Jun 4, 2015

Ranking DC's Takes on Shazam!

Longtime readers of The Comics Cube know I love, love, love Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family, and have spent way, way too many hours thinking about why they haven't worked in the context of DC's publishing plans and what could be done to make them work. Now, since I still have hours left to burn for no reason, I figured I may as well do a ranking of all the times (that I can remember) that DC's tried bringing Captain Marvel into the modern age.

Ranking Shazam Past the Golden Age
by Duy

Honorable Mention: The Power of Hope

This is the third of five oversized, but thin, comics that Paul Dini and Alex Ross did at the turn of the millennium (the first two were Superman and Batman, the next two were Wonder Woman and the Justice League). It's a decent story, but I'm not putting it on the list because it's drastically different from the rest of the list. It wasn't meant to be (or even pretend to be) a springboard for future stories, it had no supervillains, and, what the hell,it's more a storybook than a comic (yeah, yeah). Still, it's got nice visuals (Captain Marvel's one of the few superheroes I think Alex Ross totally nails) and the story about Captain Marvel helping kids in need, especially a friend who has an abusive dad, is touching, if quite cheesy.

10. Trials of Shazam

This mid-2000s attempt to give Shazam a series is a weird one because it really goes all out on the risks. The wielder of the magic lightning isn't Billy Batson, but Freddie Freeman, the former Captain Marvel Jr., the only superhero who couldn't say his name ("Captain Marvel" is the magic word that changes him back to his mortal form). In this story, he tries to reclaim the powers of the lightning by proving himself worthy to the six gods (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury) responsible for bequeathing that power. He goes by the name "Shazam," ensuring that he remains the one superhero who can't say his name.

Anyway, it's weird, it didn't last long, he had a spot in Final Crisis and some guest spots in Superman's comic, and that was that. The story itself isn't so bad, but it's not what one might be looking for in a Shazam story. Funnily enough, I remember reading that the pitch was originally meant for Donna Troy, the former Wonder Girl, which, if true, would have made a lot more sense.

9. First Thunder

This four-issue miniseries came out in the mid-2000s and detailed the first meeting of Superman and Captain Marvel. It was what it was — a decent story with decent art and not much to write home about.

8. The Power of Shazam

I want to love this 90s series so much, but I have to struggle just to like it. Jerry Ordway tried to take the Marvel Family into the modern day, but his method of trying to find a balance between the classic, whimsical tone and a contemporary one resulted in an uneven series, where Captain Marvel might go from talking about how he lived on the streets in one issue and then have Tawky Tawny appear a few issues later. This series never felt to me like it got into a rhythm, and never really seemed to be sure of what it wanted to be. Still, it did have some nice twists introduced in it — Captain Marvel's appearance is based on Billy's dad, and Mary Marvel also changes into an adult version based on, if I remember right, their mom (please ignore the creepy undertones of twins turning into likenesses of their parents). Additionally, Mary Marvel was also named Captain Marvel and wore a white costume. Still, for all the interesting ideas and twists, it's hampered by enough doses of the wrong type of realism to bring into Captain Marvel. There was too much exposition, for example, about how if the Marvels are all active at the same time, they split their power levels equally, as if they were being monitored via trading cards. And when Billy first gets his power, he throws the Wizard around, because .... that's realistic, I guess.

I do love the painted covers though.So here's three more of them for your pleasure.

7. With One Magic Word...

You'd think I'd place this higher than I do, since it is the comic that brought Captain Marvel to DC in the first place, and it frequently had art by CC Beck (his co-creator) and Kurt Schaffenberger. And yes, absolutely, this series is fun — if you can't get hold of the classic Golden Age stuff instead. Really, I have a lot of issues of this series, but the best parts are the Golden Age reprints in the back.

This is an axiom of comics I absolutely believe: you cannot just do something the way it used to be done. Yes, tribute comics exist, but there's a reason something like Alan Moore's Silver Age pastiches in Supreme has a hell of a lot more value than Big Bang Comics: because it actually does something new within that structure and doesn't just ape the old stuff. That's the problem With One Magic Word... had, the fact that it was trying to recapture lightning in a bottle and that was just never going to happen.

Eventually, they realized you can't just riff on the old beats and tried expanding it, but their method of doing so was to tie it more into the 1970s Fleischer TV show, where Billy travelled America in a van with some old dude named Mentor, but making Billy in the comic travel across America in a van with Uncle Dudley while continually calling him his mentor.

Shazam is hard to bring into the modern age because unlike Superman or Batman or Wonder Woman, he didn't stick around, so you have to extrapolate what his evolution would have been like. These next six, for all their flaws, at least try doing that and commit to their directions.

6. The Magic of Shazam

This comic tried to work off of Jeff Smith's Monster Society of Evil (coming up later in the list), but I think Mike Kunkel was just the wrong choice for the job, not because he was bad, but because the whimsy of the story and the fact that it was under the Johnny DC label (thus making kids the specified target audience), Kunkel's cramped layouts made it an effort to read. That's not always a bad thing; in fact, it may be rewarding, but I don't think you can really call it commercially viable. When they had a more straightforward storytelling style later on with Art Baltazar and a host of artists, it was, I think, already too late.

Still, it's a fun enough series on its own.

5. The New 52
4. A New Beginning

Really, these are two stories that try bringing a darker edge to Captain Marvel 30 years apart from each other. And really, they're pretty much trying the same thing. So, let's break these two down Bill Simmons style.

