Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Shazam, Volume 1 Review (Geoff Johns, Gary Frank)

Billy Batson is a bratty orphan who meets a wizard on the subway, “reasons” his way into superpowers and becomes Shazam, a kind of magical Superman analogue. Black Adam is released from his mystical prison by Dr Sivana and raises the Seven Deadly Sins to destroy Shazam once and for all. 

Your reaction to this book depends on how you feel about the character. Did you like Billy Batson/Captain Marvel before the New 52? If so, you’ll probably hate this version where Billy’s gone from being a kind-hearted kid to a whiny twerp you want to clobber. If, like me, you didn’t care about pre-New 52 Billy Batson, this one won’t offend you outright but, because New 52 Billy Batson is so unlikeable, you’re not going to root for him either. 

The story reads a lot like a pilot episode to a CW show. Billy’s foster family is cynically made up of kids from every demographic so it’s like a marketing team constructed the cast. You’ve got a hot white girl who may as well be wearing a badge saying “Billy’s love interest”, a Latino, a black, an Asian, and a disabled kid – together they are the Bizarrely Politically Correct Family! There are two bad guys – Black Adam and the angry rich white guy. The rich dude is, of course, the father of the spoilt kids who beat up Billy’s new brothers and sisters and rants and raves like a cartoon bad guy. “I’m rich, I’m better than everyone, do what I say police officer, blah blah terrible dialogue etc.”. 

Black Adam is his usual charming self, smashing everything in sight while sneering at everyone. Though he does take a look at people protesting against the banks, fly into the top of a skyscraper, and throw a banking exec out the window, so he’s not all bad. He does seem to spend a lot of time waiting for Shazam to show up and little else, so his whole story arc is pretty contrived. 

Gary Frank’s art is by far the best part of the book. Every page is really well drawn and I loved the stuff in the magic cave but Shazam’s shoes? I don’t know what he was thinking – are those magic glow-in-the-dark plasters? Anyways, this is still a great looking book. 

Johns’ script isn’t terrible but it is very basically written as if this is aimed at pre-teens. You can easily follow the story and understand motivations but it still reads as a very dumbed down superhero story in the end. None of the characters are especially memorable or well written and Batson himself remains an obnoxious jerk. As for the wizard himself, he’s written as a complete imbecile. When Batson, a 15 year old rude-boy, can out-reason a millennia-old entity with teenage “wisdom”, you’re doing a disservice to the character and creating a laughably simplistic origin story. 

I’ve never read a Shazam book before so I can’t compare it to anything but for what this was, it was fine. It was a decent origin for Shazam that I was never bored with while reading – I didn’t love the characters but Johns’ script keeps things moving quickly and Frank’s art make the book a delight to read. I’m getting a little tired of the notion that for 21st century audiences to “buy” a classic superhero character, you need to revamp them so that they’re “edgy” and “dark” – it’s just too cynical an approach at this point – but Johns has done this to lesser effect elsewhere (like Justice League/Aquaman) and I was expecting Shazam to be a lot worse than it turned out to be.

Shazam! Volume 1

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