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The (comic) book was better: What to read after you’ve seen ‘Shazam’

Readers who enjoyed this month’s feature film Shazam, which told the story of a boy who could turn into a superhero just by shouting the title of the movie, may want to explore the characters’ comic books. Recommending such comics is easy enough, although talking about the superhero starring in them can be difficult, particularly now that his name has been appropriated by another superhero with her own film in theaters at present.

Let’s do a quick history recap. At the dawn of the Golden Age of superhero comics, writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck created a Superman-like hero to star in the new Fawcett Comics publishing house’s comics line. After toying with the names Captain Thunder and Captain Marvelous, they settled on Captain Marvel, and one of the most popular comic book characters of the 1940s was born, his family of supporting characters and cadre of inspired villains growing with his fame.

He was Superman-like enough that Superman’s bosses at what was then still called National Publications (now DC) eventually sued, and the legal wrangling went on until the mid-1950s, at which point the superhero market crashed and died, and Fawcett settled with National out of court. By the time DC decided to do a Captain Marvel revival in the 1970s, Marvel Comics had already established their own Captain Marvel character, and so even though DC’s Captain Marvel was again starring in comic books, and even had a live-action TV show and a cartoon series, they were all named after his magic word– “Shazam!”–and not the star.

In recent years, DC has flirted with changing the character’s name to “Shazam,” but they’ve yet to make it officially official–in both the current Shazam comic book series written by Geoff Johns and the feature film based on his work, Billy Batson never quite settles on a code name for his bigger, stronger half.

Whatever you want to call the guy–Captain Marvel, Shazam, The Big Red Cheese, The Red Cyclone, The Captain Marvel Who Isn’t Brie Larson–he has starred in plenty of great comics throughout his career. The very best of these remain those from the 1940s, which are unfortunately harder to find than those of his fellow DC heroes, but fans can build up a nice little library with what’s available in collections.

For example, here are five good starting points.

Shazam!: Origins

One unusual aspect of the film was that it was a fairly straightforward adaptation of a single storyline: The one contained in this particular trade paperback. In fact, the film is so closely modeled on this particular story that there’s no evidence that the filmmakers were even exposed to any other Shazam/Captain Marvel stories.

Much of the basic plot was imported directly from here to Hollywood, as were the hero’s costume, the designs for The Wizard and Doctor Sivana, and, of course, Billy’s foster home full of five siblings who would become lieutenant heroes at the climax. Three of those kids were introduced here for the very first time (Freddy and Mary have been around almost as long as the Captain have, however, as Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel).

Originally serialized as a back-up in Justice League in 2012-2013, this Geoff Johns-written, Gary Frank-drawn comic introduced the character into the current, New 52 version of the DC Universe. In other words, this is the current, canonical version of the Shazam/Captain Marvel story.

There are some key differences between the film and its source material, most evidently in its use of the villains. Mad scientist Doctor Sivana awakens the wizard’s original champion Black Adam, and together they awaken The Seven Deadly Sins, who ultimately enter and empower a human host who becomes a new version of Sabbac (the movie kind of smooshes all of these guys into a single opponent), and the Captain’s traditional friend Tawky Tawny appears as a zoo tiger that briefly gets Shazam powers and turns into a giant monster tiger.

The comic is pretty violent by the standards of comics with the word “Shazam” in the title, but no more mature in content than the film. The comic is a bit bloodier on the one hand, but there’s far less swearing and the Sins are depicted more as supervillains than the horror movie monsters they are in Shazam.

Obviously, if you liked the film, this is the trade paperback you’re going to want to read. It was first collected as Shazam! Vol. 1 in 2013, but just last month it was republished with the current title and a new cover featuring Zachary Levi in character. DC recently launched a Shazam ongoing series by Johns and artist Dale Eaglesham which picks up where the events of this story line left off.

Shazam!: The Power of Hope

The third in Alex Ross and Paul Dini’s series of four oversized, fully-painted stories of DC’s greatest–and Alex Ross’ favorite–DC superheroes, The Power of Hope opens with an brief, elegant retelling of Captain Marvel’s origin in just two pages, before the new story begins in earnest.

