Friday, August 22, 2008

The power of...the Ordway!

In the early 1990's, comic books were enjoying an unprecedented boom in sales and creativity. The fight for creator's rights had a breakthrough when several high-profile artists for Marvel Comics left and formed a new company, Image Comics. At the same time, a new company, Valiant Comics, also made up of former professionals from Marvel and elsewhere, appeared on the scene.

At the same time, the comic book industry had started to really play to the collector's market. Gimmicks such as variant cover editions, canceling books and starting them with a new “first issue,” packaging comics in plastic bags with trading cards in them, foil-embossed covers, and the star treatment given to hot new artists were driving collectors and fanboys to buy multiple copies of many comics.

The mainstream public had long been growing in awareness of the collectible value of comic books. Now many people were buying comics with no intention of reading them, merely storing them until the could, theoretically, sell them at a vast profit. With so many people buying comics, new comic book shops were opening all over the place. Businesses that had never sold comics before were now selling comics. One neighborhood in Brooklyn had a glove manufacturer, a laundromat, and an auto parts store all selling comics within a 5 block radius in 1993. And they were selling just about every comic book that was coming out, and now everyone with a dollar, a pencil, and a dream was coming out with a comic book.

During this period, Jerry Ordway was given the Captain Marvel assignment at DC, which would come to be called Power of Shazam. The Roy Thomas project was shelved. Another version of Captain Marvel that was being worked on by John Byrne was abandoned by him when the editors of DC Comics insisted that Captain Marvel exist in the main DC Universe. This was to be the Captain Marvel that would emerge after the “Zero Hour” crossover DC Comics event that was meant to re-order the DC Universe, tying up the loose ends that had been left by Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Jerry Ordway wanted to pay tribute to the original Captain Marvel while making his version more thought-out and updated. He set the stories in the fictional Fawcett City, which was under the magical protection of Old Shazam, keeping it a cleaner, nicer place than the rest of the world, and also keeping its “production design” stuck in the 1940's. Ordway loaded the city with street and business names that payed tribute to the old Fawcett people, such as Beck Lane and Raboy Trucking.

His stories were very well done, well thought out and interesting to read. However, from the beginning I felt that it was done wrong. First, when Billy said “Shazam!” for the first time and turned into Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel still had Billy's mind. Billy got violently upset and was unable to handle it. The first time he battled criminals he freaked out when he almost killed them. He said the magic word while on top of a blimp and the lightning caught the blimp on fire!

These things were all different from the way Captain Marvel was handled at Fawcett and in the first DC revival (which was supposed to be a continuation of the Fawcett stories). From his first appearance, Captain Marvel had been composed and confident. There was never any indication that he had any doubt or confusion or insecurity about his abilities. He knew what he could do and he did it when it needed it to be done. There was never any indication that he still had the mind of Billy Batson. He always seemed to be a separate personality. And finally, the magic lightning never had any effect on the things around it!

Ordway tied the origin of Captain Marvel into some elements of “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” serial and made Black Adam, a one-shot villain from the Fawcett days, a main adversary. Black Adam, a villain with the same Shazam-granted powers as Captain Marvel has since become the major boogeyman of the DC Universe, becoming the leader of the middle-eastern nation of his birth and going on a murderous, Hulk-like rampage across the Middle East when his wife and adoptive son were killed.

Mary was a younger sister and also became a grown-up, like Billy, when she said “Shazam!”. Her origin was tied in with Mr. Tawny, who was now a “pookah,” a type of magical spirit in the form of an anthropomorphic tiger. For the longest time, Mary was not known as “Mary Marvel,” but rather “the Lady Captain Marvel.” There was no moment when she actually took the name during the 47-issue life of the series. But whenever she appeared in another comic, she was referred to as “Mary Marvel.” The two most significant instances of this were her guest appearance in Supergirl, where her wholesome goodness totally got on the nerves of the new, hip, modern, teenage Supergirl; and I Can't Believe it's not the Justice League, in which her youth and innocence played comedic contradiction to her beautiful, fully-grown look.

Freddy Freeman appeared, after Mary rather than before, as a high school BMOC and sports hero. He was injured the same way the original Freddy was, and was again granted a share of the Shazam power.

In this version, the power of Shazam was limited, and when more than one Marvel used it, each individual Marvel had less. This was unlike the original Marvel family, in which the three members used teamwork to battle menaces that the power of one of them alone could not defeat. Instead, if more power was needed by one member, the other members of the family had to transform back to their normal identities, so the third would have all the power to face whatever the challenge of the moment was.

Ordway also wrote in some tension in the family. Freddy liked Mary, Mary was attracted to Freddy, and Billy was jealous. Ultimately Freddy left Fawcett City and went to New York. He joined the Teen Titans, whose writer didn't know what to do with him, and he was quickly forgotten. He then joined the Outsiders, a dark, edgy team of former sidekicks, grown up Teen Titans, and other oddball heroes. It seemed like he was just fitting in when the Infinite Crisis hit, and he disappeared from the team.

No comments: