Oct 11, 2010

A Sense of Wonder: Why DC Has Failed to Successfully Incorporate Shazam! into the DC Universe

Welcome to the a new installment of A Sense of Wonder, a new feature of indefinite length in which I detail the wonderful (and I mean that in the purest sense of the word) and imagination-inspiring aspects of the characters in the comic book medium, which would emphasize the superheroes, but would not be limited to them. Click here for the archive.

Today, we're going to talk about one of my absolute favorite superheroes, the one, true Captain Marvel!

Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam #19. Art by Mike Norton

Now, unless this is your first trip to the Comics Cube!, you'll know I'm a big, big fan of Captain Marvel. Created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck for Fawcett Publications in 1940, I think the basic concept - that of young Billy Batson saying the word "SHAZAM!" and then turning into Captain Marvel, a man 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, was and still is pure genius. Such a basic setup is the perfect one to involve the reader - specifically kids. While kids could fantasize about being Superman - a meek and mild-mannered journalist who takes off his suit and becomes the mightiest man in the world - everyone could fantasize about AND relate to being Billy Batson, who was an actual powerless kid - with no pretenses - who turned into a superhero with a mere word.

It's the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy, and goes a rather long way into explaining Captain Marvel was so successful in the Golden Age, when comics were at their peak and was almost exclusively a kids' medium.  In fact, Captain Marvel was so popular that he not only had two titles (Whiz and Captain Marvel Adventures), an honor reserved only for Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman at the time, but also a number of spinoffs.

From Superman/Batman: World's Funniest by Evan Dorkin. Art by Jaime Hernandez.

Captain Marvel Junior carried the darker stories (with intricate Mac Raboy art) for the older readers, while Mary Marvel targeted the female demographic with Marc Swayze art. This one franchise carried a comic book company, something that no other franchise could claim to do at the time, with the possible exception of Archie. Superman and Batman didn't have spinoffs (until 1947, when Robin got one).

I hope that puts things into context for everyone, because it's important to know just how successful Captain Marvel was.

The Captain Marvel stories stood out among the Golden Age comics because of their sheer quality and sense of wonder and whimsy. With C.C. Beck's clean linework and the stories written mostly by Otto Binder, the Captain Marvel stories exercised the imagination of the readers and filled them with fantastic ideas to tickle their minds.

For example, here's Captain Marvel, pulling on a strand of string that is woven into a carpet from another dimension! It's as fun as it sounds and looks!

Captain Marvel Adventures #100, which I read back when I was 15 from a library book, was a thrilling and gripping tale, where Dr. Sivana took over the wizard Shazam's spot on the Rock of Eternity and tried taking over the entire universe. The story involves robots, magic, and Tawky Tawny, Captain Marvel's talking tiger.

Man, that art is pretty.

Now, because of a lawsuit from DC Comics, claiming that Captain Marvel was infringing on Superman's copyright. In the early 50s, the superheroes were dying out, so Fawcett just decided to concede the case and stop publishing Captain Marvel. Of course, at that point, it had already inspired a number of imitators - internationally, I might add!

DC then licensed Captain Marvel so they could use him, and in 1991, they just flat-out bought him. They segregated the Marvel Family into their own earth, designated Earth-S (for Shazam), and when they told stories of the Marvel Family on their own, they tried retaining the whimsical feel of the classic stories, the sense of wonder that had made Captain Marvel so important. Note this retelling (written by Denny O'Neil, and also drawn by Beck) of his origin in Shazam! #1.

But when they told stories where the Marvel Family interacted with the rest of the mainstream DC Universe - ah, well, there was a problem. For one thing, Captain Marvel would almost always have to be compared with his Golden Age rival, Superman.

This is a natural story, of course. A dream match for fans, the ultimate crossover -- whatever spin you want to put on it. Of course, though, the sheer number of times with which it happened just ended up limiting the Marvel Family. It seems that from that point onward, Captain Marvel always had to be compared to Superman. A true shame, because bringing Captain Marvel into the DC House Style really did make him what DC always accused him of being: a second-rate Superman.

