Reviews and Recommendations by Mel Odom, Professional Writer

SHAZAM! by Geoff Johns

Shazam vol 1 cover

Shazam, or Captain Marvel, was once the flagship of Fawcett Comics back in the 1930s. Captain Marvel’s adventures were released in Whiz Comics and he soon became the hottest selling superhero for decades before a copyright infringement case was settled in favor of DC Comics.

For a long time, Captain Marvel languished, then DC Comics got the rights to the character and began publishing his adventures again under the name Shazam (the mystical word 12 year old Billy Batson uses to change into the hero gifted with the power of the gods).

The name change was necessitated by Marvel Comics’ creation of yet another Captain Marvel (the Kree character). The 1970s and later decades weren’t kind to Shazam. Nobody seemed to be able to lock into the character.

I think a lot of the problem was that Billy Batson, Shazam’s alter ego, was a 12 year old boy and no one knew what to do with him. Back in the 1930s, kids bought comics and they enjoyed the idea of gaining superpowers one day. But the market had changed. Shazam was brought back several times, only to hit popularity for a short period, then disappear again.

Geoff Johns is noted for his ability to find new takes on old characters, of breathing life into those characters so they fit into today’s world. He does it again in the Shazam graphic novel pieced together from backup stories in the Justice League book. Waiting on the original run of the story must have been hard, because there’s a lot going on in this book.

Johns’ Billy Batson isn’t a goody-two-shoes. He’s a 15 year old kids who’s been kicked around by the foster care system and has learned to care about nothing outside his own skin. Except for Mr. Tawny, however. Mr. Tawny is a tiger in a zoo that his parents took him to.

The new foster care home Billy is taken to has Freddy Freeman (who will become Captain Marvel, Jr.) and Mary (who will become Miss Marvel). This is nicely done because the kids are a motley group of unique individuals. Billy doesn’t fit in at all, which I liked a lot, but he has traces of nobility that show up when he battles the group’s schoolyard hecklers.

Shazam vol 1 01

That enmity with the school’s brattiest kids ends up leading Billy to the subway tunnel where he encounters the old wizard. I like that Billy’s cynical side wins over the wizard’s trust instead of suddenly becoming a beaming example of all that humanity can be. Billy is still an aggressive kid waging war on adults with ideas of how good life is.

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Billy becomes Shazam and doesn’t know what to do with himself. In fact, his first protest is that the wizard made him “old,” which is probably what someone in his shoes would think. His second instinct is to share his change with Freddy, which sets them off on a series of adventures that are amazing because they are so well done from a kid perspective.

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Even as the fun is beginning, though, Johns throws in the storm with the revelation of Dr. Silvana, one of the longtime foes of Captain Marvel. There are some tweaks and twists, but the character is essentially the same as he’s always been. Johns is awesome at not changing anything that works, just bringing it up to date.

Through Silvana, Black Adam is released, and he begins hunting for the wizard only to find that the powers have been given to someone else. That sets off a hunt for Billy, who’s first instinct – in keeping with a child – is to hide by turning back into his 15 year old self.

The adventure goes on from there, and Billy learns what it is to be part of a family, and what it is to be a hero. There are no real surprises in the story, but man Johns hits all the stuff superhero readers want to see in a comic. The battles are grand, the stakes are high, and it’s a person’s courage, not superpowers, that truly save the day.

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Gary Frank is a frequent collaborator with Geoff Johns, and his art is dead on in this graphic novel. The panel breakdowns draw the eye and the action consumes the mind. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back through the pages to get the visual aspect of the story once you see how a situation resolves. I wandered back through the pages often, just taking in the depth of the world Frank created throughout.

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I don’t know what’s in store next for Shazam, but I’m really looking forward to reading more of his adventures.

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