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“No protector, you say? And yet, despite enduring countless tragedies and hardships, you somehow managed to protect your perfect heart.”The wizard Shazam to Billy Batson, Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam.
It’s no secret that DC has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the number of quality characters that they own and the endless potential of stories that they can write with them. And while it has been said multiple times that the DC Cinematic Universe has been wasting their source material (I won’t get into that in this article because I’m focusing on the comics), one has to admit that is not a problem that belongs only to the movies, but to the comics as well.
A time ago I did an article here about Superman and how Hollywood was failing to understand what made the Man of Steel tick and now I want to talk in a similar way to a character that has been sadly underused by DC in the comics and that still has a lot of potentials: Captain Marvel, also known as Shazam since the 2011 New 52 reboot.
Ever since DC got the rights for Billy Batson and his powerful alter ego, the company hasn’t managed to get the character going for a sustainable comic book beyond Jerry Ordway’s solid 90s run, The Power of Shazam!, which lasted for 48 issues plus an annual. But the character has been going through multiple attempts to give him a regular series, reboots, and whatnot, and yet, never manages to catch on with the readers or maintain a stable book. And this begs the question: What’s the problem with this character and why DC doesn’t manage to make him work on a critical and commercial level?
By and large, Shazam’s origin is pretty known because it has been presented multiple times throughout the years: Billy Batson is an orphan kid that has been going through some seriously tough times (sometimes he lives on the streets, sometimes he is part of the foster system) and one night he ends up on a subway train that takes to the Rock of Eternity, where the wizard Shazam grants him the powers to become his new champion. Before the Crisis on Infinite Earths reboots on 1985, Billy would say the word “SHAZAM!” and turn into a different person, Captain Marvel, but since the aforementioned reboots, he turns into an adult version of himself with a tremendous set of skills and powers.
I think the reason Billy’s origin story is the one that has been done the most in the comics throughout the decades is due to the fact that most creators don’t know how to take things from there given that Shazam/Captain Marvel is a character they are usually not very familiar with or simply are not interested. That’s why we often see attempts to “modernize” him, trying to take away Billy’s elements of innocence and purity for more cynical approaches, such as Roy Thomas’ in the post-Crisis reboots or Geoff Johns’ in the New 52, where they tried to make Billy more cynical or set him in darker territories, which I think was the wrong approach in a big way.
Billy Batson is an inspirational and aspirational archetype, much like Superman or Captain America: he is not supposed to be an extremely realistic character, but rather an example of the best of us, especially when we are kids. That’s the heart of Captain Marvel/Shazam and the reason why the wizard chose him: the fact that despite all the bad stuff he went through in his youth he didn’t give up on people or gave up on his kindness and humbleness.
This is shown extremely well in the animated film that has the phrase I quoted at the beginning of the article, Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam: Billy says to the wizard that he can’t be his champion because he doesn’t have the power to protect anybody and the wizard replies by saying that he protected his heart through all the hardship he has gone through. I love that because it’s an example that the greatest hero is not built by power, but rather by what’s inside of him or her. Billy should represent the best of our youth and the virtue of being good and kind.
Much like Superman, I think there is a very cynical perspective about Shazam/Captain Marvel and they fail to understand that there is nothing inherently wrong with them, but rather a lack of understanding of what makes them tick. Punisher doesn’t have to be kind or lighthearted and Shazam doesn’t have to be dark, gritty, or edgy. Every character is built in a certain manner and these are their roots; if you stray away too much from them they are no longer the same character and you’re just going to push away those hardcore fans that have stayed through thick and thin (and Billy has a lot of fans like that).
Much like Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, or Mike Grell’s Green Arrow runs, the key to making Shazam a much more consistent character in terms of quality and to making better stories about him is to understand what defines him as a character and what sets apart from the rest of the DC Universe. What does he have that the rest of the characters don’t have?
In many ways, Billy is a paragon and symbol of hope, defined by his capacity to do well and to bring the best out of humanity. This is a trait that a few DC characters have (Superman, Flash, and Wonder Woman being the most important), but what sets him apart from the rest is that he is an odd combination of magic, mythology, youth, and optimism. Many characters on DC have one of those characteristics, but Billy has all four and I think they should focus on those aspects.
If I were writing Shazam (and if the guys at DC are reading this, I’m available), I would focus on the magical and mythological worlds that Billy can explore rather than the main DC Universe. The wizard has been doing this for thousands of years, so there must be a huge history behind him and we can explore it through Billy and the rest of the Shazam family (more on them later), much like Geoff Johns in his much-delayed Shazam run. The main difference in my story is that Billy wouldn’t go to those places out of sheer curiosity, but rather as a duty: that there is impending darkness consuming these magical lands and he has to be the one that has to protect them due to being chosen by the wizard.
You don’t have to change the character, but rather the adventures he goes through and see how he would react in different environments. DC and Marvel have been talking for years about reaching new, younger audiences with their comics and the former hasn’t realized that Shazam is the perfect character for kids to connect with. A kid that has the power to rival Superman and who goes through adventures in magical worlds? Which kid wouldn’t want to read that?
