Sunday, September 23, 2012

Zeroing In: Shazam

Well, the execution of "Zero Month" has been an interesting grab bag.  The idea is clear and sensible enough.  Like any epic, the New52 began in medias res, with our cast of characters already in the fifth year of the new Era of Wonders.  Now that we've spent a couple months navigating unfamiliar seas, we take a break to sit down on Dido's couch and learn the background of how we got where we are.

Some of the Zero books are answers to the utter mysteries of characters whose former histories simply no longer fit the new DCU (e.g., Jason Todd).  In other books, where the change of status quo is less notable, the Zero convey little essential information (such as Legion or Batwoman).

In this "Zeroing In" series of posts, I'm going to share my thoughts about the Zero books; please share yours! First up, the one that has every Comic Book Guy's hair on fire...

Justice League #0 (Shazam).  Geoff Johns' portrayal of Billy Batson and his origin is the blogosphere's current whipping boy.  I understand why, even if it's not quite my sentiment.  Captain Marvel has long symbolized our nostalgia for a more innocent brand of superhero comics.  Or at least, what we remember as more innocent.

Just because you didn't see him kill those 186,744 comic book citizens doesn't make them any less dead, you know.

Why, it's just like Reggie getting clobbered by Moose in Riverdale!  Except it's a Nazi crippling a boy for life.  Note that I skipped the part where he drowned Freddy's grandfather.  Ah, the innocence of Golden Age comics.

I am an inveterate critic of the Marvel-style "flawed and therefore relatable hero"; I want heroes who are better than I am, not just superpowerful.  So watching Johns drag the Billy Batson icon through the mud doesn't thrill me much, either.  And Johns is not being subtle about what he's doing.  Being subtle is not something Johns does.  He aims to make a point, and he's going to make sure you don't miss it.  If that makes his plots (and particularly his dialog) a bit cliched some times, he's okay with that.  In that sense, he is truly the modern heir of the mantle of his idol, venerable Denny "Heavy-Hands" O'Neil.

First of all:  I will hear no more kvetching about not calling the character "Captain Marvel" any more.  (1)  It was never a very good name; (2) It's an even worse name now than it was in the Golden Age, thanks to Marvel Comics; (3)  Lots of 'normal' people think the character's name is Shazam any way.  Nerds: LET-IT-GO.  

Second: everyone always complains when Captain Marvel (neo Shazam) is not written as squeaky clean and innocent as they think he always was.  When he is, no one buys him.  The character was created when the only (perceived) audience for superhero comics was children.  That is no longer the case and whether any of the kvetchers like it or not, Shazam needs a different approach in modern times to be even remotely workable.  Heck, Alex Ross just plain made him terrifying, taking advantage of the inherent creepiness of the underlying concept, which is as weird as a one-note H Dial.

So, I understand what Johns is trying to do.  Those who complain "argh this is what Johns always does" seem to be ignoring the fact that Johns wrote Captain Marvel before.... in JSA.  This is not the only thing Johns can think of to do with the character.  He's trying to give the character a relevance, a meaning that it's never had before.  

All of DC's most iconic characters stand for something, a principle, a set of ideas, a way of looking at the world.  Even Green Arrow, who stands for the idea that Batman Knockoffs Suck.  The only thing the Shazam legend has every stood for is the idea that childhood is innocent.  Which, frankly, it isn't.  Johns is right: Billy Batson was an orphan living on the streets.  That's not really a formula for innocent optimism.  Super-Little Orphan Annie does ring very true any more (if it ever did).

When Alex Ross wrote Billy Batson, he let him be the only figure who truly understood both what it meant to be human and what it meant to be superhuman.  Johns is trying to let Billy become another 'straddling' figure; Billy is not perfectly, naturally, or intrinsically good.  Because people aren't.  Billy represents the human ability for choice, for potential to be both bad and good, the potential for greatness.  Obviously (very obviously), Billy will learn and grow to be more and more good as he understands (through the advent of John's favorite, Black Adam) the consequences of a powerful person choosing to be bad.  

Is this the most original concept?  Certainly not.  It's very much in the Spider-Man vein of learning to wield power responsibly (the essential lesson of all adolescence, in fact).  Captain "Marvel" indeed!  As trite as it may seem in the broader comic book context, the fact is that we have no one at the highly iconic level in the DCU who stands for this idea.  Except maybe the new Green Arrow, who doesn't count because, you know... Green Arrow.  So, as long as he need to be retooled for a modern era, it might as well be Shazam. 

Johns has successfully revitalized so many characters for DC that I've lost count.  Sometimes the process has been a little uglier, and this time is no exception.  But his track record is such that he's earned a suspension of judgement from me until he's done telling his Shazam story.  

And to all those who are unhappy with it so far: well, I hear you.  But in the scores of blogs expressing your unhappiness I haven't heard one of you come up with a better idea for a modernized Shazam.  Johns, at least, has dared to try. 


Anonymous said...

I won't deny that there was violence and death in golden age Captain Marvel stories, but they were also happening during a period of serious world conflict, and weren't wildly out of step with the world kids were hearing about. If Captain Nazi was such a dick, it wasn't because they made him a Nazi as a buzzword for a personification of evil, but rather a representative of real-world bad guys.

At the same time, the tone of old Captain Marvel stories wasn't that dark, and that makes a difference. Old Captain Marvel is all about tone, not so much about realistic portrayal of evil and its horrifying aftermath.

I haven't read Johns's take on Shazam, so I can't critique it; but you're right, it's hard to fit the Earth-S refugees into mainstream DC. The only times he's worked really well have been when his book has been written specifically for kids, because, as you say, he was created specifically for kids.

So were the other major heroes, granted; but the others have been successfully retrofitted to appeal to older audiences. I think Shazam is unretrofittable, but Johns may prove me wrong. Johns's strength is focusing on what was originally cool about a character and building on that, but that may make things even worse in this case. That said, this is Johns, and he generally knows where he's going with a character, so I'll give him benefit of the doubt.

Nathan Hall said...

A wise writer would make Captain Marvel's man-out-of-time aspect the focus, not a distraction.Power and responsibility and balancing lives has been done, but what about someone from a more violent yet simple time trying to make it as a hero in these sensitive days? He'd be more of a satire of than a tribute to the Golden Age, but at least it hasn't been done before.

Scipio said...

Well, that's kind of the tack taken after the "suspendium" schtick during his 1970s run.

But currently, in universe, Shazam/Billy is NOT from another time. He's from this one.

Anonymous said...

This morning I'm teaching an article that appeared in the New York Times a few years ago: "Struggling Back From War's Once-Deadly Wounds," about a Marine who suffered massive injuries in Iraq and who is struggling to relearn the most basic of skills. What is most striking about the article is Corporal Poole's optimism in the face of such trauma. His facial injuries cause him to be shunned as a freak, his girlfriend left him, he struggles to read at a second-grade level, and yet, he is hopeful. The article ends with him saying "I think something really good is going to happen to me."

For me, Captain Marvel should represent this hope in the face of horror. As an orphan, Billy Batson has seen the worst of humanity, and yet, he is always hopeful. Not innocent, but hopeful. And then he is given the power to make good things happen.

Nathan Hall said...

But Corporal Poole is a Punisher man - he may not make time for DC.

Steve said...

What I think DC should have done is set someone to examine how Superman's content and tone changed over the years and projected similar changes to Captain Marvel as if he had continuous publication as well. That's always seemed to me the best route to discover how to make Cap appeal in modern stories. 'Course, I loved the hell out of the JLA zero issue so my way's not the only one. Especially loved Billy's glee at what he can now do. Sheer wonder like that isn't scripted much anymore. This is Johns so it'll be a set up for some gory tragedy striking close to home because of it but I can enjoy it for now...

Anonymous said...

Chris Sims just did a quick review of an old "Captain Marvel" story, where the World's Mightiest Mortal gets into pie-throwing battles with villains:

I stand by what I said earlier (as the first Anonymous on this thread): old Captain Marvel is all about tone. They're telling a story whose point isn't to be grim and gritty, and even in stories where there is death, they don't go for dark, somber storytelling.

Dan said...

My philosophy is this: when a character stops selling, put him (intact) on a shelf. DO NOT--under any circumstances--CHANGE the character. Instead, create a whole NEW character (and I mean new, not just slapping the costume and logo on someone else).

So the question is: is Johns really changing the character or just (as a previous commenter points out) changing the TONE?

I would not mind a change of tone for Shazam stories because the audience for innocence is dead or gone. Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams changed comic book history by changing the tone of Batman and Green Lantern. (Admittedly, they did change Green Arrow quite a bit, which made the character a lot more popular in the future. But in that case, they saved GA from his wretched existence as a 2nd rate Batman ripoff.)

If Geoff Johns is darkening the tone of the Shazam property by putting the original characters in modern concepts of the "real world," then I support Johns. I would be interested in reading stories about good ol' honorable characters in a dishonorable world (it's my attraction to Captain America). It's how I want to read Superman, BTW. But I would not be interested if Johns is changing Batson from a good kid to a morally ambiguous kid, or Shazam from virtue to relativity (not that I don't like morally ambiguous/relativist characters, I just don't want noble characters converted into them).

I hate changing characters for two reasons: (1) that's just following fads and gomming up the history of the character and sometime later a lifelong fan will attempt to rehabilitate the character further gomming up its history, and (2) because it turns them into people I don't know or want to know.

It's not that fine a line to me. And if you can't tell stories using the character's established identity, then move on to another character or create a new one from scratch.

Cameron Vale said...

"Shazam" was once the king of superheroes. DC was totally unable to compete with him except by constantly dragging his creators into court on ludicrous claims of plagiarism, only to buy and appropriate him at the soonest opportunity, and Superman's whole "beacon of hope" routine is lifted straight from him. The idea that such a character could be a relic of a less savvy and discriminating time is laughable to me, and presumably Johns himself who's said as much in interviews before.