Friday, July 25, 2014

Ranking the Shazam Reboots

As we wait for an imminent announcement at Comic-Con regarding the Shazam! movie, let's take a look back at the multiple reboots of the Big Red Cheese since DC acquired the character from Fawcett.

Shazam! (the 1970s series).
DC revives the original Captain Marvel.
What it got right: The look and tone of the original Fawcett stories.  C.C. Beck was the artist on the first several issues, and after a few fill ins by Bob Oksner, Fawcett alumni Kurt Schaffenberger took over.  The stories by Denny O'Neil, Elliot S! Maggin, and E. Nelson Bridwell captured the more humorous Fawcett style.  Towards the end, E. Nelson Bridwell did a great job incorporating aspects of the live action Filmation TV series into the book.
What it got wrong: The scripts stayed in the humorous vein. Humor was just one facet of the Fawcett material, but DC chose not to go for more serious adventure.
Final analysis: Even though it concentrated too much on humor, it still seemed like a golden age comic produced in a bronze age era, and that was a good thing.  It's still my favorite DC Captain Marvel series.

World's Finest.
A "dynamic new look" and direction rather than a true reboot, had Bridwell writing more serious stories, and Don Newton bringing the art style up to date in the bronze age.
What it got right: Bridwell hit his stride with the scripts.  They still had some humor, but adventure was now front and center. Newton did a great job bringing the Marvel Family's art style up to date. Al Weiss and Gil Kane also contributed some excellent art in this era.  Kane, in particular, really was able to mix the classic Beck look with bronze age definition.
What it got wrong: DC cancelled Shazam! and moved the feature to the back of World's Finest, suffocating any chance the new direction had to gain a wider fan base.
Final Analysis: Even though it was set on Earth-S, this really was what a main continuity Earth-1 Captain Marvel could have and should have been.

Shazam The New Beginning.
After the Crisis on Infinite Earths, Earth-S was no more, and Captain Marvel was reborn in the unified DC Universe.
What it got right: A streamlined approach.  I'm an Uncle Dudley guy, so I really liked how Dudley was a major part of the story. Roy Thomas' script can be overdone with dialogue and narration, but having Billy be the narrator implies he may have been telling the story to his listeners on station WHIZ.  Thomas brought the story up to date, while still avoiding making it too topical, and therefore quickly outdated.
What it got wrong: The art by Tom Mandrake. Completely wrong artist for this project.  Gil Kane should have been the artist. A little too streamlined in that Sivana and Ebenezer Batson were consolidated into one character.  Magnificus could have been omitted. Perhaps a little too dark and grim. For the first time, Captain Marvel retains Billy's personality.  While Thomas did it better than most, this would ultimately be Captain Marvel's biggest downfall.
Final Analysis: This version scores big points with me for its use of Uncle Dudley. This is the version of Captain Marvel adapted for the Young Justice animated series, which became one of the more popular versions of the character.  What killed this reboot was two things. Mandrake's art.  And Thomas' radical plans for Mary and Freddy.  Mary Marvel was to be unrelated to Billy, a girl named Spike Bromfield, a punk rocker who is hinted at doing some prostitution, and was to become Billy/Cap's love interest.  Freddy was to be portrayed as an African-American in a wheelchair.

Power of Shazam.
After DC stalled until Thomas' contract expired, there were pitches by Michael Eury (who wanted to focus on the child celebrity aspect of Billy) and Alex Ross (who wanted to keep the entire Fawcett continuity intact, just transplanted to the modern day), and a false start by John Byrne (who wanted to mix Oliver Twist set in an Anton Furst inspired Fawcett City). Ultimately it fell to Jerry Ordway to reboot Captain Marvel for the post-Zero Hour continuity.
What it got right: The look and the tone. Fawcett City was a 1950s art deco utopia. The series had the right balance of humor and adventure.  Showed some inspiration from the classic 1941 Adventures of Captain Marvel movie serial. Ordway was able to keep things traditional and still up date it for the modern audience.
What it got wrong: Ordway portrayed Billy as a whiny brat.  Therefore Captain Marvel had a whiny brat personality.  This is the thing fans complained about the most on the old DC Message Boards, even years after the series was cancelled. Ordway also made Sivana something of a Luthor clone millionaire businessman, although by the end of the graphic novel, he is penniless.  Sometimes Ordway got a little too trendy for his own good, such as renaming Captain Marvel Jr "CM3".  Perhaps embellished Billy's back story too much with the Batson parents and relatives. I loathed how Dudley was portrayed, an alcoholic school janitor. Put too much emphasis on Black Adam, something that would come to do damage to any chance Captain Marvel would have of developing a new fanbase. Later in the run, the wizard Shazam started getting too many storylines. Bottom line, Ordway was a much better artist than a writer, while Peter Krause, who took over the art chores after the graphic novel, wasn't as good as Ordway.
Final Analysis: The first 12 issues are great, but the quality of the scripts drop off considerably after that. In hindsight, it would have been for the best if after issue 12, Ordway was moved to doing the artwork and contributing some plots, and a different writer, like Mark Waid, was brought in.  Sales would have had a better chance of increasing, and when Ordway left DC for Marvel Comics in 1999, instead of cancelling the series, DC could have brought in a new artist, like Mike Wieringo, who expressed interest in drawing the title.

Alex Ross.
After Ordway's series was cancelled, Ross, now a comics superstar, was able to show the World's Mightiest Mortal some respect, with Shazam: Power of Hope and Justice.
What it got right: Everything. Ross' Captain Marvel is perfect. Ross' Billy is youthful, but not a whiny brat.
What it got wrong: Nothing. Ross' Captain Marvel is perfect.
Final Analysis: This is the best DC portrayal of Captain Marvel ever.  With the exception of E. Nelson Bridwell, no one else has come close to equaling Ross' version.

First Thunder.
A miniseries written by Judd Winick and drawn by Josh Middleton that was a revisionist take on the early days of Captain Marvel, and his first encounter with Superman.
What it got right: Went into more detail about Billy living homeless on the streets. Billy wasn't a whiny brat, but was sympathetic and likable.  Captain Marvel was portrayed quite good. The art had a nice anime quality to it.
What it got wrong: Sivana is even more of a Luthor clone than he was in Power of Shazam. Captain Marvel seemed to be too much in awe of Superman.
Final Analysis: A great story, but it treads on the idea Captain Marvel is Superman's protege, a concept that would also be used in the Superman/Shazam: Return of Black Adam animated DVD.

Trials of Shazam.
In the Dan Didio era, a mandate was made to make changes to the Shazam feature. Alex Ross pitched an idea where an older, Michael Gray-esque Billy loses the ability to trigger his powers, and the ordeal he goes through to regain it.  Captain Marvel would be portrayed leaner and Jackson Bostwick-esque.  Didio rejected it, and assigned Judd Winick to write a miniseries with a similar yet different theme.
What it got right: Nothing at all. Most fans agree this is the worst example of the DC Captain Marvel ever put to paper.
What it got wrong: Everything. Captain Marvel was promoted to Wizard, taking the name "Marvel", and altering his costume to include long white hair and a ridiculous hoodie (which would reappear in Curse of Shazam). Freddy (often misspelled as "Freddie") gets promoted to the main hero, after going through a series of trials, now called "Shazam", although DC ended up referring to him as "Captain Marvel" a lot. Mary lost her powers, but was able to siphon off Black Adam's power, and she becomes an Emo/Goth naughty girl in a tiny black dress that offers lots of upskirt shots.
Final Analysis: Garbage.  A total waste.

Monster Society of Evil.
After the disaster of Trials, focus was shifted to an out-of continuity version by Jeff Smith, originally planned as part of the "All Star" imprint, but published after the imprint folded.
What it got right: Billy and Captain Marvel are given separate personalities.  Despite the child like quality to the material, Smith still gives us a serious and grim look at Billy's homeless life on the streets.  Despite the liberties and updating Smith made, it still has more of a Fawcett quality to it than most other DC efforts. After suffering through Captain Marvel making juvenile remarks (New Beginning) and throwing a bratty temper tantrum (Power of Shazam), it was great to see an origin sequence where Billy is in awe and wonder about what is happening to him.
What it got wrong: It establishes Billy and Captain Marvel are two completely separate beings. Billy and Mary are a little too young.  Mr Tawny is given a human form, essentially becoming what Uncle Dudley should be. Tawny is a character that works better in smaller doses, and here he is overused. Sivana is again mirroring Luthor, who was president at this time, by being the US attorney general.  Smith's writing has some great moments, but is also uneven and clunky in spots and his super hero style of drawing isn't as fluid and slick as it should be for a project like this.
Final Analysis:  A good step in the right direction, but it still stumbles.

