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

Underworld Unleashed

Underworld Unleashed was one of those trades that I went into completely blind.  I didn’t recognize the main villain on the cover, nor did I have any indication of what the story arc would be.  I opened this book utterly unaware of what I was about to read, and as it turns out, that was for the best.

The premise is laid out quite nicely.  Neron, a villain who is also referred to as the devil himself, summons heroes and villains alike to hell, in order to offer them a deal: their heart’s desire in exchange for their souls.

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He makes a pretty compelling offer.

Unsurprisingly, many agree to these terms, selling their souls for the strength and power they’ve always desired.  We learn all of this through Trickster, a B-level villain from the olden days who serves as a sort of narrator for this story.

As the story progresses, we see a number of characters battling the disasters than have sprung up on Earth as a result of Neron’s interference, as well as a group of Justice League members going into Hell itself.  Their journey is all to save Superman, whom Neron claims to have captured.  As the man of steel hasn’t been seen for some time, it is accepted that Neron must have him, and our heroes set out to save him in any way possible.

The explanation given is that Neron wants a soul that is completely pure, as it gives him the greatest power. After all, who’s soul is purer than Superman’s?

At this point I was already hooked on the story, but then something surprising happened.  It turns out, Superman’s was not the soul Neron wanted; it was Captain Marvel’s.

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I love me some Billy Batson, so I was thrilled to see him taking center stage in a story for a change.  In most of these crossover stories I’ve read he may make an appearance, but it’s never anything beyond making an innocent remark along the lines of, “Holy moley!”  For once Captain Marvel’s power and, more importantly, his innocence come into play.  I was excited to see his strengths serve a larger purpose in the story than they usually do.  So many comics plant one of the “trinity” at their forefront that it was refreshing to see a less-publicized character take center stage.

The fact that it was Captain Marvel was just icing on the cake.

The status quo is returned by the end of the trade, with Neron being defeated (at least for now).  This story was far more entertaining than I would have thought had I read a description beforehand.  A great number of classic DC villains make an appearance here, including Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang, and Gorilla Grodd.  Seeing such characters and actually knowing who they are made me grateful for having read the Golden and Silver Age comics on “the shelf”.  These characters may not play huge roles today, but they were significant enough when comics were still a new artform, and they helped shape so many future DC characters.  It’s nice to see that writers and artists haven’t completely forgotten them, and while they may not be the primary villains in a story, their inclusion remains significant.

The artwork and overall story were excellent, and yet one rather random and innocuous detail stood out to me while reading: The brief yet powerful appearance of the Joker.

Joker pops up early in the story, as a sort of lapdog for Neron (along with Lex Luthor and a few other villains) who traded in his soul for his heart’s desire.  Trickster has already seen Neron himself as well as every other villain helping him, and remains fairly nonplussed by their appearances.  He is only thrown off when he sees Joker sitting before him:

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Tricker’s brief account of Joker is enough to solidify him as one of the most insane, formidable foes in the DC universe.  Trickster has just faced Neron, Gorilla Grodd, and Lex Luthor among others, yet it is the clown prince of crime who leaves him feeling nervous.  I love the line, “When villains want to scare each other, they tell Joker stories.”  It not only fits Joker perfectly, but it shows what an extended reach he has within this world.  Even villains he has never directly dealt with are scared of him.  He’s not a man to be taken lightly, even in the shadow of the devil himself.
This brief aside would have been more than enough to detail Joker’s character for the sake of the story, yet the comic does us one better.  After a brief conversation, Joker reveals what he asked for in exchange for his soul.

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I couldn’t help it, I absolutely loved this scene.  It highlights the Joker’s personality so perfectly, emphasizing his absurd behavior and the fact that he never truly seems to be after anything in particular: wealth, power, glory; they’re all second-string to whatever whim might float into his mind at a given moment.  Although these scenes don’t directly play into the overall story, they help round out the narrative, allowing brief cameos from a variety of villains while also showing just how far-reaching Neron’s grasp is.

I’m not generally a fan of brief crossover events such as this, but I actually found this story to be thoroughly entertaining.  The artwork is beautifully rendered, and the story had enough detail and obscure character appearances to keep me interested.  Had another creative team been in charge of this storyline, I could easily have glossed over it, finding nothing memorable or remarkable within its pages.  Instead, I’m left eagerly wondering if I’ll encounter Neron again on “the shelf”, along with all of the classic Golden Age characters included in this story.

-Jess

Shazam!: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

My weekend consisted of seeing the new James Bond movie, watching old episodes of “Seinfeld”, and reading my first ever Captain Marvel trade.  All in all, not a bad way to spend two days, if I may say so myself.

Since this blog is all about comics, we’re going to forego discussing those first two activities and focus on the main attraction: Captain Marvel…or Shazam…I’m still a little unsure on what exactly I’m supposed to be calling him, since apparently he goes by both names.  I’m going to stick with “Captain Marvel” since that was his original name.  Can I get a ruling on that? Are we good with the “Captain Marvel” choice?

