Who Is BLACK ADAM, DC Comics’ Powerful Anti-Hero?

There is perhaps no comic book character, at either DC or Marvel, who has had as long a path to A-list status as Black Adam. And when we say long, we mean over sixty years to get there. But who is DC’s Black Adam exactly? Read on for all the details on how the powerful Teth Adam, soon to be played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a major motion picture, went from a villain meant to appear only once during the 1940s to an anti-hero changing the hierarchy of the DC Universe on the big screen. Here’s everything need to know about Black Adam.

Black Adam drawn by Alex Ross
DC Comics

Who Is Black Adam in DC Comics?

Black Adam’s First Appearance and Backstory
Black Adam vs. the Marvel family in his first 1940s appearance.
DC Comics

Black Adam first appeared as a one-off villain in Fawcett Comics’ The Marvel Family #1 in 1945, which featured Captain Marvel and his entire super-powered clan in different adventures. Back then, “Shazam” was merely the magic word Billy Batson said to transform into the heroic Captain Marvel. It didn’t become his heroic name until 2012, despite all comics featuring the character having the title Shazam! for legal reasons involving Marvel Comics. (That’s its own whole own quagmire, for which we will refer you to this explainer).

Black Adam arrives in 20th century Earth.
DC Comics

In Black Adam’s origin story, the broad strokes of which have mostly stuck for decades now, we learned about an ancient Egyptian by the name of Teth-Adam (which meant “Mighty Human”). He was chosen by the wizard Shazam some 5,000 years prior as being his successor because of his bravery and supposed pure heart. Just as with Billy Batson centuries later, whenever Teth-Adam uttered the magic word, the wizard’s name “Shazam,” he transformed into Mighty Adam, a super-powered hero with the same powers that Captain Marvel would later have.

 Black Adam’s DC Comics Mythology
The godly powered Black Adam, in the modern DCU.
DC Comics

Black Adam’s powers were originally described as coming from the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods, the same as Captain Marvel’s. But in the ‘70s, DC revealed that the gods from which Black Adam received his powers were actually Egyptian. In Black Adam’s case, the “S” in Shazam stood for the following gods and powers Shu (stamina), Hershef (strength), Amon (power), Zehuti (wisdom), Anpu (speed), and Menthu (courage). In subsequent, more modern incarnations, Black Adam’s ties to ancient Egypt and its mythology have only become stronger.

Is Black Adam a Villain?

An angry Black Adam unleashes his fury.
DC Comics

As the saying goes, about “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Mighty Adam would eventually become corrupted by his new abilities and thus become Black Adam. Black Adam eventually overthrew and murdered the Pharoah and declared himself ruler of the world. Unable to take back the powers he had granted Teth-Adam, the wizard Shazam banished Black Adam to the most distant star known. It took him 5,000 years, but Black Adam actually flew back home through space. (Oh, what a long and boring trip that must have been).

When he reached Earth, he battled his replacements, the Marvel Family, and it all went badly for him when he was tricked into saying “Shazam,” thus reverting to his human form. When that happened, Black Adam aged 5,000 years and turned to dust after one punch from Captain Marvel. For the first sixty years of his comic book existence, Black Adam was definitely a villain. The only allusion to his antihero status of any kind was the reference to his heroism before the power corrupted him. We never saw a hint of that good-guy nature again in Black Adam until the mid-2000s.

Black Adam’s Powers and Abilities

Black Adam saying the magic word.
DC Comics

When it comes to powers, Black Adam has almost unlimited stamina, strength, and speed that come very close to matching that of Shazam or Superman. He has vast scholarly wisdom, allowing him to access most known scientific facts on a whim, and that allows him to know just about every language on Earth. He can also fly at supersonic speeds. In his superpowered form, he does not age. Or ages at a snail’s pace. When his wife Isis died, Black Adam absorbed her powers of telekinesis as well, along with some of her powers over nature. These things combine to make him one of the greatest powers in the DC Universe.

Can Black Adam Die?

Black Adam can die, despite all of his godlike powers. In fact, he has died before, in different continuities. The first time he died, Black Adam reverted to his true age when the power of Shazam was removed from him, leaving him as dust. This happened more than once, in fact. But through various magical means and spells, that dust was given the form of a man again. Due to his magical nature, all of Black Adam’s deaths were merely temporary.

Black Adam’s Relationship with Shazam

Black Adam's first Bronze Age appearance, his second one overall.
DC Comics

Black Adam didn’t appear in another Shazam! story for nearly thirty years, until after DC Comics purchased Fawcett Comics in the early ‘70s. Even during this Bronze Age, Black Adam would only make a handful of appearances, not exactly fitting for a character who should have been Captain Marvel’s arch-nemesis. He appeared more than once in the 1981 Saturday morning cartoon show Shazam!, which probably introduced him to millions of new fans. But the comics wouldn’t cash in on his higher profile for several more decades.

