Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil #1
“Chapter 1: YROOB SZH Z HVXIVG!”
Writer/Artist/Letters/Cover artist: Jeff Smith
Colorist: Steve Hamaker
Editor: Mike Carlin
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $5.99 US/$7.25 CAN
When it announced when Bone creator Jeff Smith would write and illustrate a new Captain Marvel story, anyone familiar with his work and fans of traditional super-hero storytelling were elated. The news was celebrated, and we all sat back to wait. We waited, but we all knew what to expect, didn’t we? We knew Smith was going to retell the Captain Marvel origin. We knew he was going to bring a lighter, more innocent quality back to the Marvel Family. Like so many others, I anticipated the project, but I knew it would hold no surprises. It knew it would be fun but that it would be familiar as well. I just knew.
Turns out I didn’t know a damn thing. Smith does deliver that more traditional, more innocent tone that many expected, but he also has some surprises in store as well. He takes the origin of Billy Batson and Captain Marvel in unusual directions, and those unexpected twists have me absolutely riveted to this story. Another real treat about the book is that it’s not just new-reader-friendly, but accessible and appropriate for a younger audience as well. If it follows the path begun by its first episode, Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil promises to be a true all-ages read, something kids and kids-at-heart can enjoy equally.
Billy Batson’s life is a difficult thing. He sleeps in a condemned building, forever on guard for a local thief who beats homeless kids for what little money they manage to scrounge up to survive. Billy could stay at a shelter, but he doesn’t like it there. He prefers the few friends he’s found on the streets, even if it’s dangerous. But when Billy spots a shadowy figure he believes to be his real father, the boy finds himself drawn into the secret, magical lair of an old wizard, who binds him to a powerful champion. And all Billy has to do to summon forth that powerful hero is to say a single magic word.
I’m really thrilled to see that Smith hasn’t adapted his style all that much for the shift in genre and setting from his work on Bone. There’s still a slightly exaggerated tone to his character designs. I was surprised to see how much he changed Billy Batson’s appearance. In some ways, it’s more of cute caricature, but in others, it’s more realistic and expressive than the Billy Batson that creator C.C. Beck introduced the world to in 1940. Speaking of expressive, the smile the Wizard Shazam flashes warmly at Billy is incredibly effective. Until that moment, he’s an enigmatic, creepy figure, but even behind that beard, the kindness and warmth in his character shines through. While the characters have a slightly exaggerated look, the backgrounds in the city scenes are surprisingly convincing and realistic, conveying Billy’s unfortunate circumstances as clearly as any dialogue could. I was also quite taken with Smith’s different take on the Rock of Eternity and how the spark of the Big Bang hovers above.
Smith offers up a bit of fun for readers with the chapter titles for this series. One can decode it on DC’s website, but if one is also familiar with newspaper puzzles known as “cryptoquotes” (at least that’s what I call them), it might be possible to find the real chapter title on one’s own.
To my surprise, Smith’s take on Captain Marvel isn’t a transformed and empowered Billy Batson at adult size. Instead, he’s a separate person, with his own personality. Initially, the concept of Captain Marvel is as wish fulfillment, a weak and vulnerable kid who finds himself powerful and respected, able to do whatever he wants. But in this story, when Billy says “Shazam,” he isn’t transformed. Instead, he’s replaced. It’s reminiscent of a different Captain Marvel concept — the one developed by Marvel Comics in the 1970s (with sidekick Rick Jones switching places with an alien soldier named Mar-Vell). Mind you, I’ve read little of the Golden Age incarnations of the original Captain Marvel and Billy Batson, so Smith may actually be touching upon something from the source material that’s been lost over the years.
My favorite moment in this book comes in a solitary panel as Billy quietly offers up what should have been an obvious assumption. He kneels before the wizard and believes his miserable life is possibly being touched by a divine power. It’s a powerful but understated moment in the story that brings credibility and vulnerability to the plot and characters. That stands out as the best example I can find of the refinement of Jeff Smith’s storytelling for this project. He could have easily taken a shortcut and just retold classic C.C. Beck Shazam! stories as others have done before him. He still captures the charm and innocence of that yesteryear feeling, but he also injects some great emotion and sensitivity. 9/10