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Shazam Graphic Novel and TPB Reviews
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At the speaking of one magic word -- Shazam! -- Billy Batson is transformed from a boy into the World's Mightiest Mortal...

Shazam published by DC Comics

For other appearances of the original Captain Marvel see:
Most notably: Superman vs. Shazam!, plus Crisis on Multiple Earths, vol. 4, Justice, vol. 1-3, Kingdom Come, Legends, Superman: The Death of Clark Kent, Superman: Distant Fires
plus Stan Lee's reinterpretation in the Just Imagine... section

The Power of Shazam 1994 (GN), 96 pages

Power of Shazam - softcover cover by Jerry OrdwayWritten, drawn, and painted by Jerry Ordway.
Letters: John Constanza. Editors: Mike Carlin, Jonathan Peterson.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

This retelling of the origin of the original Captain Marvel (the second such rebooting in less than ten years, following a 1987 Shazam mini-series) begins with the murder of archaeologists C.C. and Marilyn Batson by their associate, Theo Adam, after uncovering an unusual tomb in Egypt. Later in Fawcett city, orphaned Billy Batson is lured to a surreal subway station and given the ability to transform into the adult-sized Captain Marvel at the speaking of the magic word "Shazam!" Meanwhile, Adam, who works for Thaddeus Sivana, has returned to Fawcett city, and turns out to be more than even he knows... (I'm being cryptic because, though I gather to Captain Marvel fans this is familiar stuff, I didn't know who Adam was, or his significance, so the story had an added freshness for me).

Jerry Ordway wisely evokes the old fashioned spirit of the original stories in The Power of Shazam while updating aspects for the modern, "sophisticated" reader. Even the visual look is appealingly retro -- it's hard to tell when it's supposed to be set -- and Captain Marvel is returned to his original, C.C. Beck-drawn physiognomy (modelled, so the story goes, after actor Fred MacMurray). In keeping with that idea, Theo Adam seems, at times, as though he's meant to evoke actor Boris Karloff. Ordway is a fine artist, his figures are kinetic and nicely three-dimensional, though his eye for composition doesn't always bring out the best in a scene. The painted colours are gorgeous. As a writer, he mixes hokey, old fashioned fun (characters say things like "Zounds!") with more serious character stuff.

The overall result, though thoroughly entertaining, is a touch uneven.

There are some nice, key scenes in The Power of Shazam, like the first time Captain Marvel appears in public, but a visually cool scene involving a blimp is just thrown away as a joke. Surprisingly, the pivotal meeting with the old wizard in the subway is kind of weak, and the story itself a little thin for a 93 page epic -- the opening scene, what amounts to a prologue, is dragged out for 20 pages! That sequence is also a little brutal given the overall tone of the story. And when the climax comes, it seems mildly anti-climactic.

Jerry Ordway used this to kick off a new monthly series, and it ends with Billy Batson planning to search for his vanished sister. In that sense, it's less like a movie than a TV pilot: self-contained, but leaving a few plot threads to carry you into the series. At $10.50 (CDN.), that's a little annoying.

In a way, Ordway banks a lot on reader recognition: Captain Marvel has never reclaimed his glory days of the '40s, but there remains affection for the character, perhaps because DC Comics has always tried to keep an old-fashioned ambience to the stories -- Captain Marvel's a living link to the Golden-Age. In other words, if this same story was about a completely new character, would it still be as fun? I don't know.

A side point: after having subsequently picked up a couple of issues of the follow-up monthly series, I'll admit feeling there's a weakness, both with Ordway's plotting (which remained, as here, a bit thin), and the whole modern editorial decision to have C.M. clearly be a boy's mind in a grown up body...and, at times, an immature boy, at that. I don't dislike some of the Power of Shazam issues I've read (and they may've been "off" months anyway), but I actually prefer the stories I read from the '70s and early '80s, even though Ordway's should be the more complex and involving. None of this negates the effect of this graphic novel, but I thought I'd mention it. And, to be fair, the boy-in-the-man concept makes the modern C.M. more unusual that his earlier, more vague interpretation.

All in all, The Power of Shazam graphic novel is a sumptuous looking, fun, enjoyable read (for whatever reason), prodding me to dig out some of my old Shazam!/Captain Marvel stories for a re-reading. Which is perhaps one of the best compliments you can say about any comic.