By and large, Shazam is a character made for kids and there has always been a lighthearted nature to him, even in highly emotional stories like Alex Ross’ remarkable Power of Hope. You take a random Shazam/Captain Marvel fan and I’m sure they would tell you that they met the character in their childhood and there’s nothing wrong with that–in fact, it tells you a lot about the impact that this character can have on our youth. Billy was chosen because he was good and kind even during the worst times of his life and when he was given the power of the gods, he always tried to do his best to help others.
This is why Kingdom Come Captain Marvel works in such a beautiful and tragic manner. I personally don’t like Mark Waid that much, but he defined really well how Billy would react in a world where heroes stopping acting as such and the tremendous consequences it would have on him.
There is a lot of untapped potentials when it comes to Billy’s character and the adventures he can through, showcasing the reasons why he was chosen. One of my favorite Shazam/Captain Marvel moments was during the 90s when he teamed up with then-only active Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner, and they had to stop an archeologist that was possessed by an ancient curse. Kyle was adamant that they had to stop him through sheer force, but the Captain got through the archeologist by talking to him, resulting in Kyle learning that you don’t always have to fight in order to get the job done and that it shouldn’t be the first option (the perks of having the wisdom of Solomon, like Billy, does).
There is also the subject of the Marvell/Shazam Family and that’s where I tend to struggle with ideas of what to do with them. Geoff Johns tried to expand the character’s cast by adding a foster family beyond Mary and Freddy, but these characters, while enjoyable and interesting in their own right, have made the cast too big now, with a lot of people now possessing the same powers that Billy has.
Of course, a skillful writer can use this as an opportunity to make Shazam’s adventures all the greater, similar to what franchises like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter do with a large cast of characters. Geoff Johns did something similar with his Green Lantern, giving multiple different storylines to all the Lanterns that he had at his disposal (with the four main Earth Lanterns and Killowog he already has a lot on his plate, but he managed in great fashion). So I guess he could do the same here.
Of course, there is also the matter of the rogue’s gallery. While I think Shazam has two of the finest villains of classic DC, such as Dr. Sivana and Black Adam, I also think that we can all agree that he is in need of a bit of expansion, adding new, dynamic villains to his rogue’s gallery. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to see him fighting other superheroes’ villains. Ares against Shazam (there’s a mythological angle there)? The Shazam Family in Apokolips, fighting Darkseid? Billy and his family fighting Trigon in his own reality (there’s a magic angle there? There are a lot of possibilities that can be considered, but I would strongly recommend the creation of new villains that can be a challenge to them and a long-term threat (this would connect with what I said about connecting the character with the magic realms a lot more).
I would also recommend a restrained use of Black Adam. We all know that he is a popular character these days and Billy’s equivalent of the Joker to Batman, but much like the Clown Prince of Crime, I think they should use Black Adam from time to time, in the long run, thus making sure that when he shows up, you know that something amazing is about to happen. And considering that Black Adam can function as an antihero from time to time, there is also that angle of him working with Billy when the threat is too big and seeing how a man who has lost all sense of innocence can work next to someone who represents youthful innocence in its most pure form.
There is also so much potential when it comes to the Shazam character because he has been so underdeveloped since the 70s because most creative teams, leaving aside Jerry Ordway’s 90s run, don’t have a clear notion of what they want to do with him, always trying to modernize the character and make him more “realistic”, when the reality is that he is a superhero deeply rooted in fantasy and designed to appeal to kids, so why mess with that? Play to his strengths instead of making him something he is not. Geoff Johns did just that with Green Lantern: he realized the potential of a cosmic hero and used the entire DC Universe as his landscape, slowly building up story arcs and Shazam should have the same angle, considering that he strongly connected to the magic side of things.
He is such an interesting character because, as Superman puts it in Kingdom Come, he is the one that walks the worlds of humans and super-powered beings. He is, in a way, the line between both worlds and he is the very innocence of the purest form of heroism. Some may that he is childish, but he is a kid, after all. What do you expect? He is supposed to be a representation of the best attributes that define youthful optimism and kindness. A bastion of hope in the darkest moments.
Overall, I just hope DC can give this character his due in the coming years because I think there is potential here for phenomenal fantasy stories that can have a lasting impact and also be a commercial success. Shazam is a character that has been misused, but when he is well-written and properly used, like in the Ordway run, Kingdom Come, or the other Alex Ross-penned projects, the character can truly resonate and leave a positive message for readers everywhere.
As I said in my Superman article, not every character in fiction needs to be grim or dark; many of them can be hopeful and optimistic, especially considering that kids always grow and learn through example.
Billy Batson is the very definition of kindness, innocence, and the desire to do good, much like Superman is the symbol of hope, but Billy is the world’s mightiest mortal because he was chosen to be. Despite all the bad things life threw at him, the best versions of the character were never resentful or bitter about it and instead tried to do his best to move forward with his life. And when he was given the opportunity to do greater good, he didn’t disappoint the wizard that chose him.
It’s all about trying to do well and it’s all about believing. Much like Billy himself.
“I know life will always have struggles waiting for both Billy and the Captain, but right now I feel I can take on the world. My heart is as light as a child’s, a feeling I’d nearly forgotten. And by helping those in need, I will be able to keep that feeling alive.”Captain Marvel/Shazam in The Power of Hope.