Danny Glover likes Shazam!

Holy crap, it’s a review!

***

It’s Danny Glover time here at LY&HF. Why? Because I’m too old for this shit. Yes, I’m starting a “regular” segment reviewing comics meant for kids. First up, Shazam!

But, uh, not the universally beloved one that just came out, by cartoonist Jeff Smith. No, the other (relatively) recently published one.

Showcase Presents Shazam! Denny O’Neil, Elliot S! Maggin, E. Nelson Bridwell, C. C. Beck, Bob Oskner, Kurt Schaffenberger et al. DC, 2006. $16.99, 528 pages.

Ah, Captain Marvel. Has any character ever had a more tortuous path through the serpentine labyrinth of copyright? First appearing in 1940, he was for a time more popular than Superman. That must have irked Superman’s publisher DC comics (then called “National”), so they sued Captain Marvel’s publishers, Fawcett, claiming Captain Marvel was an infringement of copyright on Superman. They were both strong guys in underwear suits who flew around and fought crime and stuff, see. DC won the lawsuit, forcing the cancellation of Captain Marvel’s comics and his disappearance from the four-colour realm.

Meanwhile, over in the UK, a British publisher had been reprinting Captain Marvel’s adventures for British readers. Upon Captain Marvel’s cancellation, the publisher started printing instead the adventures of new character who was essentially just a knock-off, a Schmaptain Schmarvel named Marvelman. Decades later a young Alan Moore started writing Marvelman, and the rest is copyright clusterfuck history.

Back in the US, in the early seventies Fawcett licensed Captain Marvel to DC and DC started printing new adventures of “the big red cheese”, as he was known.* Only, in the interim, rival company Marvel comics had started printing their own series called Captain Marvel, featuring an entirely unrelated new character. So, to avoid further copyright issues, DC published the new adventures of the old Captain Marvel in a book called Shazam!, the word that transformed young orphan Billy Batson into the superheroic Captain Marvel.

Still with me? Right. This volume collects most of the new material created for the Shazam! series, which ran from 1973-1978. (Completists beware: the page count just falls short of space for the final two issues, 34 and 35).

The secret of Captain Marvel’s success, back in the day, was the stories’ innocent, childlike sense of fun. Marvel himself was pure wish fulfilment–what kid hasn’t wished they could turn into a powerful adult? He was surrounded by a colourful cast, including sister Mary Marvel, sidekick Captain Marvel Jr, comic relief Uncle Marvel and the three Lieutenant Marvels, and talking animal pals Hoppy the Marvel Bunny and Tawky Tawny the tiger. And, importantly, he was drawn mostly by the great C. C. Beck, whose rounded, clean art perfectly complements the stories’ childish fun.

When DC revived the character in the stories reprinted here, they decided not to tamper with these elements. Remember, this was two decades before the accepted method for reviving old properties was to make them darker and grittier. So they put C. C. Beck back on the art, and his uncluttered panels still have a cartoonish appeal. When Beck left the book, his replacements (mostly Kurt Schaffenberger) maintained some continuity in style. Although other characters were now drawn with greater “realism”, and there was more detail in the backgrounds, Captain Marvel himself and alter ego Billy Batson were still drawn cartoonishly, complete with two little black dots in place of their eyes. In some ways, Schaffenberger’s art is more effective than Beck’s, precisely due to this contrast between the obviously fantastic Marvel and his more mundane surroundings. The difference between fantasy and reality is marked through the art itself.

As for scripts, who better to place on a kids’ book than Denny O’Neil? O’Neil had by then started his socially relevant work on Green Lantern that would see Green Lantern’s young sidekick Speedy become an addict, and his run on Batman that reverted Batman to his early guise as the brooding dark detective. So O’Neil seems like an odd choice, but I was surprised at how well he acquits himself here, delivering simple, entertaining stories for a younger audience. And O’Neil’s replacements Elliot S! Maggin and E. Nelson Bridwell show even more continuity with his scripting style than Beck’s replacements do with the art.

Despite what you might expect–it is the seventies–there’s precious little attempt to update the characters visually or thematically. In later stories, “lovable fraud” Uncle Marvel (a biologically unrelated buffoon, a combination of Falstaff and Don Quixote who falsely claims to have superpowers himself) grows an ill-advised moustache, and Billy Batson sports some wicked flares. But that’s about it.

The stories themselves are, one and all, goofy. They feature all the implausible plot twists and bizarre set-ups that will be familiar to readers of other “silver age” Showcase volumes, especially the Superman ones–only written and drawn some 15-20 years later. While later issues expanded the stories to “full-length” (around 17 pages), in earlier issues the stories are rarely over 10 pages. So they often make odd jumps in logic, especially as the last panel approaches, requiring a bit of expository dialogue. But even that fits the general childlike tone of the series.

As in many “silver age” stories, there are places where the goofiness takes flight into full-blown surrealism. Of all the treats here, the best is the character Sunny Sparkle, “the nicest guy in the world”. Everyone loves Sunny, so much that random strangers passing him on the street give him their jewelry or groceries they just bought. When he phones a charity to pick up all the stuff he’s been given (ovens, tennis rackets, sewing machines, golf clubs…) he has to stay indoors; otherwise, the drivers of the delivery truck will see him, refuse to take his stuff and leave him their truck as another gift.

Characters like Sunny fulfill the potential of the silver age’s general air of illogic. Not every bit of Shazam! is an imaginative gem like Sunny, but there’s enough of these bits to keep you entertained. What more could you ask for?

Recommended? Good clean fun for kids. Not as good as Jeff Smith’s new series, no doubt, but what is? For adults, the stories provide mindless diversion in small doses.

* It’s always seemed unsavoury to me that DC would start printing new stories about a character which they had earlier tried to erase from history. It’s as though EMI had tried to produce their own Grey Album after hassling Danger Mouse. Legal, definitely, perhaps even morally permissible, but still somehow icky.

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