It's available in both hard and soft cover.

Cover price (soft cover): $10.95 CDN./$7.50 USA (published by DC Comics)

Shazam! and the Shazam Family Annual #1 2002 (SC TPB) 80 pages

original cover image by C.C. BeckWritten by Otto Binder. Illustrated by C.C. Beck (& Pete Constanza), with Marc Swayze, Mac Raboy, Jack Binder, Bud Thompson.
Colour (reconstruction): Jamison. Letters: unbilled.

Reprinting: stories from Captain Marvel Adventures #18, Captain Marvel Jr. #12, The Marvel Family #1, #10 (1942-1947) -- since Golden Age comics were usually comprised of short stories, these are reprints of individual stories from these issues, not the complete issues, save, possibly, Marvel Family #10 (though maybe even it).

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

This continues DC Comics' irregular line of pseudo annuals -- books meant to evoke the days when DC Coomics used to regularly publish annuals that were collections of reprints (as opposed to original material as they are now). Here the original Captain Marvel gets the treatment, reprinting tales of him and his family of heroes from the 1940s (when the characters were published by Fawcett Comics). These annuals are kind of missing link affairs, being a cross between a regular TPB (stiff covers, square spines) and comics (not on as expensive a paper as most TPBs -- though still quality paper). But they're generally regarded as close cousins to TPBs, comic shops usually placing them with the TPBs, rather than the regular comics, and sometimes even on-line bookstores carry them.

This Shazam Family Annual reprints the origin of Mary Marvel, as well as battles with key foes: Captain Marvel Jr against his arch-enemy, Captain Nazi, and the entire Marvel Family against Black Adam (in his first appearance) and then the Sivana family (the latter the book' central story, running 38 pages). And continuing with the idea of evoking the 1940s period, the collection includes a two-page text science fiction story (comics used to include short text-only fiction so that they could qualify for cheaper shipping rates afforded to magazines). The story is by science fiction writer Eando Binder, the pen name for brothers Earl and Otto Binder, better known for their more grown up pulp magazine stories. Otto was also a comics writer, responsible for all the stories in this collection.

The stories are pretty fun. Oh, to be sure, if you're looking for something to touch the heart or mind, look elsewhere. This was from the days when comics were simple and primarily aimed at kids. But there's nonetheless a goofy charm to the thing, a pleasing openness to the art (particularly by Captain Marvel creator C.C. Beck on two of the stories), and a brisk pacing that keeps things moving along. The decision to focus on stories featuring familiar foes at first seemed problematic, such stories often lacking some of the creativity other tales might have. But the Sivana epic, involving time travel and the like, and a clever climax with our heroes stripped of their powers, is surprisingly colourful and larger-than-life.

Captain Marvel stories have often been cited as having a tongue-in-cheek whimsy that other, contemporaneous comics didn't have (such as Superman). Unfortunately, by focusing on battling arch-foes, some of that isn't as obvious in these stories. Or maybe it is. Maybe scenes of Sivana leafing through a Who's Who book of scientists is meant to seem a bit silly, or deducing that a ten thousand year old family name will have evolved into Patterson is supposed to be implausible. And there are other, more obvious quips (like a scene of CM and CMJr crashing through a wall). Still, it might have been nice to have included some of the series' more eccentric ideas, like the affable Mr. Tawny -- the talking tiger; or the villainous Mr. Mind, a super intelligent earthworm.

Still, as a breezy collection that even an adult can enjoy for its pacing and guileless charm, this Shazam Family Annual is worth a look -- particularly for fans of Jerry Ordway's 1990s revival of the character, who might want to compare the interpretations. And it's economically priced. At $9.95 (Canadian), it's the same price as an average, 48 page graphic novel...except it has an extra 32 pages! And since other Shazam reprint collections (like DC's hard cover Archive editions) will run you closer to $60 or $70 (CDN), this is a nice way to sample the original tales of the original Captain Marvel.

Addendum: In the 1970s, when DC published a monthly Shazam comic, they did a few "giant" issues crammed with reprints. I recently picked up a slightly tattered -- therefore, economical -- issue (#14) and, in a way, actually enjoyed it more than this. I don't know if it was so much that the stories were better, as much as there was just more of them -- it had more pages, and the longest story ran 17 pages -- making it more of a grab bag, with a bit more variety to the tales.