After the Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986, DC rebooted their entire line (kind of) so that there were no alternate earths, and there never were. A part of this decision was to reboot Captain Marvel from scratch. Therefore, in this new universe, not only would Captain Marvel have to exist in the same universe as Superman, but he would also have to deal with the fact that he could no longer retain the same role. Superman is the premiere superhero in his universe - the same exact role Captain Marvel fills in his. Thus, in this larger DC Universe, Captain Marvel is just plain redundant.

The worst thing about Captain Marvel's involvement in the DC Universe is that it happened in the 80s - the era of the grim and gritty. Roy Thomas and Tom Mandrake came out with Shazam: The New Beginning, attempting to set the tone for Captain Marvel in this new universe. In the new history, Cap is the only one of his kind - no Junior, no Mary, definitely no talking tigers. Billy Batson is orphaned, and is then adopted by his uncle-by-marriage, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. Note the updated version of Dr. Sivana - full of shadows, more grotesque than impish. A true sign of the 80s.

As part of their attempt to make the character more realistic and updated for the modern day, Thomas and Mandrake tried making him more badass, with panels like the following.

The truth is that Shazam: The New Beginning is actually a pretty good comic, considering that it's generically 80s (and the 80s were great!) . . . if it weren't a Captain Marvel comic. It would have been fine if it were anyone else, anyone that people didn't really have care much about, but Captain Marvel, who became an icon exactly because of his whimsical nature, just was not the right character for this project. Note the scene in which Billy gains his powers - in an attempt to be "realistic," we see the power go to his head almost right away. This provides a rather sharp contrast to the original sequence shown above.

Thomas and Mandrake's version was not so well received, and in 1994, they decided to change Cap's origin again. DC went to Jerry Ordway, an established artist on Superman, and had him write and draw the series. Unfortunately, Ordway is a talented artist, but his style tends to favor the grittier kind, while Cap needs, again, the more whimsical type.

But those painted covers sure are pretty.

Ordway's series was as 90s as Thomas and Mandrake's was 80s - perhaps even more, highlighted by the obvious attempt to not be a product of its times. See, in the 90s, the fad was really big guns and lots of grimacing, and Ordway really tried to steer clear of this. Of course, bits of it still crept in, and because he tried so hard not to do it, when they did creep in, it was more accentuated. Note his version of Billy's getting his powers.

Seriously, my niece laughed when she read this. A lot. "Why is Billy beating up the wizard?" she asked. Try explaining to a kid the reason, and you won't find anything that will satisfy them, because no one is going to Captain Marvel for angst and anger.

I also have to add this particular sequence where Captain Marvel fights his opposite number, Black Adam.

"I lived on the streets"? Ugh. Really, Jerry?

In addition, whereas the identity separation of Billy and Captain Marvel was quite distinct in the Golden Age - Cap was one person that Billy turned into - this new treatment had Billy retaining his own mentality and staying a kid even when he's the world's mightiest mortal. This was their way of explaining why he was kept cheerful and lighthearted in the DC Universe.

It also effectively neutered him, as seen in this panel where Superman - with fading powers - chooses to go on a suicide mission, while the guy who's at least as strong as he is, whose powers aren't fading, stands there and says "Holy Moley, Superman!"

In fact, it seems that the only way Captain Marvel seems special at any time is when he's beating up Superman, like in this panel from Grant Morrison and Howard Porter's JLA.

And note that even after beating Superman, he has to say that he's not as important as Superman!

Captain Marvel was also used in James Robinson and Tony Harris' Starman run to show how special and what a hard fighter Starman is.

I have no problem with this; it's the same kind of reasoning Frank Miller used when he chose Superman to be Batman's "enhancing counterpart" in Dark Knight Returns, and at least Robinson captures the "kid-as-superhero" characterization perfectly, even if it does make Billy look stupid. (I mean, look at that exchange up there.)

Ordway's The Power of Shazam lasted for a few years, which is considered a success for pretty much any average title in comics in the 90s - as well as these days - and that's simply not good enough for the character who, at one point, was the biggest character of the Golden Age. This continued insistence on keeping everything in one universe, to keep the continuity among titles and characters, has severely neutered Billy Batson and the Marvel Family. As much of a hodgepodge as shared universes are, Captain Marvel's whimsy and sense of wonder stands out so much in the more realistic setting of the larger DC Universe and ends up resembling silliness. By 2007, the Marvel Family was so broken that they just decided to take them all the way to the extreme and turn them evil.

