Thursday, May 24, 2012
Shazam #1-3 (A Justice League #7-9 Back-Up Review)
Since Issue #7, the Justice League title has been pulling double-duty, offering us not only the adventures of the JLA but also introducing us to the DCnU version of Shazam (a.k.a. The Hero Formerly Known As Captain Marvel). At least, that was the theory. In practice, the entire back-up storyline thus far has read like a parody of a typical young adult fantasy series, but with all of the humor and magic stripped from it.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the original concept, let me sum up. Billy Batson was a homeless orphan, who was still noble of heart despite his rough circumstances. It was for this reason that Billy was chosen by the wizard Shazam to be empowered as a champion of good. Shazam appeared to Billy, and told the young man that he could summon forth a magical bolt of lightning by saying the wizard's name. This magical bolt would temporarily give Billy the attributes of several legendary figures - 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 - allowing him to fight evil as Captain Marvel.
At one time, the adventures of Captain Marvel outsold Superman. Even today, after years of erratic publishing, The Big Red Cheese still has a small but loyal following - a devout fandom who have rejected most of the attempts to modernize the core concept of the character or make it "relevant". And personally, I can't blame them. True, some of the aspects of Billy's background are a little dated, like his after-school job as a radio news reporter. But that doesn't change the fact that the core of Billy's character concept - a virtuous young man who proves worthy of magical powers that turn him into a protector of justice - is a solid one.
This brings us to the main problem with this new Shazam series. The new Billy Batson is neither pure, nor noble nor good-hearted. Indeed, he is rightly described as the most unpleasant boy in the world. He seems nice enough as we are first introduced to him, as a kindly old social-worker supervises a meeting between Billy and a potential adoptive family. Billy describes himself as being neat, tidy, an avid reader and a pod-caster. But after one page, once the potential parents are out of ear-shot, the mask is dropped and both Billy and the social worker are exposed as being... well.. the sort of people who should never be in a Shazam story except as the villains.
It seems to be a disturbing trend at DC Comics of late that every single teen superhero has to have some kind of dark, disturbed background and a snarky personality.. Now, I love snarky anti-heroes as much as the next fellow... but what's wrong with having a teen protagonist who is basically a good kid? Too boring? Not extreme enough? Billy Batson doesn't have enough attitude for the kids today who are reading Harry Potter or Percy Jackson?
Bull! Billy Batson can be written as an idealistic young man in the modern day without coming off as being cheesy or artificial. Geoff Johns did a damn fine job doing just that during his legendary run on JSA. Which makes it all the more frustrating that Johns is writing Billy Batson as a spoiled brat. And what is worse, three issues into this storyline, and Billy STILL hasn't been exposed to anything magical or shown any heroic traits apart from hating bullies and being willing to stand up to them... even as he acts like a jerk to everyone who is trying to help him. There's no magic or wonder or marvels here. Just a melodramatic slice-of-life comic that reads like Lemony Snicket sans whimsy.
The artwork by Gary Frank is decent enough but it can' t disguise the heartless shell lying at the core of this title. I can't help but cynically reflect that the reason this title is being published as a back-up in Justice League is because there's no other way it could sell. The Captain Marvel fans of old won't buy a book where Billy Batson is a juvenile delinquent and many modern readers won't give a "classic" character like Shazam a fair shake. And it's a crying shame, because whether he's Captain Marvel or Shazam, Billy Batson deserves a lot better than this dull book.