Review: 'Shazam vol. 1' is an ugly, frustrating mess

A comic review article by: Zack Davisson

Captain Marvel is my favorite superhero. Not the Marvel Captain Marvel—not Carol Danvers or Mar-Vell—but the old Golden Age Fawcett hero Captain Marvel. I like Billy Batson in his magical world of talking tigers and bespectacled worms. I like the innocence and the whimsy. I like the fact that Captain Marvel is sort of the anti-Batman; 100% angst-free. He's not driven or tortured. He likes being Captain Marvel. In his heart-of-hearts, Billy Batson is a good guy.

Zack's Shazam collection

 

Admittedly, that is hard to write. I've talked to a few comic book writers about this, like James Robinson, Matt Wagner, and even Geoff Johns once-upon-a-time. And they all agree that Captain Marvel is one of the most difficult characters in comics to write correctly. Only a few have ever gotten it perfect, like Jerry Ordway and his Power of Shazam series, or Jeff Smith and his Shazam! Monster Society of Evil, or Mike Kunkle and his prematurely canceled Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!. And while Geoff Johns did a great job with the character in his JSA series and in the original 52 series, most agree that Captain Marvel works best in his own separate universe, unconnected to the greater DCU.

Because I love Captain Marvel, for the most part I stay away from attempts to modernize him. I know I'm not going to like them. I haven't read The Trials of Shazam or any of Freddy Freeman's turn as the hero "Shazam." (A name I hate, even though I understand the marketing reason behind it.) I probably should have avoided this New 52 version… but … it was Geoff Johns, who has done a good job with Captain Marvel before, and … curiosity got the better of me. You never know, right? It could be good!

But it isn't.

Billy Batson is a jerk

What we have here, is yet another ham-fisted attempt to "darken" Captain Marvel. Billy Batson is no longer a good guy—he's a tough kid with no moral base made hard by living on the streets. He spits in the face of those who show him kindness, and is a petty thief and hoodlum-in-training. Billy Batson is … as they announce on the opening page … trouble.

I hate attempts to darken Captain Marvel. They never work. It didn't work back in the 80s with the Roy Thomas/Tom Mandrake series Shazam! A New Beginning. It didn't work back in the 70s with Captain Thunder. But here, because DC Comics doesn't know what to do, they are trying it again. And failing again.

Is this Captain Marvel or Batman?

I was actually surprised that Geoff Johns wrote something like this.  Granted, I haven't followed his career since he became a Top Guy at DC, but I remember him fondly from JSA.  Like James Robinson, he seemed to be a writer with a deep understanding and respect for the DC Universe and it characters—what made them unique and interesting.  Sadly, this version of Shazam smacks of that Hollywood mentality to make everything the same. Batman sells well. Make Captain Marvel more like Batman. Make him dark and angsty. Dark and angsty = cash in the coffers = the only thing that matters.

But Captain Marvel isn't Batman.

(Oh, and Dr. Sivana isn't Lex Luthor, but you wouldn't know it by reading this comic.  Seriously, this looks like a cut-and-paste from All-Star Superman.  And apparently Virgin's Richard Branson is an evil bad guy as well, although why he sends his kids to public school is a mystery. Either that or Gary Frank has been dipping into his swipe file a little too much.)

Is this Sivana or Luthor?

This is my last time to beat this dead horse, but trying to "darken" Captain Marvel is like trying to "lighten" Batman by using puns and goofy humor. We've been there and done that. It sucks. There's a reason why Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin is reviled while Chris Nolan's The Dark Night is loved.  Batman works when he's dark, grim, and bound in realism.  Batman thrives there. Captain Marvel doesn't.  He inherently works best in a light, goofy world. 

And in comics, I think there is room for both. We don't need an army of clones.

Even then. Even if I had never heard of Captain Marvel and had no preconceived notions, Shazam is a bad comic. The dialog is absurd.  It sounds like the worst version of an adult trying to do "slangy hip-talk."  And apparently Geoff Johns has never seen any actual children in his life; all the kids in this comic—from Billy Batson to Freddy Freeman to the other "charming orphans" to the spoiled rich kids —are embarrassing one-dimensional stereotypes.  And save me from platitudes. "Family is what it can be, not what it should be."—that is seriously the magic phrase that saves the day in one of the most singularly ridiculous moments I have ever seen in a Captain Marvel comic. 

So let me find some nuggets buried in this mess.  Gary Frank's art is magnificent.  I have always loved Gary Frank, since his work on Supergirl.  He has improved as an artist, and his work here is phenomenal.  I really don't know if he is to be blamed for the bad character design—the Lex Luthor clone Sivana—or if that was an editorial mandate.  From what I know of DC, I am guessing mandate. Brad Anderson's coloring is pretty sweet, although a little too slick for my tastes.  But again, that is House Style over art.  All in all, the art team does a great job, and with better writing this could have been a heck of a book.

Gary Frank's art is nice

If you want to see Captain Marvel updated and done right, go check out Jerry Ordway's Power of Shazam graphic novel, or Jeff Smith's Monster Society of Evil. Me, I am betting that this new version of Shazam isn't long for the shelf.

Too bad.

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