Remember when the Spider-man movies were just his origin presented over and over again? Aunt May would get younger each time, but the basic plot stayed the same. Even in Into the Spider-verse, every time they introduced a new version of Spidey, the origin recap had to happen before any of the action took place. The same thing happens to me with Shazam. With Shazam, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, a.k.a. The Big Red Cheese, he’s traditionally either a bit player (a la the various Justice League and Justice League International incarnations), or he’s the star in a retelling of his origin story. Rarely do I see many Shazam stories that get beyond that point. Still, his origin usually makes for a good tale. We did a podcast with the mid-nineties version here, and it was pretty solid. One of my first articles I wrote for the blog was the early 2000’s interpretation by Jeff Smith, and that was really good. The book, not the blog write up. Now, on the heels of his movie (another origin story), we will once again go back to where it all began.
Today, we’re going to look at the 2010’s New 52 reboot of the character, whose origin appeared as a backup feature in the pages of Justice League. Will it fare as well as its counterparts? We’ll see.
I honestly didn’t even know Shazam had a book in the new 52, and it turns out he didn’t. These stories appeared as backups in Geoff John’s Justice League series. I will readily admit to having pre-existing biases towards the writer, Geoff Johns.
Geoff Johns as a writer has a unique ability to cut to the heart of what makes a character work, similar to someone like Mark Waid. His Flash run that followed Waid or his establishment of the various colored Lantern Corps belies that ability. Even his initial Teen Titans issues demonstrated he knows and understands what works about those characters. He also has an ability to tweak things unnecessarily to the extreme, a la a Rob Liefeld or Jim Lee. That style worked really well for me as a pre-teen trying to figure out how things work and made me a big fan of the Lees and Liefelds of the world. It adds a certain excitement and gravitas to comics that are necessary to keep a reader’s attention. As I get older, though, I tend to lean more on the classic side of the equation for my tastes as opposed to these grittier counterparts. I care not for the over the top violence or objectification of female characters; if I am reading a story aimed for a more mature audience, I’d rather that happen through complex themes as opposed to swear words or bloodspray or gritty darkness. So I tend to take Johns’s work in small doses. Usually, for my tastes, he starts off strong but then falls victim that style of immature maturity. His Titans work was strong, then the team ran into the future “dark” versions of themselves and things went off the rails from there. Even with his Green Lantern work, which many consider to be his best, I feel he started strong and then it just became ridiculous by the end, sacrificing character depth and deeper meaning for MoAR ZOMBIES. Remember this character you loved? Dead. Don’t worry, now he’s a Zombie! This guy you had to google? Zombie. Characters that were alive three issues ago but were killed for a cheap stunt? Zommmbie!
As Johns gained influence on the DCU, I tended to drift away because it’s not to my taste. Since I’ve come back around, though, I can find merit in his work more often than not–in small doses. Sometimes I’m too harsh. Zombies are fun.
I also have a pre-existing bias towards the artist of this series, Gary Frank. He’s real good. He was good on the Incredible Hulk in the 90’s, and he’s even better today. It’s no wonder that DC puts Frank on their top-shelf projects.
Onto the actual review!
Some of the bad goes back to the grand Shazam name kerfuffle. To avoid confusion with other characters from the competition, DC has been trying to rebrand what was originally Captain Marvel as Shazam! That works cleanly enough. The problem lies in the various other members of the Marvel family like Kid Marvel or Mary Marvel. They’re here in this book, but they don’t get superhero names outside of King Shazam, which I’m not even sure is a real thing. Speaking of Mary Marvel, she tooks a bit more sexualized than what I’m used to seeing from such a pollyanna character. Maybe I’m reading into things with preconceived notions though. She’s just different enough that I feel like she loses some of the innocent charm of classic Mary Marvel.
Also, Talky Tawny is just a tiger–an angry tiger with lightning power eyes, but not so much talky.
The Fair to Midland: Shazam isn’t a character that lends himself to a grittier interpretation in my mind, and this interpretation does have a few plot points that skew that way, but not so much that it overwhelms the character. For the most part, this is a fun origin tale of a kid learning to embrace the great power bestowed upon him. Johns’s take on Billy Batson has a little bit more attitude towards him than other takes on the characters. His Billy is a bit older and has a harder edge as he has been bounced around the foster care system for some time. That definitely seems reasonable. Still, the gist of the character shines throughout this new interpretation.
The character redesigns are apropo of the New 52 aesthetic. Lots of unnecessary lines and changes for the sake of change. One of the few things I knew about the Shazam family is that Elvis tried to swipe the look of Freddy Freeman’s Kid Marvel. New 52’s Elvis apparently will fashion his on stage persona after a blonde surfer dude look with a bunch of silly lines etched into his outfits. With that said, I did like the hooded capes and glowy lightning bolt portions of the redesigns.
On the big bad front, Black Adam is made into an irredeemable monster, but don’t worry; he’s toasted by the end of this book. Andy told me that’s what happened to classic Black Adam, too, but it seems silly to me. It’s like when the movies off their villains in the end. Save those bad guys! Maybe your movies or books will keep going and you’ll need them down the road.
This is a fine origin story, and it does have roots in the classics, but it’s hard not to see this as an unnecessary waste of a prominent character.
Gary Frank continues to impress. He has that stylized photorealistic style that doesn’t look at all like phototracing, but very clearly has roots in reality. His new style is like Brian Bolland and Jim Lee had a baby with a touch of Dave Gibbons on the finishes. That translates to really good.
This version seems to have directly inspired some of the scenes of Billy Batson exploring his newfound powers alongside Freddy Freeman, only with even more lighthearted humor tossed into the mix. That’s good. Those were the best parts of the movie. Characters don’t get proper super hero names there, either. Still, this story is a solid start, and a fine re-introduction to the character, but I could easily see it steered towards that lighthearted path or down grim and gritty avenue. The friendship between Billy and Freddie was welcome, too. It’s hard not to root for kids who’ve been dealt such tough hands in life.
As I’ve alluded to, I was happy with this story overall. It toed the line, but at the end of the day, the art was consistent and beautiful, the characterizations strong, and the story a satisfying arc. Of the three Shazam origin stories I’ve read, I’d put this one firmly in the middle. It has more joy than the 90’s version, but it can’t complete with the complete package of Jeff Smith’s Monster Society of Evil. Still, if this is the basis for the movie, they could have gone with worse source material. The origin avenue might be a bit overplayed, especially when it seems like important details like character names aren’t there yet, but at the same time, I’m not sure if I would pick this up otherwise.
Are there other great Shazam stories beyond the origin?
Johns and Frank clearly have a good thing going, and after reading Shazam, I might even check out their current effort on Doomsday Clock to see if it holds up as well. That’s high praise coming out of a book I didn’t even realize I was missing.
Final Grade: A-
Until next time, I’ll still be trying to figure out my full grown adult powers via my 12 year old mindset! Shazam!