Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Everything Wrong With DC Comics In One Title

I've been sitting on a borrowed copy of a book for about half a year now.  I go back, reread some of it, try to figure out how to put my thoughts into words, come up with a paragraph or two of information, and then give up because I wasn't able to really express what I wanted to say.

However, this is the day.

This is the day I present the reason why, for the most part, I really don't care about the "New 52" universe that DC Comics has created.

Today we discuss "SHAZAM!"

I'm a pretty huge Captain Marvel fan.  He is, after all, possibly just as important in comic book history as another character you might have heard of, "Superman."

Captain Marvel is the alter-ego of radio broadcaster Billy Batson, a boy who is able to utter the magic word "Shazam!" to transform into Earth's Mightiest Mortal.  Gifted by the wizard Shazam (yes, he says his mentor's name to access his powers) with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury (spoiler alert, look at the first name of each of those names), Billy Batson fought evil around the world and even through time.

But here's some stuff you might not know.

Introduced in 1940 in Whiz Comics #2, Captain Marvel was the most popular superhero in terms of book sales in America during the '40s.  While he may not have been the "first" superhero (that goes to that other guy with the "S" on his chest), he was the first one to star in a film (a serial by Republic Features started in 1941 titled Adventures of Captain Marvel), he was the first to have counterparts of his get their own books (Captain Marvel, Jr. and Mary Marvel each had their own title start at about the same time they first appeared in Cap's book).  He was one of the first superheroes to have a mentor (the wizard), and is arguably one of the first to have a real alter-ego that mattered to the stories.  He's also the first to have a multi-part story, the huge Mister Mind and the Monster Society Of Evil that went for two years and is the first story where a group of previously-faced villains teamed up together to fight the hero.

Oh, and his book was also so popular it was printed bi-weekly for several years.  First one to do that, too.

A lot of people think of Captain Marvel, they think of a naive, "goody two-shoes" character who says things like "gee whiz!" and "Holy Moley!" and "gosh!" a lot, but let's look at some of those early stories.

There's his battles against huge monsters while being manipulated by a film producer who wanted "a great film without spending a lot of special effects."  And it starts with the producer trying to commit suicide with a jet pack.

There was a time he fought a medieval knight that was frozen in ice with a similar name who was also, in his day, called "Earth's Mightiest Mortal."  Up until the knight's age caught up with him and he simply died.

There were his battles against the aforementioned Monster Society, regular battles against monsters, and who can forget the time he battled Reltih, a mirror world version of Hitler?

If you're confused by a country named Dnalgne, remember, this is a MIRROR WORLD.  Such clever writing!
Of course, Captain Marvel has had innumerable problems since his glory days.  DC Comics sued his parent company Fawcett because they accused Captain Marvel of being "a Superman rip-off."  His book also stopped selling during the 50s, when most superhero comics utterly failed because people were printing horror comics filled with sex, gore, and violence, western comics, or romance comics.

Seriously, besides a few DC titles and a couple of Marvel ones, most superhero titles vanished in the 50s.  Marvel tried giving Captain America his own book again in the 50s, and it couldn't last in sales.

Now, does Captain Marvel have a more "innocent" feel to it than a lot of other superheroes?  Well, yeah, he does.  He didn't have the angst of Spider-Man, the dark and gritty nature of Batman, or a lot of other things that identified other titles.  A lot of people say that a character that innocent and perpetually "good" just doesn't fit in with comics any more, or even with today's world.  There's no room for characters that simple and idealistic, to which I say hogwash.

Hogwash, I say!

Sadly, I seem to be in the minority, as DC Comics (oh yeah, they later bought all the Fawcett characters) has spent the last few years stripping Captain Marvel of everything that really made him "Captain Marvel."  Killing the Wizard, having Cap take over the role, replacing him with "Junior" as the primary "mightiest mortal" and utterly destroying sweet, innocent Mary Marvel.

I mean, seriously, how do you go from this:

To this?

