Friday, July 4, 2008

Captain Marvel and King Arthur have the same issue...

The stories of King Arthur are probably based on things that probably happened so long ago nobody remembers, and successive versions of the story placed the values, mores, social trends, and literary styles of their times onto the legend. When motion pictures began adapting that legend, scholars and fans would debate how well those movies were true to the traditions of the legend. Sometimes, such as the Antoine Fuqua-directed film “King Arthur,” changes from the literary tradition are so great that no matter how good, or even simply how interesting, the movie may be, it begs the question, why even bother using those characters' names? Why not just create new characters and let people accept that you were inspired by the originals but wanted to interpret them your own way?

This last approach has worked for such Captain Marvel-inspired characters as Marvelman/Miracleman, Mighty Man, and Prime.

Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family (now known as the “Shazam Family”) first appeared in Fawcett Publication's comics in the early 1940's and, after a brief maturation period, found their groove and remained true to their original concepts and aesthetics up until the end of Fawcett's comics in 1953. Since then, every revival, reboot, and re-interpretation of the characters has been compared with those stories.

Other famous comic book characters, such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, having been in constant publication, evolved with their times through periods when the memories of comic book readers were short. A reader of comics in 1962 would not have been likely to know what the characters were like in 1952 or 1942, and is not likely to have complained much about drastic differences in art style, writing style, costume, or continuity. Other characters, like The Flash and Green Lantern, were re-booted as completely different characters on a different Earth, merely with the same name and similar powers. Thus even if a reader cared, they would not have to make an issue of the way the character was being interpreted. Still other characters, like Captain America and Marvel Comics' 1950's Marvel Boy, were “brought back to life” after decades, and the fact of being out of their own time was used successfully as a defining part of their character, as their new stories were written for the contemporary audience.

When the original Captain Marvel was revived in 1973, 20 years after Fawcett Publications had ceased publishing comics as a result of the lawsuit by DC Comics, he started to be treated in this manner, but that was quickly dropped, and the attempt was made to create stories with the sense of fun and “whimsy” that the original Fawcett stories were remembered for. They were never truly successful on that score. Later, the characters were incorporated into the regular “DC Universe” of heroes, but despite occasional creative and commercial success, there remained dissension from those who felt that the spirit of the original Captain Marvel was not being served, that he was not being “done right.”

Dan Didio, Executive Editor of DC Comics has stated Captain Marvel never really fit into the regular DC Universe, and that this new line of stories, “Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!” is outside even the “52” continuity. It is meant to bring Captain Marvel back to the kids, back to its original sense of fun.

But does it work?

First, the art:

Part of the brilliance of the original CC Beck style of Captain Marvel was it's deceptive simplicity. While it appeared that the art was simple and cartoony, at its best it was based on a foundation of reality. If you examine the figures, the backgrounds, the composition, you will see that there is little exaggeration, merely brilliant simplification. The pictures are clear, readable, and entertaining. Mike Kunkel's art, however, goes all the way with cartoonish, even childish exagerration. Big heads on the children, big torso and tiny legs on the hero, impossible anatomies based on exaggerated physical stereotypes exemplify the work. The lines are all sketchy, giving the work a sense of hurried animism. It evokes an extreme version of the drawing style in Disney's “The Sword in the Stone.” Sometimes it is actually difficult to tell what is going on with all the sketchyness.

Next, the canon:

This story mostly follows from the version of the Shazam Family started by Jeff Smith in “Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil.” Everything is pretty much the same as the “classic” version with regards to Billy Batson having been led to the cave to meet the ancient wizard Shazam who gave him the power to turn into Captain Marvel with the speaking of his name. It follows the New Beginning/Power of Shazam tradition that Captain Marvel is simply Billy's mind in Captain Marvel's body. Billy Batson appears to be about 10 years old and Mary is several years younger (in the original stories, they were twins, roughly 12-14 years old). It does not follow Jeff Smith's version in the necessity to remove shoes before entering the Rock of Eternity to visit old Shazam, and it doesn't follow the concept that one should not kneel for wizards. It does follow Smith's concept that the state of the eyes of the statues of the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man (here called the “Seven Deadly Evils”) is significant. It also follows Smith's exploitation of the concept of Mary Marvel's powers being different from Captain Marvel's due to her “Shazam” anagram being from different gods. Most significantly for the story, she is faster than Captain Marvel but not as strong.

The villain is introduced, but is a child version of the character that he is based on. It is presumed that the character will transform into a super-powered version of himself before the end of the story, but we do not know if it will be as a super-powered child or adult. I wonder if the yellow shirt he is wearing is a reference to Kid Marvelman/Kid Miracleman,a character from Mick Anglo's Marvelman Family, which was created in 1953/1954 to replace the Marvel Family in England?

Most importantly, Mary stays the same apparent age when she transforms, and is a motormouth. In the original Fawcett stories, and Smith's version, she stayed the same age, but the motormouth quality is all Kunkel.

Design-wise, Billy is given the red shirt and yellow star that Jeff Smith gave him referencing his “Bone” comic, and Captain Marvel's jacket flap has a row of four buttons, rather than just one, and the brocade is gone from his cape.

Having said all that, let's look at the comic on its own merits:

The story is very fun and entertaining, with banter and rivalry between the Batson/Marvel siblings. The set-up of the world of these characters is well handled, with a good balance of exposition with the story. The adventures are thrilling, lighthearted, and fun, and can be enjoyed by people of all ages. It does remind me that comic books don't have to be all about violence and moody introspection, that it can be fun to be a kid who turns into a hero.

Some of the humor comes from actual comedy, some of it is found in the fact that this comic book is handled partly as a satire of superheroes. The fact of kids as superheroes is kind of funny when you consider the priorities that children sometimes have, and what the ability to have super powers or turn into a super-powered grown-up can allow you to do.

There is a “Monster Society Code” decoder on the front page that will help you decode certain passages at the beginning and end of the story. This is a tribute to the “Monster Society of Evil” storyline that was serialized in Captain Marvel Adventures in the early 1940's, when Secret Decoder Rings enabled readers to decode short passages at the end of each story, usually the title of the next episode. Here the passages are full dialogs, and even a hefty amount of text on the last page. While I appreciate the tribute, for my own taste, I think it's a bit gratuitous. In the “Power of Shazam” series written by Jerry Ordway, Mr. Mind spoke in code, and a decoder was available, but Mr. Mind was an alien worm, so it made sense, and you could follow the story even if you didn't decode it. Here it just seems like its code for code's sake, and gets in the way.

I would not be afraid to show it to a kid, or embarrassed to read it in front of adults. It's a wonderful reading experience, and I look forward to future issues. It says a lot about it that only a small, nagging part of me, says “could you not have done this with a new character with a different name?”


Timber Wolf said...

Christ, what's with the red background? You lost me after the second paragraph because my eyes started to hurt.

Anonymous said...

I was trying to go with the Captain Marvel color scheme. I'll try to make it more subtle.

Peter said...

So do you actually recommend this Shazam series? As a follower of the Big Red Cheese, I would snap it up in an instant. But then, I saw the interiors and was like, "What?"