“Billy Batson is trouble. But trouble is relative. For centuries, science has ruled the world. Now magic is returning. And an ancient, brutal evil with it. If the world is to survive the plague of horror on the horizon, Billy Batson must embrace his greatest wish. And learn his greatest lesson. Billy must become… Shazam!”
That is the narration at the beginning of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s introduction of Billy Batson to the New 52 universe. It’s a story that stirred up a bit of controversy while it was being released as backups in the New 52’s “Justice League” run, in particular among long-time fans of the franchise. With the production of the 2019 movie gaining speed, Shazam is suddenly on everyone’s mind.
Written by Geoff Johns
Illustrated by Gary Frank
Colored by Brad Anderson
Lettered by Nick Napolitano & Dezi Sienty
Young orphan Billy Batson has bounced from foster home to foster home, but he’s far from the ideal child. Brash and rude, Billy is a troubled teen that just can’t seem to find a calling. But after a fateful night on a subway car, that all will change.
Brought to the feet of the magical wizard Shazam at the Rock of Eternity, Billy is imbued with powers beyond any mortal man. By shouting the wizard’s name–Shazam!–the young teen is mystically transformed into the powerhouse known as Captain Marvel! Now given abilities that make him Earth’s Mightiest Mortal at the utterance of a simple phrase, will Billy make the right choices and do what it takes to become a hero? Or will he succumb to the poor choices of youth–and the villainous Black Adam!
Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, the team behind the New York Times #1 best-selling graphic novel BATMAN: EARTH ONE, unite to re-invent Captain Marvel as a part of DC Comics–The New 52. Collected here for the first time ever is the series of back-ups that ran in the pages of Johns’ critically acclaimed JUSTICE LEAGUE.
I have to say, as someone who is a long-time fan of the character: I actually really liked this book, even if it is flawed and see why people don’t like it.
The story follows two separate storylines: Doctor Sivana’s search for the legendary Rock of Eternity and a teenager named Billy Batson being adopted by a kind couple who have taken in several orphans. At first, it seems like quintessential Billy, a generally nice kid, always respectful to his elders and someone who would do no wrong. But, and this is where the fanbase snapped, looks could be deceiving. After the couple at the adoption center leave, we see how different this Billy Batson is from the pre-”Flashpoint” universe. Suddenly, he’s rude to the head of the center, cynical, and just in general the polar opposite of who he used to be.
This was the big problem a lot of people had with the story, that it so radically changed Billy Batson (and to a lesser degree Freddy Freeman, who is a bit more of a sneak and pickpocket in this interpretation). We see a Billy Batson who has gone through the ringer of the American foster care system and it hasn’t left him unscathed. It’s difficult not to see why. Prior to “Flashpoint”, Billy Batson served as an incredibly idealistic (and to a degree, idealized) character, even more so than Superman on occasion. It helped bring out the childlike wonder for the character’s world and offered a different and unique corner of the DC Universe.
So, needless to say, this Billy Batson is a bit different. However, I do disagree with those that say this Billy is a brat. Okay, I don’t: he is one, but there was a great deal of people that thought he was some irredeemable asshole which is not true. Johns does a good job of showing underneath this exterior Billy had to put up. There is kindness and the capacity to do good, such as the remorse he feels for yelling at one of his new foster siblings and his general dislike of bullies. We’ll talk about this more at the end, but it’s like a cocoon of cynicalness, and this story serves as Billy shedding that.Continued below
That “capacity to do good” is important because it is kind of the basis for how the Wizard chooses Billy after Sivana’s search leads him to the release of Black Adam, the former champion of the Rock of Eternity. The Wizard had been looking for someone completely pure of heart to take on the powers so the same mistakes with Black Adam wouldn’t be made now. Billy scoffs at the idea, thinking there aren’t good people, drawing from experiences. But the Wizard sees something in him and imbues him with the powers of Shazam, powers Billy invokes by saying the name with good intention.
We should get into Gary Frank’s work on the book. Design-wise, not much really changed on Shazam’s look with the exception of the white cape being more cloak-ish, including a hood. There was an emphasis on highlighting the more magical aspects of Shazam, perhaps to differentiate him from Superman. Black Adam follows similar designs, as do the other characters I’ll talk about down the way. The designs work well, but there’s is something with Frank’s art that needs to be discussed:
Gary Frank can’t draw a natural-looking kind smile. Now, Frank gets a lot of characters expressions down well, from anger, to deviousness, to remorse, to loneliness. But it’s whenever he has to draw a kind-hearted or warm smile where it feels just so . . . off. Whether it is Billy first using his powers, the expression is supposed to be one of awe, but it’s too stiff. Too creepy, honestly. What compounds it is Billy develops over the course of the book and does become a better person, but the facial expressions let it down too often.
An aspect Johns chose to expand on was the idea of “family.” It’s prevalent throughout the book with Billy being an orphan, being adopted, being “family” with Black Adam via their magic. “Family isn’t what it is, but what it can be,” is said several times. As such, the Shazam Family is expanded to include a multitude of Shazams. This was an idea Johns started in “Flashpoint” and incorporated into the idea Billy can share the powers with his siblings, not just Mary and Freddy, but new characters Eugene, Pedro, and Darla. If we’re being honest, we get the most introduction to Billy and Freddy here, some with Mary (shown to be the same good-hearted person as from the pre-reboot, but the older sibling of the group). As for Eugene, Pedro, and Darla, we get very brief tidbits of them, some that come off as stereotypical. Eugene, for instance, is Asian-American tech geek obsessed with getting good grades. Seriously, Geoff?
These problems, in fact, all the problems with this story, could have been resolved if it hadn’t been for my biggest criticism: the failure to commit. The final issue of this story came out in “Justice League” #21, way back in 2013. Johns and Frank provided a sandbox ripe with potential to build upon, as the end of “Shazam” vol. 1 shows. There is the relationships to be fostered between Billy and the rest of the kids, there’s Doctor Sivana meeting another classic “Shazam” villain Mister Mind, there’s Mary becoming more attuned to magic than everyone else, and more. But nothing came of it. DC failed to take advantage of what could have been it’s next big series when it was hot and now it’s 2017, it’s cooled down so much.
Like the saying of “Family is what it can be,” this volume shows all the potential of a long-running “Shazam” series could be. It introduced to the franchise premises and ideas that could’ve expanded into something special but whether it was time, energy, or change of direction, the trigger was never pulled. Maybe one day we can see a follow-up, but whether it will continue from here is the big question.