Billy Batson and The Magic of Shazam.
A semi-sequel semi-reboot to the Jeff Smith miniseries.  Published as an all-ages title under the "Johnny DC" imprint.
What it got right: Billy and Captain Marvel are once again the same being. Once Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani took over the writing with issue #5, the series started gaining traction, and became a rare occurrence where it kept getting better with each passing issue. Mike Norton, who took over the art chores with issue #13, was excellent, and Stephen DeStefano's sole issue, # 6, is arguably the best issue of the series.
What it got wrong: Captain Marvel has Billy's personality.  Mary is given a tiring chatterbox personality. The first four issues were by Mike Kunkle and were on a pre-school level. After Kunkle, Bryan Vaughns took over as artist, and was still a very childish art style.
Final Analysis: Despite a slow start, at a time when there was no other Captain Marvel comics being published, this became the de facto series, even though it was on the "Johnny DC" imprint. It filled that role nicely, and was cancelled too prematurely.
Sidenote: It could be said this version of the continuity has, in fact, continued, albeit in the far future, in Justice League Beyond, a digital first series, that is collected in the pages of the monthly title Batman Beyond Universe as well as its own Justice League Beyond trade paperbacks.

Curse of Shazam.
The "New 52" reboot, which replaces the original Captain Marvel with a similar character called Shazam.
What it got right: Having reviewed this series in depth , it got very little right.  It added some cinematic touches, like how the wizard abducted many prospects for the power before finding Billy, and gave Capt... er, Shazam some unique lightning based powers.
What it got wrong: A lot. Geoff Johns tinkered needlessly with so many aspects, like radically changing Sivana, trying to ground the story in reality, building Billy's character to have an edge, but at the end of the day, it has the same inherent problem:  as soon as Billy turns into Capt... er, Shazam, everything goes out the window, and we are back to the same old, tired concept of adult Capt... er, Shazam acting like a goofy, semi-retarded 12 year old.
Final Analysis:  As long as DC remains stubbornly committed to the idea of the adult hero acting like a goofy kid, it will always fail... and if they go that direction with the movie, it, too, will be an epic fail, guaranteed.


Daniel said...

I generally agree with your assessments.

I would rate "The New Beginning" a bit higher than you do (I like that Ebenezer and Sivana were streamlined into one character, and I actually didn't mind Tom Mandrake's artwork).

I would probably rate "Monster Society of Evil" a bit lower than you did (I really wanted to like it but the artwork was a real turnoff and having Captain Marvel and Billy Batson be two completely distinct characters was just too weird for me).

I'm a bit more forgiving of "Curse" just because Gary Frank's artwork was so beautiful. I was really turned off by the Shazam Family introduction at the end. I was never a huge fan of the family concept associated with the character, but that said it was too soon to introduce all those other characters.

I miss Don Newton. I wasn't crazy about the Birdwell stories, but Newton's artwork was drop dead gorgeous.

"Power" was a huge disappointment. I've tried reading it three of four times but it's just so bland and uninspired.

Alex Ross draws a beautiful Captain Marvel but I found the Paul Dini scripts for all of those Treasury Editions to be a little too preachy for my tastes.

I have great affection for the 1970s "Shazam!" series, but looking back objectively, it wasn't very good.

I skipped all the Judd Winnich series so I can't comment on those.

I read the first couple of issues of "Magic" but it was clearly written for a very young audience, so I don't feel qualified to evaluate it. It clearly wasn't for me but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I like Mike Kunkle's artwork in small doses but his overly stylize approach just didn't work for me on this one.

I REALLY wish that John Byrne had been able to do his series in 1991. Having seen some of the early development sketches (and the two or three pages that he actually drew) as well as reading about his premise for the series, I think it could have been the best thing that DC has done with the character (even with Byrne's tendency for clunky dialogue). Kinda bummed that DC's short-term thinking at the time (Captain Marvel had to live in the DC Universe; there couldn't be a second non-continuity version) killed this one.

Shazamaholic said...

Daniel, you made some good points.

I agree Dini's script for "Power of Hope" was not a typical superhero script, but have you read Ross' "Justice" (no involvement from Dini)? I believe he really captured the character(s) of Captain Marvel and Billy Batson perfectly in that one.

Byrne's take would have been interesting to see. I would have also have liked to see Eury's take, where he was supposed to really showcase the idea of Billy as a popular child celebrity due to his gig on station WHIZ (which Eury planned to revisualize as a Disney Channel/Nickelodeon type nationwide cable channel). That's an aspect most of the modern reboots have either ignored completely or brushed off as an afterthought.