Sunday, December 18, 2011

Jerry Ordway's "Power of Shazam" (1995-1999)

One thing that surprised and amused me about the Jerry Ordway "Power of Shazam" series were the surprising number of jokes built around incest-related misunderstandings, to the point it reminded me of a slightly more innocent version of "Arrested Development."

When Mary Broomfield (really Mary Batson) disappeared for days at a time with Billy Batson, there was a joke about how the suspicion is the two eloped and ran away together. And someone points out an entirely logical theory about the Marvel Family the general public might have: it is often assumed Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel are married and Captain Marvel, Jr. is really their son.

Another running gag in "Power of Shazam!" is centered around another squirm-inducing premise that's perfectly in keeping with the "how'd they get away with that?" Arrested Development sense of humor: Captain Marvel, as a boy in the body of an older superhero, has aggressive older women throw themselves at him. This always results in awkwardness on the part of the poor Captain, but the crazy part is, only at first. By the final year of the series…he actually starts to like it!

Gee, I wonder why that could be.

There are a few things I like about the 1995-1999 series.

One desperately needed key difference between CM and Superman: Billy Batson's powers come from the wizard Shazam, and the wizard Shazam can take them away if Batson goofs off with them. Also, Shazam can do things like wake Batson up at four in the morning to take care of a crisis.

It does have a few weaknesses, however. One is plotting, in that a lot of the long-term plot threads have resolutions that I either missed or don't make any sense. A big plot point: Mr. Tawky Tawny is a stuffed tiger doll who is able to come to life and give advice to Mary. The story takes a somewhat mysterious/sinister turn when Tawky Tawny tells Mary the wizard Shazam didn't send him, and that she shouldn't tell Shazam he's able to come to life.

Kids? Never trust an adult who says "let's keep this our little secret." Danger, Will Robinson!

I was very excited by this development, because Tawky Tawny is one of those characters Captain Marvel historians – who in general have a way higher tolerance for Casper/Richie Rich/Wendy Witch type kiddie stuff than I do – specifically finger Tawny as the shark jump point for CM's classic era. The guy is, in short, Captain Marvel's version of Jar-Jar Binks and Scrappy Doo…even by the terrifyingly low standards of occasionally nostalgia-blinded classic Captain Marvel devotees.

I expected them to deconstruct the character a little. Remember how it turned out a megalomaniac Scrappy-Doo was really the villain of the Scooby-Doo movie? To my mind, that's the only way to do something like Alvin and the Chipmunks in live action, have them be malevolent little imps whispering evil thoughts to Dave Seville, and when he isn't around they assume their "true forms."

Alas, the resolution to this plot makes no sense, because when you ultimately learn exactly what Tawny is, there's no real reason for him to have hidden his identity from Shazam.

Another plot thread resolved to absolute confusion is Ebenezer Batson's son, who, if I'm keeping track correctly, was mind-controlled simultaneously by Sivana, the Devil, space invader worms, and a Dick Tracy crime queen (not making this up).

I do appreciate the attempts to try to connect the Marvel Family with DC's continuity, and the other Fawcett heroes specifically. For instance, remember the long-standing Superman enemies Blaze and Satanus going all the way back to Marv Wolfman's tenure on the book in the early eighties? The ones who played a big role in, among other things, Death of Superman? Well, turns out they're actually demonic twin children of the wizard Shazam!

It was a treat to see an old school talent as enormous like Curt Swan doing the flashback stories to World War II with Spysmasher and Bulletman fighting Captain Nazi. Nobody paid attention to this series because Ordway only did the covers; the interior pencils were done by Guy-With-A-Familiar-Name.

It was even more of a delight to see all these Fawcett guys show up in a book as supporting cast. It made the Marvel book feel bigger and more peopled, and gave the book a stronger sense of identity. "Power of Shazam" was about the entire Fawcett corner of the DC Universe.

At one point, the wizard Shazam even briefly retires, leaving his duties in the hand of Fawcett character Ibis the Invincible. Incidentally, Ibis happens to be the only Golden Age character I can think of who has after his original appearances, was since presented as a non-Caucasian.