I must admit, before reading this trade I knew absolutely nothing about this character.  This is not me being modest or underselling my own knowledge. Before my foray into comics, I had at least heard of most of the main superheroes and knew their general powers, even if I didn’t know much about their individual storylines.

That wasn’t the case with Captain Marvel.  In all honestly, I thought Captain Marvel was a character for, well…Marvel (it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why I thought that).  I’m convinced all of the comic people were conspiring together 60 years ago just to confuse the hell  out of me today.  Does Marvel own a character called Mister DC? I wouldn’t put it past them at this point.

Anyway, once I realized Captain Marvel was, in fact, a DC character, I was a little more interested.  Still, I had never heard of him, and wondered if perhaps he was just a minor, unsuccessful character from the Golden Age.  I knew that he had been a favorite of Mistah J’s back when he was a kid, so that made me want to read about the character that much more.

His origin story, like most Golden Age superheroes, is pretty self-explanatory.  Billy Batson, a young orphaned boy, meets a mysterious stranger who decides to pass along his powers.  Now, all the boy has to do is say “Shazam!” and he magically transforms into Captain Marvel, a full-grown man with essentially the same powers as Superman super strength, speed, and the ability to fly.

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Okay yes, the character is very similar to Superman.  There is one distinct difference though that really makes Captain Marvel special: his alter ego.

Superman is super through and through.  Born on Krypton, he always had these fantastical powers and presumably always will.  By comparison, Captain Marvel, as powerful as he is, can change back into ordinary Billy Batson by simply saying “Shazam!” a second time.

Captain Marvel’s true identity not only sets him apart from Superman, but all other superheroes as well.  He is the only character whose true identity is that of a young boy.  Sure, characters like Robin and Kid Flash exist, but they serve as sidekicks to the real stars of the show.  Billy Batson acts as a bridge between children and the adult world.  Whereas most comics force children to idolize adult characters, Billy Batson allows them to look up to one of their peers.  Captain Marvel and all of his sidekicks are average, everyday kids most of the day.  Although told in a fantastical, over the top manner (as with all comics), Captain Marvel allowed children to believe that they too could be super and make a difference.  They didn’t have to wait to grow up.

After success in the Golden Age, Captain Marvel returned to the page nearly twenty years later.  With this, the writers decided to explain his two-decade absence within the plotline.

wpid-wp-1446835244836.jpgThe ever-amusing yet evil Doctor Sivana trapped Captain Marvel and his companions in suspended animation that whole time, explaining why the characters had not aged at all.

I’m always intrigued by how comics writers explain gaps in the storyline.  Other mediums might have just reintroduced the characters with no explanation or reference to their previous existence.  In the comic world though, even in the 70’s, all of the stories were connected and needed to fit together just so in order to make the multiverse complete.  I’m fascinated and a little in awe of how well the stories tie together, and the fact that such detail was given to a slightly less veteran character is impressive to say the least.

The stories themselves were outlandish but surprisingly fun.  The comic didn’t seem to take itself too seriously, and it paid off.  By letting loose, the stories developed incredibly entertaining plotlines with truly memorable characters:

wpid-wp-1446990476520.jpgMeet Mister Mind, an alien worm-genius.

Yes.  Alien. Worm. Genius.

Captain Marvel features the zaniest cast of villains I’ve read about by far.  They may be out there, but that kept me interested throughout the trade.

A handful of the stories I found downright unique.  The best example is an issue in which the Earth, brought to life with human characteristics, is lamenting about the humans covering its surface.  Constantly poking and prodding it, Earth decides to cause a series of natural disasters to rid itself of these pests.  As a result, Captain Marvel is forced to face off against the entire Earth in order to save the human race.

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Look at his face, he’s so angry ohmygosh.

This story was original and entertaining to read.  There wasn’t an actual villain in this issue, but it was still engaging and thought-provoking, moreso than other comics. I found the depth of the story surprising, given how strongly these comics are geared towards children.  I realize all comics at this time were written for kid readers, but Captain Marvel felt more kid-friendly than just about any other comic I’ve read so far.  I was impressed, then, that I was still able to enjoy the stories presented here.  Rather than feel childish or immature, the issues were extremely enjoyable, without having to resort to a darker, more mature form of storytelling.

In the span of one day I went from knowing absolutely nothing about Captain Marvel to being a big fan of his stories.  Although they lack the subtle nuances sometimes found in other comics, I found the stories highly entertaining, filled with non-stop action and adventure.  There are no slow parts, no dragging dialogue or superfluous scenes that lead nowhere.  Everything plays into the larger story.  With so many other early comics containing unnecessary scenes, I was glad to find that this comic was tightly written, keeping me enthralled from start to finish.

At this point I’m not sure how often, if at all, Captain Marvel reappears on “the shelf”, but I certainly wouldn’t object to revisiting the character should he pop up again.

Now I feel like I need some awesome exclamation to end my blog posts, to take me from blogger extraordinaire back to everyday, mild-mannered me.  Too bad “Shazam!” is already taken.  It’d make a pretty awesome sign-off.

Ah screw it.  My blog, my rules.  Shazam!

-Jess