The Shazam Family is a big group, with a wide variety of personalities and powers, but few are more talked about than Mister Tawky Tawny, a stuffed tiger who came to life and became a superhero. Yes, really. And since the very beginning, fans have noticed little references to the character in Shazam!, leading people to wonder whether Tawny would make an actual appearance in the film. Now that Shazam! is playing in theaters -- and since it isn't exactly a major spoiler -- we can say that, no, he doesn't -- although his spirit is certainly with the film, since there are a LOT of tigers around.
A close look at the clasps holding Shazam's cape to his costume reveals that the medallions atop the clasps feature tiger heads. Given that it is Shazam we're talking about, fans immediately took this to be a wink-and-a-nod reference to Mr. Tawky Tawny, a character who first appeared in 1947 and has been a part of the "Marvel Family" on and off ever since. (For context, Shazam was originally called Captain Marvel. At one point, the deal was that DC could continue to use the Captain Marvel name in the pages of the books but that it could not be the comic's title. Eventually DC gave up even that and just started referring to the character as Shazam.)
There are other appearances by tigers, too: the most obvious is that in flashbacks, a young Billy is seen at a winter carnival. His mother is trying and failing to win him a stuffed tiger by throwing darts at balloons, but instead wins him a small compass, which he loses and goes chasing after. Years after he loses his mother in the crowd, that compass remains his totem, a promise that he will find his way home to her. Along the way, he becomes a superhero and has a battle with a villain inside that very same carnival. After being thrown through that dart-throwing booth, he hands a scared child...a stuffed tiger. On top of that all, Fawcett High School -- the Philadelphia public school where Billy and his foster siblings go -- has a tiger for a school mascot.
His first appearance introduced Mr. Tawny as a humanoid, talking tiger who travels from his native India to the United States in hopes of integrating himself into American society. Although he makes every effort to be sociable, the simple presence of the talking tiger in the city terrorizes the public, leading to Captain Marvel intervening. Upon learning through the Wisdom of Solomon that Tawny did not mean to cause trouble, Captain Marvel helps Tawny integrate, getting him a job as a tour guide at the local museum. This fit well with his attempts to be civilized by speaking in a somewhat stilted manner and wearing a tweed suit.
Tawny became a regular recurring character in Captain Marvel Adventures, appearing as the best friend of Captain Marvel and his juvenile alter-ego Billy Batson, until it ceased publication in 1953. His second appearance featured Tawny's origin story: Tawny had been a regular tiger who was accused of killing a man. In order to allow the tiger to clear his name, a local hermit gave Tawny a serum that gave him the ability to speak and stand upright like a human.
The character would later be removed from continuity following the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths, but a new version was introduced less than a decade later. In that version, "Tawky Tawny" was a popular children's toy that was brought to life by Lord Satanus to aid the Marvel family against his sister Blaze. From that point on, only the Marvels would see him as a real tiger, with everyone around them seeing a doll, a la Calvin and Hobbes.
In Jeff Smith's out-of-continuity 2007 miniseries Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil, Tawky Tawny was presented as an ifrit disguised as a homeless man who can take the form of a tiger.
Following DC's 2011 reboot The New 52, another canonical version of Tawky was introduced -- this one a tiger at the Philadelphia Zoo who was granted powers when Billy Batson realized that he could share his lightning with anyone he considered family.
Shazam! hits theaters tonight. Other upcoming DC films include Joker on October 10, 2019, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) on February 7, 2020, and Wonder Woman 1984 on June 5, 2020.
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