Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Why The Curse of Shazam is the right move for Captain Marvel

The Curse of Shazam! as featured on the cover of Justice League #0 & drawn by Ivan Reis

Since April 2012 DC Comics have been publishing a back up strip in Justice League that chronicles the adventures of a rebooted Captain Marvel. The Curse of Shazam has given us a radically different interpretation of Captain Marvel and his world. In fact, he's not even called Captain Marvel any more, just plain old Shazam. As you can imagine these changes have caused some controversy. Fans have been very vocal in decrying this somewhat darker, more adult take on what has traditionally been an innocent, child-friendly character. I have to say however, I've been enjoying the changes and I'd go as far as to say that DC should have done something like this with the character decades ago.

It may surprise you to learn that Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel was the most popular superhero of the 1940s. His comics were even outselling Superman at one point! It's not hard to see why the story of Captain Marvel struck a chord with so many people. His origin is probably every kid's fantasy. An old wizard grants young Billy Batson the ability to turn into an adult superhero, Captain Marvel, by uttering the wizard's name, SHAZAM! Billy was soon joined by his sister, Mary Marvel, and a sidekick, Captain Marvel Jr. The Marvel Family's adventures were so popular that even Elvis Presley was a fan. Elvis was such a big fan of Captain Marvel Jr. in particular that he based his haircut, his insignia and many of his costumes on the character.

So where did all go wrong? Blame DC Comics. They sued Fawcett Comics for copyright infringement, alleging that Cap was a rip-off of Superman. By 1953 Fawcett had ceased publishing all of their Captain Marvel comics due, at least partly, to the law suit. Then in 1972 the cheeky gits at DC licensed the characters and started publishing their own Captain Marvel comic (although the existence of a Marvel Comics character of the same name forced them to name the comic Shazam!). By 1991 they had acquired all the rights to the characters and Captain Marvel was a fully integrated part of the DC Universe. It could be argued that this was to the character's detriment.

Captain Marvel was never to achieve the popularity he saw in the 40s ever again and it's not hard to see why. He was always billed as "The World's Mightiest Mortal", but now he was sharing a world with Superman. As long as Superman, DC's flagship character, was in the same Universe as Cap then Cap would always be second best. If he wasn't the "World's Mightiest Mortal" then what was he? Granted, up until 1986 Cap had his own parallel Earth to live on, Earth S, but he and Superman still essentially existed alongside each other and the two characters often teamed up. 

Since 1972 Captain Marvel has been a square peg trying to fit into the round hole of the DC Universe. Cap's world was a world of wizards, talking tigers and evil worms from Venus and his adventures had a completely different tone from those of the DC Universe. Imagine Spider-Man and his supporting characters were taken from Marvel Comics and integrated into the DC Comics Universe. Could you keep writing the same kind of stories for the character? Would he be as popular as he is now? DC had a hero that worked according the the rules and context set by Fawcett Comics and they were now trying to make him work according to the rules and context of DC Comics.

Cap is contrasted with the boorish Guy Gardner in Adventures of Superman #488 (1992)

Despite all this Captain Marvel still seemed to work well as a supporting character. In the 70s he was another heavyweight for Superman to team up with or fight, while in the 80s, 90s and 2000s he was an innocent character that harked back to a bygone age that DC could use to contrast with their more contemporary characters. But in his own comic the tone never seemed right. The character was originally based around wish fulfilment but this aspect had been lost. DC were so busy playing up the "innocent character from a bygone era" angle that Billy Batson now resembled no one who was likely to be reading the comic, even the kids. DC were also making clumsy attempts to make the character edgier by playing up the "homeless orphan" angle. These attempts always seemed to fall flat however when played alongside the aforementioned "innocent" aspect of the character. You can't have a character boasting that he's "from the streets" one minute and then exclaiming "Holy Moly" the next.

"I've lived on the streets"

"Boy-o-Boy!"

It seemed like DC wanted to make him edgier but were reluctant to give up the more innocent aspects of the character. They couldn't have it both ways and it was time to choose a direction for the character; innocent or edgy. And finally, in 2012, DC chose. With The Curse of Shazam DC have abandoned the sweeter, more innocent aspects of the strip completely and finally fully embraced a take that's more adult and much grimmer. Billy's inherent nobility is buried under a layer of bitterness and teen angst while the wizard Shazam is yellow toothed and creepy. I'm thoroughly enjoying this take on the character. Billy seems to have a proper character arc ahead of him, with his more noble side being teased out gradually by his new family. It also seems like his super-powered alter ego will have a more clearly defined role in the DC Universe, with DC promising to remove the "circus strongman" elements of the character that invite comparison with Superman, and play up the magic and fantasy aspects.

