I have issues with American comics/graphic novels for a number of reasons. They tend to address a very narrow range of topics – mostly people in colorful suits battling crime and/or evil and/or each other. There’s nothing wrong with superhero comics, as a genre, but like many genres with entrenched fanbases and a fairly continuous, unbroken history stagnation is a real problem, with many of the tropes and stereotypes reinforcing one another until everything starts to look the same.
On top of that, most of the comics I’ve read seem to have forgotten that they are visual media, and attempt to tell most, if not all, of their story through captions, narration or dialog. While a certain amount of this is necessary, comics are a visual medium and must be told visually or they kind of loose the point. These two factors combine in some form or another to comprise most to all of my problems with the American comics industry.
Fortunately, there is the occasional title that comes out with enough fresh perspective, engaging characters and well used imagery to stand out from the crowd. One such title is Shazam!, a collection of shorts that ran in the Justice League comics for a time. I recently read the collection and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a good reinterpretation of a classic superhero origin in modern times.
This book does a lot right but I’ll just touch on a few things.
First, the art is great and does a lot to tell the story all on it’s own. People are expressive, poses are dynamic and there’s no jump from panel to panel that you simply cannot follow because of bad composition or poor blocking. It’s amazing how many comics, even those drawn by artists with perfectly fine technical skills, fail in the area of composition and loose readers simply because you’re not sure what’s happening from one panel to the next. That’s never a problem for this book.
Second, Shazam! chooses it’s tropes wisely. The two it ignores, which most stories of this flavor would try and include, are the trope of the overly tough hero and the trope of the heavily guarded secret identity. Both of these are avoided to the story’s great benefit.
A quick overview – Billy Batson is taken in by a foster family. He expects to be kicked right back out, just like he eventually was at all the other foster homes he’s been in, but the family works hard to make him feel at home and they make small inroads. Things take a turn for the weird when a wizard named Shazam takes Billy from off of a subway train and tests him for a good heart. He doesn’t find one – he hasn’t found one in the dozens of people he’s tested, but Billy points out that it’s pointless to look for a good heart among human beings and maybe Shazam should consider looking for the potential for a good heart instead.
The wizard takes Billy’s advice and finds such potential in Billy. Thus, Billy is entrusted with the Power of Shazam and the Living Lightning and winds up forced to battle his corrupt predecessor. With the help of the others in his forster family Billy defeats Black Adam and takes his rightful position as the Guardian of Magic in the DC universe.
Also, there are magical tigers. Trust me, it’s cool.
At it’s core, Shazam! is the story of how a damaged foster kid finds himself once more placed in a foster home which he has no expectations about. Billy’s a realistic kid – he’s been in the system a long time and he doesn’t expect much. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want a family, under all the layers of cynicism and disappointment, he just doesn’t expect one. At it’s heart, Billy’s struggle to find his place is well written human drama and neither takes over the story nor comes off as a cheap sugarcoating.
It also gives the story one of it’s greatest strengths.
At no point in the story does he try and hide the fact that he’s received the power of Shazam from his fellow foster kids. In fact, a lot of time is spent with Billy and his friend Freddy Freeman, exploring what Billy can do as Shazam and what they can do with those powers. Eventually the whole set of foster kids knows about them – the parents are left out only because the growing mess Billy’s new role as Shazam has created has separated them from their kids for a while. This dynamic, with Shazam having a bunch of people who know he’s got superpowers, lets the story explore a lot of ideas that normally never get any attention in comics.
For starters, there is the natural reaction and surprise at seeing Billy’s powers. But that’s gotten over fairly quickly, mostly because Billy is just as surprised at them as everyone else. Then there’s the phase where everyone is trying to figure out what it is Bill can do. Finally, everyone tries to pool resources to solve problems quickly and efficiently while keeping everyone in touch with each other and safe. It’s this last part that I feel most comics really fail at. We never see superheroes collaborating with normal people and sharing responsibilities. Even those who pay lip service to trying such a thing usually end up with the superhero doing everything on their own. But, perhaps in part because Billy is still young, a positive team dynamic rapidly coalesces and the story is both more engaging and more endearing for it.
The comradery among the characters, although not easy to come by, does help the book achieve it’s second major trope aversion. While his life in foster care has made him a hard case, Billy is by no means lacking emotional depth. We see his disappointment at previous failed foster situations, his extreme skepticism at his current foster family and simultaneously his nagging desire to be a part of this family create a meaningful personal conflict for Billy and it’s through that conflict, and the carefully balanced use of the rest of the cast, that we get a chance to see that depth.
Freddy, in particular, is a great foil to Billy’s attitude. Both have practical and self serving streaks that should make it hard for them to appreciate one another but, at the same time, they are the ones who show the most wonder and excitement when Billy is suddenly given superpowers and manage to form a solid bond. The moment they realize Billy can fly as Shazam is one of the best in the book.
Finally, I love the fact that Billy ultimately defeats Black Adam (Spoiler! Hero wins in superhero comic book!) because he is clever and courageous, not because he’s simply more powerful. Many superhero books let their protagonists win because they were more powerful or more determined or more cunning than their enemies. Billy ultimately gambles on courage and good character and I like the fact that he wins.
All in all, Shazam! is a superhero tale that has the trim and trappings of the modern day, that reflects our modern ills and attitudes, but still manages to be a superhero tale at heart. It’s worth at least one read.