Ugh.  That costume still haunts my nightmares.
DC did attempt to relaunch Captain Marvel (now "Shazam" because of ongoing legal issues with Marvel that I seriously wish they'd just resolve and agree that both companies can have someone with the same name but oh well) during the "New 52" universal reboot, and I have to's not the worst retelling/re-imagining of Captain Marvel, but it's pretty terrible.

But not the worst.  By a long shot.  ...same artist, though.  That's telling.

The Billy Batson introduced to us in "SHAZAM!" is, as is his former self, an orphan.  When we meet him, he's smiles and happiness and a podcast artist, but within a page the story reveals it's all a sham.  Billy is bitter, pushing away everybody in his life that might want to help him, and immediately suspecting the worst in people.  He says hateful things just to get a rise, picks fights, and seems on the fast track to being either a runaway kid or ending up in prison as a juvenile.

A lot of people say "well, have you met any kids lately?  Kids are pretty terrible sometimes."  I'll debate this in a bit.

Upon being summoned by the Wizard (who, admittedly, is in a rush because a villain named Black Adam has been freed and someone needs to stop him), one of the first things Billy does is accuse him of being some kind of pervert ("listen, Chester, that stuff might work like candy on six-year-olds, but you come any closer and I'll knock out the last of your teeth.") but then goes on to explain to the Wizard how, to put it using less words than the book does, people suck, everyone sucks, and there's no such thing as a "purely good" person to take on the power.

Now, the book does try to spend a lot of time explaining that what the wizard needs to be doing is looking for someone with "the potential for good" to wield the power, and to their credit, Billy isn't a total jerk.  He stands up to bullies, he feeds sandwiches to a tiger at the zoo (?), and helps other people sometimes, but, man, "the potential to do good" is really lowering that bar there.

So what does Billy do upon getting powers?  Well, with his "friend" Freddy, he immediately smashes the Wizard's throne just to see how strong he is, puts a mugger through a car (likely killing him) then asks for money from the woman he just saved, tries to steal money from the ATM, and plans on using the money he just stole to buy beer.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is our hero.

Yes, at the end he does learn the importance of having a family and decides to stay with the other kids at the foster home he's in,  Robbing ATMs and buying beer?

That's a pretty bleak idea of what a character needs to be like these days, especially if it's your take one one of the (pardon the use of a non-real term) "goodest" characters out there.

But like I said, I've been struggling to figure out how to describe what's wrong with the whole idea....and then about a month or so ago, a book came out called Thunderworld written by Grant Morrison, and it's everything I wanted to say between two covers.  It's so good, it's the first individual comic I've purchased by the "big two" publishing companies in probably a decade.

Grant Morrison is known for putting big ideas in his comics, and this one's no different.  Telling a large, epic story about "science vs. magic," he manages to fill this book (as well as the other issues in his Multiversity story that this is part of) with a look at how trying to analyze comics and other sources of wonder simply robs them of what gives them that wonder.

Is it unrealistic to have a superhero who always does the right thing because at heart he's an innocent, idealistic child?  Well, maybe.  But this is also a guy who can fly, has super strength, and exists in worlds with magical wishing rings, the ability to run at the speed of light, underwater kingdoms, islands of Amazons, and billionaires that dress kids up in bright colors and then go around punching the mentally ill into submission.

You should be able to get away with a character who, at his very core, does the right thing each time because it's the right thing to do.  He's childhood innocence with the power to make sure that people don't hurt other people, not because he's demanding them to do what he wants them to, but because, well, it's not right to hurt other people.

I could go on and on about it, but I think this one single six-panel comic by Nate Cosby and Evan "Doc" Shaner does a much better job than me:

DC Comics has forgotten to let their characters be good people.  Superman no longer values all life.  The Justice League didn't fight any villains for the first couple of years they existed, they mostly just fought each other and OTHER Justice Leagues.  Maybe DC doesn't think they can go with the old idealistic superheroes anymore (though that has changed in a few more recent books), but considering fewer and fewer children are buying comic books, maybe they should try a little harder to give the kids something they can connect with, and a kid who turns into a magical adult while still being a nicest guy in existence isn't a bad place to start.

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