Seven years after his last origin story, Captain Marvel gets the full-on origin story in Jerry Ordway’s “The Power of Shazam.” This will also serve as the pilot for the ongoing series of the same name, which would continue the story for nearly 4 years. After seven installments of The Chronicles of Shazam, we are finally getting something resembling the character having an active role in the DCU.
Written, illustrated, and colored by Jerry Ordway
Lettered by John Costanza
Presents the adventures of Billy Batson and the origin of Captain Marvel.
First thing’s first: this origin completely undoes everything from “Shazam: The New Beginning.” That origin is rendered entirely moot, as Ordway decides to streamline as much as he can into one tight story. That’s not to say that Roy and Dann Thomas’s version was bloated, because it certainly wasn’t. But this somehow expands on everything that the Thomases did, without it feeling more stuffed.
This also does away with any attempt to update the story for ‘modern’ times; while there is no indication that this story takes place in the past, Fawcett City is presented as a 1930s metropolis, down to the cars and the child selling papers in the street. But those stylistic choices are not about setting the book in the past, but rather just giving Fawcett, and the characters here, something to differentiate them from everything else in the DCU.
It is very interesting to compare this to “The New Beginning,” as they seemingly had two very different mandates. “Power” is all about crafting the definitive Captain Marvel origin, whereas “The New Beginning” is all about updating it for modern times. It is that push and pull that has been a problem with Shazam books since…well, I suppose since DC acquired the license in the 70s. This title seems content to give Cap his own little corner of the DC Universe, whereas “The New Beginning” was trying to fully integrate him into the DCU.
But taken on its own, removed from any intent or context, “The Power of Shazam” is an incredibly effective origin story. It gives us enough of Billy to get a sense of who he is, but it never overdoses on the sentimentality or ‘aww shucks’ charm that can sometimes make the character seem a little lame when mishandled. It introduces a lot in the span of its 96 pages: we meet Billy, Mary, the Batson parents, Dr. Sivana, Black Adam, Dudley, and the Wizard. It also gives Billy a practical reason to want to keep being Captain Marvel outside of the kiddie fantasy of it.
I want to highlight a few things about the book, with the most important being the artwork by Ordway. Ordway’s painted pages are absolutely gorgeous, and don’t suffer from appearing too posed or stiff. The comic has a natural flow that works well in conjunction with the old fashioned stylings and the deep, layered colors. This looks and feels an awful lot like a vintage Hollywood adventure film, helped by the Batsons’ classic good looks and Egyptian setting.
The biggest change from the classic origins is the role of Black Adam. Here, Adam is, much like Billy, a human who can transform in and out of magic hero mode, which is a major change for the post-Crisis continuity of the character. There is also a scarab that he must possess to be able to access his powers, adding another obstacle between ‘normal’ Adam and Black Adam. If we’re being honest, I think this is the worst part of the book, and seems like a somewhat lazy excuse to bring Black Adam into the story earlier and make him responsible for the Batsons’ deaths in a more organic way. I understand the impulse, but it doesn’t make Black Adam the fearsome, but also weirdly moral villain we’ve seen so many other places. Perhaps that will change once the ongoing begins.
There are a few other twists to the typical Shazam stories here, although some of them have been picked up elsewhere. Two of them involve Billy’s father. Here, much like in “Kingdom Come,” it shows the familial resemblance between Billy and Captain Marvel, with Cap the spitting image of Billy’s dad. The other is using Billy’s dad’s ghost (spirit?) as the medium between Billy and the Wizard. It is his dad’s spirit that leads Billy into the subway, something only revealed at the end, but pretty heavily hinted at throughout the entire book.
The book ends with the future wide open for Billy, as he is now on the hunt for Mary, Sivana ruined, and Black Adam behind bars. I’m not exactly sure how closely the ongoing picks up from here, or even follows the same continuity to a tee. But I’m very excited to start in on that next week.