  • Writer: A New Beginning was written by Roy Thomas. The New 52 had Geoff Johns on it. These are the same guy from different eras. But what the hell, I'll go with Johns.
    Edge: The New 52
  • Artist: Tough call for me because I love both artists. I do love Gary Frank a shade more than I like Tom Mandrake, but Frank's style I feel would have worked better in a more straightforward story, and not one that was necessarily grimmer and grittier by its nature. Mandrake was perfect for what he did. So...
    Edge: A New Beginning
  • Story Structure: A New Beginning is really straightforward: Billy gets adopted by his uncle-by-marriage, Dr. Sivana, than he gets the powers of Captain Marvel, Black Adam shows up, fights ensue. The New 52 is rough going because Billy's a bit of a douchebag to start it off, and while that should be irrelevant if you're reading the story in one go, if you're buying that month by month, what incentive do you have to keep going with a story if you don't like the main character, even if you're aware that his growth is the point and it may pay off eventually?
    Edge: A New Beginning
  • The Marvel Family: There is no Marvel Family in A New Beginning. The New 52 has a Marvel Family, and it's huge.
    Edge: The New 52
  • Most Movie Potential: Here's the thing. If you're Hollywood and you want to take an existing comic book story and make that your script for a Shazam movie, you're picking one of these two. Live-action stuff grounds the story pretty much all the time, and there's nothing wrong with that. So, given that, which one of these two is it picking? And between the two, I'm going with A New Beginning. It has all the elements Hollywood needs — a sympathetic hero (Billy is a victim from the start, while New 52 Billy is unlikable), an easy-to-understand pair of villains (Sivana, Billy's uncle, is the one who brings Black Adam to Earth), comic relief that's played serious when needed (Uncle Dudley beats Sivana up at one point), and it spotlights exactly one hero. The Marvel Family probably show up in the sequel.
    Final Edge: A New Beginning

3. The Monster Society of Evil

Really, on paper, this should have been #1. Jeff Smith, cartoonist of the much-beloved Bone, getting his hands on the Big Red Cheese? It's great! And this story is great, and has just the right twists to it. Billy and Cap are different people, who are able to take on different forms at the Rock of Eternity. Tawky Tawny is a spirit animal. Mary Marvel is a young kid, stays the same age, and has powers that Cap doesn't have. Aside from some slight datedness (Sivana's role is straight-up reminiscent of the War on Terror), there's really nothing to complain about. It would have easily been number one in any list that was made before December 2014.

2. Multiversity: Thunderworld

And Multiversity's Thunderworld Adventures, by Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart, would have easily been number one as well on any list that was made before April 2015, meaning it had an unofficial four-month span as the best Captain Marvel story post-1955. That's the shortest reign among our champions, if you want to imagine that I was making this list as these books were coming out and adjusting them as they went along.

Morrison and Stewart just nailed the Marvels, with larger-than-life threats (what's deadlier than a multiversal army of Sivanas, one of whom harnesses the magic lightning), out-of-this-world abilities (time travel plays a part), and just enough levity to remind us we're having fun (Captain Marvel Jr. tricks Georgia Sivana by flirting with her).

Really, I'd have called this one perfect, and I'd be gloating about this article I wrote years ago more, if this next one hadn't come out.

1. Convergence

I love this so much. So, so much. Everything I said about Multiversity: Thunderworld? It's all true for this two-issue mini by Jeff Parker and Evan Shaner, and it's better. I can't quite pinpoint out what makes it better, though. The best I can do is that it's a little bit more all-out — every entrance is momentous, and there are so many fist-pumping moments. The first time Billy calls the lightning down, a splash page is given to him just turning into Captain Marvel, and I'm pretty sure I yelled out "Yeah!" while reading it (which, for context, doesn't happen a lot of the time). As fun as Multiversity was, there's still something a bit too cerebral about it. But this one was, while clearly well thought out, put the sense of wonder and the sense of awe ahead of everything else. And if I could pick any team from this list to continue what they were doing, I'd pick Parker and Shaner. Easily.

Still, it's just great that in a six-month span, we got two Shazam stories that finally, finally, felt like they got it. No matter how much I liked Jeff Smith's run, no matter how fun some of the other stuff on this list was, it didn't feel like anyone really fully got it until Multiversity and Convergence. And that's pretty amazing. Maybe the times are changing. Maybe there's room again, in this world, for the Big Red Cheese and his family.

Let's make it happen, DC!


Pól Rua said...

You did leave out one, and it remains one of my favourites to this day...
The run of Captain Marvel adventures which ran in, I believe, 'Adventure Comics' by E.Nelson Bridwell and Don Newton. Because they were almost all done-in-one short stories, they were able to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of trying to update the old approach to longform continuity.
Also, having recently re-read it, Roy Thomas' 'A New Beginning' read as a lot less dark. The first issue is very dark, but it lightens up considerably from that point. It would have been interesting to see where it had gone from there if, as intended, it has springboarded into an ongoing title.

Duy Tano said...

I didn't even know he had a run in Adventure! That's something to look for at one point, but I guess they split Shazam with other features.

Reno said...

That run was in World's Finest, when it briefly became a dollar/anthology book in the early 80s.

I miss Don Newton. :(

Pól Rua said...

Actually, I tell a lie, it was a back-up in 'World's Finest'. Newton took over as artist for the last two issues of the 'Shazam' title, and the whole creative team moved over to doing 'Shazam' features there. After 'World's Finest' was reduced in size, the final 'Shazam' stories wound up in 'Adventure'... so it was kind of all over the place there for a bit.
Still, Don Newton's art on the Marvel Family was sublime, and E.Nelson Bridwell had a great ear for the Marvels and their adventures.

Tony Laplume said...

I'd include Kingdom Come. And possibly Underworld Unleashed.

Duy Tano said...

Thought about it, and some of his appearances in the multiple Earths pre-Crisis, but at the end of the day, those weren't meant to set him up, so I omitted them.

Post a Comment

All comments on The Comics Cube need approval (mostly because of spam) and no anonymous comments are allowed. Please leave your name if you wish to leave a comment. Thanks!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.