I know. I know. I know. This isn't a sense of wonder, folks. This is a sense of bewilderment.

The reason Captain Marvel doesn't work in the DC Universe is obvious: it's that he was never meant to be in there, and that his role is already filled by someone else. I think it's massively telling that the best use of Captain Marvel has been away from the entire DC Universe. I refer, of course, to Jeff Smith's excellent miniseries, Shazam! and the Monster Society of Evil. My full review is here, and I'm not going to recount it.

What I will do is talk about the follow-up series, Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam. While I skipped the first four issues completely because I couldn't stand Mike Kunkel's art, the subsequent issues written by Art Baltazar and Franco, and drawn by Byron Vaughns and Mike Norton are entertaining, amusing, and wonderful. I got them for my niece and I ended up getting drawn into the story myself!

Look, here's Dr. Sivana riding a big robot called Mr. Atom!

Later on in the story, Cap's old enemy, the caveman King Kull, gets involved, so how does Mary beat both Kull and Sivana? With a solution that evokes the best kind of sense of wonder: the real kind.

The cartooning style here is fun! It's whimsical and it carries the story perfectly. It stands head and shoulders above a bunch of the photo-based - pardon me - crap we see today. Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam is one of the best titles on the market today, getting the sense of fun, whimsy, and wonder that made the Marvel Family so big and fun to begin with!

And of course, because it's (1) unconnected to the main DC Universe, and (2) marketed toward kids, it's getting canceled in a couple of weeks, because apparently, no one's reading it.

How to solve this? Well, I think that it's clear that I don't think that working Captain Marvel into the main DC Universe doesn't work. I also don't think that targeting him towards adults works. There are two steps: (1) Get him the hell away from Superman, and (2) Make sure the kids are reading him.

Now, next year, Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart are coming up with a Captain Marvel comic in which the Marvel Family is set on Earth-5, an earth modeled after the old Earth-S, where the Marvels are the premiere superheroes on their earth. In short: in this earth, Captain Marvel is the Superman.

That's step one, and Morrison is definitely a good enough writer to bring in that sense of wonder, and certainly a good enough writer to come up with thrilling narratives when he's editorially constrained, but that's not enough. We all know that it's comics readers, not kids or casual readers, who go into comics stores and see the offerings. So how to get this in the hands of kids? Well, for that, we go to fellow Captain Marvel fan, Pol Rua! Pol thinks that DC should:

Create a digest-sized quarterly or bi-monthly for sale in bookstores and to elementary school libraries. Aim it at young readers.

The quarterly should run to about 100-120 pages and include one main, self-contained story (taking up about half the page count) and two or three back-ups, either all self-contained or a multi-part serial which runs for a certain amount of issues.

The main story should either be Captain Marvel (usually) or The Marvel Family. Back-ups can be Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel, jr., Tawky Tawny or whatever.

This is a great idea, because the digests are affordable and thick for their price-size ratio. Moreover, they're convenient in bookstores and even here, used book sales sell new Archie digests. Imagine if superheroes were that convenient for purchase.

Pol then gives some suggestions for how the creative teams should be handled:

"Unless it's a serial, the writers and artists should rotate, to allow busy creative people to produce work at their own speed. Art should, for the most part, be simple, clean-line work - Mike Allred, Steve Rude, Cliff Chiang, Jaime Hernandez... but who wouldn't love to see Colleen Coover or Dean Trippe do a Mary Marvel story, or Sergio Aragones or Kyle Baker do a Tawky Tawny story?

Freaking hell, I love this idea! Here's some suggestions of my own: David Mazzucchelli, Pete Poplaski, and Ty Templeton.

I also suggest - and I think this stuff is great - that when stories of the entire Marvel Family are told, we go back to the old style where the characters are drawn differently (I detail it here), as opposed to all being drawn in the same style.

It distinguishes them and appeals to all the demographics (girls for Mary, younger boys for Cap, older boys for Junior), and also it gives it a really different look from any other franchise in the industry. So I'm all for this idea.

Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family are too significant, too important to the history of comics to be ignored. And they're such good characters and good concepts that to do this wrong is really a disservice to the fans, the readers, the writers, and the artists. This franchise is quite simply too good to keep at the wayside.

And before anyone tells me that the Captain Marvel storytelling engine is outdated and that kids don't want to read about kids who turn into superheroes, I mean, really, that's bull. I give you Ben10, a very successful cartoon about a kid who turns into powerful beings.

And besides, how cool would it be to have more kids running around saying "SHAZAM!"?


David Walton said...

Brilliant article. I'll admit I'm not real familiar with Captain Marvel.

What did you think of his appearance in the JLU cartoon? They used him as a more idealistic counterpoint to Superman, who had become embittered by his constant struggles with Lex Luthor. I thought it worked well, but then, I didn't have any preconceptions going in.

Duy Tano said...

Thanks for the kind words, Mr. Reilly!

I really liked Cap's appearance in JLU, if for really no other reason than I really liked seeing Cap. Like every episode of JLU, I loved it. I'm a little disappointed the fight was so lopsided, but I remember screaming and getting up from my chair (no lie) the moment he hit Superman with the Shazam-bolt.

But, again, it just illustrates the limitations of putting Cap in the DC Universe. Of all the stories in the world, and he functions best as a counterpoint to Superman. What's more, he does that for one episode and it's fine. If he were a regular fixture, he'd have been the annoying naive kid.

Darrell D. said...

Trying to fit Captain Marvel in with the rest of the current DCU only leads to failure, and really just misses the point of the character. It's the ultimate wish fulfillment, and should be complete fun. When I hear people talking about artists who are totally wrong for the character (Ethan Van Sciver? Really), it makes my teeth hurt. The Brave and the Bold cartoon got him right.
It's pretty sad when creators who don't normally work in the super-hero genre understand the character more than those who do.

Duy Tano said...

Van Sciver's an odd guy -- his style is so perfect for realistic, gritty stuff, and yet he seems to really want to do Plastic Man and Captain Marvel.

The guy who wrote the Captain Marvel episode of Brave and the Bold - I want him writing Cap. Like right now.

Darrell D. said...

Yeah, I can't see Van Sciver's style suited for Plastic Man at all. They should be going after guys like Evan Dorkin and Kyle Baker or even Peter Bagge, let them run wild with the concept. The character was created by a gag cartoonist, after all.

The Professor said...

I am delighted to see Captain Marvel getting some love. I really enjoy re-reading his Golden Age stories. The "Mister Mind and the Monster Society of Evil" story arc (from Captain Marvel Adventures #22 to #46) is absolutely wonderful. As much as I like Golden Age stuff, and as "Full of Wonder" as it is, there is very little from the early 1940s that has held up as well as this material.

Like Duy has mentioned, Captain Marvel is a wonderful character for younger readers. But, like Duy's also mentioned, that doesn't seem to be a market that the big publishers have much interest in. Maybe the folks who put out the early reader books (like "I can read") should think about a Captain Marvel issue. I'd buy it in a second for my five year old. He'd be saying "Shazam" for weeks.

Duy Tano said...

Darrell: And yet, Plastic Man is Van Sciver's favorite character. It's interesting to think about. (But it'd still be wrong.)

Professor: They had solicited a collection of the Monster Society stuff for release in November, but then they retracted it! Can you believe it? Supposedly, one of the reasons is racist imagery.

I really think digests and shorts in magazines are the way to go. If Magic of Shazam were available in the kids' section of a bookstore in a smaller, cheaper format, I bet it would sell.

Fun fact: I had some episodes of the 1981 Shazam cartoon on tape, and soon after they read Jeff Smith's book, the kids watched it. The 11-year-old was laughing at the bad animation, but the 5-year-old was so into it and started assigning characters to us. She was Mary Marvel, her brother was Junior, their dad was Cap, and that left me with Uncle Dudley.

Darrell D. said...

