Monday, January 05, 2015

Review: Shazam! Vol. 1

There's a very telling scene about midway through Shazam!, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's retelling of the story of C.C. Beck and Bill Parker's first-wave superhero for the mass media adaptation hungry 21st century comic book market, when the young protagonist Billy Batson comes face to face with the wizard who gives him the magic word that enables him to transform into the caped strongman Captain Marvel.

In the original, Golden Age story, Billy Batson is a homeless orphan boy lead by a mysterious stranger to a subway tunnel where he catches an equally mysterious magical train to the sanctum of the ancient wizard Shazam, who awards the boy with the powers of six heroic patrons and makes him his champion.

Johns' version is infinitely more cynical. When Batson, a sarcastic 15-year-old foster child appears before the now nameless wizard (who he at first thinks may be a child molester [?!]), it's as part of a sort of magical abduction experience the wizard has been repeating for decades, in a fruitless attempt to find a human being who is pure good, and thus worthy of the fantastic powers of Shazam.

Batson tells the wizard off, steamrolling the wizard's insistence that there is such a thing as a pure good person:
I'm only fifteen and I already know there's no such thing as a pure good person...People are horrible. They disappoint you. They let you down. I've spent my life learning that...Good people get swallowed up. They get taken advantage of. They disappear...You're searching for something that doesn't really exist.
It's a very cynical take on the characters, and yet it's the very heart of what proves to be an important, even pivotal scene. Not only does Billy insist that there's no such thing as a purely good person, and that good can't survive in the long in the real world, but he actually convinces the wizard with this argument, and, out of desperation—a very powerful threat is coming, and only a magically empowered champion stands a chance of saving the world—the wizard grants Billy the powers of Shazam.

"I have no other choice, do I?" the wizard says to himself, "There's no more time." And he therefore reluctantly settles for Billy Batson, seeing that the boy at least has the potential to be good, which is better than nothing.

Is the scene told a bit more naturally, and with some greater dramatic sophistication then the storybook-simple Golden Age version? Sure. Is it more realistic? Of course. But it also introduces moral relevance into a milieu where it rests very uncomfortably. Because Captain Marvel was so incredibly popular in the 1940s Golden Age before disappearing for most of the Silver and Bronze Age of comics, the character and his stories saturated the medium for a while, but they never went through the growing-up period that all the similarly prevalent characters and comics did, and, as a result of that,  and of various creators glomming on to the idea of the character's secret identity being that of a child rather than a man or woman (and, I'd argue, the basic fairytale-like elements of the story), the franchise has never really been able to successfully shake its aura of childishness and old-fashioned-ness.

That is not a negative, although it is generally treated by DC Comics as if it were, which is why the company so very rarely tells Captain Marvel stories, but is always trying to reinvent the character.

Johns, an apparent fan who has written the character extensively in the past (although not as much as he's written his evil opposite, Black Adam), and artist Gary Frank go full-throttle in their attempts to update Captain Marvel, make him more distinct from DC's other caped strongman superhero and make the character's story more "realistic," and that, naturally enough, leads to a lot of rather cynical, extremely calculated and often quite uncomfortable creative choices.

But, it's well worth noting, this is not as bad as one might expect a Geoff Johns-written, New 52-line reinvention of Captain Marvel to be. As much as Johns and his higher-ups at DC have changed the character—including renaming him "Shazam" instead of "Captain Marvel" (tweaking the rules of his transformations in the process), giving him a new, heavily-redesigned costume and assigning him the DC Universe magic "beat" to patrol—this isn't as godawful as, say, Countdown's dark versions of Mr. Mxyzptlk or, more relevantly, Mary Marvel, or all the gory, horror and war movie motifs and aesthetics that Johns brough to the Green Lantern franchise (Which, to be fair, did transform the once-struggling Green Lantern book into a whole line of incredibly successful monthly comic books;  I might not always like Johns' creative choices, but I suppose there's no arguing with financial success in the mainstream comics industry).

