04 July 2012


Look, I know it's totally square that I'm not that interested in gritty superheroes. Or at least antiquated. (And probably inconsistent, since I love me some Buffy.) But darn it, I want my tales of magic folk who fly around in tights to be FUN rather than soul-crushingly bleak--which is why I'm happy to have discovered the least gritty superhero imaginable (barring the existence of, say, Superkitten), Captain Marvel.

Captain Marvel is the alter ego of teenage orphan and newscaster Billy Batson, who acquires the powers of six ancient heroes by uttering the word SHAZAM (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). His real-world history is rife with intrigue: debuted by Fawcett Comics in the 1940s, he was the most popular superhero of the decade in terms of sales--but then DC sued, viewing the character as a rip-off of Superman. (Which is kinda fair.) Anyway, by the time DC, now the owner of the character, relaunched him in the 70s, Marvel Comics existed, and they had their own Captain Marvel, so subsequent DC comics have been titled Shazam!

The two volumes I read were a massive black-and-white compilation of the 70s reboot, Showcase Presents Shazam!, and 2007's Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil, by Bone creator Jeff Smith. (Chris has picked up the first three volumes of Bone, and they're definitely on my list.) The former is good-times 50s-style gee-whizzery through and through, with Marvel and his cohorts (sister Mary Marvel, newsboy friend Freddy Freeman as Captain Marvel, Jr.) drawn in a cartoonish style markedly different from the more realistic minor characters. It introduces his regular nemeses, the best of which is Mr. Mind, a malevolent alien supergenius who appears here as a worm wearing glasses with a radio around his neck (which allows him to convert telepathic communication into sound, or something). Mr. Mind is a great mix of totally goofy--he's a WORM WITH GLASSES--and legitimately terrifying, as he's certainly smarter than Captain Marvel (who, no offense, in this incarnation can be slow on the uptake), and near-omnipotent. I get the feeling the only thing preventing him from full-on murder sprees is that the comic's aimed at a single-digit demographic. Also loved the last few issues' bicentennial celebration, which saw Marvel etc. tracking down his rogues' gallery in different American cities, always with local flavor--in Pittsburgh, for example, the nefarious Dr. Sivana calls forth Serbo-Croatian steelworker folk hero Joe Magarac, who's AWESOME (though stupid Wikipedia says he's probably fakelore, boo). Unfortunately, the volume cuts off before they make it further west than Indianapolis; apparently the comic was overhauled in the next issue, and then went again defunct in the next, so possibly the stories where he visited Chicago and Kansas City and Texas and so on were never written. Sad face.

Monster Society of Evil retells Captain Marvel's origin story, and while it is somewhat grittier--Billy Batson's younger, and wholly homeless, before he follows a stranger into the subway and discover the ancient Egyptian wizard who gives him his powers (because of course an Egyptian has access to Hebrew, Greek, and Roman heroic archetypes, duh)--it remains long on "charm," as Alex Ross brilliantly puts it in his introduction, "a quality that few comics deliver these days." Smith brings in the expected characters, including Dr. Sivana, Mary Marvel (also younger, like five, which makes her totally adorable when she starts flying around), and Mr. Mind (more snake-y than worm-y here). And oh man, I forgot to mention Billy's friend Tawky Tawny! He's a TALKING TIGER! KITTY! I really loved Smith's art (the color helps) and his ability to tell a kid's story with scary bits that's not going to overwhelm anybody.

So Captain Marvel is totes my favorite superhero now. Of course, DC's New 52 reboot thingy has elected to mess with him by officially renaming him Shazam, making him "darker" (ARGH), and putting him in a dopey wizard's cloak. But I'm just gonna pretend that version doesn't exist, which I think is a classic comics-nerd gambit. FINALLY I'M ONE OF THEM

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