Review: Shazam!: The Greatest Stories Ever Told trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, September 03, 2012

[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

Speak his name and we can become the strongest and mightiest in the world -- Shazam! Is one magic word all it takes to be the greatest "Greatest Stories" trade? Read on, loyal reader!

I was first introduced to Captain Marvel in the Mark Waid/Alex Ross Kingdom Come, which colored my reading of the character from then on, so I entered this volume eager to see what the character was "supposed" to be. Since KC, I've come to appreciate the treatment of Captain Marvel as a child in a man's body, but I see from Jeff Smith's introduction to Shazam! The Greatest Stories Ever Told that such was not always the case. I'm hoping the volume covers a wide range of interpretations, although I'm dismayed to see that there's nothing from Smith's amazing Shazam! and the Monster Society of Evil. I'm impressed, however, at the size of the volume -- thirteen stories and 222 content pages, the longest in the series.

The sum of the parts being more than the whole in this series, let's take a look at what's inside this volume.

"Introducing Captain Marvel" (Whiz Comics #2, February 1940): We begin with the standard origin story, in which orphaned newsboy Billy Batson meets the mysterious wizard Shazam and is granted all the powers of Captain Marvel by speaking the wizard's name. The story by Bill Parker is timeless, but what really steals the show in this entry is C. C. Beck's artwork, which takes full advantage of shadow and smoke to create an atmosphere of sinister foreboding in the underground caverns. The second half of the story, in which Captain Marvel confronts his nemesis Dr. Sivana for the first time, is more charming and conventional superheroism, although Beck continues to impress with the dynamic motion with which he imbues the Big Red Cheese.

"[Untitled]" (Captain Marvel Adventures #1, 1941): It's difficult to resist a story as exuberantly insane as this one: Captain Marvel journeys "a billion miles away" to save the enslaved citizens of Saturn from a race of marauding dragon men. And it's no wonder, with titans Joe Simon and Jack Kirby at the helm, that this story is so wildly entertaining, covering all kinds of story beats with the endearingly stubby artwork of the Golden Age. But the dragon people are still menacing, despite the fact that you'll initially want to laugh at their appearance; they prove worthy adversaries for Captain Marvel while giving him an opportunity to show off his fantastic abilities. The only thing missing here is a title.

"The Trio of Terror" (The Marvel Family #21, March 1948): Beck returns as artist for this Otto Binder-penned "Shazam at the Circus" tale, in which the dastardly Dingling Brothers conjure up terrible beasties to headline their new tent show. While Beck's artwork is just as action-packed, especially with the Marvel family triumvirate (Cap, Mary, and Junior) clobbering the creatures, Binder's script isn't especially strong, and we never get the sense that there's much peril afoot. The Dingling Brothers are too absurd to be a serious threat, and the monsters are little more than personified punching bags. Mighty pretty pictures, but only a so-so story.

"King Kull and the Seven Sins" (Captain Marvel Adventures #137, October 1952): Binder steps up his game for this story, which goes back to Cap's origins and pits the wizard's champion against the revivified Seven Deadly Sins, led by the viking-like King Kull. The effects of the Sins' presence on earth is acutely felt, and Beck's illustrations capture perfectly the mood changes incited by the "Sin Bombs." The resolution, though, is extremely hasty, not quite living up to the preceding pages of fantastic build-up. It's a jarring conclusion that'll leave you searching for Part Two before you realize that's really the end, but the rest of the story is golden.

"Captain Marvel Battles the World" (Captain Marvel Adventures #148, September 1953): The late Golden Age sensibility is all too apparent in this story which finds Captain Marvel battling the embittered planet Earth itself. The story is quirky, narrated by Earth as he rages against Captain Marvel simply because he calls down the thunder too frequently. While the Moon's conversation with "Brother Earth" is witty and makes one want a spin-off for the moon (preferably authored by Grant Morrison), Captain Marvel is absent for much of the story (meaning a lot of the apparent plot happens off-panel), and Earth's personality is largely undetermined, oscillating wildly between dejected surrender and (self-)righteous indignation. It's the first story in this volume that isn't really about the title character, and so it loses "Greatest" points for that reason.

