One Fan’s Trials: Shazam’ed by Dan DiDio (Part 2)

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Following up on Part One of my two-part “Shazam’ed by Dan DiDio” examination of DC’s bungling of the Marvel Family franchise, comes my look at Judd Winick’s “Trials of Shazam” which was a 12 issues maxi-series that started in 2006 and its ramifications.

And… happy belated July 1rst and 4th greetings to our Canadian and U.S. readers respectively!


My Thesis in Art

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A Move to… “Mature” Magic ?!?

The Trials of Shazam was a 12 issue maxi-series that began in 2006 and was intended to reinvigorate the Marvel Family / Shazam Franchise by upending its previous 3-part balance of wholesomeness, super-heroics, and magic with a head-first dive towards its magical heritage particularly the dark arts. This was now a dark magical franchise resembling little in tone with its previous incarnations.

I get that writing Captain Marvel in DC’s main super-hero universe line in the same tone as its Golden Age creators would be difficult in today’s market as it was when DC tried in the 1970s. However, there is room in the DC Universe (DCU) for different tones and voices. Jerry Ordway struck a good balance in his 1990s era Power of Shazam series afterall. And, Geoff Johns did as well in the early 2000s with his use of Captain Marvel and Black Adam in the JSA series. Now, why DC thought they had to throw the Marvel Baby out with the bath water I will never understand. It wasn’t that far-gone as a franchise.

This new maxi-series full embraced the darkening of the DCU in that period and also coincided with the dawning of a new tenth Age of Magic. This saw the very laws of magic being rewritten, stemming from the events of Geoff Johns’ 2005/06’s Infinite Crisis. One would assume that this intended by the editorially elite to make the magic wielders in the DCU more unpredictable and exciting with an air of mystery as to whether the magic powers or spells would work as intended.

This new Age of Magic was a pretty cool premise. Lots of story potential.

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I mean, what would happen if Zatanna‘s powers changed to the point where it wasn’t through the reverse incantations that her spells would be summoned? What if she needed to cast spells differently and just didn’t know how to anymore? Or put Doctor Fate in the same scenario or something equally humbling for these once infinitely powerful characters.

However, unless this was explored in books I didn’t read like Shadowpact, the new Age of Magic seems like another unfulfilled promise by Dan DiDio and DC editorial. It became a footnote in DC’s set up for Grant Morrison’s 2008/09’s Final Crisis which in turn had nothing to do with earth-based magic, the original Marv Wolfman penned Crisis on Infinite Earths or Infinite Crisis. It was the “third” Crisis (that was retroactively-foretold) and dealt with the ushering in of the Fifth World and its new status quo for Jack Kirby’s New Gods. It also, perhaps, served as a set up for 2009/10’s Blackest Night in some small ways with all the Green Lantern prominence in it from Alpha Lanterns to Hal Jordon, etc. So, one event does not necessarily build on the happenings of previous ones.

Hmmm, I wonder how many dangling plot threads there are out there in the DCU like this supposedly important new Age of Magic or the Fifth World.


What’s in a Name?

So, for uninitiated, the classic Marvel Family includes Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, and Captain Marvel Junior. In modern continuity, the first two are kids (Billy and Mary Batson respectively) who say the magic word “Shazam” and gain the powers of the gods and become adult super-heroes. The “Jr.” in the group is also a kid and family friend named Freddy Freeman who exclaims “Captain Marvel” to get his gods-fuelled powered. Their mentor was the old Wizard who also shared the name Shazam.

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Shazam is an acronym for the godly benefactors of the Marvel Family’s super powers:

Solomon – Judeo-Christian king granting wisdom
Hercules – Greek demi-god and hero granting strength
Atlas – Greek god granting stamina
Zeus – The most dominant Greek god that granting power
Achilles – Greek god granting courage
Mercury – Roman god granting speed

Now, the pantheon was difficult enough to fathom as it’s a hodgepodge of Greek and Roman gods, heroes and a Judeo-Christian figure thrown in. The reason this has always been tricky to those that bothered to give it a second thought – those stilly fans out there like me that like there to be some however small thread of logic in their super-hero comics – is because the Greek gods have had a strong profile in the DCU whereas the Roman gods or even any Judeo Christian figure has had at best a low profile at worst no profile. And, when there have been deities used from various pantheons in the DCU they were often at odds with one another so fathoming cooperation was another hurdle to overcome despite retroactive explanations for their sponsorship of the Marvel Family.

That said, it was always a tough proposition even before any rewrite of the Marvel Family franchise. So, not only did DC “change-not-change” the pantheon sponsoring the Marvel Family, in a very confusing way, they changed the nom de guerre of all of the Marvel Family too which basically jettisoned its history and broader public recognition. The brand was changed; for the worse.


