Saturday, August 31, 2013

Shazam! The Greatest Stories Ever Told review:

 Never let it be said that I’m not consistent. For my 100th post, I decided I would hurt the one I love, and reviewed the lackluster first volume of my favorite series; The Spirit. So it seems fitting that I’m about to follow it up by reviewing a “greatest collection” featuring a character and series that longtime readers know has been my personal whipping boy since as early as my second post: Captain Marvel, or Shazam, as DC is calling him these days for legal purposes. How does that fit in with me criticizing my favorite series?
  Because I gotta say, for a collection of supposed high points for a character I don’t particularly like; it’s a nice read.

 Now don’t get the wrong idea, I haven’t completely changed my opinions about the series; I still find the Golden Age stories overrated and the fans hypocritical (Although more of them are coming out and admitting that they only follow Shazam comics because of Black Adam, who has rapidly been gaining a Wolverine/Punisher level of idiotic fans ever since Infinite Crisis where he gouged out Psycho Pirate’s eyes), and this shares many of the same faults that mar DC’s other “Greatest Stories” volumes, but that’s not necessarily the character’s fault. I can also say, after reading pretty much every Marvel Family story available on sites like the Digital Comics Museum, I wouldn’t really consider many of these “great” stories either, but all things considered, this book has some decent stuff in it.
-Introducing Captain Marvel from Whiz Comics #2 (1940): This is the origin story, with newsboy Billy Batson being led by a mysterious figure down to Shazam’s lair and being given his power, then getting a job as a radio announcer from radio station president Sterling Morris (Who is realistically skeptical of just what a kid Billy’s age could accomplish). It’s a fun wish-fulfillment adventure, although personally I find the non-superhero fantasy elements of the story more appealing, like Shazam’s bizarre subway train and the hall showing the statues of the Seven Deadly Sins.
This story also introduces the evil Dr. Sivana, who of course becomes Captain Marvel’s archenemy (and the most overused villain of the Golden Age with the exception of Adolf Hitler). What’s most interesting about Sivana is that his plan, to extort money from the government or else he’ll disrupt radio signals so people can’t communicate, is actually fairly plausible and not too science fiction-y (It’s not like he’s threatening to conquer the world, or anything). If this story were retold today, he’d probably do the same thing, except with the internet.
 All in all, it’s fun, and hard to really complain about. You have to admire a story which sets up the hero’s origin and career, as well as introduces his employer and archenemy all in one story. C.C. Beck’s uncluttered art is appealingly childlike, but has a determined looking grimness to it at the same time. 4/5.

 -Untitled story from Captain Marvel Adventures #1 (1941):
  Billy hears a signal from some far-off alien people who have been enslaved by reptilian creatures called the Dragon Men. He travels to their planet and ends up caught up in a battle with them, and meets a scientist, his lovely daughter, a traitor and the Jabba the Hutt-like king of the Dragon Men.
 Man, I wish more CM stories were like this! This one has far more of a Timely feel to it, probably because of the lettering by Howard Ferguson and the art by Simon & Kirby. Being drawn by Kirby is probably the only reason this particular story was reprinted, but when it’s this much fun I can’t complain. Interestingly enough, Captain Marvel is referred to several times as “The Thunder God” in this story. Fun stuff. 5/5.

-The Trio of Terror from Marvel Family #21 (1948): Three owners of a failing carnival steal a book of magic from the Marvel family and end up accidentally summoning three mythological creatures by saying “Ziggoz Zarilly Goosh”. The creatures are a Satyr, the Hydra and an Aargus.

  Here’s C.C. Beck’s idea of what a Hydra looks like:

  This is what the Hydra looks like according to Greek mythology:
Almost didn't recognize you there, pal

 Man, that’s the kind of underwhelming character design only Bernard Baily could pull off. The story itself really isn’t much fun either, and the three carnival owners end up going unpunished.

 Also, “Ziggoz Zarilly Goosh” has got to be the worst magical spell I’ve ever seen in a comic book. Say what you will about Stan Lee, but at least the spells he came up with in Doctor Strange sounded cool. 2/5.

-King Kull and the Seven Sins from Captain Marvel Adventures #137 (1952): No, this isn’t a Disney rip-off from Goodtimes. In this story, a bunch of people start being dicks for no reason, and it turns out that the reason why is because King Kull (A caveman in a horned helmet who was set up to be Cap’s new archenemy in the 50’s) has brought Shazam’s statues of the Seven Deadly Sins to life, who go around tossing “sin bombs”. A fairly amusing idea a lot of humor could have been wrung out of, but instead it turns into a simple fisticuffs story when it could have been more whimsical (This is supposedly the most whimsical comic book series of all time and better than anything Eisner or Cole ever did *rolls eyes*). A waste of a good idea, because like I’ve said, I find the way that the Sins are drawn amusing and the whole “sin bomb” idea is very surreal. 2.9/10.
-Captain Marvel battles the World from Captain Marvel Adventures #148 (1953): The Earth gets fed up with people drilling holes in it for oil, so it decides to make life miserable for humans by causing weather changes and other catastrophes, all of which Captain Marvel foils without ever thinking of them as anything but natural disasters.