"The Primate Plot" (The Marvel Family #85, July 1953): I've never understood comics' fascination with monkeys, although my father was always a fan of our simian cousins. Here we get the Marvel family fighting King Zonga and his plot to turn the world into monkeys using the unfortunately-named "Homo Hormone." This story just didn't hit it for me; Otto Binder is still writing (it's his last credit but not his last appearance in this volume), but the story is a bit overlong and not entirely compelling. Worse, the switch from C. C. Beck to Kurt Schaffenberger on art duties results in darker imagery than we're used to, with heavy inks overdetailing the monkeys and darkening the backgrounds. Thankfully, the story ends with several sworn promises that "Zonga, the ape king, will never show up again!"

"In the Beginning ... / The World's Wickedest Plan" (Shazam! #1, February 1973): With Beck back on art and Denny O'Neil writing, we're back to the Cap of which I'm fond -- full-figured, with that Fred MacMurry squint. O'Neil retells the Big Red Cheese's origin, replete with on-panel cameo from Otto Binder, and then delves into an explanation of why Captain Marvel wasn't being printed for twenty years. No, it's not a cloud of legal woes but a bubble of Suspendium, engineered by Doctor Sivana and his grotesque progeny. While the story is a bit hammy and clarifies something that, in the logic of comics, doesn't need explaining, it's a welcome return to the Cap of old and an important moment in his history.

"Make Way for Captain Thunder!" (Superman #276, June 1974): Superman's "first" meeting with Captain Marvel, Elliot S! Maggin and Curt Swan bring us this story in which Superman meets alternate-dimension analogue Captain Thunder, who's apparently been brainwashed by the Universal Studios Monsters into being evil; slugfest ensues. I'm a little disappointed in this story, if only because the artifice behind which Captain Marvel appears is extremely transparent and ultimately pointless (unless some DC exec wanted to make sure that Captain Marvel and Superman could still live on the same earth). I'm again disappointed, this time that such an important event was handled so poorly. Important Shazam! story? Certainly. Greatest? Not hardly.

"The Evil Return of the Monster Society" (Shazam! #14, September/October 1974): You have to go elsewhere for the original Monster Society Saga (or to Jeff Smith's brilliant more recent reimagining), but Denny O'Neil's pseudo-sequel goes full retro such that it probably fits right in with the original (which I confess I haven't read). There's some really cool stuff happening with the Marvel Family, but the presence of Uncle Dudley insists upon itself so much that it stops being cute and starts being a little too accommodating. It's a bit like those episodes of Superman: The Animated Series where Superman had to get Bizarro out of the way without actually hurting him; Uncle Dudley is mere interference, and unappealing interference at that, like a narcoleptic Bibbo Bibbowski with a penchant for undressing in public. An otherwise good story is marred by an overreliance on a joke that is just plain unfunny.

"With One Magic Word" (DC Comics Presents Annual #3, 1984): In a story so titanic it took forty pages, four A-list writers -- Roy Thomas, Julius Schwartz, Gil Kane, and Joey Cavalieri -- and two Supermen, Captain Marvel fights his biggest battle yet when the nefarious Doctor Sivana bewitches the wizard Shazam, plunders his powers, and becomes Captain Sivana! While it isn't the first meeting proper between Cap and Supes (that came two years after the aforementioned "Make Way..."), it's definitely big and exciting, bounding quickly between set pieces and action sequences. While the Superman (of Earths One and Two) steal the show later in the story, the writers wisely let Captain Marvel get the biggest punches and the grandest rebound at the end, reinforcing both Captain Marvel's place in the DC Universe and the source of his true powers -- his faith in himself.

"Where Dreams End" (L.E.G.I.O.N. '91 #31, September 1991): Talk about an unlikely pairing! I'd love to have been a fly on the wall in the meeting when an editor said, "Hey, why doesn't Captain Marvel meet Lobo?" (Then again, wasn't that every DC editorial meeting in the earlier nineties?) Barry Kitson does double duty with writing and art here, and it helps the pacing of the story clip along without getting bogged down in what is essentially a one-note joke. While some might find the "clash of personalities" plot tedious and old-hat, I always liked Captain Marvel stories which emphasize his precocious childishness, and this personality trait is played out in a fun slugfest. Collection-wise, the end is extremely disjointed (possibly a casualty of its in-name-only tie-in status with the War of the Gods crossover), with Cap disappearing in midair, leaving Lobo -- and the reader -- confused.

