Shazam! Volume 1

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With DC’s 2011 “New 52” relaunch, plenty of characters and titles were revamped and “modernized” to various degrees.  There seemed to be a need to bring a sense of edginess to characters, whether they were historically edgy or not.  Truthfully, I never even thought about the implications it could have on Captain Marvel in the midst of all these changes.  i saw that Geoff Johns was writing a Captain Marvel comic, and the excitement in me took over. I was ready for some fun, old-fashioned Marvel-y goodness.

What I got was…well, definitely not that. It seems Captain Marvel didn’t scrape by unchanged in the midst of all the modernization.  The first and most notable change is his name.  Due to some legal mumbo jumbo, Marvel owns the name “Captain Marvel”, so DC had to title the original comic Shazam to avoid legal ramifications.  Apparently that led to people believing the comic title was actually the character’s name, so they just switched it and now his name is Shazam.

Understandable. I often mistakenly think Batman’s name is Detective Comics, since he’s predominantly featured in that series. *Sigh.  I refuse to accept this name change, so I will continue to refer to him as Captain Marvel because that’s his name. Also, DC coined that name more than 25 years prior to Marvel ever using it, so legalities be damned, it’s more their name than anything.

It was clear that Johns was going for a modern retelling of Billy Batson’s origin.  We still keep the “orphaned” element, but here we get to see him in foster care along with other children, including Mary and Freddy. I can appreciate the fact that Mary is not depicted here as his biological sister, lending itself to the “family is what you make of it” sentiment.  I’m sure they could always swing it back around and reveal that the two are blood relatives, but I didn’t find this change to have much of an impact on the overall story, and so I was fine with it.

What I wasn’t fine with was Billy being depicted as this obnoxious, snot-nosed punk kid who is mean to literally everyone he encounters.  Yes, he’s had a rough life. Yes, he’s been bounced around foster homes. Is that really any reason to completely change his character’s personality though?  I loved Billy’s sweetness and innocence.  It was a welcome relief to some of the more hardened, cynical heroes (looking at you, Batman).  Here, we just get the edgy, modern Billy Batson, who doesn’t even begin to resemble the Billy of older comics.

Had it been as simply as this, perhaps I could overlook the change. It could all boil down to personal preference and that would be the end of it. Sadly, that’s not the case.  Billy’s entire origin story is predicated on the fact that Billy is a pure-hearted individual, and so the wizard Shazam imbues him with powers.  Here, Billy is considered completely unworthy, and argues with Shazam that nobody is pure of heart, to which Shazam grudgingly agrees and then just gives Billy his powers.  Where’s the worthiness? Where’s the desire to do something good? For all Shazam knows, Billy could have taken the powers and become a conduit for evil.  All Shazam knew was that Billy had the potential to be both good and bad.  Those hardly seem like odds worth staking the fate of the world on.  Billy’s personality shift directly alters his entire origin, and I found it far less compelling when I didn’t believe he was actually worthy of the power he was receiving.

To be fair, I didn’t hate all of the comic.  I loved that Johns managed to sneak in references to Tawny the Tiger, and the end reveal of a future team-up between Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind was really fun.  Still, I couldn’t get past Billy’s characterization, and it wound up distracting me throughout most of the trade.

Perhaps it wasn’t Johns decision. Maybe higher ups in the company dictated how Billy should be written. Or, perhaps Johns was thinking ahead to his Justice League: Trinity War storyline, in which the concept of finding a pure-hearted individual played heavily into the plot. There, Pandora was seeking someone with a pure heart to open her box and contain the world’s evil. In a pre-New 52 universe, Billy would have been the obvious answer.  His moral compass unfailingly pointed north, and he no doubt would have been the solution to the problem.  So, maybe Johns wanted to fill in that plot hole by writing Billy as a more flawed character.  This could be a stretch, but then I wouldn’t put it past Johns to have thought that far ahead. It also helps me resign myself to how Billy’s been characterized, but only slightly. If his entire story has been changed for the sake of one storyline, I just don’t see it paying off in the long run.

The Shazam! trade was relatively brief, as Billy was still adjusting to his newfound powers.  I’m hoping he slowly gains a conscience and begins to shift to being more like his character of yore, but I have a feeling his, “Golly, gee wiz” days are over.  It’s a shame, because I found him to be such a sweet and endearing character.  Portraying him as a cynical, moody teenager feels just a little too…well, realistic for me. Is it really terrible for a comic to linger in nostalgia for a little while, allowing the reader to reminisce about simpler times, however false those memories may be?

I love most of Johns work, and having ready pretty much everything he’s written for DC (at least as far as the beginning of the New 52 so far), I don’t say that lightly.  He knows his stories and always brings a unique and interesting spin to characters. Unfortunately, I just feel he missed that mark with Captain Marvel.  Billy could have been revamped without completely changing who he is or how he responds to the world.  I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there who enjoy his newer, modern characterization, but I’ll take his endearing, earnest goodness over the cynicism any day.

-Jess

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