Cover price: $9.95 CDN./ $5.95 USA.

cover by SmithShazam! The Monster Society of Evil 2007 (HC TPB) 200 pgs.

Written and illustrated and lettered by Jeff Smith.
Colours: Steve Hamaker. Editor: Mike Carlin.

Reprinting the four part, prestige format mini-series

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

It's ironic that, over twenty years ago, DC Comics supposedly became so concerned about their confusing fictional universe that they published the mini-series Crisis on Infinite Earths to basically reboot everything and unify all their heroes into one consistent reality -- in the process largely abolishing decades of stories and mythos. Of course, as a "fix all", the Crisis was pretty much a disaster, as evidenced by the fact that every few years DC seems to publish some new "reality altering" epic to try and patch up inconsistencies left by the previous epic. And then, paradoxically, DC -- and rival Marvel Comics -- have also been releasing a slew of "out-of-continuity" projects featuring their characters, presumably because hot money creators demand more creative freedom.

Which brings us to Jeff Smith's Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil, which presents everyone's favourite Big Red Cheese -- the original Captain Marvel -- in a big, four issue, prestige format mini-series, now collected in one volume. It's a nice tip of the hat to the classic character whose sales figures once rivalled Superman's, particularly as I believe DC has basically eliminated Billy Batson (C.M.'s alter ego) as the current Trials of Shazam mini-series involves Freddy Freeman (Captain Marvel, Jr.) assuming the mantle of Captain Marvel.

But Monster Society of Evil is an "out-of-continuity" project, which means it isn't just telling an adventure of either the pre-Crisis, or the post-Crisis, Captain Marvel, but presents it's own take on the character, re-telling his origin, putting new spins on his sister, Mary, Talky Tawny, and arch foe, Dr. Sivana. In a sense, think of it as if Hollywood made a movie of the character, and how they would keep the basic elements, but tweak others.

Do we really need another re-take of C.M.s origin? After all, this is the third such re-invention in about twenty years -- after Roy Thomas' Shazam: A New Beginning mini-series, and Jerry Ordway's Power of Shazam graphic novel. As well, the basic concept of the plot is loosely borrowed from a semi-classic 1940s Captain Marvel epic, also called The Monster Society of Evil. I stress "loosely" borrowed, but still, there's something ironic about DC billing this as an "all-new" adventure when in many ways, it ain't. (And the trend of current creators re-making old stories is also becoming all the rage -- like Hollywood constantly releasing remakes of older films -- but likewise, can seem a bit creatively wanting). The tendency for new creative/editorial regimes to want to re-invent origins strikes me as being what if every time there was a creative shift on the James Bond films they did the same thing -- instead of have twenty some James Bond movies, we'd probably just end up with 20 remakes of Dr. No!

Still, for all my quibbling, the advantage to Smith providing a new take on the character is that it means this can be read as a wholly self-contained adventure, not requiring readers be at all familiar with Captain Marvel or his adventures -- which I suspect was DC's plan. After all, Smith had garnered great critically acclaim for his whimsical, "all-ages", fantasy-adventure epic, Bone, and DC no doubt expected readers to pick this up, more fans of Smith than of Captain Marvel.

And after that impossibly long pre-amble, what did I think of the result?

Strangely...mixed. I liked aspects of it a lot, but in other ways, it left me a tad unsatisfied. Captain Marvel has always been an odd property since being acquired by DC Comics in the 1970s, with the general feeling seeming that they want to keep him a little more innocent, a little more retro than many of their line. And that seems to be Smith's approach as well. As mentioned, Smith is best known for the independently produced Bone -- an All-Ages (ie: kid friendly) light-hearted fantasy epic. And his Shazam is basically going for the same feel, trying to juggle being kid oriented (his Billy and Mary are younger than they're traditionally depicted) while still being adult friendly, with some effective characterization, and jokes that an adult might pick up on more than a kid -- including some political satire (more on that in a moment).

