When last we left our story, I was at a panel discussion with Dan Didio and some DC artists and writers and he was asking questions of the audience and panelists. One of them was a very interesting
question to which I had what I thought was a brilliant, insightful answer, and
even had relevance to the ostensible reason for me being there:
“Who was the first artist you started following and did you
start following comics for the character or the artist?”
Funny thing about that…
Of course, growing up, I saw Archie and Casper the Friendly
Ghost comics and superhero comics, and I was aware that the art was different
for Archie and Casper than it was for Batman. However, the first time I
actually noticed a specific artist’s art as being distinctive of of other
artists was when I saw the original Captain Marvel.
Though I was not yet sophisticated enough to tell the
difference between C.C. Beck and Kurt Schaffenberger, I did realize that the
Big Red Cheese, in both reprints of old stories from Fawcett Publications and
the contemporary stuff from DC, was not like what I saw in Batman, Superman,
Spider-Man, and other superhero comics (which was what most of my other comics
were).It was simpler, clearer. One
might say it was more “cartoony,” but the simplicity disguised the mastery of
the medium that Beck and Schaffenberger had. The storytelling was always clean
and concise. The anatomy was proportionate and believable.
However, in 1981, DC decided to give Captain Marvel a
makeover. Out went that simple style of Kurt Schaffenberger (who was drawing
the hero at the time) and in came the slightly warped but realistically
detailed work of Don Newton. I actually avoided reading those stories in Action
Comics because I did not like seeing that art for Captain Marvel. I spent hours
trying to think of which artists would be able to draw the World’s Mightiest
Mortal in the appropriate style, and did not understand that calling for such a
change back was a lost cause. DC wanted to update the look, and there it was.
Now, of course, I recognize the quality and skill of
Newton’s art. I also see how he was able to realistically distort faces and
features for comedic effect. Captain Marvel always was a quasi-comedic
character, and one of the challenges faced by DC when they revived him was how
to keep the lightness and whimsy in the character while making him relevant and
appealing to the modern world. It was a shame I did not read too many of those stories,
either, because some of them were quite good, and some of them actually went
into the hero’s past and explained aspects of his origin, powers, and backstory
that had not been explored before.
So that would have been an interesting thing to share with
Dan Didio and the lineup of artists, writers, and editors on stage. It would
have also been interesting to see his reactions and hear his thoughts,
considering what DC has done with the character and the concept under his watch
At NY Comic Con last month, I attended Dan Didio’s panel in
which he has a semi-informal discussion with some of DC’s top talents and the
audience. I was ostensibly there to ask him questions about Captain Marvel, but I
didn’t want to be a dick and hijack the panel, so I listened and participated
in the spirit of it.
He asked some interesting questions and invited the audience
to share their answers. Again, not wanting to be a dick, I did not raise my
hand every time and beg to be picked, but upon reflection, those questions
inspired me to come up with some interesting answers, so I would like to share
them with you here now.
One of the first questions was “What was the first comic you
ever read?” I can’t remember which comic book was the first I ever read,
specifically. Comics have always been a part of my life. However I can remember
how some of the first few superhero comics I read gave me a very specific
impression of a superhero that was probably unique to the time.
The time was the early 1970’s, and between Vietnam,
Watergate, and the rise of the various youth counter-cultures, in the popular mainstream it seemed that governmental
authority was not infallible, and the hero maybe the hunted. I may have been
vaguely aware of this dynamic from other elements of culture and media that I
absorbed, but it really came home to me in superhero comic books.
The three comics in question were issues of Batman, Spider-Man, and Tales of Suspense featuring Captain America.
The Batman story was part of a storyline in which Batman was
accused of the murder of his adversary Ra’s Al Ghul. When the story began, he
was already being hunted by the police, and unearthed the dead man’s grave to
find it empty. At that moment, two cops found him. He fought them and dragged
one of them to the grave, only to find the body or Ra’s in it, where it had not
been before! The story ended with Batman still on the lam ad Commissioner
Gordon continued to direct the manhunt against him.
