WoQW: Say the Magic Word…

Words of Questionable Wisdom: Say the Magic Word…

By Paul Sebert


Captain Marvel is a character based on an idea so elegant in it’s simplicity that you’d think it’d be impossible to screw up: plucky young orphan Billy Batson says the word “SHAZAM!” and turns into the world’s mightiest mortal. Captain Marvel’s the pre-adolescent power fantasy in a nutshell. He’s the superhero we all pretend to be when we’re four years old and wearing a blanket like a cape.

Yet DC manages to somehow never do the big red cheese Justice. Denny O’Neilly’s 1973 “SHAZAM!” series played up the whimsical aspects of the Golden Age character to the point of self parody, making it almost the 70s equivalent of Big Bang Comics. After that series came to a close in 1978, the good Captain was restricted to back-up stories and guest spots until after the Crisis. 1987 marked the first attempt at working Captain Marvel into the modern DC Universe, and well the end results was a mini-series called “Shazam! The New Beginning.” Written by Roy & Dan Thomas the title was something of a notorious flop, in part because of the eyeball scarring artwork of Tommy Mandrake. Captain Marvel soon would once again find himself being played for parody in the pages of the Giffen/DeMatties-era Justice League; portrayed as a white-bread hero with naive Golden Age values stuck in a post Watchmen world.

1994 would see yet another new beginning for Captain Marvel as his origin story was retold once again in the form of a graphic novel with painted art, written and drawn by Jerry Ordway. A year later Ordway would be back for an ongoing Power of Shazam series which would be DC’s best received revival of the character, lasting 48 issues. Still the book was heavily criticized by some for trying to play the character as too seriously. Did the comics world really need a serious version of Tawny the Tiger being oppressed? The new overly serious tone came to a head in issue #33, where the hero’s hometown of Farefield was destroyed in an atomic blast by Mr. Mind. Captain Marvel for all intents and purposes seemed to be a victim of the modern myth of thinking bloody angst inherently makes a character interesting.

Sadly this kind of wrongheaded mindset didn’t die in the 90s and if you think that nuking Farefield was went to far just wait until you see a gray-haired hooded full-grown emo-boy Sephiroth-looking Billy Batson in DC’s current “The Trials of Shazam.”

Ok I guess I can’t make too much fun of Trials of Shazam, as I haven’t read it. However, from the message board feedback I’ve read it seems to be about as popular as the Iraq War. Yet even though this update Captain Marvel smacks of Electric Blue Superman style desperation, I imagine that this version is going to stick around the mainline DC Universe just because of editorial stubbornness.

So remarkably finally after some 30+ years of trying and failing to capture Fawcett comics magic DC comics finally got it right. Just not set in the confines of the DC Universe. The first chapter of Jeff Smith’s long-awaited “SHAZAM!: The Monster Society of Evil” has finally shipped, and I‘ll be damned if it wasn‘t worth the 4 year wait. Finally fans of “The Big Red Cheese” have a title showing just how much potential the character has. There’s even a secret code with clues about future issues.

While “Monster Society of Evil” is perfectly family friendly reading material it’s not sugar coated. The harsh reality of Billy’s life is made apparent. The opening sequence is rather heart wrenching as we see our young hero being menaced by a viscous thief. Soon enough though we se hope arriving as our hero has his fateful encounter with the Wizard Shazam. By the end of the first issue we’ll see Billy Batson coming to realize his place in the world, while Captain Marvel becomes familiar with modern life and battles Alligator people.

Jeff Smith’s line art is every bit as beautiful as it was on Bone. Each page is filled with lavish details and bits of personality. The fabled magic lightning bolt makes Batson’s hair to stand on end. Captain Marvel takes a small moment to enjoy a hotdog after foiling a crime. Marvel’s Alligator foes flash Joker-esc grins even in defeat.

With “Shazam! Monster Society of Evil!” Jeff Smith has pulled off a rare feet in freeing up a character from the shackles of clunky continuity and the oppressive angst of modern day comics. It’s not Pre-Crisis or Post Crisis. It’s not Golden, Silver, or Modern age. It’s a story about Captain Marvel plain and simple. It’s about what Captain Marvel should be and I salute that. Once relegated to self parody and embarrassing attempts at modernization, Captain Marvel has finally been done justice.