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.