The Captain America story involved an imposter with a ray
gun on his wrist leading high-profile bank raids. This, of course led to
Captain America being a hunted man. Cap ultimately defeated the crook, but not
before there were serious doubts as to whether or not he was still n the right
side of the law.
Finally, the Spider-Man story was the famous first appearance of the Punisher.
I don’t have much memory of this story, as the comic disappeared from my life
not long after I acquired it. Lost or stolen, I imagine. I do remember that the
Punisher was trying to hunt him down in the belief that he was a bad guy, and
the police didn’t seem to like him much either. There was an air of
desperation about his life that impressed me well.
So with these three stories, I was of the mind that to be a
superhero was to be outside the law. That wearing a mask and costume to fight
crime was a thing that the police and authority did not like. But since these
characters were the sympathetic characters of the story, that meant that rebel
fugitives were the good guys and law and authority were the bad guys.
This sort of view of things was only reinforced as I started
to learn about the American Revolution (this being the bicentennial decade) and
read about folks like Paul Revere doing things under cover of night to avoid
So the casting rumors, speculation, suggestions, etc fall away one by one as another casting choice for DC's "Shazam!" movie is revealed!
As reported in Variety, Asher Angel, Best known in his young career as Jonah Beck in the TV series "Andi Mack," will be playing the young boy who transforms into the World's Mightiest Mortal by saying the magic word, "SHAZAM!"
Not being familiar with his work, I cannot critique the choice on the basis of his acting chops, but he does look the part. Of course, Billy Batson was drawn generically enough that almost any young boy with black hair could look the part (in fact, my trans-gender ex-girlfriend went through a phase in his transition in which he could have played the role - ahem - marvelously).
One thing that will be interesting to me is if Asher and Zachary Levi (who is playing the hero) will be able to sync up their performances to create a believable illusion of the same person inhabiting both bodies. Of course, back in the original Fawcett comics from 1940 - 1953 and the DC comics from 1973 - 1986 Billy Batson and Captain Marvel had separate personalities, though they shared memories. They would refer to each other in the third person, buy each other Christmas presents, and even had an argument at least once! It was only when Roy Thomas created "Shazam! A New Beginning" that the concept of Captain Marvel as a boy in a grown-up's body began. This was after the Crisis on infinite Earths (one of the first big company-wide crossover events in comics) re-ordered the original DC multiverse and put Captain Marvel and Superman on the same planet.
While Roy Thomas played this dynamic for drama, the new Justice League series that came out that year played int for laughs, having Captain Marvel suggest singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" as the team grew bored during a long flight, for instance. His juvenility led to him being underestimated in his value to the team, and he left after just a few issues.
Though DC dropped the ball on a continuing series with the World's Mightiest Mortal (a topic for another time), Jerry Ordway picked it up and re-booted the character in 1994 in "The Power Of Shazam!" graphic noel and ongoing series. He maintained the boy-as-adult-hero paradigm, balancing drama and humor. From that point there was going back. The Ordway version became the version that DC maintained until they began the New 52 in 2012. Now the default assumption is of the paradigm is "Big" as a superhero, and every appearance of the character follows that theme.
Several animated cartoon movies and series have done well with that in the balance of comedy and drama, but to me, it is not what the character was originally created to be. The wish fulfillment is that when you say a magic word, you can transform into a grownup! Your mind changes so you can think grown-up thought, handle grown-up situations. It's sort of like "Being John Malkovitch" as a superhero. You exist inside the mind and body of a mighty superhero, sharing experiences and memories, but having the time of your life on not being psychologically tortured like Roy Thomas' invention of Rick Jones and Captain Mar-Vell.
But the director, David F. Sandberg has come out and said that it will be "Big" with superheroes, so I guess that is what we are going to see.
One last interesting thing about this casting choice. Just as the hero will be played by a man who shares my initials, ZL, the actor playing Billy Batson shares a birthday with me: September 6! This movie is becoming more and more entwined with me by the week!
Multi-talented entertainer, writer, filmmaker, artist, historian, grappler, swordfighter. I am writing a book about the many Captain Marvels, and compete in swordfighting and submission grappling. I make movies, act, sing, and do stage combat, and critique on all media.