Another big problem with the series? There was no "Sivana" story. In 46 issues, there was really no tale where Sivana was the main villain where we see why the guy's an interesting baddie. Considering there was a whole story arc around Mr. Atom, I have a hard time believing this.

I always had the feeling Mary Marvel makes a heck of a lot more sense in the Spanish-speaking world, where, considering how common the name "Maria" is, a "Maria Marvel" would hardly be a dead giveaway as to her identity. The name Mary isn't as common as it used to be, at least among the non-Irish. These days, if she wanted to be incognito, she'd have to be called "Jennifer Marvel."

There was a lot of resistance to the idea of Mary Marvel's corruption by Black Adam a couple years back. Actually I think it's a rather interesting idea, and one that can actually make Mary grow and be a different character at the start than at the end.

And this was also the greatest gift ever given to cosplay girls.

I don't agree with the objections but I understand why people make them. In fact, the writers should have anticipated that very reaction, if they were at all in tune with how fans think: the fan-boy overprotectiveness of female characters.

Here's an example of what I mean: remember that slimy creep Terry Long, an older chest hair and gold chain wearing community college professor divorcee who oozed and sleazed his way into the heart of Wonder Girl with Saturday Night Live quotes?

Reading Teen Titans, I kept on waiting for a plot twist that just never came.

I can totally understand why they felt the urge to have someone like Terry Long in Teen Titans, who is just a regular guy. One of my problems with X-Men is, nobody anywhere is ever really "normal." Even Nightcrawler's girlfriend turned out to be some kind of sorceress.

But fans didn't like Terry Long because he was not only an annoying creep, he was marrying Wonder Girl. This kind of reaction didn't happen when the Vision and the Scarlet Witch or Green Arrow and Black Canary got married, since both the Vision and Ollie were heroes, worthy of their respective women. Notice Steve Trevor hasn't really returned in Wonder Woman continuity.

And look at how Spider-Fans get ludicrously jumpy about the virginity of Gwen Stacy. We care more about the guys she's dated than her father probably did!

Thus, a savvy editor should have shut the idea down, even if it might have resulted in a great story, the same way editors shut down interesting but problematic proposed stories like the one where Daredevil became mayor of New York or Bill Mantlo's idea in the 1980s for Spider-Man to have an illegitimate baby.

Here's another piece of advice I have for writers who want to do Captain Marvel in the future: don't listen to the Captain Marvel die-hards like Erik Larsen. What, you think they'll be grateful to you for doing anything with Captain Marvel? Ha!

The reason it's pointless is this: Captain Marvel, unlike Superman and Batman, was denied continuous publication. If you look at the stories told in say, Superman in the late 1940s, they were very similar to Captain Marvel stories, with Superman fighting bad guys who were practical joke themed. However, Superman was continually published, and eventually the practical joke baddies disappeared, replaced by a kind of science fiction epic grandeur that drew from space opera which reached a high point in the Schwartz years.

The Legion of Super-Heroes started off as an Otto Binder-style cute gimmick story. Would you have believed it if I were to tell you they'd one day be the subjects of grandiose, epic space stories like Earthwar and Great Darkness?

Because the only image we have of CM is from the Bad Old Days, unlike Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, our very definition of what makes CM who he is comes with the demand his stories be "wacky."

What's more, since the 1960s and Marvel comics (the other Marvel comics), there's been the requirement characterization and consistent continuity will be a part of any comic, just like there's the requirement every movie made since the 1920s will have sound and every movie made since the 1950s will be made in color and widescreen: these things are a non-negotiable expectation.

Ask any comics fan you want, or even members of the general public on the street, what the appeal is in Captain Marvel, and they'll tell you it's all about a kid who gets to be an adult superhero by saying the magic word. It's the "hook" the entire character is built around.