In other words then, while Shazam's many reconfigurations of pre-existing elements may be off-putting—I was struck, for example, by how much a certain section of the book reminded me of Superior, Mark Millar and Leinil Yu's Marvel-published, creator-owned story about a 12-year-old boy who becomes Supermanior—it could have been much, much worse.

Despite the the high-profile creative team, and DC's burning need to keep somewhere close to 52 monthlies in print all the time, the publisher adopted a strange strategy for releasing Shazam: Rather than as a miniseries or ongoing monthly, or as an Earth-One graphic novel, where its thorough reinvention and film/TV pitch-nature would seem more at home, it appeared as a back-up strip in the Johns-written Justice League comic book, occasionally taking over the pages of Justice League altogether.

It was front-loaded with some of the more off-putting elements, so that I was scared away from the story by some of the images in the very first, short installment.

There was the new costume, with its hood, glowing chest-emblem and constant aura of lightning...

There was the new Dr. Sivana, a big, brawny tough guy rather than the wizened little old man, no bigger than the child Billy...
(A few installments in, Sivana gets a lightning bolt-shaped scar over one eye, allowing him to "see magic.")

And there was Billy himself, a smart-ass who calls a nice young couple who want to adopt him a "a couple of idiots" as soon as they're out of earshot...

That was more than enough to have me recoil from Justice League in dread, and I never checked back in with Johns and Frank's Shazam serial until it was collected, and could be read in the whole form it was created to be experienced as (That is, it reads like an original graphic novel, not a collection of a serially published back-up strip).

There would be more similar attempts to make the Marvel Family and villains more realistic and/or bad-ass as the series progresses, like the new look of the former Seven Deadly Enemies of Man, now called The Seven Deadly Sins...

And Mr. Tawky Tawny, who is no longer a talking tiger who comes to America to join polite society, but is a zoo tiger Billy feels a certain amount of affection for and, at one point, gifts with Shazam powers.

Here is the story of Johns and Frank's Shazam, which really does read like a comic book version of a PG-13 superhero movie based on the Captain Marvel character (and reads better when regarded as such, I think; compared to the characters as they appear in the recent The Multiversity: Thunderworld Adventures, everything here seems wrong-headed, but as a self-contained Captain Marvel/Shazam story, it works just fine).

Scientist Dr. Sivana is researching magical abductions in an attempt to track down the fabled Rock of Eternity, in order to discover and harness real magic, which he believes can help save his family where science has failed (As to what's going on with his family, that's not detailed, and would presumably be a plot point if and when Johns and Frank continue their storyline).

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, unpleasant young man Billy Batson has conned a trusting couple into taking him in as a foster child, which would make him their sixth.

They already foster white kids Mary and Freddy (who are of course the secret identities of Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. in the pre-New 52, original stories; this version of Freddy has long, blonde hair for some reason). There are three "new" characters, too: Smart Asian stereotype Eugene, chubby, dumb Hispanic kid Pedro, and an effervescent young black girl named Darla. I say "new," because the three of them were all introduced during Johns' Flashpoint story, in which the six kids each possessed one of the attributes of Shazam, and could combine to form the composite hero Captain Thunder (ala Captain Planet).

Billy doesn't get along too well with his new family, and they don't care for his shitty attitude either, but they start to warm to him a little bit at school the next day, when he defends them from bullies...sons of a rich, powerful grown-up bully who seems straight from central casting, who he's not afraid of:
Sivana and Billy's storylines begin to intersect when Sivana's research leads him to the Iraqi tomb of Black Adam, who he releases. The wizard summons Billy to the Rock of Eternity, and they have their little fight about whether there's such a thing as a really good person or not, with the wizard giving Billy the word and the powers.

At first, Billy and Freddy use their powers for fun and games (this is the bit that reminded me of Superior, a stretch of which involves the newly-empowered 12-year-old protagonist in an adult's body abusing his powers with his best friend), but things eventually get real when Black Adam, Sivana and the Seven Deadly Sins come to town, tearing the place apart while searching for Billy. Billy holds the rest of the wizard's power, you see, and Black Adam wants all of the Shazam powers for himself.