"Yeah -- This is a Face Only a Mother Could Love..." (The Power of Shazam #33, December 1997): I'm sorry that so little of Jerry Ordway's work with Captain Marvel has been collected outside of a few "DC Comics Presents" editions, because between this and his Power of Shazam origin story graphic novel, I'm a big fan. The plot, in which Captain Marvel tries to help a burn victim, might seem simplistic and naive, but recall my fondness for such treatment of Cap; this story evokes the best of Geoff Johns's "Norman Rockwell" stories in JSA. Cap's devotion is a powerful one, and his persistence is Superman-esque. Pete Krause's pencils are heartbreaking, but it's the sense of a shared world which evokes the most pathos. Here's hoping we get further peeks into this endearing world, because this story is among the sweetest.

"Out of the Dark Cloud" (Adventures in the DC Universe #15, June 1998): This trade closes with a blast from my personal past, one of the first comics series I collected in monthlies. I'd forgotten about this series almost entirely, but it's a welcome addition and a fun reminder of what the character's really about -- a child's capacity to be a hero. Imitative of the Dini/Timmverse style of animation, Steve Vance and John Delaney bring this simple (but not simplistic) tale of Captain Marvel's powers gone wonky after Zeus (the Z in Shazam!) revokes his endorsement. This story is fast and fun, short and sweet, a real delight whose moral only becomes heavyhanded once Cap monologues it.

Coming as a surprise to me, of the seven "Greatest Stories" trades I've reviewed thus far, Shazam! is the greatest yet. There are only a few minor missteps but no major mars that destroy the integrity of the collection. This collection gives a fair and appealing portrait of Captain Marvel, serves as a good introduction to the character, and the only thing missing from this collection is Black Adam (actually a major omission now that I'm thinking about it). While my sense of the character isn't sufficient for me to decide whether this collects iconic stories, it's the first "Greatest Stories" trades since Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told that hasn't left me with a major cloud over my head.

More Greatest Stories reviews: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, and Justice League.

In Zach's next "Greatest Stories" review, he'll return to Gotham City for a look at Batgirl: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. But coming up later this week, it's the Collected Editions review of Gail Simone's DC New 52 Batgirl: The Darkest Reflection. Don't miss it!
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4 comments:

  1. My first real exposure to Captain Marvel was Kingdom Come as well, and since then I've always wanted to like Captain Marvel as a character, but there has never really been a quality definitive run by a creative team that has made me want to read a series about him (unless you count Alan Moore's run on Miracleman). He has always been underutilized. If any character could benefit from the New52 it would be him. Get an A-list creative team on his title, and have a fresh start (it worked for Aquaman).

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  2. I'm not sure the character has a place in the modern market for superhero comic books anymore, and DC obviously agreed by making severe personality changes to Billy in the new 52. The costume has a great visual design that is immediately striking (I'm pretty sure Alex Ross's version is what partly helped to sell Kingdom Come).

    But the character as originally formulated primarily appealed to younger boys, and there aren't too many of those readers in the current comic book market. It's hard making an adult treatment of Cap today without going the Alan Moore route, which would change the character beyond all recognition.

    We all know what a teen boy would first do whom could transform into the world's mightiest mortal, in an adult body. The boy would almost certainly abandon the non-powered teen identity and the character would likely resemble Black Adam more than Cap's original creation.

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  3. I really need to get this one!
    I love the character^^
    My personal fav will always be without a doubt Jeff Smith's mini.

    I still think he has a place, anon.
    I mean the superhero genre could use some original and different characters such as Cap'!
    Why do all of the heroes need to either be superarmed/trained vigilantes or sduperpowered aliens/mutants? We need some variety! And a kid that turns into a magical hero is one more variation of the genre!

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  4. Eyz, I also love the character but I'm not sure the classic take on Captain Marvel fits into the modern DCU anymore. The character and his supporting cast really need their own parallel Earth again.

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