But ask die-hards like Erik Larsen and he'll tell you a different answer. Captain Marvel is a totally different person from Billy Batson! And anyone who says he's a kid in the body of an adult doesn't understand the idea at all!

Do hardcore Captain Marvel fans think it's really that important that CM be a different person from Billy? Consider the disturbing implications of that. It means when not summoned the Captain really exists in some negative zone. What if Captain Marvel wants to stay on earth, or falls in love? He's entitled to a life. It also means Billy is not really important at all: he's just a "bottle" Captain Marvel is stored in. Captain Marvel's heroism, courage and resourcefulness doesn't really come from Billy because they're different people. Anybody could be Captain Marvel.

Alan Moore's Miracleman showed the horror potential in very powerful heroes, and even used the notion of separate people to create chills. Miracleman had a contempt for his ordinary identity and said "I don't trust Mike Moran in a crisis." If you want to make Captain Marvel creepy, this is the perfect way to do it.

Why do types like Larsen say something like this? As a Superman fan, and someone with experience with the worst kind of Superman fan, I can provide an answer. A lot of Superman fans, in opposition to the now-undone Byrne/Helfer reboot of 1986, made a big point about how in every past version of the character, is actually Superman that is the true identity and Clark Kent that is the disguise.

That was just never true, though, even before the reboot: many writers had different opinions on the matter, and one famous Maggin/Bates story insisted triumphantly and explicitly Superman was both Superman and Clark Kent. Heck, Schwartz-writer Len Wein even insisted that it was Superman who was the put-up job, not Kent.

The reason classic Superman fans say this is not because it's true or accurate, but because of contrariness that leads them to misrepresent what they're defending. Know how lots of Superman fans demand the return of Super-Pets? Then you have the emphasis on the Lieutenant Marvels, who only had appearances that could be counted on the one hand of a wood shop teacher who raises piranha. This isn't nostalgia, because nostalgia is something you feel for something remembered fondly, impossible in the case of such negligible nonentities. The reason they're big on the pets is because they piss off what they imagine modern age fans are like. In short, contrarianism.

I must admit, I've seen fans be contrary, but to negate the entire hook of a character just to be oppositional to the modern age is really breathtaking.

Get it? They will literally never be satisfied ever with anything you do for all these reasons. There is no point in second-guessing yourself, no point in wondering if you might produce something that would please older classic Captain Marvel fans. Their voices can be ignored and discounted because their demands are not reasonable.


David said...

Captain Marvel puts creators in a very awkward position; how do you trade on the fame of a character while simultaneously avoiding everything that got him famous in the first place? Everyone knows who Cap is, which makes him a natural choice for his own title. But everyone also seems to agree that he's corny and antiquated, so Job 1 is to reinvent him. Then when that reinvention doesn't work, you try another one. After a while, there's nothing left but a guy in a red suit who flies and punches stuff; a poor man's Superman. DC should just leave him on the shelf.

Having said that, I really enjoyed Ordway's run, until I lost interest. Not sure when that was, but I don't recognize the Blaze cover, so it must have been before that.

Larsen isn't the only reader to get the impression Cap and Billy are different people, and reviewing the body of GA tales, it's never really clear what the deal is. Sometimes it seems Cap is a grown-up Billy, other times they refer to each other as different beings, and the "narrator" muddies the water even further. Possibly this is due to multiple writers not being in agreement? I'm guessing Roy Thomas thought they were different guys, too, since he went that way with Rick Jones and Mar-Vell during his run on the *other* Cap's book (sticking one in the Neg Zone while the other was on Earth).

If you go that way, then no Cap doesn't "deserve a life of his own," because he didn't even exist until the first time Billy said "Shazam." He is a construct, a mystical golem fashioned by the wizard with no childhood, no parents, no life unless he's "on duty." If Superman is Samson, Billy is Aladdin and Cap the genie.

But then, as you say, who needs Billy at all, except as Cap's "Keeper," the guy in charge of deciding when to call him to action? And how much heroism does that take? Then Billy's just a glorified Jimmy Olsen, getting into scrapes and calling his pal with a word instead of a watch. And even Cap isn't a hero, since he's just a tool at Billy's command; calling him a hero would be like calling Batman's utility belt a hero.

