The Power of Shazam! Book 1: In the Beginning… (2020)
Reprints The Power of Shazam! graphic novel, The Power of Shazam! #1-12, a story from Superman/Batman Magazine #4
Written by Jerry Ordway
Art by Jerry Ordway, Peter Krause, and Mike Parobeck
Of the collections I’ve read and reviewed on this site, I believe this is the first where I bought each individual issue as it was published. I cannot explain what drew me to the Captain Marvel character since I was a kid, but I just was. The first thing to get out of the way, yes, this character was called Captain Marvel, he was the original created in 1939 at Fawcett Comics. Fawcett went out of business, DC bought Captain Marvel, but by the time they wanted to use him in the 1960s, Marvel Comics was around with their own Captain Marvel. DC’s version legally could not use his name in the title of books, so Shazam became the commonly used moniker. By the 2000s, DC was tired of the name confusion, so with the New 52 reboot, he was renamed Shazam.
After a revival in the 1970s and an attempt to reboot the character post-Crisis, DC didn’t have much luck getting such an iconic figure in a regularly published title. In 1991, writer Jerry Ordway was given the assignment to make Captain Marvel part of the DC big hitters. He began with a painted one-shot graphic novel that would retell the character’s origin and set up the ongoing series’s main arcs. Mike Wieringo was initially attached to do art, which I remember from a Wizard Magazine special detailing the changes at DC Comics after their 1995 event Zero Hour. Wieringo didn’t stick around, he had been part of a pitch with Mark Waid to do a different take on Captain Marvel. Instead, Ordway got artist Peter Krause to handle the pencils on the ongoing.
The graphic novel tells how archaeologists C.C. Batson and his wife Marilyn are on a dig in Egypt to uncover previously buried sites relevant to the pharaohs. The expedition is funded by the Sivana Corporation, with their handler being Theo Adam, a shady character. A strange amulet catches Theo’s eye, and he turns murderous on the Batsons. CC is killed, and Theo stalks Marilyn back to their hotel where she is murdered, and the villain abducts their toddler daughter Mary. Years later, their son Billy lives on the streets of Fawcett City as an orphan, kicked out by his miserly Uncle Eben. Billy is a newsboy to make ends meet until he runs into a mysterious stranger who implores him to board a bizarre subway train. The train takes Billy to the Rock of Eternity, where he meets the Wizard Shazam. He imbues Billy with the power of the gods, and when the young boy says Shazam, he becomes Captain Marvel. You know the story.
Ordway has both of Cap’s traditional nemeses present in the graphic novel. Doctor Sivana is recast from a mad scientist into a wealthy businessman, a little too similar to Lex Luthor’s post-crisis reinvention, in my opinion. Theo Adam is, of course, awoken to the fact that he is Black Adam, a former bearer of the Power of Shazam. Captain Marvel and Black Adam have slugfest over Fawcett City that results in Sivana’s business being destroyed and Adam being mystical muted and his memory wiped by the Wizard.
The Power of Shazam graphic novel is a pretty good origin story and introduction to the character. It doesn’t shift too far away from the original roots of Captain Marvel and manages to balance two villains without overloading the reader. Sivana definitely takes a back seat to Black Adam as the chief antagonist, though. Ordway feels comfortable writing in these characters’ voices, even affecting an old-fashioned tone. Ordway leans into the 1940s aesthetic of Captain Marvel’s heyday and concocts an explanation as to why Fawcett City feels trapped in the past when he gets to the ongoing series.
The ongoing series jumps about a year ahead with Captain Marvel being an established hero. They cram in his short tenure with Justice League International and his inclusion in the War of the Gods. It’s implied he has an established rogues’ gallery and a hefty supporting cast. The opening has Sinclair Batson, Billy’s cousin, and the adult son of Uncle Eben returning to Fawcett City to spur on urban renewal. This whole year, there’s no mention of Doctor Sivana save his daughter, Beautia Sivana, who is interested in romantically pursuing Captain Marvel.
This year-long arc aims to build the Marvel Family with Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. Their origins tie in with Captain Marvel’s battles with an organized crime cabal and the revival of Golden Age villain Captain Nazi. Along the way, allies like Uncle Dudley, Tawky Tawny, and Bulletman show up. Ordway manages to even tie in a couple villains from his Superman days as directly related to characters in the Shazam mythos. Billy gets rehired as a radio host, a nod to a job he had in the Golden Age, and even poses as his own fake uncle to hold down an apartment.
The quality of writing is fine. It’s written very simplistically, and I’d argue it is very kid-friendly for those around upper elementary or middle school age. The arcs are involved, though, so you can’t just pick up a random issue and jump in. I see a lot of influence from Ordway’s time working on the four interconnected Superman titles. They would build up large supporting casts and tons of plot threads that would culminate each year while setting up the next batch of stories. In that way, The Power of Shazam feels like an artifact of the 1990s, a type of comic you just wouldn’t get now. Each issue feels full while Geoff Johns’ recently canceled Shazam title was hyper-decompressed so that a single issue feels very brief.
Peter Krause’s art is competent. When you are teased with Mike Wieringo, it’s hard not to think of how much better the book could have looked. The short story included from Batman/Superman Magazine is drawn by the fantastic Mike Parobeck and is also someone who would have made the title fantastic. Around the time the ongoing began, Parobeck was already working on the Batman Animated Series comic and also had health problems. This is not to say Krause is terrible; it’s just that these other artists had bright, colorful tones that would have pared so well with the atmosphere Ordway created in the title.
The Power of Shazam is a lot of fun, super nostalgia for someone like me who read the book as it came out. I would be interested to know how kids who are more familiar with the DC movies version of Shazam would feel about this more traditional approach. It’s a very basics approach to the mythos, which I think works if you are evoking a nostalgic atmosphere, appealing to old fans. With comics, though, they need to keep attracting new readers, and Shazam is an excellent opportunity to do that.