Review: Superman vs. Shazam! trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

[Guest reviewer Greg Elias writes for Speed Force]

When Superman vs. Shazam! was released, it marked the first reprint of the top-shelf 1978 DC treasury comic of the same name. Whether intended as a video game tie-in or a companion to Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Shazam! hardcover, any excuse for DC to present the balance of Rich Buckler’s Superman/Captain Marvel team-ups is good enough.

The idea of The Man of Steel facing off against The World’s Mightiest Mortal has likely existed since the 1940s, where the two vied for the attention of children at newsstands and drug stores. Without getting into the gory details, DC essentially sued Captain Marvel and Fawcett Publications out of existence in the 1950s and kept the characters in suspended animation, until they acquired their rights in the 1970s.

Analogues of Superman and Captain Marvel appeared in the seminal 1953 Mad Magazine story “Superduperman,” which inverted their heroic qualities and mirrored the legal demise of The Big Red Cheese. Once DC revived The Marvel Family, they were kept separate from the main DC Universe. Superman fought an alternate-Earth Captain Marvel, “Captain Thunder,” in Superman #276, but wouldn’t run into the genuine article until the "Crisis on Multiple Earths" story from Justice League of America #137. Neither of those issues is included here, but that brings us up to the starting point.

Superman vs. Shazam!, originally printed in the 1978 All New Collectors' Edition #C-58 at treasury-size, is simply one of the most satisfying DC stories of the Bronze Age. It is a pure, wide-screen tour-de-force with panel-shattering poundings delivered by both heroes. Buckler, with Dick Giordano on inks, turns in the type of top-flight DC artwork associated with Neal Adams, Mike Grell, and the rest of the best. It is smartly plotted by Gerry Conway, giving readers 72 overflowing pages with multiple confrontations between the title heroes. They’re joined by Supergirl, Mary Marvel, Black Adam, and even the Quarrmer (“Sand Superman”), the latter making his only pre-Crisis appearance outside of the “Kryptonite Nevermore” storyline.

The action also includes the first time Captain Marvel considers using his Magic Lightning to attack Superman, something that would inspire the memorable confrontation in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, as well as the Justice League Unlimited cartoon and even the recent DC Universe video games. Given the cost and assumed condition of most originals, this volume is worth the price of admission for the treasury story alone. It is thrilling, blaringly violent, and revels in the clash of the biggest power players of the DC Multiverse.

The three DC Comics Presents issues that follow, written in part by Conway, Roy Thomas, and Paul Kupperberg, complete a cohesive trilogy. The first two stories maintain Giordano as inker and remain as gorgeous as the treasury pages. The story is a lighter-toned team-up, with the heroes doing their only “fighting” over their uniforms. Starring the combined villains of Earth-One and Earth-S, Buckler continues to deliver a whirlwind of action while the writers branch further into the magical and whimsical dimensions and denizens of both Superman and The Marvel Family.

The final Buckler-drawn story is a stand-alone gem that introduces the Earth-One Billy Batson, who is not (yet?) a Captain Marvel counterpart. Featuring an exciting Central Park clash between Superman and Black Adam that recalls the cross-country landmark tour seen in the first story, Captain Marvel shows up only in the final third for one last round of Buckler’s high-flying fisticuffs. The hopeful final image of the Earth-One Batson is a fitting end to a trilogy of memorable clashes and victories between the two superheroes. The volume’s last story is the oft-reprinted DC Comics Presents Annual #3, a Gil Kane showcase that, at the risk of repeating myself, cannot be over-printed. This one even showed up another big collection this year, playing the role of final story in Adventures of Superman: Gil Kane.

DC finally got around to reprinting their best treasury comics in the last couple of years, like those found in Superman vs. Shazam!, almost as if they were saving them as some secret reserve. Whether packaged in artist-focused hardcovers, movie tie-ins, or a paperback-first trade like this one, they are each important and high-level stories by any measure. There are plenty of other true confrontations between Superman and Captain Marvel, from All-Star Squadron #36 and 37 to the Eclipso-fueled Action Comics Annual #4, and hopefully they’ll see reprints soon, because this volume is an absolute blast.
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