It has come to my attention that some of you aren’t aware of Tawky Tawny, one of the greatest characters in the DC Universe. If you aren’t acquainted with Tawny, he’s a talking tiger in a tweed suit. He stands on his hind legs, works as a museum tour guide, and he’s buddies with the superhero known as Shazam.
Now, when I say talking tiger, some of you might assume that Tawny is an alien from another dimension, or a man who was transformed into a tiger, but you’re overthinking it. He’s a tiger who decided he wanted to chill with humans and that’s about all there is to it.
Okay, not quite. I first discovered Mr. Tawny while watching the animated DC Nation Shorts. I was struck by the sight of Billy Batson hanging out with a talking tiger, yet the cartoon treated it so casually. This blew my mind.
The DC Universe may be populated by demons, monsters, aliens and sentient objects, but for some reason, the talking tiger felt weird to me. I had to know more about this extraordinary creature, so I immediately started a deep dive. The content I found did not disappoint me. Let’s start with Tawny’s debut in Captain Marvel Adventures #79. This gem was published by Fawcett Comics in 1947. It begins with Mr. Tawny (the Tawky came later) deciding he wants to leave the jungles of India and check out America.
Tawny does what any jungle cat would do, he stows away on a ship heading to America. Once he arrives, he asks for directions to the city, which causes a panic. You see, the sight of a talking tiger standing upright is kind of terrifying. Billy Batson hears the commotion and changes into Captain Marvel (his moniker before being renamed Shazam). He punches Tawny and locks the poor tiger up in the zoo. For crying out loud, Billy, he just wanted to see civilization.
No zoo can hold Tawny, though. He breaks out and begins exploring the city, stopping at an ice cream stand, eating at a restaurant and going shopping for clothes. The people of the city react as you could imagine. Captain Marvel runs into Tawny again and decides that the jungle cat needs a job instead of a beating. He sets Tawny up as a museum tour guide, which I guess the museum director and patrons had zero problem with. And why would they? Wouldn’t you want to visit a museum that had a talking tiger as a tour guide? The story ends with Billy realizing he forgot to ask Tawny how he could talk, which honestly would’ve been my first question.
Alas, Billy’s question wouldn’t be answered until Tawny returned in Captain Marvel Adventures #82. This story flashes back to Tawny’s days in India before he came to America. Tawny had been the pet of a boy named Tommy Todd (no relation to Red Hood). One day, a tiger mauled a villager and everyone accused Tawny of being the culprit. Tommy Todd cried out that he wished Mr. Tawny could talk so he could defend himself.
In what could only be described as a perfect coincidence, a hermit hears Tommy’s wish and gives him a potion. Tommy feeds the potion to Mr. Tawny and BAM!, the tiger gains the ability to talk. If you’re curious, his first words were, “Hello Tom! Say it sure is swell to talk like you humans.”
Tawny proceeds to tell the villagers he wasn’t the murderer. To their credit, they took his word for it, and for some reason, none of them questioned how the tiger suddenly had the ability to talk.
In Captain Marvel Adventures #90, Mr. Tawny and Captain Marvel invited readers to pick a first name for the talking tiger. The winner of the contest was promised a “handsome full color picture of Mr. Tawny and Captain Marvel.” Now that’s a prize worth winning! In Captain Marvel Adventures #96, it was announced that the winning name was Tawky, submitted by Mary Garrisi and Pat Laughlin. I hope Mary and Pat are proud of their contribution to the DC Universe. They probably had no idea that some guy would be writing about it in 2023!
I should also mention that Captain Marvel Adventures #96 established that Tawny had his own brand of soda. Eat your heart out Booster Gold! In 1972, DC obtained the rights to publish Shazam comics and that meant more Tawny goodness! We got classic moments like Tawny observing a woman wearing a fur coat in 1973’s Shazam #7 (reprinted in Shazam: The World’s Mightiest Mortal Volume 1).
“That woman is wearing Uncle George! Gosh, that makes me feel rotten,” Tawny says. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a pretty tame reaction for someone who just saw a pedestrian wearing the skin of their murdered uncle.
Another classic moment occurred in 1977’s Shazam #32 (reprinted in Shazam: The World’s Mightiest Mortal Volume 2) when Tawny decided to become a Major League Baseball Player. He tried out for the Detroit Tigers, reasoning that the team would jump at the chance to have an actual tiger on their roster. You can’t tell these types of stories with Batman or Aquaman, friends. Speaking of the DC Universe heroes, Tawky Tawny got a chance to meet some of them during Crisis on Infinite Earths #7. Changeling (now known as Beast Boy) is initially surprised at the sight of a talking tiger, which is odd considering his powerset.
As Shazam has gone through different continuity reboots, a few different creative teams have put their own spin on Tawny. The Power of Shazam reimagined Tawny as a tiger plush that belonged to Mary Bromfield. The doll came to life through magical enchantment, becoming an ally of the Shazam Family. The New 52 version of Shazam’s origin presented Mr. Tawny as an ordinary tiger at the Philadelphia zoo. Although he never became anthropomorphic, Billy does temporarily enchant Mr. Tawny for the final battle. He doesn’t talk, but he does become more dangerous and ferocious.
This was a unique take on Mr. Tawny and I’m all about mixing things up, but I don’t like the idea of him being a regular tiger. Apparently DC agreed with me, because a more traditional version of Mr. Tawny was introduced in 2019’s Shazam #4. This incarnation of the character came from the Wildlands, a place full of anthropomorphic animals.
What makes Tawky Tawny so awesome? Maybe it’s because he’s an unusual sight in an extraordinary world. He’s not out to change the world, he just wants to live a simple life. I think Tawny’s recent appearance in DC’s Saved By The Belle Reve #1 says it best. Mr. Tawny has a one panel cameo in the story. The editor’s note simply says “Tawky Tawny the talking tiger has absolutely nothing to do with this story, but we thought you might like to see him anyway.”
The panel and the editor’s note are an homage to a similar one seen in 1975’s Shazam #17, and they raise a good point. Tawny may not have much to do with the grander DC Universe, but we’re always glad to see him anyway.
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DC.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.