One Fan's Trials: Shazam'ed by Dan DiDio (Part 1)

One Fan's Trail Header

So, after a bit of a detour over the last 3 columns getting sucked into all the “what’s wrong with the industry” chatter around here nowadays, I thought I’d get back to my big beef with DC Comics.


In the Beginning…

Let me get my bias off my chest upfront. I am, and have been, a predominant DC Comics fan for my entire comics reading and comic collecting history. I have read books from the “other guys” (Marvel and the Independents) as well, but mostly DC books. I read a smattering of books over the late 1970s and early 1980s, but didn’t get into following a given book or books monthly until after the Crisis of Infinite Earths. I did read a few issues here and a few issues there based on what I found at the corner store; that’s how I amassed a large pretty-much continuous pre-Crisis Superman run afterall. It wasn’t until later in my life, during University, that I went back and rounded out that run with the handful of issues I had unknowingly missed.

All that said, I don’t remember where or when my like of Captain Marvel started. I wasn’t a comic book theologian then. 😉 As my awareness of the industry grew, I became more of a fan of underdog characters or characters that weren’t DC’s flagship characters, but were their equals in other ways. I still would pop by and check in on the Superman, Batman, and Justice League of America (JLA) books now and then, but I became a larger fan of Captain Marvel (instead of Superman), Green Arrow (instead of Batman), and the All Star Squadron (instead of the JLA).

As I got older, I realized that my appreciation for these characters and this super-team had more to do with the creativity and risks that their respective writers could take with them simply because they weren’t the big DC icons.

However, Captain Marvel should have been every boy’s favourite hero. I mean, come on. With one might word “Shazam”, an ordinary boy named Billy Batson transforms into a super-adult (in appearance only) who is the world’s mightiest mortal, Captain Marvel? A hero that can go toe-to-toe with Superman? A boy’s brain with an adult’s biceps? What boy wouldn’t want to be Cap?


The ICONIC Image

I recall that after Crisis, my interest in comics was still blossoming. I picked the Who’s Who maxi-series which served as a great primer on DC’s wealth of characters, but I was still looking for some regular books and characters to latch on to.
And then, I saw this:

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There was a time in comics where the covers were dynamic and enticing. A far cry from what we get nowadays. This cover to Legends #5 had it all. It had a powerful character standing tall over DC’s super-hero pantheon including Superman! Who could do such a thing? Is Captain Marvel the last hero standing against a major villain or did he decimate his peers? And John Byrne also delivered some great pencils in the interior of the book with a new little known new DC writer named John Ostrander. Perhaps subconsciously, because I shared a name with both Byrne and Ostrander, I was even more intrigued, but I still think it was the cover that took my passing acquaintance with Captain Marvel to full-fledged fan.


Erratic Lightning

Trying to leap from the profile the character had in the Legends mini-series, and as a founding member of the Justice League Bwahahamerica, DC launched Shazam: A new Beginning to retell his origin. It was book that was darker in tone based on the pencils of Tom Mandrake.

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This was such a jarring transition from Legends and from the Justice League that I think it didn’t grab my attention and probably was my first exposure to editorially inconsistency. Why produce a noirish Captain Marvel book when all his current portrayals were far lighter? That doesn’t mean Tom Mandrake is a horrible artist. He isn’t. His work on Spectre is superb mostly because his darker style fit that character and that book. He wasn’t the best choice for Captain Marvel though.

And soon thereafter, Captain Marvel became a journeyman in the DC universe, popping inconsistently into other character’s books after this mini-series and after his speedy departure from the Justice League.


The Ordway turns out to be right way for Captain Marvel

After years of reading about Captain Marvel in other books, Jerry Ordway brought readers The Power of Shazam in the 1990s. First as a hard cover adventure, a basic retelling and revamping of Captain Marvel’s origin bypassing “A New Beginning” years earlier, and then as an ongoing series. The art and storytelling seemed more fitting to the brighter tone of most of the character’s 1980s appearances (and even before that, but not as goofy as his Golden Age or as portrayed in his 1970’s DC series ).

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The ongoing series lasted almost 50 issues at a time when the industry had still embraced dark content stemming from the previous decade. These were just amazing years in my comic collecting with a Captain Marvel I could be proud of.


Bottling Lightning

When the Justice Society of America (JSA) launched around the time that The Power of Shazam was winding down in 1999, it didn’t take long for writers David Goyer and Geoff Johns to bring in and redefine Captain Marvel’s arch-nemesis Black Adam as an anti-hero leading to an inevitable clash with Cap. While Captain Marvel and Black Adam appeared to swap JSA membership over the years, DC seemed to have found the right balance with the character and also gave Black Adam more depth and relevance in the DC Universe.

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Black Adam had a dark sense of duty and always stayed to true to his principles even if that put him in conflict sometimes with JSA or put him at the JSA’s side as comrade. In some ways, Captain Marvel became more interesting for me because Black Adam (or Teth Adam, his Egyptian name) had become infinitely more interesting during his on-again, off-again JSA tenure.

Also, the relationship Cap’s alter ego developed with Stargirl was very awkward which actually added an interesting layer to the Captain Marvel mythos. Hey, they were two kids with similar ages crushing on each other. However, being Captain Marvel for the first time wasn’t a huge plus for him. As a reader I was struck by the complexity of such a situation and that no one had attempted it before.


DiDio Brings the House Down

And yet, despite some good storytelling and a new found relevance to Captain Marvel and the Shazam mythos, DC executive Dan DiDio decided it was time to revamp the franchise and gave us Judd Winick’s Trials of Shazam!. That in turn begat years of confusion and undid all the great work of Jerry Ordway, David Goyer and Geoff Johns years before (some even during DiDio’s tenure at DC!).

I have tried to summarize (a) the events of those years, and (b) my views on them below:

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Next Time

My next column brings Part 2 of Shazam’ed by Dan DiDio and looks at the mess that was Trials of Shazam, the knots DC went into in trying to fix it, and why its still not fixed to the chagrin of many a Captain Marvel fan.

Cheers and thanks for reading.

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