Sunday, December 14, 2008

What's a six letter word for weak story?

Going from one extreme to another, this week we'll take a look at Shazam: The New Beginning. This was DC's post Crisis on Infinite Earths re-launch of the Shazam character, which was tied into the dreadful Legends mini-series. I say tied in only because DC said so. Honest, it's right there on the cover of the first issue. Actually, it has absolutely nothing to do with Legends. Which, I suppose, is just as well. Bad as this series is, Legends was worse.

I think I bought this for a few reasons. One, I'd seen the Captain Marvel universe wiped out in Crisis without ever having read any of those stories. I was somewhat familiar with the character from Saturday morning TV, though. Two, I had been reading Miracleman from Eclipse since 1985 and knew that series was originally a UK version of Captain Marvel. I guess I wanted to see something of where that came from. Third, I was just getting into reading some of the DC superheroes, outside the occasional Batman or Superman story. I picked up a lot of back issue Green Lantern around this time and was getting the Flash re-launch that came out. And finally, I just wanted to know why Gomer Pyle, USMC, kept on saying Shazam. Unfortunately, that was never revealed in this story. Not much was revealed in this story, actually.

The time was 1987, and this origin was set in that era. This was also the year I met my wife, which, fortunately, turned out a lot better than this series. The origin is pretty standard Shazam. Billy Batson is lead down an abandoned subway tunnel by an unnamed stranger, where he meets the wizard, Shazam, and is granted the powers of Captain Marvel. Unlike the older depictions, Captain Marvel is still Billy Batson, a kid, rather than an adult. That's really just about the only major bit of information to come out of this series. Captain Marvel was a staple of the re-launched Justice League, where everyone wondered why he behaved like a kid.

Anyway, it was written by Roy & Dann Thomas and drawn by Tom Mandrake. I'm not a big art guy, as I've mentioned, but this is one of those where the art detracted from the story by being a distraction at times. Almost all the time, actually.

Aside from the general weak quality of the art, one big for instance is the page to the left. You likely can't read it, but the art panel to the upper left does not match the accompanying text. The text says Captain Marvel is standing before a brick wall. Now, I'm no bricklayer, but I'm pretty sure the wall that's in that picture is made of stones. I don't know if this is actually attributable to the artist as an error or if Thomas told him it was going to be a stone wall in the panel description, but really, how hard would it be to match the two? It's not like it's integral to the story which building material is being used. Just change the text to match the art if it comes in different. Though, I'll admit it seems unlikely a city would block up a subway tunnel with stone works rather than brick. Maybe they had extra material from building all those lovely fire places in the subway stations? Who knows?

And maybe it's just me, but Billy Batson seems to have a pituitary problem. This kid's 15 years old. Why's he so short? Here he's at the funeral for his parents, nefariously killed in a car "accident" by his maternal step uncle, Dr Sivana. He's standing between Sivana and his doting paternal uncle, Dudley Batson. Neither of these guys is particularly tall amongst adults. Hell, in more recent depictions, Sivana's downright dwarfian in his proportions. Billy looks more like he's 10 than 15 standing next to these guys. And, really, he acts more like 10. Because Captain Marvel now retains the Billy Batson persona, he acts the same as Billy, just in a different body. But Billy acts like a much younger kid would act than any 15 year old I know. Or recall being, for that matter. The silly stuff 15 year olds engage in impulsively is different than the silly stuff a 10 year old does impulsively. This book doesn't reflect that at all.

Mandrake did the covers for the series, too, and the quality level there just seemed to steadily decline as the series continued. By the final cover, Captain Marvel looks like he has a tight Afro and is wearing eye black to get ready for the big game. His red suit is more black with red highlights than anything like an actual red suit. The coincidence of the promo in the space for the bar code pushing The Watchmen certainly doesn't help, either. Now there was some great cover art. But you be the judge.

Beyond the art problems, it really should have just been a one shot. The origin of how Billy becomes Captain Marvel is told entirely in the first issue. After that, it's just drawn out, stage craft conflicts with Black Adam and Dr Sivana. There's some origin of Black Adam, which is useful but could have been included in the first issue as an expanded one shot. There's really nothing much about Sivana. His kids, Beautia and Magnificus, are introduced, with no explanation of how they don't resemle their father in the least.

Once Captain Marvel sends Black Adam back to the alternate dimension Shazam had sent him to 5000 years ago, and which Sivana had accidentally drawn him out of, the story takes an even sillier turn (though not much sillier than Black Adam stashing a 747 full of hostages in a sub-oceanic cave that's somehow running out of air, even though it's big enough to comfortably hold a 747) by making Billy into a TV reporter. Now, originally, he was a radio cub reporter, which is silly in and of itself, but doesn't involve a kid appearing as a serious interviewer on TV. The book closes with Billy interviewing G Gordon Godfrey, the secret heavy of the Legends series. This is hard news, and on his very first gig, Billy, a 15 year old who acts like he's 10, is taking on the roll of Walter Cronkite? Even as a contributor for a local San Francisco station, this is pathetically incredible.

And how is Black Adam in an alternate diminsion in the first place? Didn't Crisis wipe all those out and merge them with the one true DCU? Or is this a different concept than the parallel earths that were wiped out? I'll never know. Truth be told, I won't care enough to find out, either.

I've no idea why I kept this all these years. I suppose it's just as well I did, so now I can take some enjoyment in slicing it to little pieces, but I'm not sure it's worth the storage and transportation over the years. Eh, I suppose I'll hold on to it as an example to the kids of how not to write and draw.


  1. My recollection of this series is that I did not fondly recall the book at all, but DC has had a problem since they purchased this character of what to do with him. Some sort of poetic justice as DC sued CM out of existence for awhile.

  2. Not to mention that they lost the copyright to CM during the interim between Fawcett's ending of the book and DC's purchase of the rights. Just think how much mileage they could get out of a Captain Marvel book, instead of the Shazam title, if Marvel didn't own the rights to it.