 Now THIS is the kind of Captain Marvel story that lives up to the hype the fans give the series, and would you believe it? It’s not famous or revered at all! But it’s still a fantastically weird, whimsical story. How could you hate something where Earth itself is the villain? It’s like all of those shitty “Nature’s revenge” movies, the difference is that not only is it actually good, it also doesn’t try and ram an environmental message down our throat. Quite the opposite, here it’s nature which has to learn to be tolerant of us! There are just no words for how awesome that is, and in today’s world of shitty environmentalist propaganda, this story is still relevant.

  Easily the best story in this book, and the best drawn of the ones done by Beck. 5/5.

 -The Primate Plot from Marvel Family #85 (1953): Several apes are seen running around the city, presumably escapees from a zoo, but instead they turn out to be diplomats from a jungle city of intelligent apes, representing King Zonga. Zonga apparently just wants access to human technology so he can increase the quality of life for his people, and the Marvels, as well as the rest of the world, eagerly helps out. However, they quickly notice that something’s amiss…
 This one had a plot twist I didn’t see coming, in fact, it might be the most original take on the old “civilization of talking animals” trope I’ve seen in a while, although it does owe a bit to The Island of Dr. Moreau. Most such stories are used just to make some heavy-handed metaphor about racism or about how humans suck, and are usually written by wannabe satirists who have read the Hounhyms chapter in Gulliver’s Travels but lack Swift’s talent. This one doesn’t try any of that shit, but instead just uses the concept for a wonderfully batshit sci-fi adventure. 4/5.
-In the Beginning/The World’s Wickedest Plan from Shazam! #1 (1973): Shortly after DC acquired the rights, they published this issue, so while it’s important in a significant sense, all it is really is a primer on who Captain Marvel is for new readers. Unrateable, really.

-Make Way for Captain Thunder! from Superman #276 (1974): This is one of the oddest stories in the volume, and technically it isn’t a Captain Marvel story at all, but it’s entertaining for those same reasons. A newsboy named Willie Fawcett wanders the streets of Metropolis, not knowing how he got there. As Superman soon discovers, Willie is from another dimension and is the alter ego of a superhero named Captain Thunder, the problem though, is that Captain Thunder is under a curse which turns him evil, but Willie doesn’t know that and instinctively transforms into Captain Thunder whenever danger is present.
  As you can tell from that plot synopsis, the character of Captain Thunder/Willie Fawcett is a pastiche of Captain Marvel/Billy Batson. Presumably this story was written before DC acquired the rights proper to the real Captain Marvel, but published afterward. Still, it’s fun seeing all of the elements of the character that were altered to distance him from the real character, like having the Shazam figure be a Native American shaman, or the Monster Society of Evil being made up of Universal Monsters:
 One also has to wonder if this was an influence on the depiction of the evil Kid Miracleman/Johnny Bates in Alan Moore’s Miracleman run. Weird story, but I’m glad they included it. 3.9/5.

-The Evil Return of the Monster Society from Shazam!#14 (1974): This story is another odd choice for an inclusion, because the entire reason it’s notable is because it features, well, the return of the Monster Society of Evil. You know those really long, shitty, overblown ‘events’ that Marvel and DC have been doing regularly since the 80’s? Well, the first one was done by Fawcett in it’s Captain Marvel titles back in 1943, involving a team up of a bunch of villains into a ‘society’ that Captain Marvel fans have declared the first supervillain team in comics (It wasn’t). The whole thing was reprinted in a huge hardcover in the 70’s, and honestly, is pretty lousy. Thus, it seems odd that this story would be chosen since none of the original Monster Society stories were reprinted or even mentioned here (except for the ‘Monster League’ parody that appeared in the Captain Thunder story). If you weren’t a comics fan and had never heard of the society, you’d be pretty baffled as to why this was included.

 That said, it’s a pretty amusing little story, mainly because of the interactions of the villains during down-time. The scene where the hulking brute named Ibac hits on Sivana’s homely daughter (Who looks like, and was later retconned to be, a clone of Sivana) is pretty funny.
Believe it or not, I know a guy who used that as a pick up line

