Friday, May 29, 2015

"Shazam" Convergence review part 2

Because nobody who reads comics can possibly expect anything in one comic book by one company to not affect anything in any other comic book by that company (and maybe other companies as well), when change happens, it happens big. Also, when you make a big change that affects every character in every book that you sell, everyone is going to have a reason to buy the book that month, and possibly other books as well.

This has been a guiding principle of the major companies that produce superhero comics since the 1980's; every few years try to raise the stakes and come up with the GREATEST, MOST AMAZING, REVOLUTIONARY, MIND-BLOWING CHANGE EVER! This week it was "Convergence."

So we got these 52 universes, right? So instead of letting them exist and visiting them occasionally, let's BLOW THEM ALL UP IN A MASSIVE CROSS-OVER BATTLE EPIC!

So DC has revived the heroes and villains of various past titles, storylines, and alternate universes in its history and mashed them together in titles that place them in conflict with each other. In the case of the classic Marvel Family (aka: "The Shazam Family") they get placed in conflict with the world of "Gotham by Gaslight," a late-Victorian version of Batman that has come to include such genres and tropes as Gothic horror, German expressionism, pulp adventure, and steampunk.




The two-part mini-series "Convergence: Shazam," written by Jeff Parker and drawn by Evan "Doc" Shaner, starts on Earth-S, or at least that's what it says inside the front cover of the comic. The world is much like that in the DC "Shazam!" stories between 1972 and 1985, with all the same characters (Billy, Mary, Freddy, Uncle, Mr. Morris, Tawny, etc) and there is plenty of "fan service" in things like brand names and background characters. The villains are classics, (Dr. Sivana, Mr. Atom, King Kull, Ibac), and reference is even made to the suspendium trap and the Marvels' 20-year absence.

There are differences, though. It is implied that Mr. Morris was not in the suspendium trap, while in fact, on Earth-S, he had been.  There was no Fawcett City on Earth-S (unless you count that one issue of "All Star Squadron" in which Roy Thomas first named Billy Batson's hometown), the original home of the Big Red Cheese was always unnamed, but assumed to be New York. But these are nit-picks that only some sadly over-passionate fan would care about or even notice...

The art is remarkable. It appears to be an almost photo-realistic interpretation of the original characters, but with enough detail left out to give the feeling of C.C. Beck's deceptively simple-looking art from the Fawcett days. As such it seems like a logical progression of where the art would be had the series continued under the same management over the decades (a look at recent versions of "Archie" shows a similar evolution, especially in certain "alt-Archies" like the zombie-horror series "Afterlife with Archie."). All the characters maintain their distinguishing characteristics and are instantly recognizable, but the drawings look like they were taken from life, as if they found the perfect actors for each character. This shows both the skill of the current artist and the brilliance of the original, to be able to interpret the cartoony drawings into recognizably realistic people and to create cartoony drawings that could be interpreted so.

The first issue stayed on this world, and the second one moved into the world of gaslight Gotham. But before it did, the first page of issue #2 declared that this world, that of Fawcett City, was Earth-5.

CONTINUITY VIOLATION ALERT!

EARTH-5 IS NOT EARTH-S!

As I mentioned in the first part of this review, It was publicly stated that Earth-5 is not Earth-S. This can be confirmed by looking up Wikipedia and DC Wiki (note the separate listings for Earth-S and Earth-5). A couple of notable but important differences are that in Earth-S Mary Marvel has a red costume, while in Earth-5 her dress is white, and that the "Seven Deadlies" in Shazam's throne room are "Enemies of Man," while on Earth-5 they are "Sins."

Speaking of Mary's costume, in the "Convergence" stories she is wearing a mid-length-skirted, short-sleeved dress in line with her costume in Jerry Ordway's "Power of Shazam" series that is a compromise between the short-skirted dress in which she originally appeared and the full-skirted, puffy-sleeved dress she wore for most of her Fawcett years. In any case, she is not wearing the short-skirted dress in which the Shazam-bolt descended from her neckline and the cape was mysteriously attached with no cord as she did in her later Fawcett years and all through her pre-"Crisis on Infinite Earths" tenure at DC, which is Earth-S, for all intents and purposes. She is also wearing boots, not slippers, as she would have in that period.

When the story moves to Gotham (or, as the promotional blurb would have it, "Shazam meets steampunk"), Shaner's graphic style and the colors by Jordie Belaire effectively convey the Gothic Victorian gloom of the gaslight city. There is fan-service galore, if you know what to look for, all through the story, from Mary Marvel catching a bomb to Killer Crock hurting himself trying to attack Captain Marvel (geek points if you can name the inspirations of those references). The story spends precious little time in that world, however, and almost no time with Batman. It's as if the ostensible co-star of the whole two-issue story was really more of a guest-star, a supporting character, barely more than a cameo.

But the unexpected money-shot for me was one two page spread in which Captain Marvel and Billy Batson spoke to each other in the instant between the transformation.

The hero had been zapped by electrically-produced lightning from gaslight Gotham. Apparently the charge, though not magical, was strong enough to effect the change. In a conversation that must have been going on inside their minds, the two characters, the hero and the boy, recognize the situation and try to figure out what to do about it. This established what I had always believed, and what was clearly intended, for the characters from the beginning: Billy Batson and Captain Marvel are separate characters. They share memories, but they are each distinct personalities. The Shazam/Captain Marvel concept is not "Big" as a superhero, it is a boy who has the ability to transform into an adult superhero by saying a magic word.

This was the high point of the story as a piece of superheroic fantasy for me. But sadly, beyond that, it was pretty much by the numbers. This is unfortunate, as there was so much more that could have been explored with this combination of elements... (to be continued)

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