Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil
Reviewed: June 17, 2009
By: written and illustrated by Jeff Smith
Publisher: DC Comics
240 pages, $36.99
Superman was the first multi-powered hero. A lot of the others which followed
had one particular power: strength, speed, vision, the ability to fly. Supes
had it all and National Periodical Publications, as DC was then known owned
Fawcett publications wanted a piece of that action, so they had their people
come up with Captain Marvel, the transformed version of a little boy whose powers
included most of Superman's. The biggest differences would be the transformation
from child to adult and the origin of his powers.
Superman had a quasi-scientific origin story - the last alien survivor of a
doomed planet. Billy Batson, on the other hand, got his powers by saying a magic
word - SHAZAM! - and taking on the abilities of a mixed pantheon of heroes:
Solomon for wisdom, Hercules for strength, Atlas for stamina, Zeus for power,
Achilles for courage, Mercury for speed. The change was accompanied by a flash
of mystic lightning which signals Billy's metamorphosis into a fully grown adult
with an adult, though somewhat naive, personality.
For a time, the Big Red Cheese, as he was sometimes known, was more popular
than the Big Blue Boy scout. That led to lawsuits and DC shutting down the Fawcett
operation. Decades later, DC bought out Fawcett and wanted to revive the character,
but could not call the book that because Marvel comics had copyright control
over the name, used my them to describe another alien ( called Mar-Vell) living
on Earth who happened to trade atoms regularly with a teenage boy - stop me
if this sounds familiar - by clanging two metal armbands together and causing
a lightning bolt to appear.
So DC called the new book Shazam instead, even though they could still call
the character Captain Marvel.
There have been several revivals of this book, some hearkening back to the tone
of the 1930s and 40s, others painting a darker character more in line with the
90s. The Captain was always a bit more cartoonish than Superman originally,
and some revivals reflected that, while others strove to be more realistic.
The best of the latter breed was probably Jerry Ordway's graphic novel of about
a decade ago.
Jeff Smith, who is best known as the creator of the award winning fantasy saga,
Bone, has gone in the other direction, returning Billy and the Captain to the
origin story created by Otto Binder and C.C. Beck.
In his notes at the end of the book, which originally appeared as a four issue
mini-series of double sized issues, Smith says he started with the notion that
the the story of the Captain was really like the story of Aladdin in a lot of
ways, only in this case the boy sort of became the genie for a time.
Billy is an orphan who lives by his wits on the street and makes his home in
an abandoned tenement building where he faces a lot of threats from low-life
bullies. It is while escaping from some of them that he finds his way to a mysterious
subway tunnel beneath the city and, boarding a marvelous train, is transported
to a mystic cavern where the wizard Shazam gives him his magic word and triggers
his first transformation.
This is a story about origins, about learning the limits of power, about finding
family (for Billy has a sister he didn't know he had) and about learning how
to battle evil effectively.
Evil comes, not in the form of some super powered bruiser, but in the more subtle
form of Dr. Sivana, a wizened dwarf of a man who is nevertheless a genius. There
is also a giant alien called Mr. Mind, but he turns out to be a bit of a surprise
Smith gives us this story with a lot of humour, which has been notably absent
from most comic books ever since Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created Watchmen
back in the 1980s. While Smith's work is a fine piece of graphic art and cracking
good story, it is also a comic book or, as we used to call 'em, a funny book.
This one of those rare graphic novels that can be enjoyed by kids of all ages.
If you prefer a more realistic looking version of the Captain, he's been turning
up in the Justice League of America and the Justice Society. The more cartoony
version is also available in a version produced specifically for younger readers.