-With One Magic Word from DC Comics Presents Annual #3 (1984): Now we’re talking! Roy Thomas plotted this story, while Gil Kane drew it, and the result shows off both men’s talents to the max. Dr. Sivana comes up with a brilliant way of defeating Captain Marvel; since the letters in the word Shazam stand for the names of various mythological heroes and deities and their attributes (The speed of Mercury, the wisdom of Solomon, etc), Sivana alters the rock of eternity so that Captain Marvel takes on the negative qualities of those heroes and thus susceptible to defeat. He then steals the powers of Shazam for himself, and Superman must stop him.
 This is a great example of playing with the mythology behind a character without resorting to parody, and it still makes for a perfectly good action story at the same time (And you can’t fault Gil Kane when it comes to action). I mean, it makes sense, if you want to defeat a superhero who gains his powers from a source, and you can’t destroy the source, why not change it so it affects him negatively? Admittedly not much is done with the idea of Captain Marvel taking on the negative qualities of the Gods (He mostly just gets cocky and gets trapped under rocks), but it still works. There are also some amusing moments of Sivana, having turned himself into a being similar to Captain Marvel, continually renaming himself with a different military rank (Major Sivana, Colonel Sivana and onward). Easily the second best story in the book. 5/5.
-Where Dreams End from L.E.G.I.O.N ’91 #31 (1991): Captain Marvel accidentally winds up in an alien bar and runs afoul of Lobo (Lobo, for those who don’t know, is DC’s  ridiculously over-the-top parody of characters like Wolverine, who stopped being a parody of such characters and became the poster boy for them). This story is played for laughs, but the main joke; the contrast between the sleazy Lobo and the good-natured Captain Marvel, wears thin quickly. I think this story may have been trying to make a point about feuding generations of comics fans, but I’m not sure. Very choppy and hard to follow at times. 3/5.

  -Yeah--This is a face only a Mother could love…from Power of Shazam #33 (1997): Captain Marvel meets up with a young fan of his who was horribly disfigured in a fire caused by a supervillain named the Arson Fiend. Captain Marvel then begins searching for a way to help the boy restore his face.
This is a rather sweet-natured story for one that begins with a shock moment (Full page shot of the boy’s ravaged face saying “Yeah-this is a face only a mother could love…though even she can be frightened by it if I catch her off guard”). This features lots of cameos by regular villains and supporting characters from the short-lived Power of Shazam series from the 90’s. Some of these characters had appeared in the Golden Age, but only became really prominent in this series, thus, you kinda feel like you stumbled into a long-running series that isn’t really new-reader friendly. But you know what? It actually makes me interested to read more of it.

  While I have to admit this story did cause a few “awwww” moments from me (particularly the ending), I also can’t help but feel it’s kinda shameless and manipulative, like a “Very Special Episode” of some lame sitcom trying to be relevant. For example, the creator credits aren’t listed until the end of the story, as if to say “Hey! Did you like this one? Well, here are our names so you can be sure to remember them when time for the Eisner awards roll around!”. Also, if that burned kid never appeared in any stories after this (I can’t find any info online) and was only used for this story, then shit I was right. Still, it’s a lot less tawdry than most such stories are, and maybe it’s a good thing the kid never came back; later writers might have turned him into a vengeful supervillain or something. 3.9/10.

  -Out of the Dark Cloud from Adventures in the DC Universe #15 (1998): Billy finds himself transforming in strange new ways each time he says Shazam, and starts trying to find the reason why. Could the very deities he calls upon have something to do with it?

  Another story which has fun with the deities that form the “Shazam” name. It’s mostly for fun, and works quite well. At first I thought this story was from Jeff Smith’s recent All Ages Captain Marvel series, since he wrote the intro to this volume, but it’s actually from a short-lived series featuring “animated’ versions of DC characters featuring Bruce Timm-style artwork. 3.5/5.

 Well, well. Count me surprised. While I can’t say that this volume made me a fan of Captain Marvel, it does contain some enjoyable stories. I’ve come to the conclusion that the appeal of the character for modern readers lies less in what his stories were actually like, so much as that he and his stories represent what some fans tend to wish comics were like when complaining about how dark modern comics are, just like how some folks romanticize the 50’s as a simpler time even though it really wasn’t. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that Captain Marvel has sort of a built-in nostalgia factor for people who’ve never read the original stories, thus, this feeling of innocent, wistful adventure brings out a kind of sentimentality in modern writers when they tackle the character or create tributes to him, and it creates a similar feeling in those who read such stories. Captain Marvel was the best-selling character of the 40’s, thus, regardless of quality, he became the poster child for “innocence” in comics.
  You do have to wonder though if future generations are going to feel somewhat similar towards Rob Liefeld and Image-style comics though, after all, they were also the best-selling comics of their time.

 Also, I’m going to give props to DC for not reprinting any Black Adam stories to hook the fanboys with (Actually, prior to the 90’s, there were hardly any stories featuring that character). They also deserve credit for not playing up Jack Kirby’s story, or including samplings of Jeff Smith’s recent series. These “Greatest Stories” usually do things like that (Featuring first appearances of popular villains regardless of quality, hyping up a story worked on by a famous creator even though it was his only work on the character, or pushing a new series) and stick out like a sore thumb. This volume is refreshingly free of that.
  So yeah, considering how terrible “Greatest Stories” volumes can be, and my reticence about the character, I’m going to admit….I liked it. 4/5.

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