Boy radio broadcaster Billy Batson is  answering some of the the fan mail for Captain Marvel that was sent to the radio station Billy works at, when he opens an envelope unlike all the others. It’s from a children’s hospital, and when Billy sees all of the drawings of the Captain the kids had included, he decides to spend some time with them there and see if having a superhero hanging around might not brighten some of their spirits.

Meanwhile, The Wizard cryptically tells the Captain that he is particularly worried about one specific young boy who is in danger of losing his ability to hope.

As Captain Marvel recounts his adventures to the sick children (allowing for Ross to present a montage of action typical of the character’s comic book adventures) and uses his fantastic powers to fulfill what wishes of theirs he can, he finds his limitations. There are a lot of things he has the power to help with, but he can’t stop death, nor can he personally prevent child abuse. The little boy in danger of losing hope, it turns out, is the one with the super-powers at his command.

Ross’ warm, photorealistic art is at its best in this format, and the story is presented sans dialogue balloons or narration boxes, reading instead like a picture book broken into panels.  If you can’t find the original, which was published in 2000, DC has since collected it along with other Ross/Dini collaborations Superman: Peace On Earth, Batman: War On Crime and Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth in Justice League: The World’s Greatest Heroes. That trade paperback also contains Liberty and Justice, a 90-page adventure starring the entire League and many of their allies, including a few brief appearances by Captain Marvel.

Power of Hope is probably the single best Shazam/Captain Marvel story for any reader, regardless of age, to start with, as it perfectly crystallizes the character and all of the most important elements of him and his milieu while remaining unburdened by either his dated Golden Age elements or the last 50 years worth of attempts to reinvent the character.

Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder

It may be the result of some half-forgotten, lingering enmity from the days when Superman and Captain Marvel comics were competing against one another for kids’ dimes, or when DC was suing Fawcett for copyright infringement, or it might just be because the two heroes share so many superpowers, but DC loves having Superman and Captain Marvel fight one another. Chances are if there’s a comic book–or cartoon–in which the two appear, one of them is going to punch the other one before it’s over.

This 2005 miniseries by writer Judd Winick and artist Joshua Middleton does the opposite, telling the story of how the two flying caped strong men first met one another early in their careers and how they became friends.

It’s rather unusually structured , apparently to give the subversive ending more punch, in that the first issues/chapters are fairly light and sunny. Billy Batson is just starting to get the hang of superhero-ing when he and Superman end up fighting the same threats: Magic-using museum robbers bent on resurrecting Sabacc and, rather randomly, Eclipso, who is neither a Superman villain nor Captain Marvel villain.

Behind the scenes, Cap’s bald mad scientist archenemy Dr. Sivana seeks the advice of Superman’s bald mad scientist archenemy Lex Luthor on how to deal with caped do-gooders (if you’re wondering, Sivana came first, but National/DC’s Ultra-Humanite beat them both onto the scene). Things get very dark and melodramatic all of a sudden in the fourth issue, when one of Billy’s young friends gets gunned down by assassins targeting Captain Marvel, Cap almost strangles Sivana to death in his rage and then freaks out, and, when Superman learns that Cap’s secret identity is still just a little boy, he confronts the Wizard for what he perceives as a kind of magical child abuse.

The idea seems to be that Superman enters into a sort of mentorship relationship with the Captain, but it’s just as implied, as the story ends with Clark Kent finding Billy Batson and introducing himself to him as Superman…an interesting idea that never gets followed up on, because that’s the end of the book. (Winick would return to the Shazam characters the following year in The Trials of Shazam, a 12-issue series focused on Billy becoming the new Wizard and Captain Marvel Jr. becoming the new Captain Marvel/Shazam, a new direction that was abandoned almost as soon as it was embarked upon, and made irrelevant by the Johns series anyway).

First Thunder is a weird book, and the tonal shift at the end feels all the more random because Middleton’s art is so broad, bright and appealing. His design sensibility is here quite cartoony, and the art is colored so as to suggest animation cels as much as comic book panels.  DC recently re-collected the series in one of their “Deluxe Edition” hardcovers last year.

For the more traditional Superman/Captain Marvel relationship, DC published Superman Vs. Shazam in 2013, a trade paperback collecting some of their team-ups and dust-ups dating from 1978-1984. These are mostly pretty dated, but offer a pretty wide overview of Captain Marvel’s extended supporting cast and rogues gallery. Hoppy The Marvel Bunny helps save the day in one tale, for example.