On the other hand, what kid -- given the ability to grow up at the mere utterance of a word -- would chose to go back to being a kid again? In a way, it works to have Cap be a separate character because he would know he has no right to take Billy's place on Earth when Billy is the real person. Thus he'd "Shazam" himself away for the same reason he does everything else; that's how he was programmed when Shazam created him.

I guess my point is it doesn't work from any angle, at least for me. I'm only able to enjoy those stories for the same tihngs that drive you nuts; the silly charm. Try to apply logic and it's an unholy mess.

As for Terry Long, I don't think it was "overprotective" for readers to want to save Donna from Wolfman's "Mary Sue" stand-in Terry Long. It was beyond creepy to watch a writer try to vicariously get into the pants of one of his own characters.

Eduardo M. said...

Have either of you seen the way Captain Marvel is portrayed in the new You ng Justice cartoon? They seem to fall into the camo that Marvel/Billy are the same person. In fact, even embarassingly so.

On the subject of Terry Long, I saw that when he got killed writers haven't rushed to bring him back. While every fanboy and his mom would kill to get a writer to bring back Sue Dibny and Ralph, it doesnt look like there's an overdose of "Bring Back Terry Long" websites out there

Julian Perez said...

Harvey comics-type kiddie gimmickry, magical elves and animated cloud people no more NEED to be a part of Captain Marvel's identity than Legion of Super-Heroes needs to be about Jimmy Olsen, Insect Queen and practical jokes played on the super-family. That's that whole thing I said up there about CM not getting continuous publication. Legion and CM had similar beginnings, but because Legion continued to be published, with time Legion became something very different. There's no reason to believe a take on Captain Marvel will be unsuccessful if it plays it straight, just like there was no reason to think Legion would be a flop without an Elastic Lad comedy subplot.

On the other hand, what kid -- given the ability to grow up at the mere utterance of a word -- would chose to go back to being a kid again?

Ordway's "Power of Shazam" made an effort to explain this obvious question: the powers were bestowed by the wizard Shazam for a purpose, and Shaz can take them away if Billy uses them for tomfoolery, even something like scoring free food like he did in the first story arc.

As for Terry Long, I don't think it was "overprotective" for readers to want to save Donna from Wolfman's "Mary Sue" stand-in Terry Long. It was beyond creepy to watch a writer try to vicariously get into the pants of one of his own characters.

I've heard that too, though from what I know, Wolfman and Perez were both happening, hip, cool guys that would never be caught dead quoting Steve Martin bits at women.

Actually, I hear if anything, Terry Long was based on Len Wein, who also had chest hair, a love of gold chains, and a Ronald McDonald red Jewfro.

What happened with Terry Long was something Wolfman was very prone to do: he made a commitment to stick by a character the audience didn't like, "Wesley Cruisherism." Terry Long wasn't even the worst example – the worst was "Cousin Oliver" look-alike Danny Chase, a snide, egotistical little brat who to this day, Marv Wolfman insists "readers just didn't get."

Eddie -

Mark Gruenwald once said every character is someone's favorite...but that's just not true.

Does anyone like the Adrian Chase Vigilante?

To my knowledge he hasn't been reprinted despite being a big deal. How about the Purple Man's daughter in Alpha Flight? How about the Shroud? To say nothing of hated pain in the ass supporting cast like Terry Long, Etta Candy, and Snapper Carr.

A while back you told me how great it would be if Mockingbird came back. I sorta liked Bobbi too, but after hearing you say that I was like, "congratulations, Eddie, you are officially the biggest Mockingbird fan in the entire universe!"

Eduardo M. said...

"A while back you told me how great it would be if Mockingbird came back. I sorta liked Bobbi too, but after hearing you say that I was like, "congratulations, Eddie, you are officially the biggest Mockingbird fan in the entire universe!""

