Thursday, September 25, 2008

The "Return"

Over at Marvel Comics, Their first Captain Marvel has been brought back...sort of, but not really.

Marvel Comics' 2006-2007 company-wide crossover event, Civil War, began with 3rd rate superheroes with their own reality show invading a supervillain hideout. In the struggle, Nitro, the villain that had given Captain Mar-Vell his cancer, detonated himself, killing 600 people, including an entire elementary school. This led to a public outcry, which led to the US government passing the “Superhuman Registration Act,” forcing registration of all super-powered beings with the government. This caused a schism in the superhero community reminiscent of the cold-war era communist witch hunts. On the one side, Iron Man led those heroes who followed the registration edict (including one former Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel), and Captain America led those on the side of the right to privacy of identity. A prison was constructed in the Negative Zone to hold those who refused to register.

In the midst of this storyline, Captain Mar-Vell appeared. It turns out that he is really an alien Skrull named Khn'nr who had been planted as a secret agent as part of a plot to conquer Earth, but was conditioned so well to believe that he is Captain Marvel that he has rejected his mission. He believed that at a point in the past after his battle with Nitro and before he became aware of his cancer, he accidentally slipped into 2007. After the expected awkwardnesses that comes with figuring out that everybody is trying not to tell you that you are supposed to be dead, he was recruited to serve as warden for the superprison in the Negative Zone.

The Civil War ended when Captain America realized that the rebellion he was leading was tearing the country apart, surrendered to the authorities, and was assassinated. Captain Marvel then appeared on earth, inspiring the founding of a cult that would do good deeds in his name. The leader of the cult was killed by a military assault in the Sudan, and now this Captain Mar-Vell is going through deep psychological torment over feeling a need to live up to the good deeds of the cult that he inspired and rejecting his mission as a Skrull agent.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Funny Papers and Moving Pictures

Meanwhile, Jeff Smith, award winning creator of the Bone comic book series, has created a new Shazam story, again rebooting the original Captain Marvel franchise, in a mini-series using the title of the old Fawcett serial, “Monster Society of Evil.” Though he made his own adjustments to the canon, for instance making Mary Batson a much younger sister, and Mary Marvel the same apparent age as Mary Batson, and making Tawky Tawny a magical changeling whom Billy knew as a homeless man, and making Mr. Mind a monstrous alien, rather than a brilliant evil little worm, his version did prove that DC is willing to give Captain Marvel a chance at something with a look and feel that is more light-hearted, youth-oriented, and with a more “cartoony” drawing style. This willingness has been extended to a new book by Mike Kunkel, Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! In DC Comics' Johnny DC youth-oriented line.

There has also been, for the past few years, a Shazam! movie on the slow track for production at New Line Pictures with Michel Uslan producing. The script has gone through several writers, including William Goldman and Joel Coen & Alex Soklow. Currently John August is writing the script, with Peter Segal signed to direct. Movies based on comic book characters have boomed lately. The quality and popularity of comic book-inspired motion pictures has been notoriously hit-and-miss since the Superman movie of 1978, but several low-budget movies based on independent characters in the early 1990's proved that when done with respect for the source material, a movie based on a comic book can be good and find its audience. Since then, the recipe for success has been to listen to the fans and find a producer-writer-director team that will serve the material well, rather than simply treat the material as a property to exploit. New Line has been working with PC Hamerlinck, publisher of Fawcett Collectors of America.

In a recent example of serving the audience, MTV Blogs appears to have influenced the casting of at least one character. Rumors had arisen years ago that Dwayne Johnson, the pro wrestler known as The Rock, would play the Big Red Cheese. Fan response was largely negative, some because they doubted his acting ability, some simply because Captain Marvel was never portrayed as half black-half Samoan. Some (including Yours Truly) suggested that he might be better as Black Adam. In late 2007, MTV Blogs held a survey asking whether Johnson should play Captain Marvel or Black Adm. The result was an overwhelming response in favor of Black Adam. So Johnson went public saying he would listen to the fans and would be glad to talk with New Line about playing Black Adam.

Next: Marvel...The Return

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Latest from DC, part 1

Lately, DC Comics has gone in two different direction with the original Captain Marvel. In the main DC Universe, they have decided to totally re-imagine the character, at least in part to differentiate him from Superman. Since the beginning these two characters have been at loggerheads. Both of them are super-strong, invulnerable, and can fly, and are the greatest heroes in their respective universes. When they wound up in the same universe, a logical question was “what do you need to have both heroes for, when each of them can do pretty much what the other one can?”

