The Curse of Shazam

This week, we had a big graphic novel extravaganza in school on World BookDay. My colleagues and I dressed up as Catwoman, the Joker and the Riddler and we had a very popular creative workshop with the award-winning Metaphrog.

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One of the most popular graphic novels we had in the school library was Jeff Smith’s Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil. Sadly, a girl called Devon (Taylor?) had it out on loan but took it with her when she moved to England last summer. If she hears about this, could she please post it back?

Power-of-shazam-cover

Today, I want to look at the modern history of the World’s Mightiest Mortal. Like Plastic Man, Captain Marvel is an icon of the DCU even if the publishers don’t quite realise it. The character has never come close to regaining his phenomenal Golden age success.  It came as a surprise to me to recall that Jerry Ordway’s acclaimed monthly Power of Shazam series DC was launched twenty years ago.

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The Original Captain Marvel was quite unknown to me- and the US tv series yet unmade- when he made his debut in DC’s first Shazam! title in 1973-74. The new material was very whimsical and rather corny for my tastes even then. But the 100-page Super-Spectacular and their reprints had a sunny charm not present in their 40s contemporaries:Batman, Green Lantern or Dr. Fate. I quickly learned of the mythos that Mort Weisinger co-opted for Superman:  Capt. Marvel Jr.; Mary Marvel; the Sivana Family- the whole, zany tapestry.

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The series lost its way during the late 70s and it wasn’t until nearly a decade later, very much in the wake of the Crisis, that Shazam: the New Beginning was launched. This  take by Roy Thomas and Tom Mandrake was seemingly unpopular. Ironically so, since Thomas had presided over Marvel’s revamp of the Kree warrior Mar-vell: something of a winking homage to the Big Red Cheese. It’s a pity that, in the late 80s era of “Dramedy”, someone like Alan Davis hadn’t been assigned to the title. One aspect that interested me however was the folding of the gnome-like Sivana into Billy Batson’s miserly uncle, Ebenezer.

John Byrne proposed a “gritty ” take on the series in the very early 90s, with a series that would occupy its own continuity. But editorial edicts about crossovers drove the  Canadian creator from the project although his Omac series gives a flavour of what might have been.

worm hole

As I say, Ordway’s painted novel,with its distinct Art Deco flavour, appeared in 1994. The ongoing series reintroduced Mary Marvel and Bulletman while modernising Mr. Atom and Mr. Mind slightly. It was surprisingly faithful to the 40s material, even visually “casting” Boris Karloff as Black Adam. The only misstep in my mind was the modish CM3- the new moniker for Cap Junior.

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Another rather beautiful and cinematic take on CM appeared in the wake of the cancellation of PoS. In 2001, Paul Dini and Alex Ross produced the third of their thematically- linked painted treasury editions. Power of Hope was a very sentimental tale of children living with abuse and terminal illness but a very charming and sweet one.

Shazam

Mytstifyingly, Alex Ross pitched unsuccessfully to DC in 2005, with an older teenage Billy Batson, dramatic lighting (or should that be lightning) effects and a new Black Vulcan. Two years later, the aformentioned Jeff Smith series appeared in four softcover issues. This was the story of Billy Batson told anew and out of DC continuity. Not only was Tawny the talking tiger an Arabian Nights ifrit but Mary was reimagined as a scrappy baby sister. Again, it’s charming and accessible but with a sharp edge of political satire ( Sivana is head of Homeland Security!)

Kunkel

This series, in turn, was followed by Billy Batson and The Magic of Shazam by Mike Kunkel. Very much in the style of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, this was disinctly aimed at a junior school audience, with Black Adam a bratty schoolmate.  The art deteriorated when Kunkel left but in its final issues in 2010, it was back on track with Mike Norton, with Justice League guest appearances.

In the New 52 Justice League, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank serialised yet another reimagining of CM, in the style of their Superman: Secret Origin and Batman Earth One.  This serial was back “in-continuity”and ran for 13 episodes from 2012 to the late sunmer of 2013.

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Billy Batson is a troubled, spiteful kid but with a large and well-drawn foster family, all of whom gain magical powers. Sivana is deformed by the magic released by Black Adam ( a very Namor-esque figure in Johns’ JSA series of the last decade) The Big Red Cheese is re-christened simply as Shazam here and with his slightly sinister hooded and ornate visual, the series has a very Young Adult-feel : very Harry Potter, very Percy Jackson- movie friendly. I enjoyed the contrast of the realistic artwork and the more fantastic elements ( just as in PoS, 20 years ago).

Is it the storybook elements of Captain Marvel’s world that fail to catch the imagination? How can this be when fairy tale and fantasy are huge money spinners in other media? Are the associations with kid-friendly iterations box office poison? Is there a curse on Shazam?

In a few weeks, I hope to review Grant Morrison’s Multiversity on Some Fantastic Place, my Blogger site. That will be an opportunity to look at DC’s most recent version of CM.

Posts may be a bit less regular again in coming weeks. I need to find new accomodation. In any event, I plan to post about Apeslayer and Black Goliath sometime before Easter.

Tamam Shud!

All images are presumed copyright of their respecyive owners

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2 comments on “The Curse of Shazam

  1. Kid Robson says:

    I bought SHAZAM when it first came out in the ’70s, but never really got into the character, regardless of whether it was the new stories or reprints. Jerry Ordway’s book and monthly series (POS) were very nice ‘though, and I did enjoy them at the time. Still got ’em so will probably sit down and re-read them some day.

  2. Paul McScotty says:

    The 70s series was another one that I got into well after I had read it when in my (very) early teens, especially the wonderful CC Beck issues . Later versions of the character rarely interested me although I did enjoy some of Jerry Ordways early issues and a the first 2 under Gary Franks (mostly for the art rather than the story if I’m honest) but my favourite (not having seen Jeff Smiths version) was issue 6 of “Billy Batson and The Magic of Shazam” where Stephen De Stefano’s art for me at least, came closest to replicating the magic of the early CC Becks originals, l very cute and fun . I don’t think calling the comic Shazam really helped the character that much , I think having the heroes name on the cover would have helped it (but of course that is another story)

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