Duy: I'm old, so I remember watching the Shazam cartoon as a kid. It was one of the few cartoons at the time that didn't completely suck, and IIRC they really tried to stick to the C.C. Beck/Otto Binder spirit of the concept. I could be wrong, since I haven't seen them since I was a kid in the 80s. I would love to find that on DVD somewhere.
And, since we are talking about Plastic Man, I remember the Plastic Man cartoon in the late 70s? early 80s? Horrible. 'Baby Plas'. *Shudder*

Duy Tano said...


I think you can get the Shazam cartoons bootlegged off on eBay or something. The episodes I saw were pretty good, and pretty fun! Look for 'em on YouTube, I'm sure they're there.

Fun fact: they (and the 70s TV show) were produced by Lou Scheimer, the same guy who later on suggested that He-Man, in order to be differentiated from Conan and other barbarians, should have a schtick where he changes from Prince Adam to He-Man with a bolt of lightning!

I haven't seen that Plastic Man cartoon since I was a kid!

Dempsey Sanders said...

I really like Captain Marvell as a character, and hated the fact he was always classed as a second rate Superman by DC.
In fact, seeing him going head to head with Superman in some comics were really enjoyable and looked like he more than most could give Superman a run for his money, but like you say, its always played down by 'Supermans more important than me' or something else.

Such a fantastic post and great effort here, very interesting read.

Duy Tano said...

Thanks, Dempsey! Yes, I think that he more than most could give Superman a run for his money. Unfortunately, his role seems to be relegated specifically to being the one who more than most could give Superman a run for his money.

Unknown said...

Good read. I'm a classic superhero fan and the love you give to Cap is awesome. Between this and your Reclaiming History Superman vs Cap blog, my love for Cap has been reignited a little. What are your thoughts on his role in Kingdom Come? It kind of speaks to your opinion here, in that he was kind of separated from the DCU, or not o true part of it at least, and in the end he was its salvation. And don't forget he whooped Superman pretty good, too. I'm becoming a regular visitor to The Comics Cube so keep these coming.

Duy Tano said...

I've got a weird love/hate relationship with Kingdom Come Captain Marvel, in that it reignited my love for Captain Marvel that I had as a kid, but also, once that love was reignited, I was kind of annoyed at it for taking Cap in the exact opposite direction. Still, they used him to the benefit of the story...

Anonymous said...

The BEST rendition to date that I've seen of the character, is the one in Ross & Kruger's "Justice" story line a few years ago.

That was an EXCELLENT piece and depicts Billy how he's SUPPOSED to be in his Capt. Marvel form: intelligent, mature, and very powerful, not some "golly gee whiz" dunce in tights that in awe of every other super hero.

Duy Tano said...

I thought that kind of came across at the expense of other characters somewhat, but yeah, it is nice to see him get the spotlight.

I do think that he treads on a lot of DC characters' roles and would just be better off served in a whole different universe altogether.

Patrick Donakowski said...

I like that you gave Captain Marvel some attention...I happen to be huge fan too! I think he might be my favorite. I agree that he's not being utilized the way he should be...However, I feel he COULD exist in the DCU alongside all the other big names...EVEN Superman. (Btw, I'm interested in a serious storyline...because Capt SHOULD be taken serious...I mean...he can kick some serious ass! Why don't they show him doing it more??) NOW...Captain Marvel COULD exist along with Superman, because he's NOT a Superman clone...one is an alien and the other gets his power from magic...It's just enough of a contrast for it to work, PLUS they're personalities ARE different. Life is like this...look at Bo Jackson and Deon Sanders...also...the existence of "dopple-gangers"...Furthermore, my opinion is that with the right writers, Superman, Captain Marvel, Mon-El (Valor), Drax (DC) could all exist in the same universe and IF it's done properly...It could be "Super" beautiful...

Doc Savage said...

Comics in the Golden Age were not "almost exclusively a kids' medium." Millions were read by servicemen, and a large part of the postwar sales decline is attributable to the mustering out of hundreds of thousands of comic book readers.

Doc Savage said...

Oh, by the by, there were many other heroes with two titles: Black Terror, Blue Beetle (who got his 2nd title before Batman did), Green Lantern, Flash, Bulletman, Plastic Man, Sub-Marinwr, Human Torch, the Hangman, Doll Man...just to name some. It was hardly unusual.

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