What a silly Billy!

But was this really the right way to go? Why did DC have to embrace the grimmer side of the character when they could just as easily embraced the more innocent, child-friendly side? It's a question that's worth asking, especially considering works such as Jeff Smith's Monster Society of Evil prove that there are great stories to be told with a child-friendly, all-ages Captain Marvel. I would argue that it's perhaps pointless pushing the character in an all ages direction when there just isn't a suitable format for those stories. If I was a parent who didn't read comics I would be very reluctant to go to a specialist comics shop to spend at least two to three pounds on a twenty page pamphlet for my kids. If Captain Marvel comics are to be directed at kids then they need to be easily accessible and in a format that offers value for money. It just so happens that my pals Duy Tano and Pol Rua have some great ideas about what that format should be. Until such a format exists however I believe that The Curse of Shazam offers the only take on the character that could conceivably work in the context of the current state of the DC Universe and the current comics distribution system.



With all the drastic changes brought about by Captain Marvel's recent reboot, the most controversial one seems to be the changing of his name from Captain Marvel to Shazam. DC's official reason for this is that "everybody thinks he's called Shazam already, outside of comics." On the surface this seems like a silly reason. When I was a kid I used to think that the Thing was called Rock Man, but I wouldn't expect them to change the character's name as a result of this. But I suspect that the real reasons for the name change make a lot more sense. It's no secret that DC have had a Shazam movie in the works for ages.  Ask yourself, are Warner Brothers (whose current big rivals in the cinemas are Marvel Comics and their owners, Disney) really going to pour money into making and promoting a superhero film with a lead character named Marvel? If Cap comes to the big screen he's almost certainly going to be called Shazam, so why not reflect that in the comics?

But whatever he's called, I would argue that DC's current direction for the character is for the best. For years Captain Marvel has been straddling two different styles, innocent and edgy, and it's held the character back! DC finally have the courage to let go of the past and take the character into uncharted waters. Maybe one day we'll see the return of a sweeter Cap and I would dearly love for there to be a suitable place in the world of comics for such a character. But for now I'm happy to see where our darker, new Shazam is headed. Hopefully to Hollywood!

I'm indebted to Duy Tano and his Comics Cube for a lot of the info used in this article. If you want to read more about Captain Marvel then give The Cube a look. In this article I've echoed many of the sentiments expressed in Duy's A Sense of Wonder: Why DC Has Failed to Successfully Incorporate Shazam! into the DC Universe although we differ on the merits of The Curse of Shazam. Duy also addresses the similarities between Superman and Captain Marvel in Reclaiming History: Superman Vs. Captain MarvelDuy also discusses his personal connection to the character in What Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family Mean to Me. Well worth a read!

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the many plugs, Paul, and I'll take your argument. As you know I haven't been keeping up with Curse, so I can't really comment on it. Still, it's Johns and Frank, so I'm pretty sure it's doing a good job on what it's intending to do; it might just be that intent that I'm not happy about.

    But I don't think I've been all that happy with the general direction of the DCnU. It seems to be speaking to a very limited range of tone, and maybe that's what they're going for, so in that case, Curse probably is the way to go.

    (I'm willing to bet that Jeff Smith's book probably sells much better in trade than it did as single issues, as well. The market for classic Cap is just not the same as the direct.)

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  2. We dont need an edgy captain marvel, we have batman and a million other superheroes for that.

    Captain marvel had the innocence and heart of a child, because he is one, and this was definately a major part of his charm.

    From what I have saw in curse of shazam so far, they have killed the real captain marvel and billy batson in favor of a batman angst style character with billys powers. It is a rip off and does not do the character justice.

    Captain marvel was the only one who could give superman a run for his money in a competition of goodness, and probably win.

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  3. Terry Phillips22 July 2014 at 16:51

    The whole point of "Marvelman" as I knew him in the 1950's in Britain was the fact that he was a KID! He looked like a man but really he was just a little boy with these amazing powers and he solved his problems and defeated his foes as a KID would! By the way can anyone tell me where the British Marvelman comics fit into the Shazam publishing story?

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