The story follows the traditional route of orphaned street kid Billy Batson being summoned by an old wizard and granted the power to transform into Captain Marvel -- Smith dismissing the more recent trend of having Billy transform into CM, complete with his boy's mind in an adult body, and has it be that Billy essentially switches places with an adult CM -- though there's a deliberate ambiguity as their two consciousnesses seem to converge as the story progresses. As well, Billy learns he has a kid sister who, through an accident, also acquires Shazam power (but remains a kid in body and mind, and Smith milks some genuine humour from Captain Marvel having to look after an impulsive, super powered little kid). While all this is happening, giant robots appear in Central Park, some monsters appear on the city streets, and a mysterious entity -- Mr. Mind -- announces he will destroy the world!

Like with Smith's Bone, this mixes a deliberate, child-like simplicity -- lots of big panels, simply illustrated, with big lettering -- with some clever wit.

And for the most part, it works out well. Smith's art style may be simple, but he has a nice storytelling eye and visual design, at least when drawing the kids, and there are some effectively visualized scenes (particularly nice is a scene where Mary draws the hood of her jacket tight around her face). He also draws a delightfully effective tiger, making the tiger seem both real, yet also given to human-like expressions. And he seems particularly comfortable with writing the kids, capturing the sense of how they might behave. Yet, in a way, that then also reflects a weakness. As Smith seems more interested in Billy than Captain Marvel -- the story seeming more about the adventures of Billy Batson. This is particularly true in the visuals, where Smith's art style, so effective at capturing the kids, and the cartoony villain of Marvel's traditional foe, Dr. Sivana (here reimagined as the Attorney General of the U.S.), is less effective at depicting Captain Marvel himself who, at times, just looks crudely, an undynamically drawn!

Still, it starts out well, straddling the needs of being kid-friendly and adult-friendly, serious and humorous. There's even a political sub-text that might annoy more conservative readers, as arch-foe Sivana is now head of the "Department of Heartland Security" and labels the giant robots as a "terrorist plot" and vows to "go through the credit accounts of every citizen until we find something suspicious" -- Smith would seem to be taking a few satirical swipes at the current Bush-Republican administration.

What emerges is just a kind of, well, likeable, feel good romp, a nice antidote to DC (and Marvel's) current editorial philosophy: violence is good! death is the only story plot! make it dark -- kill and rape every character at least once

But, I'll admit, moving into the climax, the story seemed to start to run out of steam a bit. Partly that's because, as a two hundred page epic -- perhaps the largest Shazam story ever -- it doesn't really feel that complex or epic (a result of the above mentioned big panels, few words). And, as mentioned, Smith's focus on Billy over CM means that the final chapter lacks a certain super hero oomph for some of it, as it's more about Billy than his alter ego. And maybe the very juggling of humour and drama means that, as we reach the climax, we aren't really on the edge of our seats with suspense. In fact, as much as I enjoyed most of it the first time through...I found that a second reading overall left me not as excited, the funny bits not seeming as funny as I remembered, etc.

As well, by crafting this as it's own Shazam universe, even as it calls upon established elements, it's not really clear whether the twist about who and what Mr. Mind is is supposed to be a surprise or not! Likewise, there are kind of lazy, unexplained plot points, as if Smith is banking on us just accepting things because, well, they're a part of traditional C.M. mythology. Like it's never explained what happened to Billy's parents or how he could have a sister -- a kid sister yet -- he knew nothing about.

In the end, Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil is an enjoyable effort, Smith for the most part doing a decent job of maintaining the child-like spirit of the original character, while making it seem smarter and more sophisticated for a modern, jaded audience. But despite my initial enthusiasm, and despite the critical praise it's received, it didn't quite jump on to the top shelf -- maybe there's too much of Smith and Bone on display, and not enough Captain Marvel. And though Smith wanted to bring the character back to his roots, in some interviews seeming not altogether impressed with Jerry Ordway's previous run (in which he complained the adult CM having Billy's brain just made the character seem mentally "retarded"), this falls into the same category as Ordway's Power of Shazam series -- a nice take on CM, fuelled by undeniable affection for the character, but ultimately a "new" take. One can't help thinking it would still be cool to see the "traditional" Billy/CM -- the one from the 1940s-mid-1980s -- featured in a modern epic, with modern production values, colouring, and with, yes, modern sophistication, but maintaining the spirit of the original.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the mini-series.

Cover price: __

Power of Hope - cover by RossShazam!: Power of Hope 2000 (SC GN) 64 pgs.

