Don’t be fooled. A few pages into “Shazam!” and you’ll be introduced to a hard-edged Billy Batson, a fifteen year old kid who’s been embittered by the unfortunate circumstances that life has forced upon him. This is a far cry from the wide-eyed, good-natured boy who was bestowed with super-powers by an ancient wizard in the old Fawcett Comics from the 1940s. We are also acquainted with Dr. Sivana, originally a frail-framed scientist with a heart of coal, he is now a strapping researcher scouring the world for magic. These early pages of “Shazam!” may seem as though writer Geoff Johns has strayed a bit too far from the source material in an effort to present something edgier, but don’t be fooled, this book is a feel-good re-introduction of the classic characters that comic fans have embraced for decades.
The Marvel Family, as they are not referred to as such here, have been given a slighter than expected makeover that acts to shed the material of its overt wholesomeness while enhancing the sense of wonder. Fans will be surprised by just how much Johns retains of the source material by the time we reach the final panel, which promises that there’s more story to be told involving the adventures of young Billy Batson. Gary Frank handles the artwork, reinterpreting classic characters and offering minor tweaks to contemporize what had come before.
Johns and Frank play up two themes in “Shazam!”: family and magic. Billy is a tough kid because life has forced him to be so. Other than a tiger at the local Zoo that the boy regularly visits, for Billy there has never been a constant familial relationship. When he comes to live with Victor and Rosa Vasquez and their five foster children, he does not immediately embrace their desire to take Billy in as a part of their family. And why would he? Billy’s been burned so frequently that he’s not about to put his guard down so that his heart can be yanked out and tossed aside. Billy slowly learns that family comes in many forms as the story continues; he demonstrates that, under his tough exterior, resides a young man with a strong moral compass.
Frank and Johns most drastic change to the kids formerly known as the Marvel Family is that they are now all unique to one another and come from varying backgrounds, most of which are minorities. Freddie is physically disabled while Mary is still a young, pretty teenager (with a bunny named Hoppy, for the hardcore fans of the original material). Pedro, Eugene and Darla are the remaining three foster kids and new creations. Johns and Frank have made each of these kids individuals, in personality and in their unmistakably distinct designs. It’s refreshing to see these creators introduce characters who are more reflective of their setting.
More so than any previous incarnation of the character that I can recall reading, Johns plays up the magical side of Billy’s powers and adds some new elements that make sense. Previously, Billy was bestowed with superpowers when he called out the word “Shazam”, but there was nothing magical about the character beyond this. Here Johns plays with the mystical aspects of the hero, whether he is making an ATM suddenly spit out cash or he’s mysteriously drawn to crimes. This small alteration adds an interesting layer to the character’s abilities and I’m curious to see how future writers will expound upon this.
In this retelling, people from around the globe have been reporting similar experiences of being transported to an unknown place where they are confronted by an old wizard and then returned to the real world. The trips are brief as the wizard quickly ascertains that everyone he comes in contact with is lacking a pure soul. When he meets Billy the old man draws the same conclusion. However, Billy puts it to the wizard plainly: there are no pure souls. The wizard looks within Billy a second time, looking not for purity, but for potential. He finds it. Frank’s transportation sequences, which occur a few times in the book, go beyond just having a character “pop” into the realm of the wizard. He creates subtle effects with electricity and people who fade away into nothing before the passage takes place. Colorist Brad Anderson’s natural palette compliment the effects. Frank creates a mystical entrance filled sparsely with whispering supernatural artifacts before Billy reaches the Seven Deadly Sins.
While Billy begins his voyage as the hero Shazam, Dr. Sivana is on a journey of his own to track down the magical being that has been snatching people from around the planet and returning them unharmed. After being disfigured during an excavation near Baghdad, Sivana is granted the power to see magic. This leads him to the dormant resting place of Black Adam, who Sivana awakens with violent results. Black Adam wants the power that the wizard has bestowed upon a new champion, which brings the villain racing to take down Shazam. Frank gives Dr. Sivana a new lightning bolt scar across his now glowing eye to give the villain a more menacing visage; the lightning bolt ties him to the iconic crests emblazoned across the chests of Shazam and Black Adam. Frank doesn’t play with Black Adam’s design much more than he has done with Shazam, but the villain is fearsome with his constant scowl, look of disapproval, and his tattered cape.
Now what takes place in between is an entertaining, and very funny, story about a kid being granted superpowers and the responsibility and irresponsibility that would naturally come with that. Once the powers are in use and in the form of a super being, Billy chooses to take revenge on the father of some bullies from school that have habitually tormented his foster siblings. Then, after taking down a mugger, he asks the intended victim for cash as repayment after being egged on to do so by Freddie. Frank, whose character work is especially expressive, is pitch perfect at capturing the humor in the scene, from the wide-eyed encouraging gaze Freddie gives to Shazam as the boy rubs his fingertips together to communicate that the new hero should collect a monetary gift to the accomplished look on Shazam’s face when he walks away with his booty.
Black Adam and Dr. Sivana release the Seven Deadly Sins in a confrontation with Shazam in a rousing finale that had me grinning from ear to ear. Johns knows how to entertain his readers, but with “Shazam!” he and Frank have structured their story to unfold like a thoroughly fulfilling summer cinematic blockbuster. There’s action, dread, humor, and above all, real humanity that comes through as Billy realizes that he is finally part of a family. Frank keeps the action thumping as Black Adam and the Seven Deadly Sins rampage through the city.
Once all is said and done, and the goose bumps have subsided, it is clear that Johns and Frank have constructed a solid framework from which to launch exciting new Shazam stories. And once you’ve sat down to read this first volume of stories, you’ll be hungry for more.
Written by: Geoff Johns
Art by: Gary Frank
Colors: Brad Anderson
Letters: Nick J. Napolitano
Publisher: DC Comics
Original Publication Date: March 2012
Pages: 192 pages