Reading Shazam, you are transported back to a time when life was simpler, when good guys were good and bad guys were, well, bad. No shades of grey, no crossing the borders between right or wrong. So forget Civil War, forget Crisis and travel back to those more innocent days of childhood heroes because Jeff Smith brings back those magical days with his captivating reworking of Captain Marvel origin.
Billy Batson is a homeless orphan, who befriends a hobo and taken to meet an old wizard, who wants to pass his powers onto him. When he utters the word ‘Shazam’, he turns into a muscle-bound righter of wrongs who has the combined powers of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.
He discovers the old tramp is a talking tiger called Tawky Tawny who is also his guardian and is reunited with his long lost younger sister, Mary Marvel, who accidentally gains powers too. Together, they take on Mr. Mind’s deadly robots from outer space and the sinister US agent, Dr Sivana but can they save the world from destruction? Holy Moley!
Jeff Smith made his name as creator of the award-winning Bone series, bringing life and humour to a whole menagerie of creatures. He successfully does the same with Billy Batson and the whole family of characters. His narrative is simple and similarly he keeps the panels clean, uncluttered and refreshingly dynamic. He shows a great love for his characters and affection for the source material.
Considering the character emerged in the wave of the 40s superhero boom, he has endured surprisingly well, even if he has never been regarded as a major league player. While Smith maintains the simplicity, he also imbues the story with warmth and wit. Billy and Mary are rendered with all the button-nosed characteristics of Charlie Brown’s gang, but they have great energy and optimism. Likewise, the presentation of Tawky Tawny shares similar imaginative flair and warmth as the irrepressible Calvin and Hobbes. He keeps all the elements of the original in place but still makes it feel fresh and vibrant. More importantly, he returns a sense of fun to the proceedings, the more traditional elements of cartoons and the comic book funnies.
While all this is self-evident in each deftly drawn panel, it’s further enhanced in the back section of this collection which are taken from his production journal, serving as a kind of illustrated DVD ‘extra’. There are original sketches, showing his passionate skills as a draftsman. They also include his own thoughts on character development, with comparable panels from the 40s version of Monster Society of Evil, demonstrating not only his respect for the original source material but also his ability to adapt it for today’s more comic-savvy audience. While Captain Marvel has never been able to compete with the popularity or increased sophistication of DC’s other top stars such as Batman, Superman and Green Lantern, each writer-artist team has taken care to maintain a simpler, light-hearted vein. So Jeff Smith wisely focuses on rediscovering the true magic of the series with undiluted fun on every page. Holy Moley, it’s a charming, witty read for everyone who unashamedly enjoys their funny books with cosmically flavoured superheroics.