Geoff Johns is known for his slow builds. And his SHAZAM story is no exception.
Those familiar with the classic tale, young Billy Batson is a street kid with a heart of gold. The old wizard SHAZAM decides to imbue him with the power of the gods so because an adult would be corrupted, but a child is innocent. So whenever Billy says the wizard’s name “SHAZAM!” he transforms into the heroic, Superman-like Captain Marvel.
That was the story before the new DC 52.
Johns has done something radical to Billy that long-time fans will either love or hate: Billy is kind of a jerk. Johns has taken a more realistic approach to the harsh life of an orphan. Billy is not optimistic and generous. He is two-faced and conniving. He seeks to work every moment to his advantage and he hates following the rules.
This rough exterior is challenged when he is taken in by a loving foster couple and now lives with pseudo-siblings. Some are familiar to readers like the sweet Mary and the handicapped Freddy. But there are others who round out the different aspects of human life, all living in the microcosm of this loving home. And despite himself, Billy finds that he cares for them.
We also see the build up to a confrontation with constant villains Dr. Sivanna and the might Black Adam. But Billy has yet to meet them. Instead he fights school bullies and their rich, indulgent parents.
That is, until, he meets the Wizard.
Unlike the old story, Billy is not the Wizard’s first choice. But desperation has made him act. The wizard bemoans the fact that when he looked into Billy’s heart, he did not see pure goodness. Billy then proceeds to ridicule the Wizard and tell him that pure good doesn’t exist. The wizard looks inside Billy’s heart again and sees not pure goodness, but the potential of goodness.
Thematically, I think that this is a great development for the character. Characters that are completely saintly are hard to write. Very few people (JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis for example) can right people of unspotted virtue with ease. But Captain Marvel has tended to come off as less believable because the writers have not entered into that virtuous mind space as well as they should.
Johns solves the problem by making Billy venal but trying. It speaks to the truth that we have both goodness and badness inside us. The question isn’t whether we have any badness, but if we give in to the badness.
Billy is given the power and is now simply called “Shazam.” This has always been a sticking spot with people only casually observing comics. It was commonly thought that Captain Marvel was called Shazam because that is his magic word and it is the name of his comic. It has led to a lot of confusion. So, Johns has eliminated that confusion and now only called him “Shazam.”
And it is fun watching him explore his power. We can see both the goodness and the badness fighting inside Billy. After he saves a woman from a mugger, she asks (rather amorously) if there is any way she can repay him. He says, “I could use some money.” She is confused but hands over some bills to a wide-eyed Shazam. He thinks: “I’m going to be rich!” Gary Frank proves that he is consistently one of the best artists in comics. His ability to capture so much of a character by their expression is unparralleled in comics.
We know that Billy has a long way to go, but I’m looking forward to walking on his hero journey. His obstacles will not just be external, but internal. I am especially looking forward to seeing more of Black Adam. In the pre-DC 52, Black Adam was the Dr. Doom of the company. He was the bad guy who was not really a bad guy, but still kind of was. I’ll be curious to see how much of that original back story that Johns had laid out in his old run will remain.
4 ½ out of 5 stars