The answer, for DC Comics, has recently been to play on one key difference between the two: Superman was a science fiction concept: an alien from outer space with powers far beyond those of mortal man. Captain Marvel was a product of magic: a hero with the abilities of a half-dozen mythological and legendary characters.

In the ongoing trend of having a mighty, company-wide crossover event every year to drive collector and fan excitement about the company, as well as, yet again, “cleaning up” some of the messiness in the DC Universe left over since the last big “clean up the DC Universe” event, Zero Hour, DC Comics brought forth Infinite Crisis.

In the lead up to this event, Days of Vengeance, the magical element of Captain Marvel was brought to the fore. Captain Marvel was used as a focus of all the magic in the universe, as every magical character focused their energy on the Captain so he could grow in stature to battle the Spectre, a magical, god-like being that had, ironically, been created by Jerry Siegel back in 1939. He wound up losing the fight, though. Also in the story, old Shazam died and the Rock of Eternity was destroyed.
By the end of the Infinite Crisis, it was established that there were now 52 parallel universes. The “post Crisis on Infinite Earths” universe remains, and most of the old DC Universes (Earths 1, 2, 3, etc) seem to have been recreated, as well as self-contained universes for the characters of each company that they have acquired (Earths S, X, etc.). This now allows DC Comics to create stories with the characters in their original universes, if they ever choose to do so.

The Rock of Eternity had been rebuilt, and Billy Batson was installed there to keep an eye on the magical world, as the Rules of Magic have been “rewritten.” In other words, Captain Marvel became the top cop for magical monsters and demons. Before that could be explored further, however, something happened. Billy Batson said “Shazam” one day and the Captain Marvel he transformed into was different. He was in a white version of the Marvel suit, his hair was long, straight, and white, and his cape was long and had a hood. He looked like Elric of Melniboné, Michael Moorcock's magical albino, on steroids! At the same time, Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel both instantly lost their powers!

It turns out that Billy Batson/Captain Marvel is now to sit on the throne of Shazam. Billy Batson looks to never be seen again, and the character simply uses the name “Marvel.”

Freddy Freeman, the Shazam Family outsider, and former Outsider (since losing his powers) has been set on a quest to earn each individual power of Shazam (Solomon's wisdom, Hercules' strength, Achilles' courage, etc.) in a series of trials chronicled in the recent series Trials of Shazam. One result of these trials is that the hero who will ultimately say the magic word and wear the red suit with the gold lightning bolt (Freddy Freeman) will be called Shazam. Dan Didio, editor-in-chief of DC Comics has admitted that part of the reason for this is to finally have a comic book with the character who's name is the same as the title.

Mary Batson, after recovering from injuries sustained when she lost her powers, fell into a fit of depression, sought to regain her powers, and met Black Adam. He gave her back access to the Power of Shazam, but also a share of his powers. This made her more powerful and and gave her a greater range of use of magic, and she gained a new costume, a black, long-sleeved, capeless number with a very short skirt.. Once the moral center of the Shazam Family, she fell to the temptations of that power, almost becoming a tool of the villain Eclipso. She overcame that temptation, however, when she realized that she was being used, and lost her powers again. She regained her original powers (and a new white costume with long sleeves and a gray lightning bolt) when she realized that what she really wanted was to help people with her powers. Then the villain Darkseid tempted her with the powers that she had gained from Black Adam and debates of moral relativism, and Mary accepted them, and the black costume reappeared.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Ultimate Marvel

With the turn of the millennium, Marvel Comics has seen it fit to re-invent its entire universe in an alternate line of comics known as the Ultimates. This can be seen as something like what DC did in the 1950's, re-starting and re-inventing their line of superheroes, except that this universe of characters is not a parallel universe to the regular Marvels, it is completely separate with no apparent plans for communication between one universe and the other.

In this universe all the modern Marvel superheroes first appeared in the 1990's (there were still heroes in WWII, such as Captain America, and he fell into suspended animation like before, but was awoken in the 1990's). Captain Marvel appeared when this universe's version of Galactus showed up and threatened Earth in an adventure that gave a possible solution to the Fermi Paradox. The Fermi Paradox is the formula designed to figure out the likelihood of intelligent life in the universe contacting Earth. The paradox comes in when one plugs in numbers based on certain assumptions that make it look like there should have been contact by now, but most reasonable people accept that there is no evidence of contact so far.

