Jan 9, 2018

Billy Batson Is a Fully Grown Man

With Zachary Levi stating that the Shazam movie, in which he plays the main character (hopefully named Captain Marvel), will be like Superman meets Big, I'm inclined to believe that he will be portraying the more modern versions of the classic superhero, meaning the child in an adult superhuman's body. I'm not really a fan of this version, and with the help of fellow Captain Marvel fan Julian Herring, I think I've figured out why.

Billy Batson Is a Fully Grown Man
by Duy

In the Golden Age, Captain Marvel was the most popular superhero. With the magic word Shazam, young Billy Batson could turn into a superhero 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.

I love these stories, but one thing they were inconsistent with was whether or not Cap and Billy were the same guy in different bodies. Sometimes we got this:

And then sometimes we got this:

As a result, there have been multiple versions dealing with the dichotomy. Bone's Jeff Smith in Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil just flat-out made them different individuals, with Cap being a magical being who lives on for a long time but needs a host.

But more in-DC Universe interpretations like Jerry Ordway and Geoff Johns simply treat Cap as Billy in a grown-up's body.

The former interpretation would have Marvel speaking about Billy in the third person.

The latter interpretation bugs me because it has a tendency to play up the space cadet aspect of the character, which I think undervalues him. It doesn't show up so much on his own, but put him going googly eyed over the Justice League, and it becomes difficult to take him as credible. I mean, he has the wisdom of Solomon, right?

But fellow Captain Marvel fan Julian Herring pointed something out to me that I found an interesting insight, that I didn't even think of:

Billy Batson is a fully grown man.

He has a job. He pays his own rent. He spent time on the streets because his parents died and his uncle kicked him out. He is incredibly competent as an adventurer and only ever calls on Captain Marvel when he's in a bind. He's a classic adventure protagonist, like Tintin or Tom Swift, who are also mature for their age. Billy Batson is a child only in age and size. That's it.

Really, Shazam stories work best when the one driving the plot is Billy Batson, not Captain Marvel. Cap is the universal deus ex machina, but he isn't the protagonist of the story.

As with most everything in superhero comics though, especially for longstanding characters, it's all a matter of preference and execution. I may not prefer "Superman meets Big," but who knows? The execution may be good. You can never really be sure; you can never really tell until you're consuming the story. So yeah, I'm still gonna go watch it. C'mon, it's Captain Marvel!

I'll leave you with this spread from the Shazam issues of Convergence, in which Jeff Parker and Evan Shaner tried to resolve the two differing interpretations:

Convergence is the best Shazam story since the Golden Age, so go grab yourself a copy here:


Pol Rua said...

CC Beck said that Billy Batson was the protagonist of the Captain Marvel stories.

"The publisher wasn’t aware of it, but Billy Batson was the real hero of all the Captain Marvel stories, from the first issue until the last. At one time, believe it or not, the publisher sent down word to drop Billy from the stories, saying that he was only taking up room that could have been used to show Captain Marvel instead, and that he wasn’t contributing anything to the stories. Fortunately, the editors paid no attention to so ridiculous a memo and Billy Batson continued to appear in every story. Without Bill Batson, Captain Marvel would have been merely another overdrawn, one-dimensional figure in a ridiculous costume, running around beating up crooks and performing meaningless feats of strength like all the other heroic figures of the time who were, with almost no exceptions, cheap imitations of Superman. In fact, I have always felt that flying figures in picture form are silly and unbelievable, and I would much sooner have never drawn them, but the publisher insisted on them. Most of the time Captain Marvel’s ability to fly had little or nothing to do with the plots of the stories in which he appeared.
Billy Batson started every story and ended every story. In between, Captain Marvel appeared when he was needed, disappeared when he was not needed. The stories were about Billy Batson, not about the cavortings of a ridiculous superhero for whom the writers had to concoct new and more impossible demonstrations of his powers for each issue.
At least, that’s the way I saw Billy Batson, and that’s the way the writers and editors saw him. We saw Captain Marvel as a sort of big brother brought in to solve problems that the boy hero, Billy, couldn’t handle. He was bigger and stronger than Billy, but he was not a seven-foot-tall circus strongman or a creature from another world or one created by a mad scientist, as the superhero comics characters were."

from this interview:

Duy Tano said...

That's true, I think I first read him saying it in Comic Book Marketplace. I just never thought of him as a mature kid, although in retrospect that's clearly who he is.

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