Once upon a time there was a boy.
This boy’s name was Billy Batson.
He was homeless.
He was an orphan.
He had a heart of gold.
He was more popular than Superman.
He was also Captain Marvel, Earth’s Mightiest Mortal.
Chosen to be Earth’s champion against the seven deadly enemies of man by a Wizard, he was granted the abilities and blessings of six of the greatest men and gods to have come before him. Billy Batson had only call out the magic word, “SHAZAM” and transform from a ten year old boy into a fully-grown, super-powered man.
This has been the origin of Captain Marvel since he was created by writer Bill Parker and artist C. C. Beck in 1939 for Fawcett comics, and while he gained sidekicks, family and villains, very little of his core has changed. Everything else him has been less stable.
Fawcett Comics went under in 1953, and Billy was stuck in limbo. Marvel took this opportunity to create their own Captain Marvel and trademark the name, so by the time Billy and his family were picked up by DC comics twenty years later, they couldn’t name the book after its hero any longer. But they still wrote about him, changing the title to his magical catchphrase, Shazam!
He has been changed many times since his conception, Billy became the Wizard, his sidekick became the new Captain Marvel. His sister became evil. Then 6 children were all Captain Marvel combined, but renamed Captain Thunder.
Then, in August 2011, DC comics hit the reset button on their entire superhero universe. Everything changed in a flash, Billy and his family included. In Justice League #7, Captain Marvel returns in a back-up feature called “The Curse of Shazam”, and what DC have announced so far is leaving me with very mixed feelings.
Lets go with the good news first. He’s still Billy Batson, he’s still an orphan, and he’s still a cute-as-a-button ten-year-old boy. He still gains his powers from a wizard, and he still transforms in to an adult form when he becomes a superhero. They’re playing up the magical elements too, which seems like a really nice take on a character whose history includes wizards, talking tigers and super-genius worms.
Then again.. there’s this:
Meet Shazam, the new name for Billy Batson’s alter-ego. The legal troubles with Marvel comics have risen again and so one of the first ever superheroes has now lost his name. The military jacket and side cape are gone too, replaced with a scowl and a cowl.
It leaves too many questions. How will he introduce himself if his name is also the word he has to call to transform? What will the Wizard be called, if who was once Captain Marvel has taken his name? What will his sidekicks, Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. be known as? Why is he hiding his face if his civilian identity is unrecognisable from his superheroic form? The creators have tried to explain themselves, artist Gary Frank being the most revealing:
The first thing is that the cape is now more of a cloak but, beyond that, the magic power is now a part of the look. The idea is that the lightning is always crackling around him, the power barely contained. He is, in effect, a conduit for the power.
Constantly being surrounded by lightning just seems silly to me. Superman isn’t burdened with a downside like that. Maybe they can do some interesting things with it, but I’m doubtful.
I am, yes. The family is getting a makeover but the idea of “family” is so central to the story that we couldn’t possibly leave it out. And you’ll see Mr. Tawky Tawny in Chapter Two in “Justice League” #8 (sort of)
Mr. Tawky Tawny is the name of Captain Marvel’s pet talking tiger, so its nice to see they aren’t ignoring the wackier elements of the character’s history. The emphasis on family is good to hear too, for a set of characters most commonly known as the ‘Marvel Family’.
Hmmm. There is darkness but I wouldn’t say it is grim. This isn’t a gritty version. It’s very much a fantasy story about a group of kids and designed to be enjoyed by kids. That doesn’t mean we need to have rainbows and pixie dust everywhere but it’s not exactly Frank Miller.
I‘ve got mixed feelings about this, just because you’re not going Frank Miller dark doesn’t mean you aren’t going too dark for the character.
I’m worried that they are missing the point. Captain Marvel is the ideal wish-fulfilment hero for children. He is a good little boy becoming the powerful, heroic, noble father he never had. He is the idealism of the 40s and 50s writ large. Apart from Shazam, Billy Batson has always had a second catchphrase. I know most comic readers are teenagers now, and I’m not asking for rainbows and pixie dust. I just want to see the wonder in a big, bright superhero’s eyes as he says exclaims ‘Holy Moly’.
Is that too much to ask?