Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil
Colors: Steve Hamaker
Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel created by C. C. Beck, Bill Parker, Otto Binder, Marc Swayze.
No matter how successful, A rite of passage for American comics creators is that they prove their mettle by working on a property owned by DC or Marvel. Case in point, Jeff Smith had already established himself as the creator of the long-running and beloved comic book series Bone when DC tapped him in 2007 to work on a reimagining of Captain Marvel. The publisher had an undisputably lousy record when it came to their handling of the character. Their current comic was The Trials of Shazam!, the latest attempt to update a superhero known for being the embodiment of 40s whimsy with another grim ‘n’ gritty makeover. In the comic, an older Freddie Freeman, the former Captain Marvel Jr., overcomes a series of brutal ordeals to claim the powers of Captain Marvel after Billy Batson vacated the role in order to succeed the wizard Shazam. No one cared, and that version of Captain Marvel was quickly forgotten after the crossover event Final Crisis. Almost as unpopular was the evil Mary Marvel/Mary Batson who had inherited the powers of Black Adam. But many fans would have agreed that if anyone could make use of Captain Marvel’s classic elements while still appealing to modern sensibilities, it would have been Smith. With the 4 issue series Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil, he proves to be up to the task.
The chief issues with DC’s treatment of Cap are that once he’s integrated into their shared universe, he loses his traditional primacy and becomes an auxiliary Superman. And as a perpetual C-lister, he’s particularly susceptible to the effects of DC’s habit of periodic soft reboots. Captain Marvel doesn’t have the illusion of growth engendered by a decades long history of continuous publication which benefit DC’s most well-known properties. So every cancellation followed by an attempt to reset and update him only underlines just how out-of-step he’s become with the rest of the company lineup. For a publisher that no longer believes in the inherent value of goofy adventures, DC appears to be constantly embarrassed that one of their most iconic, not to mention powerful, characters is also just a dumb kid from the 40s. No wonder turning the Marvel family members angsty or evil seemed like a good idea at the time.
Smith avoids these pitfalls by setting the story in its own milieu, far from the rest of DC’s madding crowd. It’s not a clear-cut solution. Smith starts out with another comic book retelling of Cap’s well-trod origins. But it’s quickly expedited, and he moves on with the main plot, an extra-dimensional invasion orchestrated by Mister Mind with the assistance of Doctor Sivana. When set next to the DC timeline, a comic featuring the classic supervillain team-up known as the Monster Society of Evil feels like a return to Cap’s roots.
But make no mistake, this is a Jeff Smith comic. His cartooning is very different from the DC House style, but Smith’s sinewy figures have a physicality quite unlike that of Cap’s original artist C. C. Beck. In contrast to Beck’s naive simplicity, Smith’s characters stoop, sweat, and strain with every effort. And his thick brushstrokes and moody blacks render a fictionalized New York less a gleaming urban jungle of glass and steel than an impressionistic dreamscape of dark alleyways and crumbling concrete structures. It’s the kind of place where a magic train would emerge from the inky depths to take a young Billy to see Shazam at the mysterious Rock of Eternity. And supernatural creatures like the Alligator Men and the tiger Talky Tawny exude a vague threat without looking entirely out of place.
Smith’s character designs feel particularly well-considered, due to the fact that he had to introduce several of them in a one-and-done story. His muscular Captain Marvel has a different persona than tiny, dirt-encrusted urchin Billy. This choice is a return to the original interpretation of the character. But Mary’s transformation is an unintended consequence of her brother’s, so her powers function in a different manner. And Mind and Sivana make their entrance due to a few of Billy’s unwise choices. Mind, the Alligator Men, and Tawny in particular showcase Smith’s facility for creature creation.
Smith injects some mild satire which pokes fun at the state of the War on Terror, grounding the comic in a specific time period. He may physically resemble a certain ornery Vice President, but Smith’s Sivana as business magnate turned Attorney General willing to sell out his country for a tidy profit has weirdly become more pertinent within the last month. Then again, he did promise that this wasn’t the last we’d hear of him.