Friday, March 18, 2011

Intro to Comics: SHAZAM!

            The most iconic figure in Western civilization is a three horse race between Jesus Christ, Mickey Mouse, and Superman.  And if we were judging this by the number of commercially viable knock offs that each has produced, I am going to have to go with Superman who has been ripped off so many times it starts to boggle the senses.  The Sentry (of the Avengers), Gladiator (of the Shi'ar Imperial Guard), Majestic (WildCats), Apollo (The Authority), Hyperion (Squadron Supreme), Prime (Ultraforce), Omni-Man (Guardians of the Globe), Samaritan (Astro City), Blue Marvel (Marvel Universe), Miracle Man (Alan Moore), and the very first one that made news was Captain Marvel (Marvel Family).

This is Captain Marvel, or as he is sometimes called "The Big Red Cheese" because his naive nature makes him sound cheesy even by DC standards, whose masked vigilante, Batman won't kill a clown that murdered his son.
            Captain Marvel is very much a wish fulfillment character, rather than being the Alien god raised in the country struggling to fit in, he is instead about disaffected youth wanting to grow up.  Regardless, the design of the character, the powers of the character, and the nature of his villains made him very much a knock off of Superman to the point where his creators at Fawcett Comics were sued for plagiarism.  Ironically, Fawcett comics and their stable of characters were bought out by DC years later, Marvel sued DC for using the name Marvel, so the character was called Captain Marvel, the comic was called "SHAZAM!"  This naming problem is what most people point to as why the character is not as well known now, because when he started out, his sales beat Superman, which is why Fawcett was sued.

I couldn't find a picture of Superman fighting Mickey Mouse and Jesus, though I am sure such an image exists.
            Captain Marvel is in reality the teenage radio celebrity Billy Batson an orphan who lived on the streets with his sister, Mary.  Having a good heart and a brave spirit he was found by the mysterious wizard Shazam who took both Billy and eventually Mary to his home, the Rock of Eternity.  The Rock of Eternity it a magical constant in the universe, it exists deep in the ethereal world and is the prison for the original seven deadly sins that were freed from Pandora's Box, and the place to keep and store the numerous mystical hullabaloo and MacGuffins that the Justice League finds each and every year.  The Wizard was old, far older than any mortal should ever live and having never had a son wanted to create a legacy to carry on his good works, guarding the 7 Sins and Rock from the evil forces that would use them to harm the world.  Shazam had tried this before using the North African King known as Teth Adam turning him into a mighty warrior who brought great peace and prosperity to Africa, but was ultimately corrupted by the power.  So essentially Shazam learned what Willy Wonka had known all along, you need to find a child to impose your beliefs upon, or else they will do things their own way.

            Billy was told by the Wizard, "You have only to speak my name and you shall transform into my champion, Captain Marvel" at which point I imagine an awkward pause until the Wizard reminded Billy, "My name is Shazam."  "SHAZAM!"  Then being shouted Billy transformed into an adult version of himself, gaining 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, the capital letters of each mythical being spelling out SHAZAM, because, you known, that is how branding works in the magical kingdom good thing this wasn't Norse myth with Skadi, Heimdall, Idun, and Thor.

I'm guessing they couldn't find gods whose initials spelled Merlin.
            Regardless of poor naming conventions Captain Marvel fought a series of villains that were laughably and uncompromisingly evil.  There was Doctor Sivanna, who makes Lex Luthor look subtle and cultured by comparison; Mister Mind a worm that burrows into your brain, steals your knowledge, controls your actions, and when he gestates long enough turns into a giant monster that eats time; Psycho Pirate, who has a magical mask that allows its wearer to control the emotions of others; and then there was Captain Nazi, who is exactly what you think he is.  Aside from the mad scientist, alien earworm, masked hypnotist, and Nazi, Captain Marvel also fought a lot of bank robbers, supernatural monsters, and cabals of magic users.

"I in no way resemble the popular antagonist of the DC intellectual property 'Superman', for one thing I am much more unlikable and complex.  Though I do have a hot wife and 4 kids."
Mister Mind, truly a foe to be feared and respected.
The single best iteration of Captain Nazi's costume.  Ironic that so many of them are just flat out stupid when the Nazi's as an organization have some of the most stylish and cool looking uniforms ever made.
            Eventually the Wizard granted Mary the power to turn into Mary Marvel, a teenage version of herself with all of the powers of Captain Marvel.  They also eventually drafted Freddy Freeman, a kid crippled by Captain Nazi, to be Captain Marvel jr, and a talking were-tiger named Tawky Tawny, who dresses like Jimmy Olsen.  Really, the talking tiger thing should push this into the territory of "Okay, now you are just making stuff up" but this is a universe where a character is named Detective Chimp exists and is awesome, so really you need to loosen up when you start going down these halls, as this way lies madness.

It was a different time, acid wasn't as stigmatized as it is now, people were more willing to throw out a new idea in hopes of finding a market, rather than just hoping to jump on bandwagons like they do these days.
            By far however the most interesting character to come out of this whole comic series is Black Adam, the original champion of the Wizard Shazam.  Unafraid to use lethal force against evil enemies, willing to work with both villains and heroes in order to further his own interests (which is a very barbaric vision of a utopia), and generally being looked at with both fear and suspicion by everyone in spite of helping to save the world on more than one occasion.  He is by far the most interesting character of Middle Eastern or African origin and if the Captain Marvel movie gets made, I really hope that Dwayne Johnson can do the character justice.  (Yeah, they cast The Rock as one of the most complex characters in comics.)

Black Adam Kills Psycho Pirate by pushing a mask through his brains, with the most oddly bad ass line ever, "No more silly faces".
            In the last ten years these characters have gone from irrelevant, to fascinating, to confusing, to... well... crap.  Black Adam got a family with Isis and Osiris, who were both killed, which made him crazy so he killed thousands in a roaring rampage of revenge (seriously, read "52" it's fucking metal), then Billy took away his powers, then Adam got them back, then he gave them to Mary who had lost hers, so he was just a guy and she turned evil for no good reason, then she was possessed by the dead god of mad science, SHAZAM was killed by God's renegade angel of Vengeance, so Billy became the Wizard, and then Freddy became Captain Marvel, but now he is called Shazam and he yells MARVEL to transform... yeah, it got shitty.  Sadly, it will stay shitty, unless the movie gets made.  Comics tend to reset the status quo a bit when a movie or cartoon is made for them, movies have a twin blade effect, cutting back on innovation made in good comics, and trimming fat and stupidity off of bad developments made to bad characters.  And holy shit is there a lot of bad development to these characters (do not read "Countdown", it did a lot of this to these characters).

Mary Marvel in both her good and evil outfits.  I might be mistaken, but I think that as a child with the body of a grown woman, that is both naive and corrupted by evil power, she might be the single most fetish inducing character in comics prior to Hit Girl.  (Important to note: the character is currently no longer underage, they had her grow up)
This is the little girl version of the character.  A Child from the streets with a good heart and the power to save the world.  She helps out a lot.  Read Jeff Smith's run on the characters, they are great.
            The best iteration of these characters in recent time comes in two flavors, Billy and Mary are at their best in "Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil" by Jeff Smith (who is the best writer-artist in the industry), where as Black Adam was at the top of his game in "52".  Prior to that you'll have to track down a lot of "Justice Society of America" from back in 2002 back when Geoff Johns breathed new life into the characters like he did just recently (AGAIN!).

Hopefully they make him awesome again.  That's all I'm saying.

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