Shazam!: The Monster Societyh of Evil

After the completion of his self-published Bone comic, a work whose importance can’t really be overestimated when it comes to getting kids into comics and comics into libraries, Jeff Smith took up the challenge of working with DC Comics to reinvent Captain Marvel.

Smith’s 2007 series, which has long since been collected into graphic novel form, is both a new origin for the character and an adaptation of one of the Captain’s most storied stories. The original Monster Society of Evil storyline was a serialized, 25-part story arc from 1943. The basic gist was that a criminal mastermind known only as “Mr. Mind” and who only appeared as a voice over the radio, had organized all of the Marvel Family’s villains to make war on the Marvels. It was eventually revealed, in one of the Golden Age’s best twists, that Mr. Mind was really just a two-inch alien worm.

In Smith’s telling, orphan Billy Batson is a good-hearted and brave little boy–and he’s very little. Smith draws him as if he’s six-years-old or so. His only friend is a friendly hobo named Talky, who, we later learn, is an Iffrit aligned with The Wizard Shazam, and capable of taking various forms, including that of a talking tiger.

Billy makes a new friend in The Wizard, who grants him the powers of Shazam. Almost immediately, Billy is faced with the threat of Mr. Mind and The Monster Society of Evil, who plan to wipe out human civilization and give earth back to the animals, which is why so many talking alligators and all of the world’s insects have lined up behind Mr. Mind.

Also introduced is Dr. Sivana, who Smith draws as a wizened old man no bigger than Billy, who is here not just a mad scientist, but also a politician, one who has become the Attorney General of the United States and barks Bush-era talking points.  And Mary Marvel, Billy’s long-lost sister, who gets the powers of Shazam too…but a smaller dose, so she can’t transform into an adult version of herself. She just gets a costume and the ability to fly around real fast.

In addition to being beautifully drawn and utterly engaging and charming, Smith’s version posits Billy and Captain Marvel as two distinct beings working in concert, with the superhero being more a “genie in a bottle,” as Alex Ross writes in his introduction to the trade, then a grown-up version of Billy.

While a perfect Shazam story for young readers, Smith only wrote and drew the single arc. In 2008, DC launched an ongoing monthly following the events of this series entitled Billy Batson and The Magic of Shazam. The quality fluctuated pretty wildly, but plenty of names familiar to readers of kids comics were involved at various points, including Mike Kunkel, Art Baltazar, Franco, Stephen DeStefano and Mike Norton. The first 12 issues have been collected as Billy Batson and The Magic of Shazam and Billy Batson and The Magic of Shazam: Mr. Mind over Matter.

Shazam!: A Celebration of 75 Years

Actually, this is probably the very best place to start with the Captain Marvel/Shazam character. This 400-page hardcover is specifically designed as a history of the character’s comic book career, curated to include important stories and issues featuring Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family, and then turning its focus to showing different takes on the characters from the 1970s onward, after DC got the rights to publish the character and tried various ways to fit him into their superhero universe.

So there’s a good 100 or so pages from Golden Age greats C.C. Beck, Otto Binder, Bill Parker, Mac Raboy and others introducing the Captain, Captain Marvel Jr., Mary Marvel, Uncle Marvel, Hoppy The Marvel Bunny and The Lieutenant Marvels (as well as villains Dr. Sivana, Mr. Mind, Black Adam, Captain Nazi and King Kull).

There’s the Marvel Family’s awkward introduction into the DCU in the 1970s, first as analogue “Captain Thunder” and then in the pages of books like Shazam and DC Comics Presents. There are a few issues of Jerry Ordway and Peter Krause’s reboot of the character from the 1990s in the pages of their ongoing series The Power of Shazam, as well as Captain Marvel appearances in the pages of LEGION ’91 (fighting Lobo), JSA (teaming up with Stargirl) and Action Comics (in which Cap, Cap Jr. and Mary Marvel team-up with Superman).

Finally, issues of Jeff Smith’s Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil and Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s latest reboot of the character are also included, with a few essays sprinkled throughout to provide some context.

Basically, it’s the ultimate sampler of Shazam comics, so a young reader making their way through the book can take in various takes and see if they can find one or two (or a half-dozen) they want to pursue next.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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