Jun 1, 2010

Comics Cube! Reviews: Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil

A couple of days ago, I was in the bookstore, when I saw Jeff Smith's Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil.


As regular readers of the Comics Cube know, I am a huge fan of Shazam and the Captain Marvel family of characters. I think they're a rich trove for great stories, and also I think that Captain Marvel is the single most downplayed character in the history of comics as it relates to impact. But I gave all of my thoughts on that issue way back when, so I won't repeat it and will just link to it here. For fun, I will also link to my posts talking about all the heroes that were derivative of Captain Marvel over the years here and here.

I'm also a huge advocate of creating comics that could be enjoyed by kids from one to ninety-two, and when it comes to franchises that could do that, no one but no one is better than Captain Marvel. He was the highest-selling character during the point in the history of comics where the medium was being read by the most kids, and the premise lends itself perfectly to kids' reading in two ways. First of all, the main character is Billy Batson - himself, a kid. That jives with Michael Chabon's main suggestion for marketing comics for kids, and also is consistent with the majority of successful children's literature.

The second part is the wish fulfillment aspect of the character. With one magic word - SHAZAM! - Billy turns into the superstrong Captain Marvel, with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury, a literal deus ex machina for most stories. And kids love that kind of stuff. If you think they don't, then I'd ask you to please explain to me the success of Ben10:



And much like Captain Marvel is the right character to present in a comic for kids, Jeff Smith is the right creator to go to to deliver it. Jeff Smith's award-winning Bone series was not only a landmark in independent publishing; it was also a landmark in all-ages storytelling, delivering a tale that could be enjoyed by all ages - and I should know. I read it one summer in 2004, and my nephew read it three years later, and instantly named it his favorite book of all time.

The book itself, as Alex Ross says in his introduction, is full of charm. It's quite obvious that Jeff Smith took the time to read the original Otto Binder/C.C. Beck stories and was able to pinpoint exactly what made Captain Marvel work: the whimsical, fantastical tone of the character and his world, as well as the fact that the star of the show, the true protagonist, is Billy Batson. Smith's plot is clever and fairly straightforward, but not at all dumbed down to speak only to children.

As with Bone, Smith's art is expressive and clear. The style is distinctly his; and you know what each character is thinking just by looking at their facial expressions and body language. There's a fluidity and smoothness to his figure work, reminiscent of the best cartoons, or of the works of Walt Kelly, Charles Schultz, or dare I say, Winsor McCay. From Billy's smugness to Captain Marvel's confidence to Sivana's sniveling posture, you can easily "read" the story just from the pictures alone.



Smith's takes on the Shazam mythology are logical, sensible, and, for the most part, better for today's day and age. Making Billy and Mary younger than usual leads to more charming visuals and can theoretically get more kids into it (sadly, the main Captain Marvel in the DC Universe is now 18), and making Sivana the same size as they are ensures hilarity as well, and provides a great, entertaining finishing sequence for the climax of the book (I hope no vertically challenged people took offense).

Jeff Smith goes back to the original interpretation of Captain Marvel and Billy Batson as being two distinct personalities, as opposed to how he's been portrayed in the main DC comics since 1987 - that Captain Marvel is just Billy's brain in Marvel's body. The original take, and therefore Smith's, makes more sense in terms of story potential and truly putting Billy in danger, building up suspense.

Jeff Smith also portrays Tawky Tawny, the talking tiger, in a different, inspired way. I'll acknowledge that the take, which I won't spoil here, is more logical and sensible for the modern audience, and loses no level of charm, just moves what charm exists in the character of Tawky Tawny from one direction to the other. After all, I imagine that I'm in the minority when I say I prefer the original version:



But I'll always be most grateful to Jeff Smith for is his take on Mary Marvel. Billy's sister has had multiple iterations before. At first, she was Mary Batson, and when she said "Shazam!" she turned into Mary Marvel, who was pretty much just her with different superhero clothes, carrying the grace of Selena, the strength of Hippolyta, the skill of Ariadne, the fleetness of Zephyrus, the beauty (which is odd, considering that Mary's appearance didn't change) of Hera, and the wisdom of Minerva. Then, after 1987, post-Crisis on Infinite Earths, she was revised to be more like Billy. She became a teenager who, upon saying Shazam, turned into an adult superhero, just like her brother. And this time, she got the same powers as her brother, except when they were both Marvels, their powers would divide equally. Do not ask me to get into the fiasco that was "Black Mary Marvel" later on; I will not get into it.

Jeff Smith returned (kinda) Mary Marvel to the original concept of a kid who didn't change appearance aside from the costume upon saying her magic word. Mary's powers in this version are never explicitly stated, except for that she is much faster than Captain Marvel (can someone name a god faster than Mercury whose name may start with S, H, A, Z, or M?), not so strong as her brother, and has the ability to sense life force, which comes from the goddess Athena. It is an excellent take, because it clearly differentiates the two of them - in fact, Mary Marvel gets some great shining moments in this comic, even if the star is still clearly Billy Batson. No longer is Mary just a diminutive female version of Captain Marvel; she actually is her own character.



And making her a kid just hits it out of the ballpark for me. See, I don't blog about her much, but I have a five-year-old niece, who loves to draw and create superheroes for herself, and constantly asks me why there aren't any comics for (1) kids, and (2) girls. So Jeff Smith's take on Mary Marvel tackles both demographics, which is incredible. Anyone who tells me that Jeff Smith isn't at the top of heap when it comes to diversifying audiences will get an argument. (That my niece also has an older brother is an added bonus.)

Jeff Smith's Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil is a comic book that was enjoyed by me, my eleven-year-old nephew, and my five-year-old niece. It's a comic that's enjoyable on a number of levels, and can be enjoyed at any age. It's full of a contemporary version of that Golden Age charm, and feels like a love letter to Otto Binder and C.C. Beck. It's a combination of fanciful and whimsical concepts that anyone who doesn't take himself too seriously can enjoy, and anyone who does take himself too seriously could probably benefit from reading it.

Very highly recommended.

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