The answer to the Fermi Paradox in this story is twofold. One, that the government is covering up all news of alien contact; Two, that Gah Lak Tus, a wave of sentient robots, devours all life on whatever planet it happens to come upon.

In this story, Captain Marvel is Pluskommander Geheneris Hala´son Mahr Vehl of the alien Kree intergalactic military. This was, of course, an adaptation of Captain Mar-Vell. The name Hala'son meant that he was supposed to be of the line of the Kree god Hala, but he denied the divinity of Hala, believing instead that he was simply a Kree who believed all life was sacred. Mahr Vehl had come to earth as a spy, took the identity of Dr. Philip Lawson, and helped design a space ship engine capable of interstellar travel (along with a Dr. David Binder, obviously a tribute to Otto Binder). He defected when it became apparent that the Kree wanted to watch Earth fall to Gah Lak Tus.

This version also had a Carol Danvers, again a security chief at an Aerospace Development station, and there was adversarial banter between Lawson/Mahr Vell and Danvers reminiscent of that between Walter Lawson/Mar-Vell and Carol Danvers in the '60's.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Gay Captain Marvel

Right about that time, rumor surfaced that the next Captain Marvel would be gay. The excitement coincided with the revelation that Hulkling, a teenage superhero who was already “out,” was the son of Captain Mar-Vell and the alien Skrull Princess Annelle. But there already was a gay Captain Marvel, Phyla-Vell, who revealed her orientation in the final issue of Genis-Vell's series when she and Moondragon hooked up. Since then, Phyla has given up the title of Captain Marvel since she has been granted the quantum bands of Quasar. Quasar, the previous bearer of the quantum bands, was an Earthman named Wendell Jones who had been made “Protector of the Universe” by Eon after Captain Mar-Vell died (The Quantum Bands, incidentally, had originally been worn by Marvel Boy, a short-lived, Cold War era version of a character that Marvel Comics had re-imagined several times). This job was also passed to Phyla.

Recently Moondragon died while fighting to save the universe along with Phyla in the “Annihilation” crossover epic. Phyla, as Quasar, has since joined the new "Guardians of the Galaxy," a team of obscure sci-fi and space opera superheroes led by Peter Quill, the former Star Lord, and including such characters as Rocket Raccoon, Captain Universe, Groot (a sentient, animate tree) and others.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Don't Ms. the Next Captain Marvel!

Meanwhile, Carol Danvers had eventually come back to Earth, rejoined the Avengers, lost her Binary powers, became an alcoholic, was court martialed and kicked out of the Avengers, sobered up, rejoined the Avengers and changed her name to Warbird, faced an alternate version of Marcus and, in the heat of a battle over Earth during the Kang Dynasty wars, killed him. An Avengers court of inquiry found the killing justifiable, and she was vindicated. Then came the House of M.

In the first decade of the New Millennium, the major comic book companies were bringing out massive cross-over epics apparently designed to keep readers thinking that something “important” was happening. For Marvel Comics in the summer of 2005, this was the House of M.

Mutants had come a long way from the time that the X-Men was one little comic book parabling the struggles of the outsider in society. Since the Chris Claremont/John Byrne run that led to the Dark Phoenix saga, the X-Men had become wildly popular, leading to several spin-off titles and a never-ending, ever growing, roster of mutant superheroes and villains. One of them, the Scarlet Witch, became so powerful and mentally unbalanced that she was able to change reality. She did this and the world she created was called the House of M.

In this world, her Father, Magneto, was a benign leader of a world in which mutants were the dominant species and humans were basically biding their time as second-class citizens slowly awaiting extinction. In this world Carol Danvers was Captain Marvel, the world's greatest hero.

When the storyline ended, and the world was brought back to normal, Danvers remembered what it was like to be the world's greatest hero, and she liked that feeling. She realized that she had been shortchanging herself, underachieving, and that she could be that hero again. She has since taken back her Ms. Marvel name and has been fighting to fulfill her potential while being beset by problems and adversaries from the mundane to the cosmic to the esoteric.