May 25, 2012

Shazam!: Why Grant Morrison Should Write Captain Marvel

So those of you who are regular Cubers know I'm a huge fan of Captain Marvel, he who says "Shazam!"

Art by the incomparable Maestro of Comics,
Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez

And it may not surprise you guys to realize that I'm not a big fan of the current direction by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank.  I won't get into the (many) reasons why, since that wouldn't really be any fun, so I'll just mention a couple of things. First, they're taking a superhero who was famous for being a fantasy-driven whimsical plot device (Captain Marvel was never the protagonist of his stories; Billy Batson was, and Cap was a device to get him out of trouble) and making him dark, plus the fact that they're gonna be pigeonholing him into the "magic" enforcer of the DC Universe.

The Gary Frank art is really, really good
for what it's supposed to convey.
Unfortunately, I don't like what it's supposed to convey.

I've said before that I think one of the problems DC has with Captain Marvel is the whole insistence to push him into the DC Universe. Look, now they're trying too hard to find a slot for him in the DC Universe (mainly because "Superstrong Alpha Male Who Saves the Day" is taken by the guy with the Big Red S), so they're pigeonholing him as the "Magic Guy." Look, we're talking about a guy whose two big bads are a cackling evil mad scientist and an alien worm with glasses. This is not "Magic Guy."

But it seems that's what they want to do with him, and I don't get why they're having such a hard time figuring it out, because there is a guy in the DC offices who can write Captain Marvel within DC continuity. And that man is Grant Morrison.

Let's look at the reasons why.

First of all, I think that one of the reasons DC has always had a hard time figuring out Captain Marvel is the simple fact that Captain Marvel disappeared.  While characters such as Batman and Superman evolved to keep up with the times, and characters such as Spider-Man organically grew and matured, Captain Marvel just disappeared, so there is no established path for him to follow in order to click with today's audience. Writers and creators have to guess and extrapolate.

(The case against this: Marvel's revival of Captain America and Namor the Sub-Mariner. Marvel brought back those characters after a decade of inactivity and really just found the right steps to take with them. Accompanying Captain Marvel would be Plastic Man, whom DC just can't figure out after multiple revivals.)

So if writers and creators have to guess and extrapolate, let's figure this out. Which character is most like Golden Age Captain Marvel? Which character is full of zany, wacky ideas that just play it straight, that take you to other worlds of imagination and wonder? (And bonus points if this guy was written best by Otto Binder?)

Why yes, you're right! The answer is Silver Age Superman!

See, the thing is, Silver Age Superman, with his wacky ideas such as the Bottled City of Kandor and the Superpets, disappeared too! In 1986, they rebooted Superman and did away with all his wacky ideas (okay, fine, they were slowly doing away with it before then, but this one was the big spring cleaning). And in 2006, they brought him back in ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, perfectly reimagining those zany and wacky concepts for today's audience. And it was a hit. And the guy who wrote that? Grant Morrison.

Grant was able to take those ideas and project them into today's zeitgeist, and I have no doubt he'd be able to do the same thing with Captain Marvel, since, again, the whole atmosphere of the two characters, though markedly different, are very similar.

Can you imagine ALL-STAR SHAZAM by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely?

The other important thing is, Morrison's already done it. Where everyone has struggled to write Captain Marvel for a contemporary audience, dating itself instantly in the process — from Jerry Ordway having Billy say "I've lived on the streets!" to "Dark Mary Marvel" that was prominent in the late 2000s — Morrison has done it twice. The first instance was in his JLA run, in the event "Crisis Times Five," in which he has to get to the Fifth Dimension and knocks out Superman to do it.

Notice here that Morrison establishes two things: Captain Marvel's power and humility. And there's nothing ironic about it — most modern writers would feel the need to crack a joke at someone's expense at this point, but Captain Marvel's dialogue is just earnest. "Holy moley, I feel low, but if something goes wrong in the Fifth Dimension, the Earth's going to need Superman more than it needs me."

This is pure superheroism in practice.

In that same story, Captain Marvel figures out how to save the day. Note that Green Lantern Kyle Rayner's reaction is not one of bewilderment or of surprise; it's a statement affirming how cool it is to do some serious skywriting in order to save the world.

Very few writers can write dialogue like this and make people believe it. Grant Morrison is near the top of that list — and looking at DC's list of writers, Grant Morrison is at the top of their list.

The other time Grant wrote Captain Marvel was in FINAL CRISIS. Okay, sure, his treatment of Mary Marvel was horrendous (although there was a point to it, unlike all the other writers who tried writing evil Mary), but his use of Captain Marvel was excellent. It acknowledges that he did spring from the same idea as Superman, but it treats him as the best possible iteration of that idea.

He even gets in between Superman and Ultraman (evil Superman)!

I've also been pretty vocal in the past of what I've perceived as Morrison's weaknesses. Mainly, I think his writing could be tighter and more structured, his pacing less frenetic, and his dialogue less stilted.

But you know what? These things sound like strengths for Captain Marvel, just like they were strengths for his JLA run! Look, I'll be honest. I don't go to Morrison for character development. I go to Morrison for ideas that stretch the realm of the imagination, and for highlighting what makes a character great. I go to Morrison for archetypal characterization — emphasizing what makes the characters awesome, and embracing that awesomeness. And in the same vein, I don't go to Captain Marvel for character development either. I go to him for a sense of wonder.  Like the Avengers movie, it's about pure heroism, escapism, and fantasy.

So in closing, I ask you to take a look at this picture.

And tell me you wouldn't buy a comic where Grant Morrison writes about that.

Because I would, and I'd be first in line.


John Small said...

The new Captain Marvel - or Shazam or whatever the heck they're calling him these days - SUCKS!!!! (I'm sorry, that was rude... I should have said that he inhales with great enthusiasm.) I like the original version of the character. From what I keep hearing, so do a lot of other readers - not just old dinosaurs like me but younger kids who manage to latch on to stories from the original Fawcett run or the first year or two of the original DC revival in the 70s. THAT was Captain Marvel! This new character is a travesty and an embarrassment, much like the rest of the "New DC" (up to and including that ugly new logo the company has adopted. Bleccchhhh!!!!!)

Bob Buethe said...

I assume you've read the news by now:

Captain Zorikh said...

I've been saying that DC mishandled the revival of Captain Marvel for years. Whereas Captain America was the "Man out of time" for the rest of his career, and Sub Mariner was a sort of royal prodigal, and thus both of their characters were defined by their absence, after just a couple of issues of Shazam all the "out of time" stuff was forgotten!

Grant Morrison's chapters on both the Shazam Captain Marvel and Starlin's run on Marvel's Captain Marvel in Supergods were great fun to read!

Duy Tano said...

John: I agree. I'm 29. My niece is 7. We can both pull out the Shazam Annual they came up with a few years ago featuring some Golden Age reprints and enjoy it.

Bob: Seriously doubt it'd be Cap, just because Cap's barely even straight, or sexual at all as a character. My money's on Wally West.

Zorikh: Exactly why Morrison should take the reins!

Pól Rua said...

You know what? I just don't get Superman. He's an alien, I think he should be the 'go-to alien guy', and
only ever fight alien threats.
'Cos really, he's the alien guy.

Paul C said...

Personally I think there's two ways of doing Cap these days. A separate Earth featuring a more traditional, Morrison style Cap would be brilliant. On the other hand I like that Johns has had the courage to move away from the more traditional aspects of the character and try something new. For the past 25 or so years DC have been trying to do both at the same time and it just hasn't worked. We've had an innocent, pure hearted Billy who boasts that he's "from the streets" and it just didn't feel right. At least now DC have picked one clear path for the character and aren't trying to compromise. And if Morrison's Multiversity ever happens we might just get the other version too!

Duy Tano said...

Paul: I think maybe I'd be more in favor of Johns' approach if I didn't remember the Thomas/Mandrake approach all too well, which has been pretty similar thus far. I do think that doing two versions would really help (an Earth One Shazam by Morrison would be great).

What's taking Multiversity so long anyway!

Cynthia Finnegan said...

Sorry, but I have to respectfully disagree. Morrison has been part of the "making [Cap] the magic guy" problem all along, starting with JLA. And many fans of the classic Mary Marvel (myself included) would rather see him strung up by his ticklish bits 'til they fall off.

Duy Tano said...

Fair enough, but I don't personally see it. In Morrison's JLA, he was travelling into the Fifth Dimension and doing skywriting; in Superman Beyond he was second only to Superman.

I see your point about Mary Marvel, of course, but keep in mind that Morrison's take on Mary Marvel had her possessed by Desaad. Most of the damage done to Mary's character happened before that in Countdown to Final Crisis (which Morrison apparently didn't even read) and afterwards in JSA (where she was willingly evil for no reason).

Duy Tano said...

By the way, when can I look forward to the site launch? :)

The Professor said...

What a fun thing to think about ...

How about Sholly Fisch as writer and Joe Staton for the art? Sholly has been doing a great job with Batman: Brave and the Bold. And going back to your point about Captain Marvel being similar to Silver Age Superman, her B&B and Super Friends stories really tap into that style. Being able to write "all ages" comics is another good sign for being able to handle this assignment.

On the art side, Staton has a lean and somewhat cartoony approach that would fit well with Captain Marvel.

Duy Tano said...

That's fair on a creative level, Prof, but unfortunately, it seems that the comic book fans (those who enter the comic shops) don't care for unestablished writers. There was an economic factor going into the premise of this post. I'd agree that they'd be great on a digest format for the mass market, which I've long thought DC should be doing with Cap!

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