday Clock. But when Black Adam does hit the big screen, fans will witness the arrival of a one of a kind villain, a hard hitting take no prisoners hero, and a champion to those he deems his subjects.