Theo Adam, the Man Who Would Be Black Adam
Black Adam vs Shazam, 90s version. Art by Jerry Ordway.
DC Comics

The 1994 Power of Shazam! post-Crisis reboot of Black Adam actually split him into two distinct versions. The first Black Adam stuck to the first origin story. He was still Teth-Adam, son of a Pharaoh, who became a benevolent ruler, after his father gave him the province of Kahndaq. The wizard Shazam made him his champion.

It was only later that Black Adam’s propensity for violent justice took hold as a result of the murder of his wife and children by the evil Ahk-ton. After Ahk-ton’s death, Black Adam reconquered his homeland, and used any means necessary to do so. This new brutality disgusted the wizard Shazam, and he removed Black Adam’s powers, awaiting a new and better champion. Shazam then stored all of his powers in a magical scarab, sealing said scarab into an ancient tomb.

Captain Marvel’s Archrival at Last
Shazam vs. Black Adam, in the modern DCU.
DC Comics

In the 20th century, we met our second Black Adam. This was the original Teth Adam’s descendant Theo Adam, who worked alongside archaeologists C.C. and Marylin Batson. Together, they discovered the tomb where the wizard hid the scarab. Drawn to its power and its roots with his ancestor, Theo discovered the scarab and killed the Batsons, unleashing the power of Black Adam into himself. The Batson’s son Billy, now Captain Marvel, fought Black Adam as his archenemy, something he never really was until now. After all, this Black Adam actually murdered his parents.

Black Adam as a Justice League member.
DC Comics

Eventually, the original Teth-Adam returned and revealed that Black Adam and Theo Adam were two distinct personalities. The original Black Adam was back and less mustache twirly than his usurper. This all led to the Black Adam redemption arc we saw in 21st-century DC Comics. Particularly in the pages of JSA, and, more recently, in Justice League of America. All of this informed the eventual film version we will see in the DCEU’s Black Adam.

Black Adam vs. Superman

Black Adam fights Supergirl in the pages of Superman vs. Shazam from 1978.
DC Comics

Although they’ve only fought a handful of times, the instances where Black Adam fought the Man of Steel are especially memorable. The first time was way back in 1978, in the Superman vs. Shazam! Treasury Edition. In this special oversized comic, Captain Marvel attacks Superman, and the two have a brutal fight in Metropolis. Only later is it revealed that Captain Marvel was really Black Adam in disguise. He hoped this would result in Superman thrashing his enemy. (It did).

Later, Kal-El teamed up with the real Captain Marvel to take down Black Adam. During this era, the Shazam characters lived on a different Earth than Superman. But we should note that in the first solo fight against Superman, Adam won. The three would later all come to blows again in 1982′ DC Comics Presents #49. In the 2000s, in Black Adam’s mid-2000s antihero phase, he fought Superman in Action Comics. It was a stalemate there too, proving Superman and Black Adam are just about on equal footing power-wise.

Black Adam and the Justice Society of America

Black Adam with his JSA teammates.
DC Comics

Black Adam’s brutal and uncompromising stance in meting out justice rubbed other superheroes the wrong way. Nevertheless, he eventually joined the Justice Society of America, and was a member in good standing for some time. This was mainly during the JSA series by Geoff Johns, which ran from 1999-2006. But Black Adam’s brutal ways ultimately forced him to leave the JSA team, despite bonding with teammate Atom Smasher. (JSA member Captain Marvel, for obvious reasons, never warmed to Black Adam being on the team).

The DC Universe vs. Black Adam
DC Comics

Black Adam reconquered Khandaq after his stint as a JSA member and found a new family with the similarly powered heroes Isis and Osiris. He found love again with Isis, and she convinced him to become a more measured (less murderous) hero. But when Isis and Osiris were killed, Black Adam unleashed hell on the nation that took them, Bialya, resulting in the deaths of two million people. This put Black Adam squarely back in the “villain” column. However, the New 52 reboot happened not too long after, and Black Adam was given yet another new backstory, making him an outward villain again. But the subsequent “Rebirth” era DC Universe seems to have restored his previous, early 2000s origins again.

The DCEU Black Adam 2022 Movie

Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam looking angry.
DC/Warner Bros.

Since 2007, Dwayne Johnson has been interested in bringing Teth Adam to the screen. It only took 15 years to happen, but the DCEU Black Adam, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, hits theaters this fall. It will draw heavily from the antihero version seen in modern DC Comics. In the film, Black Adam will fight the Justice Society of America, including characters like Hawkman and Doctor Fate. Dwayne Johnson’s costume as seen on screen appears very close to his comic book counterpart’s, but we’re still waiting to see what exactly the character will bring to the table. Will Shazam or Superman make cameos in Black Adam? Only time will tell. Black Adam releases in theaters on October 21, 2022

Originally published on September 27, 2022.

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