1940 was a banner year for the introduction of long-lived comic book characters: the Spirit, the Flash, Robin, the Joker, Hawkman & Hawkgirl, Green Lantern, the Justice Society of America, and many more first appeared in that year. This year has already seen 75th anniversary celebrations for a number of them, including my personal favorite: the original Captain Marvel!
It’s been a pretty good year for the good Captain, beginning with Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart‘s Thunderworld Adventures (featuring nicely updated Marvels in the standout chapter of Morrison’s Multiversity miniseries) and culminating with the recent Convergence: Shazam! two-parter pitting the Marvel Family against the Gotham by Gaslight Batman. Jeff Parker and Evan “Doc” Shaner really knocked the ball out of the park with those issues featuring the classic version of the characters, and I enjoyed all the behind-the-scenes sketches that Shaner has posted, too. DC really should give that pair (along with colorist Jordie Bellaire) the blank check for more Captain Marvel material; it would be a much better investment of time and energy than anything “New 52 Shazam”-related!
Now I admit, I may have a biased love for the original Captain Marvel, but, like so many of the New 52 reboots, that Shazam just felt like an “Elseworlds” version of the character. They may look (kinda) like the real character, have the same name (well, not so much, in this case) as them, but act totally different. That Shazam lacks all the charm of the original– or even later well-handled– versions of the characters. The Marvel Family has all the potential to be great counter-programming to the dark and serious tone that dominates so much superhero output these days, and in both Thunderworld and Convergence, the characters lived up to that potential, with Captain Marvel standing tall as the main hero in his own universe, able to shine in a way he can’t when he’s being forced to play second fiddle to Superman in a shared universe.
So given these two recent triumphs for the character, I had high hopes for Shazam! A Celebration of 75 Years (DC, 2015). Sadly, much like the inconsistent treatment of the character over those years, the book was a mixed bag that wasn’t allowed to live up to its potential.
The first section (“The Big Red Cheese”) featured 120 pages of Fawcett-era stories. Given how little of this large body of content has been reprinted, I love to read it whenever I can. I particularly enjoyed reading two chapters of the original “Monster Society of Evil” serial. The stories in this section gave some attention to all of the Marvels (including Uncle Dudley and Hoppy), yet, sadly, neglected Mr. Tawky Tawny entirely. It also included both the original and retold versions of the origins of the Captain and Mary Marvel, space which would have been well-served with an appearance by everyone’s favorite talking tiger!
“Cancellation and revival” opened, oddly, with a story that doesn’t feature Captain Marvel, at all! Superman #276 featured Captain Thunder, an ersatz version of the real deal. Its inclusion is doubly odd because it was apparently published after Shazam! #1 began DC’s use of the character. This section features some nice Shazam! material, including that first issue and a beautifully-drawn Don Newton story … but also one of the stories modeled on the 1970s Saturday morning show, yet another origin retelling, and DC Comics Presents #49 (which was reprinted in a trade edition just two years ago). A truncated version of L.E.G.I.O.N. #31 also appears, though it really belongs in…
Section three (“The World’s Mightiest Mortal”) showcases the Marvel Family as part of the wider DC universe, including yet another Superman comic, and two more truncated stories (given DC’s recent actions, it makes the conspiracy theorist in me wonder if “excerpts” are a loophole to avoid paying royalties). But on the plus side, one of those excerpts at least came from Jeff Smith‘s enjoyable “Monster Society of Evil” miniseries. Those disappointing editorial choices, however, are balanced with 70 pages of strong Jerry Ordway/Peter Krause Power of Shazam! material. Such strong material, in fact, that I won’t even begrudge the fact that 1/3 of it was also reprinted in 2008’s Greatest Shazam! Stories Ever Told collection.
As for the final section, “The New 52”, well … you don’t really need to hear my take on that again. If you do, just reread the third paragraph above.
So all in all, what should have been a real celebration of the Marvel family was just an uneven collection that really didn’t impress me that much. While the book contained a good amount of wonderful material, I was disappointed by how many instances of Captain Marvel teaming up with Superman were featured, how much of the material (nearly one half) had already been collected in other recent trade editions, and by the weirdly truncated story segments. Especially when at the expense of including such quality uncollected stories as the little-seen Ordway/Parobeck story that appeared between the Power of Shazam! graphic novel and series, any classic Tawky Tawny story, or the Franco/Baltazar/Norton stories from Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! (sadly, the strongest part of that series, and the only part not collected in a trade). It really felt like DC didn’t give the good Captain the treatment he deserved. Which could also be said about the treatment of the character for most of 40+ years that DC has been his caretaker.
Still, this 75th anniversary year is not yet over, and DC can still end it on a high note. My suggestions: a high-quality hardcover of the original “Monster Society of Evil” serial, a second Showcase volume reprinting the little-seen Don Newton stories from World’s Finest and Adventure Comics, and/or a new ongoing Parker/Shaner classic Captain Marvel series!
Ball’s in your court, DC…