DC Comics and Geoff Johns have been criticized recently after it began to spread the word about plans for its Shazam! property in its New 52 lineup. A backup feature (penned by Johns and illustrated by Gary Frank) introducing the new take on the World’s Mightiest Mortal is set to begin in Justice League later this month. The backup will be titled “The Curse of Shazam!” and as Johns has revealed in interviews, he and DC are renaming the super-hero character. Instead of Captain Marvel, the hero will be called Shazam. Johns argued many people outside of the niche market of super-hero comics know DC’s Captain Marvel by his magic word anyway. It can be presumed DC isn’t comfortable with “Marvel” being in the name of one of its iconic heroes anyway. Purists will no doubt be disappointed, but I see the logic behind the decision (even if I think Johns is selling readers short).
Fans of the character also expressed their trepidation when DC released a preview of the new Shazam (seen at right). Now sporting a hood, the teaser image would seem to make it clear this is a darker, more intense take on the Big Red Cheese (who will no doubt no longer be referred to as such in the New 52 — if “Captain Marvel” throws people off, the cheesy slur hurled by his enemies must be perceived as befuddling as well). Of course, it’s been known for some time Frank would be the handling the art chores for this reinterpretation and revival. Given his involvement, it was a safe bet we’d be looking at a grittier Shazam.
Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve encountered a Darker Mightiest Mortal.
In the wake of such comics as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, DC published Shazam! The New Beginning, a four-part series written by Roy and Dann Thomas and illustrated by Tom Mandrake. Following Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC rebooted a number of its properties. Superman and Wonder Woman had had their turns, and it opted to give Shazam the same treatment in 1997. The Marvel Family was gone, as were talking tigers and the brighter, more playful tone readers used to associate with the property.
In The New Beginning, the orphaned Billy Batson ended up in the care of an abusive uncle, none other than Thaddeus Sivana. His archenemy was his legal guardian. Furthermore, while Mandrake is a skilled artist who’s done a great job on a number of comics over the years, I can’t imagine someone whose style would be more ill-suited for the goofiness of Captain Marvel.
The premise behind and continuity of Shazam!: The New Beginning didn’t last long. DC made little use of the new incarnation of the character. The concept fizzled, as the darker take didn’t seem to click for readers. There’s been a number of relaunches and reinterpretations since, and after “The Curse of Shazam!,” I expect there will be more still. Aside from a four-year run for The Power of Shazam! (by Jerry Ordway and Peter Krause) in the mid 1990s, Captain Marvel/Shazam! hasn’t seemed to have the much staying power. Though Captain Marvel’s comics once outsold those of Superman in the Golden Age, modern comics readers seem able to focus on the World’s Mightiest Mortal only for short spurts.
Personally, I think DC should’ve given the Flashpoint incarnation of the character — that saw six kids share the power of Shazam and could summon “Captain Thunder” — another shot. It stayed true to the concept’s origins in many ways but brought a lot of new dynamics to the mix as well, and ditched the “Marvel” moniker from the hero’s name to boot.
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