Thursday, July 26, 2007
The New Shazam!
What's the magic word?
Since my fellow bloggers on Holy Heroes!! have more comics in their little pinkies than I have in my whole body, this is my first post. You may think of me as one of those minor heroes or maybe a sidekick: I squeaked onto the team because just once I did something worth noticing, an overlong and overwrought essay on Bone. Of course, those wimpy sidekicks and underdog superheroes do usually do something worthwhile somewhere around the climax; however, I don't know when the climax of this blog will be, but this probably isn't it.
Hopeless fan that I am of Jeff Smith, I forewent my usual habit of waiting for the paperback and bought all four issues of Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil, the new Captain Marvel comic he has recently completed for DC. DC has been in the process of creating new origin stories for its superheroes, perhaps the most notable of which is Frank Miller's Batman: Year One. Shazam! is a new origin story for Captain Marvel.
Smith's easily recognizable, Walt Kelly-inspired art style proves quite effective for recreating a much shorter version of Marvel's battle with the Monster Society. The highly cartoony but unquestionably excellent look of Smith's art, and especially his young Billy Batson, who has a perfectly, slightly oversized head, are ideal for the story.
To make a long and sometimes nonsensical story short, Billy Batson is an orphan living on the streets, pestered by a thug named LaGreen. After following a mysterious man into a subway station, he boards a train and finds himself in a cave occupied by a figure known only as "The Wizard" who gives Billy a magic word ("shazam") that will cause lightning to strike him and turn him into a full-grown, muscle-bound, tights-clad superhero, Captain Marvel. Soon after, Billy learns he has a sister, Mary (approximately six years old), and he also accidentally brings into our universe a nefarious misanthropic villain, Mister Mind, from beyond the edge of time, and Mister Mind brings with him a host of anthropomorphic man-eating alligators. No, really. And somewhere in there, a talking tiger named Talky Tawny shows up and...oh, forget it.
Smith has quite a task here, telling the origins of all the major players in four short issues. Somehow, the comic never quite feels crammed, but it does feel too short. It would have been nice, for example, if Smith spent more time developing Billy's hopeless schoolboy crush on beautiful news reporter Helen Fidelity, because nobody does schoolboy crushes quite like Smith.
I confess to having never read the original (I will use my tender age as my primary excuse for this), but I am aware that one of Smith's biggest changes is in the character of Mary Marvel; originally, Mary was a teenager. In Smith's version, however, Mary is about six years old and acts like it. Much of the second issue of the new Shazam! features Mary dealing with her superpowers and Captain Marvel dealing with Mary: upon finding herself a superheroine, Mary does what most children would do and bounces around New York like a rubber ball while Captain Marvel, now a parent figure, chases helplessly after her. Smith's flair for expressive faces and good humor serve him well here. A smattering of reviews suggest some diehard fans are uncomfortable with the new Mary Marvel, but I suspect they will warm up to her if the series continues.
I must complain that Smith's alligator monsters (crocodiles in the original) do not get enough time on the page. Though not particularly challenging opponents for Marvel, the alligator monsters, determined to devour children but perpetually unsuccessful, are downright hilarious. Marvel himself is also perpetually funny. New to our world and generally oblivious, he has some great scenes; on his first appearance, rather than saving a man from falling out of a blimp or rescuing a girl from lions or doing any of the other acts that generally start a superhero's career, Marvel begins by eating a hot dog and declaring hot dog vending the greatest achievement of modern civilization. When a bystander asks sarcastically if he's off to find a phone booth to change in, he replies, oblivious, "No... I'm off to see the wizard."
I must also complain about Smith's attempts at--ugh--political relevance. Not content with one supervillain, Smith also gives us Dr. Sivana, the U.S. attorney general, who's head of the "Department of Heartland Security." In the second issue, Sivana gives us this wonderful statement: "You have my PERSONAL ASSURANCE that the DEPARTMENT OF TECHNOLOGY AND HEARTLAND SECURITY will go through the credit accounts of every citizen until we find something SUSPICIOUS!" You know, I'm not a fan of the current White House either, but honestly, I'm getting bored with all the satire: Marvel is doing its "Civil War" thing, DC, last I checked, had Lex Luthor in the White House, and Hollywood has been turning out movies with negative views of the presidency at almost the same rate it turned out positive views of the presidency during the Clinton years. I'm bored already! Why is a reference to the War on Terror in Shazam!? That's almost as bad as putting one in The Last Mimzy.
Smith is a great author/illustrator, but he'd be better of leaving the political satire to his master Kelly and sticking with the mythological stuff because, frankly, Smith isn't very good at political satire. As evidence, I refer the reader to the Cartoon Books publication of Bone volume 9, Crown of Horns. After it's all said and done, Smith inserts a one-shot featuring Smiley and Phoney Bone washing dishes in the Barrelhaven Tavern. When Phoney demands to know why everyone dislikes him, Smiley answers that it is because he's greedy. As the little comic develops, Phoney proposes creating a combination religion and political party founded on greed, but then gives up the plan with the words, "Nah, it'll never happen." I have wracked my brains, but I honestly can't figure out what Smith is referring to; my best guess is the Republican Party, except that's not a religion. Someone should tell Smith that good satire has to make sense.
Besides, Kelly was at least taking something of a risk by criticizing Joseph McCarthy. By criticizing the Bush White House, Smith is only at risk of having his back patted.