In today’s Chronicles of Shazam, we look back to the first team affiliation for the Big Red Cheese, but we also see how quickly he was put out to pasture.
Written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis
Penciled by Kevin Maguire
Inked by Terry Austin and Al Gordon
Colored by Gene D’Angelo
Lettered by Bob Lappan
In the wake of a world crisis, a new generation of the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes takes center stage. But it’s the most unlikely grouping of heroes you’ll ever see! Batman, Blue Beetle, Martian Manhunter, Guy Gardner, Black Canary, Mister Miracle, Dr. Fate, Booster Gold, Doctor Light, and the power of Shazam! Can this ragtag group work as a functioning unit to stop terrorists at the United Nations, a brigade of Rocket Reds, the Royal Flush Gang, the mysterious Gray Man, and other threats — or will they succumb to in-fighting and bad jokes?
This is the beginning of a rightly adored run, perhaps the most beloved “Justice League” series of all time. It is interesting to see how much of the tone is established from the beginning, but it is also really interesting to see what changed from here to the more fully formed stories of just a few months later. One of the elements that was quickly eschewed was Captain Marvel’s membership, which is renounced at the end of “Justice League International” #7 without much fanfare.
With his membership initiated at the end of “Legends,” Cap is more or less portrayed by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis consistently from what we saw in both that series and “Shazam! The New Beginning.” His childlike attitude and naiveté were a natural foil to the loudmouth Guy Gardner, and the two clash quite a bit, with Gardner bestowing the ‘Captain Whitebread’ nickname to Billy. Gardner clashes with just about everyone on the team, so his dislike of Billy isn’t exactly notable.
In fact, aside from Gardner, Cap doesn’t have too many meaningful interactions with his fellow team members. Part of this is due to the fact that, especially in the first five issues, Gardner really dominates the pages. Not in terms of import, but his personality is just so big that it’s almost how the issues are formatted: event occurs, Gardner weighs in, others disagree, plot takes shape. Most of the characters, including Cap, do get nice moments, but few get the spotlight the way Guy does.
This is also at a time where the dynamics of the League are very much in flux. Between Maxwell Lord’s interference, the UN designation that comes with issue #7, and the post-“Crisis” status quo shift, this isn’t the tight-knit League of old. So, the other members likely aren’t aware that Captain Marvel is really a tween in Superman’s body, and so don’t really ‘get’ him in the way that a team a few years later would.
The two arcs that make up these issues are really interesting, especially when viewed through today’s lens. There’s a lot of political intrigue, talk of behind the scenes puppet masters, favorable press coverage, and shady, backdoor deals. The innocence of Billy plays off of this a little bit, but would’ve likely been a more interesting perspective in the future. Between super right wing war hawk Guy Gardner, (at the time radical) feminist Dinah Lance, aloof observer Martian Manhunter, and distrusting Batman, Billy’s child’s morality would’ve been an interesting piece of the team’s morality.
Kevin Maguire is still churning out great work, but he really made his bones with this run, and it’s hard to argue with why. His work is incredibly expressive, and he manages to find a nice balance between the wildly different tones of the various characters. His Batman isn’t as confined to the shadows as others’ versions, but there’s an element of discomfort in his appearances in public. Relevant to our interests, his Captain Marvel is every bit as barrel-chested and Golden Age clean cut as we’ve come to expect, but he also adds a subtle hint of unease and fear in his action sequences.
Maguire shines when really exploring a character, so it is somewhat lamentable that he only got seven issues with Cap, but he makes the most of his time here. Again, the way Maguire mixes the various characters’ tones is really impressive, and he and Giffen and DeMatteis clearly knew how to use Cap in this context, which makes his short-lived tenure even more of a bummer.Continued below
Captain Marvel’s reason for leaving the team is chalked up to “I barely know myself, and while I appreciate the opportunity, I think I need to work on me a bit.” This seems, to me, in direct competition with his attitude and origin at this point. There are lots of cases of characters deciding they need to spend more time with their family/friends/at school, etc, but Billy really has none of that, aside from Uncle Dudley. You’d think an orphan who is new to this hero thing would want to both build himself a new family and learn how to better use his powers, both of which would be well served in the League.
Or, maybe have him feel unworthy and/or unprepared? Sure, that can work, but that’s not really presented here, either. It seemed like a lame attempt to free him up for more solo stories, which is fine, but why couldn’t he, like Batman, do both? I know this is a different time for characters and their team affiliations, but in 18 months or so, Wally West will join the team, despite having his own title.
Regardless, this is the last time that Cap would be a regular member of a team for a very long time. Next week, we’ll look at his solo stories in “Action Comics Weekly,” which were suppose to be (another) backdoor pilot to an ongoing series. See ya then.