Will Billy do the right thing and fight Black Adam and his evil entourage, or will he stand down and let the villains destroy everything?

Well, it is a superhero comic, so naturally the day will be saved via violence.

Near the climax, Johns and Frank have Billy sharing his powers with his five siblings.
Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. both appear, although they don't have codenames and obviously won't use those ones if they ever get them (although Freddy does call himself "King Shazam" in one panel), both wearing costumes that look a bit like New 52 versions of their original ones. Pedro gets a beard and green costume, apparently turning into Marvel's Hercules. Darla gets a purple costume and Euguene gets a black one. Who has what powers isn't entirely clear, but Darla has super-speed and Eugene can now talk to machines (?). Additionally, everyone seems to age a little by the transformations, but to various degrees. Billy and Pedro are completely unrecognizable, for example, while Darla looks like she only gains a year or four. Mary and Freddy, who used to retain their child-like forms when they gained their powers, now also age, but their transformations don't render them as unrecognizable as Billy and Pedro's transformations do (As weird as the color schemes and some of these choices may be, I suppose this is a much more palatable take on the Lieutenant Marvel concept than Tall Marvel, Fat Marvel and Hill Marvel would have been).

After the climactic battle, things settle into a status quo that, were this the film it reads like, would be laying groundwork for the sequel.

Black Adam is killed off (not sure how he appeared in Forever Evil, exactly), The Seven Deadly Sins flee to appear in Trinity War and Trinity of Sin: Pandora, the kids and various townspeople all laugh at that one asshole's penis...
...Sivana has been shrunken and shriveled by his exposure to magic, leaving him in a more familiar form, and Billy decides he kinda likes his new family after all.

Oh, and on the last two panels, Sivana meets Captain Marvel's other greatest archenemy, a talking caterpillar who introduces himself as Mr. Mind.

For all its faults in terms of conception, it's difficult to argue with its execution; even Frank's designs and artwork stand out as head-and-shoulders above the bulk of The New 52 line (especially during those first two years or so, when this was published, prior to some of the more interesting hires of late). Whatever one might think of the book's goals, it meets and fulfills them successfully, and works perfectly well on its own terms.

As a longtime reader and fan of Captain Marvel, this all feels wrong to me, an attempt to fix something that isn't broken, and it all feels extremely awkward when considered as part of the larger DC Universe as it currently stands, but, if you can divorce the book itself from its publishing history and from the shared universe in which it is apparently set, it's an accomplished, even interesting take on Captain Marvel.

That is, it's a pretty good Elseworlds story, and would have been a great addition to DC's Earth One line of graphic novels.
Shazam gives it two thumbs-up, but then, he would.


Anonymous said...

This all comes as something of a surprise. I'll give it a looksee, though it'll be hard pressed to surpass Morrison's take.

Y'know, I never did read Ordway's Power of Shazam GN or ongoing series. Were they any good?

Evan said...

Black Adam was brought back to life in his Villains' Month tie-in so that he could be in Forever Evil.

Jer said...

That is, it's a pretty good Elseworlds story, and would have been a great addition to DC's Earth One line of graphic novels

Thank you - that's what has been bugging me about this since I got it from the library a few months back. I knew it read like something but I couldn't figure out what it was - it reads exactly like an "Earth One" take on Captain Marvel. In fact, in tone it reminds me a lot of JMS's Superman Earth One - even more than Johns and Frank's own Batman Earth One.

I could see it as the basis for a CW pitch for the character, I guess, but as a Captain Marvel book it falls flat for me. If I'd never read a modern take on the character it might read better, but since Jeff Smith did Monster Society of Evil just 5 years ago and it was a nearly note-perfect update of the Captain Marvel story for the modern day, I've been disappointed that DC hasn't done anything with it.

(Except for Thunderworld, of course, which reads like Morrison and Smith - or at least Stewart and Smith - were on the same page about what to do with the character.)