Even if I am the biggest Mockingbird fan in the Universe, I won because she's back and hanging with the Avengers again

David said...

There's no reason to believe a take on Captain Marvel will be unsuccessful if it plays it straight,

No reason but the obvious: the overwhelming wealth of historical evidence. DC has tried numerous (I'll stop short of "countless") reboots and re-imaginings over the last 30 years (40 years if you count the attempt to maintain the "silly" approach in the early 70s) and every one of them has flopped, even -- apparently -- Ordway's take, which was about the only one I enjoyed.

So yes, in theory it should be possible to make Cap work in "serious" mode. But then it should also be possible to take a character with the great potential of Iron Man and make him interesting and cool, but it took Hollywood to finally pull that one off.

In other words, what it comes down to is not a failure of the character, but of the "talents" assigned to him. Some day a serious Cap may work (the closest he's come so far is also on film; the Republic serials), but at the rate they're going so far only my grandkids will benefit.

Julian Perez said...

Re: Roy Thomas -

Interestingly enough, it was actually Roy Thomas who was the first to explicitly state Captain Marvel was Billy Batson back in the post-Legends mini Shazam: the New Beginning, which was the first attempt to do Captain Marvel in the DC Universe.

It was a false start, but in many ways it was a very influential take with a lot of powerful moments - for instance, Uncle Dudley is presented as a struggling magician who loves and wants to raise Billy and his sister after their parents' death, but Billy realizes if he did that, Uncle Dudley'd have to give up his dream of being a magician forever.

So Billy, his own heart breaking, at a court deposition, went on the stands and said he'd rather life with his rich uncle than his "failure" Uncle. It's hard to read something like that and not get choked up.

There were also hints that the wizard Shazam remembered the events on Earth-S that preceded the Crisis, one of a handful of beings in the universe that did along with the Green Lanterns.

By itself, the Thomas New-Earth Shazam origin didn't set the world on fire, but if you think of comics as a telephone game, it was tremendously influential because the Ordway run used all this stuff: Batson IS explicitly Captain Marvel, the Wisdom of Solomon is something you have to calm your mind to listen to (sort of like the Force!) instead of a built-in attribute, and finally the characterization of Uncle Dudley as the only person in the world who actually cares about the Batson kids.

No reason but the obvious: the overwhelming wealth of historical evidence. DC has tried numerous (I'll stop short of "countless") reboots and re-imaginings over the last 30 years (40 years if you count the attempt to maintain the "silly" approach in the early 70s) and every one of them has flopped, even -- apparently -- Ordway's take, which was about the only one I enjoyed.

I maintain, as I did during my article, that if Ordway had done the interior art along with the covers as opposed to just plotting (one of the most baffling and truly disappointing decisions ever), Power of Shazam would have been one of the better-selling comics of the 1990s. So many other properties were top sellers because they had slick art.

Ordway understands CM. He even changed up Mary Marvel's look. You know her look was originally based on Judy Garland? What a horrifying thing to hear. The only way she could be a bigger bonershrinker was if she was based on Hillary Clinton.

Unfortunately, Hourman beat her to the punch years before as a hero who transforms by using pills.

Iron Man was the right movie at the right time, and its success can't just be seen as getting the right cast and director but as the beginning of an experiment.

As evidence of the success of that experiment, look at how miffed and annoyed fanboys are about the Dark Knight Rises trailer, something that a few years ago should have been the surest of sure things. Yet DKR is just doing the exact same thing the other Nolan movies did: showing discomfort with costume gimmicks and trying to distance themselves from the source material. After the friggin' AVENGERS movie, that won't cut it anymore.

Even if I am the biggest Mockingbird fan in the Universe, I won because she's back and hanging with the Avengers again

Glad to have her back, because while I never liked her that much by herself, I appreciate what she brings to the Avengers: she's actually the one person who can call BS on Hawkeye and can see through all his bluster and bravado and tell him like it is.

David said...