Written by Paul Dini. Painted by Alex Ross.
Editors: Charles Kochman, Joey Cavalieri.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

The third in an annual series of graphic novels by writer Paul Dini and artist Alex Ross (the two sharing story credit), presenting "meaningful" stories featuring DC Comics A-list heroes in giant, Treasury size format stories, usually released just in time for Christmas. These include Superman: Peace on Earth (1998), Batman: War on Crime (1999), Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth and JLA: Liberty and Justice.

Shazam: Power of Hope features the original Captain Marvel in a story about how Captain Marvel, and his juvenile alter ego, Billy Batson, are feeling a bit world weary when they get a request to visit kids at a hospital. Captain Marvel shows up and takes the kids on various wish fulfillments (flying, visiting the zoo) while also getting involved in the occasional superhero adventure (saving a dam from sabotage). Spending time with the kids helps Cap/Billy get recharged.

And that's about it.

This is the first of these Dini/Ross collaborations I've read, and it kind of fitted my expectation of them based on what I'd heard about the earlier ones. They're full of pomp and self-importance, a sense that Dini and Ross sincerely think they're crafting a profound opus for the ages...but this one, at least, is kind of simple, and even shallow. A friend who read this called it "insipid", but I regard it a little more charitably.

I didn't dislike the book. I enjoyed aspects of it, the mood, the wholesome intentions. It's just a far cry from being a great story.

It's presented less like a comic, with word and thought balloons, and more like a picture book, with captions for each panel. Unfortunately, that tends to mute the human drama of the piece, giving us set pieces rather than intimate scenes. The story is told from Captain Marvel's point of view, but Dini (best known for his work on the animated Superman/Batman TV series) doesn't always capture a distinctive "voice" for the character. Maybe someone else could tell an entire comicbook using nothing but first person narration and make the character and the scenes come alive, but Dini isn't him.

Much of the talk about these books is Alex Ross' fully painted art -- even those who feel the stories are weak get swept up in the pictures. And Ross' art is certainly impressive. But maybe I'm finally becoming blase toward his work (after Marvels, Kingdom Come, and Uncle Sam) or maybe he just wasn't as much on his game. The photo-realism that he's known for, making comicbook heroes come alive as real 3-D people, though still there, wasn't as strong as in his other work, his style a tad more impressionistic in spots. Then again, maybe being presented at almost twice the size of a regular comic, you notice the shortcomings more. It's still great art, don't get me wrong. It just didn't blow me away as has his previous work.

And you might think that working with huge pages would allow for more to be crammed in, but instead, Ross tells the tale often using only two or three panels per page (that's when he's not utilizing single or double-page spreads). And Ross, who used to be known for the detail, and subtle gags he'd work into his pictures, has become far less ambitious in his recent work.

Power of Hope wanders about, not really delivering much of a story (in the sense of one scene building upon another) or much in the way of characterization. Perhaps Ross should be faulted (after all, he gets partial story credit) as the whole structure seems geared to showcasing the art over the story. The plot's often made up of encapsulated moments, rather than the busy work of breaking a scene down into multiple little panels, and the picture book format means Ross has no word balloons cluttering up his paintings. It hasn't a lot to say, for the most part. But then when it does try to tackle an issue (involving a beaten child) it's handled so simplisticly, so naively, so -- well -- irresponsibly that you cringe and wish they'd have just stuck with trips to the zoo as their narrative keystones.

And maybe I have some biases. As a kid, I spent more than my share of time in hospitals, but the aloofness of the thing failed to really instill in me any sense of flashback which you might expect.

But one can't fault the sincerity. In one montage sequence Captain Marvel tells the kids about his adventures...while in his introduction, Paul Dini recalls how, long before he'd read a comic, his dad used to tell him stories about Captain Marvel the same way another parent might relate a traditional fairytale. Clearly, then, that scene (among others) was heartfelt. The story has some mood and heart, and there is a clever twist involving Captain Marvel being warned by the wizard Shazam that he must help an unnamed boy who is losing hope.

But overall, it just seems like Dini and Ross are skimming over material that could've been developed better.

A moderately enjoyable read, but nothing more. The book (partly because of its picture book format) has been suggested as a suitable read for all ages. And I was tempted to leave it out for my nieces and nephews to read...but because of a scene involving a terminal care ward, and a kid who dies in the middle of a scene, I'm not as sure it's suitable for youngsters.

Cover price: $15.50 CDN./$9.95 USA.