Shazam!: The World’s Mightiest Mortal Volume One (2019)
Reprints Shazam! #1-18
Written by Denny O’Neil, Elliot S! Maggin, and E. Nelson Bridwell
Art by C.C. Beck, Dave Cockrum, Bob Oksner, Vince Colletta, Kurt Schaffenberger, Dick Giordano, Pat Broderick, and Tex Blaisdell
Once upon a time, there was a superhero named Captain Marvel (not that one) who was the most popular comic book character of his time. He was so popular, in fact, that DC Comics sued Cap’s publisher, Fawcett because they believed the similarities between him and Superman were so much that the character infringed on the Man of Steel. So Captain Marvel faded into obscurity in the 1950s, but not before a few other things happened.
One of those would be the licensing rights being sold to a British publisher who produced Marvelman, who would go through his own journey, eventually becoming Miracleman under the pen of Alan Moore. In addition, a young Mississippi youth named Elvis Aaron Presley would ask a barber to make his hair look like Captain Marvel Jr., which inspired a fashion trend when the young singer became world famous. While Captain Marvel was on ice, Marvel Comics came into prominence, introducing their own Captain who was utterly unconnected with the original. By the time 1972 rolled around, the world was a very different place, the biggest surprise being that DC Comics now owned the rights to the original Captain Marvel but couldn’t use his name in the title because of Marvel’s precedent. This was the world into which Shazam #1 was published.
The world of comics Captain Marvel emerged into was quite different from the 1950s. So it was even more surprising that Denny O’Neil was writing his book, a comics author who was associated at the time with moving the medium into more politically relevant directions through his Green Lantern/Green Arrow run and returning Batman to his Dark Knight status. Having O’Neil write an extraordinarily wholesome and funny take on superheroes seems odd, but it does work. He would transition off Shazam handing the reins to DC Comics loremasters Elliot S! Maggin and E. Nelson Bridwell. Even Cap’s original artist, C.C. Beck, would be on board until a creative decision about the book’s direction caused him to step down.
These adventures take place on Earth-S, a world in DC’s multiverse, to house all of the adventures of the Marvel Family and their foes. Not wanting to reimagine Captain Marvel, the book’s first issue explains his twenty-year absence with a plot by archnemesis Doctor Sivana gone awry. The mad scientist planned to trap the Marvel Family within a bubble of the time-neutral Suspendium, and circumstances led Sivana, his children, and every supporting character to become trapped inside it. It takes twenty years for a bolt of lightning to reach the Suspendium bubble and release the Marvels back into the world.
This results in a strange combination of elements. The comics are drawn by C.C. Beck, the co-creator of Captain Marvel, but this is the world of the early 1970s. You can see an art style we don’t often associate with this era. The tone of the comics also heavily leans more into Archie Comics style humor of Batman ’66 camp than what was in the other DC books at the time. Not to say, DC had incredibly modern storytelling happening; that was still the purview of Marvel. Shazam’s lightheartedness makes other DC books feel darker than they might typically be portrayed. One thing that cannot be argued about the art in this book is that the colors are muted. These bold primary colors give the title a vibrancy most modern comics lack.
The book doesn’t rely entirely on old characters but introduces new ones that fit perfectly into the Shazam style. There’s Gregory Gosharootie, a man so dull that no one seems to acknowledge his existence, making him the perfect foil for a gang of robbers. There’s also Sunny Sparkle, the antithesis of Gregory, being the nicest guy in the world and having things handed to him on a platter. They live alongside stalwarts like the stuffed animal that comes to life, Tawky Tawny, and Uncle Dudley, a weird old man who likes to cosplay as his own Shazam original character.
There’s no deficit of villains, including the aforementioned Sivana clan, the nefarious caterpillar Mr. Mind, and the anti-Shazam of Ibac. One issue includes a crossover where Lex Luthor is transported to Earth-S and is quickly overwhelmed by the cartoonishness of it all. In a clever move, Luthor is drawn in a different style than the rest of the book’s regulars. By this point, DC had gotten past their resentment of Captain Marvel because they were making money off his publications. It was only a matter of time before Cap and Superman faced off, but that’s a review for another time.
In our modern era of hyper-decompressed comic stories, where a single narrative can take a year and multiple spin-off mini-series to complete, it is a strange experience to read a complete superhero story in eight pages. Now the stakes of these stories are pretty low, and I don’t think anyone possessing basic comprehension believes Captain Marvel is in any real peril. One thing that will stand out for modern audiences is the occasional story featuring a racial stereotype. They aren’t as prevalent as in the original series run, but issue three gives us “The Wizard of Phonograph Hill,” wherein an inventor announces his discovery of anti-gravity fields. The man becomes targeted by various ethnic stereotypes representing “evil” governments like the Chinese, generic Middle Easterners, Russians, and more. To be fair, the French and the British show up as baddies too. An American fed proves to swoop in and help. That American propaganda is pretty ubiquitous.
By the end of this first volume, Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr are regularly popping up in backup features. Beck is gone, and some artists are copying that style while others are pushing for a more contemporary look to the characters. I don’t imagine we’ll see many comics like these in the near future. There will always be some side books aimed at younger readers, but even Marvel farms out their all-ages books to Boom. So strange that a genre of media made popular almost exclusively by children’s love has become a realm where kids just don’t seem very welcome anymore. I love the aggressive push for more diversity in the comics, but there should also be an attempt to court younger readers simultaneously with more done-in-one stories written on a simpler level. The thing is, those young readers are into graphic novels rather than monthly floppies, and that’s where the industry is headed. This tone of Captain Marvel may re-emerge successfully someday in that new format. Here’s hoping.