That sounds like classic Roy, alright: trying to explain away continuity gaffes ("why would Billy go with the bad uncle if he had a good one?") Except in this case it's not needed, since in Fawcett days "Uncle" Dudley wasn't -- if I'm remembering right -- really related to any of the kids.

I never made it past the first issue of Roy's mini, though in fairness that had a lot more to do with Tom Mandrake, the "artist" who finally drove me away from my beloved Batman, until DKR brought me back. But in that mini, didn't Roy make Sivana and Ebeneezer the same guy? So that Sivana was actually Billy's uncle?!?

Not sure why Ordway didn't draw his series, except maybe he wanted to establish himself as a writer, and avoid the perception that he was "getting by" on pretty pictures.

I didn't know there was a fanboy outcry over the new Nolan bat-trailer. All I've heard has been positive, though I admit I don't hang out at comics sites much; the more generic movie fans out there seem pretty excited by it. I'm guessing the fanboy objection is to Bruce being crippled? Personally I don't care; Batman is so bankable at this point that we'll doubtless get another re-imagining from another director once Nolan's done, and sooner rather than later. Heck, even Spider-Man is getting rebooted and absolutely no one's had time to miss the Raimi version yet.

Julian Perez said...

To be fair, that is something every modern superhero origin has to do with an "orphan" character.

Considering the prevalence of bureaucracy, identification cards and child protective services, there's no way an orphan in this day and age would be left to fend for him/herself like in Charles Dickens' days, or even the recent past, training to avenge the death of their parents or something.

So since the 1980s and the opportunity to include details of this type first became possible, there have been explanations for why Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Billy Batson and Clark Kent all weren't placed into foster homes.

One of my favorite parts of the "child dispute" origin subplots was the notion Leslie Thompkins wanted to adopt a young Bruce Wayne but couldn't.

My least favorite was the Clark Kent knew Superman as a brother business. The idea Clark Kent was just the Kents' biological son born in a convenient and isolating long snowstorm makes some sense at least.

I'm guessing the fanboy objection is to Bruce being crippled?

Nah, that's the one and only thing people find shocking and exciting - the disturbing possibility that as this is the last Batman movie, Nolan might have the brass ones to actually kill him off. I did NOT see Rachel Dawes' death coming, so all things are possible.

Like I said the form I saw the criticism take was just exhaustion with the Nolanverse's uncomfortability with character defining costume gimmicks (Bane looks and sounds terrible and Catwoman looks worse: sexless, not even vaguely resembling a cat).

The interesting thing is, this criticism could be applied to any of the other Nolan Batman movies. Why didn't it work this time? My explanation is superhero movies, mostly thanks to the Marvel studio pictures, have embraced the high-concept stuff the Nolanverse ditches (Thor as space-Viking, Captain America in World War II). Something like the Nolan Batman movies aren't as acceptable as they used to be.

David said...

Well, that is funny, if the fans are only now deciding it's a problem that Nolan's films don't have a "comic book" feel. An objection I saw yesterday was that "Batman", per se, barely shows up in his own trailer, which at its root I guess is the same complaint, in that it suggests (maybe) that Nolan is trying to pretend the franchise is about something other (and less ridiculous) than what we all know it is.

I have to say I prefer almost all the Marvel films to Nolan's bat-films, myself, and maybe for the same reason as your "fanboys". Basically, I find them colorful, fun and exciting, which is what I always liked about comics and quite miss in them, now. Nolan's bat-films are like "Schindler's List"; it seems important to watch them at least once in your life, but repeat viewings aren't exactly high on my list of fun activities.

But more than that, I think I dig the Marvel entries because it's good to see some of the less fully-mined concepts and characters have their day. Even Spider-Man has worn out his welcome with me; bring on Dr Strange, already! I like Superman and Batman as much as the next guy, but I wouldn't shed a tear if they both took a vacation from the big screen for a decade or so. As the cartoon owl said, "Enough is too much!"

Doc Savage said...

Any writer who doesn't understand that Cap and Billy are two distinct people shouldn't be writing Captain Marvel at all.