Comic Fodder

Review: SHAZAM! (the Monster Society of Evil)

If you turn on the Way, Way Back machine, you'll find that DC originally mentioned this book was coming in 2003. They even went so far as to have artist and writer Jeff Smith put together a Captain Marvel themed Christmas Card for Christmas '03.

And then, mostly, it's been a lot of radio silence. The anticipation for this book more or less fizzled into a "what ever happened to..?" comic dork question. And then DC made an announcement in late 2006 that 2007 would finally see Jeff Smith's long-awaited take on the Shazam/ Captain Marvel mythos.

Artist and writer Jeff Smith came to critical reknown and some sales success within the comic industry with his self-produced comic series Bone. An all-ages fantasy adventure featuring fantasy elemenst filtered through the perspective of a terribly imaginative cartoonist, Bone went on to complete the entire storyline after a 12 year run, picking up readers along the way.

As Bone was wrapping, DC and Smith came to an agreement that Smith should tackle the Shazam! franchise, one of DC's most well-known properties, but a property that hadn't really been able to stick with an audience in some time.

So what did four years of effort bring us?

The comic works when the comic works, but it's tough to say that Shazam! and the Monster Society of Evil seems like a comic four years in the making. Indeed, most of the first issue is comprised of Smith's retelling of the Billy Batson/ Captain Marvel origin story, complete with train and Wizard. Make no mistake, Smith's art here captures a very different world from the one last seen in the Jerry Ordway Shazam series. Where Ordway seemed intent on "updating" the Shazam mythos and turning Captain Marvel into a fairly standard cape-wearing superhero, Smith embraces the fantastic and childish notions tied to Captain Marvel.

It's almost pointless to compliment an artist like Jeff Smith, as often his cartooning surpasses his actual writing. Here, he's visualized a city in decay, with detail where appropriate and his characters open and expressive in the mode of better American animation.

Say the magic word!

Smith's Billy Batson is a sweet-natured kid, forced out to the streets who is not yet jaded nor really particularly street smart. And because he doth protest too much, we already know Billy has buried his longings for a family. Two plot points separate this version from other recent versions: (a) Billy Batson and Marvel are two distinct personalities, much like Jim Corrigan and The Spectre. When Billy is in trouble, he can pull Captain Marvel out of the ether. Lately, the take has been that Billy IS Captain Marvel, merely with the powers of Shazam bestowed upon him. (b) This could all be a fantasy in Billy's head. There's certainly a suggestion of as much.

Readers may have come to this first issue expecting something a bit more grandiose in scope and execution. And while the comic certainly delivers in many respects, a grand retelling of the Shazam! origin with such a high profile creator feels as if it should carry more weight. However, readers of Bone will recognize Smith's breezy dialogue and tendency to move from point to point without feeling that each scene change need be loaded down with undue baggage.

If nothing else, the tone of the book feels right. Never too heavy, threats are perhaps as absurd as they are challenging, and the central character manages to be a child without being too pretentious or precious.

It's definitely worth checking out a true all-ages book from DC.