Evolution not Revolution

What the 1980s showed us was that evolution can be profitable. Wally West, the former Kid Flash was the natural inheritor of the Flash mantle after Barry Allen died heroically in 1985/86’s Crisis on Infinite Earths (notwithstanding Wally sputtering the mid-2000s and Barry’s return as DC primary Flash after almost 25 years). That said, its not a guarantee and there have been several other legacy characters that just haven’t resonated, evolved, or hit the mark (see: Teen Titans and Titans in the last few decades; not withstanding the Marv Wolfman and George Perez New Teen Titans run or more recently the Teen Titans relaunch under the leadership of Geoff Johns and Mike McKone).

All that said, one of the more promising elements of the Trials of Shazam was the evolution of the Marvel Family franchise with Freddy Freeman dropping the “Jr.” and becoming THE Captain Marvel with Billy Batson assuming the Wizard Shazam’s mentoring role for his predecessor. And, even the idea of Trials was interesting, light of Hercules’ mythic labours, to determine Freddy’s worthiness of inheriting the Captain Marvel mantle. That said, DC, Dan DiDio, and Judd Winick took this seemingly interesting and less objectionable path and turned it on its head.

Captain Marvel was no more. The new hero at the end of the Trials was to be called Shazam (not “Captain” anything) with the New Age and tech savvy Wizard, Billy Batson, being called Marvel (calling a hero after your primary comic book competitor doesn’t seem like a good idea, does it?). And, for some reason, Billy’s new persona looked like an aged rocker who chose not to dye his hair. Plus no Mary Marvel in the mix at all beyond her mute appearances in a hospital bed. Wha?? Huh??? THIS is what happened to the Marvel Family?

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Add to that, the New Age gods or “Lords of Magic” who share the names of the old Greek/Roman/Judeo-Christian “gods of myth” benefactors of the Marvel Family (plus one more so perhaps its now “Shaazam”?) and have more “grounded” human forms (that verge on the absurd at best and poor stereotyping at worst) that I believe worked out as follows:

Solomon – Magical tattoo artist granting intellectual and mystical knowledge
Hercules – Gang member convict granting strength
Atlas – Technological modern age world holder granting stamina
Apollo – A doctor granting healing
Zeus –Boyish necromancer granting power
Achilles – A soldier granting near invulnerability
Mercury – A mortal parent granting speed

Prior to the Trials of Shazam, it was difficult for DC fans to understand the godly benefactors of the Marvel Family let alone the difference between the Greek and Roman Hercules and Heracles (or Herakles) and now they have to contend with a Lord of Magic named Hercules as well? DC made it more complicated for fans to comprehend what in the world was happening to the Marvel Family not including the eye-rolling stereotypes used as human forms by the new magical Age’s Lords of Magic.

The series was also hobbled by an injury to originating artist Howard Porter’s pencilling hand. So, even though he was replaced by Mauro Cascioli on art, the Trials of Shazam took a year and half from issue #1 (with cover denoting October 2006) to issue #12 (with May 2008 cover date).


Mary, Billy and Un-ringing the Bell

Mary Marvel went through her own trials over the years going from powerless in 2006 at the beginning of Trials of Shazam to 2007/08’s weekly Countdown where she was divined the powers of Black Adam and flirted with evil to 2008/09’s Final Crisis her craziness under the influence of a Fifth Word new god to the milestone issues around Justice Society of America #25 in 2009 where the seeds of her redemption had been sown.

In her and Billy’s final super-powered portrayals during this JSA arc, they usurped part of the power of Black Adam thereby becoming evil and bereft of any fashion sense. In the end it seems that DC and DiDio seemingly realize the colossal mess they’ve made of the Marvel Family and press the reset button with the original Wizard Shazam returning and depowering both the Marvel and Black Marvel Families. Mary and Billy are powerless kids again with Teth Adam and Isis being frozen in statue form.

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And, that is where we are today. However, Osiris (the Black Marvel Family’s Captain Marvel Junior) who was introduced and perished in DC’s first weekly maxi-series, 2006/07’s 52, has returned from the dead in the pages of Blackest Night. He appears to be on a quest to restore Black Adam and Osiris and has aligned himself with Deathstroke‘s Villains for Hire in the pages of Titans. Time will tell where this all leads.

DC and DiDio’s handling of Mary Marvel in particular shows their misogynistic tendencies at worst or cluelessness at best considering how her apparel became influenced over these years by latex lingerie and her persona vacillated between evil and crazy and sometimes both at the same time. Really? THIS is Mary Marvel’s iconic interpretation? Puhlease!! I don’t think DC could have bungled her portrayal more than they already have. At least, she’s now powerless and presumably an innocent kid again waiting for DC and DiDio to do right by her, her brother, and their friend Freddy.


Two Eyes towards Tomorrow

I have a column or two in me still to delve into Mary’s mishandling, and DC and DiDio’s limited success with its Black Marvel Family and Black (Teth) Adam, Isis and Osiris. In addition, Dan DiDio has indicated that this year or next the Marvel Family will be back in a big way. While I shudder at that notion based on what has transpired in the last few years, maybe DC has learned its lesson? Time will tell.

I feel passionately enough about the debacle that was Trials of Shazam that it influenced by column’s title. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this column and the last few columns I’ve shared with you as you’ve journeyed with me through One Fan’s Trials.

Cheers and thanks for reading.

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