Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! volume 1

By Mike Kunkel, Art Baltazar, Franco, Byron Vaughns, Ken Branch & Stephen DeStefano (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2248-2

After the runaway success of Jeff Smith’s magnificent reinvention of the original Captain Marvel (see Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil) it was simply a matter of time before this latest iteration won its own title in the monthly marketplace. What was a stroke of sheer genius was to place the new Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! under the bright and shiny aegis of the company’s young reader imprint – what used to be the Cartoon Network umbrella.

In a most familiar world, slightly askew of the mainstream DC Universe, these frantically ebullient and utterly contagious tales of the orphan Batson and his obnoxious, hyperactive little sister – both gifted by an ancient mage with the powers of the gods – can play out in wild and woolly semi-isolation hampered by nothing except the page count…

Billy Batson is a homeless kid with a murky past and a glorious destiny. One night he follows a mysterious figure into an abandoned subway station and met the wizard Shazam, who grants him the ability to turn into an adult superhero called Captain Marvel. Gifted with the wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus, courage of Achilles and speed of Mercury, the lad is despatched into the world to do good, a noble if immature boy in a super man’s body.

Accompanied by talking tiger-spirit Mr. Tawky Tawny, Billy tracks down his missing little sister, but whilst battling evil genius Dr. Sivana (US Attorney General and would-be ruler of the universe) he impetuously causes a ripple in the world’s magical fabric through which monsters and ancient perils occasionally slip through. Now, the reunited orphans are trying to live relatively normal lives, but finding the going a little tough…

Firstly, without adults around, Billy often has to masquerade as his own dad and when he’s not at school he’s the breadwinner, earning a living as a boy-reporter at radio and TV station WHIZ. Moreover, little Mary also has access to the Power of Shazam, and she’s a lot smarter than he is in using it… and a real pain in Billy’s neck.

Mike Kunkel, inspired creator of the simply lovely Herobear and the Kid, leads off this collection (gathering the first six issues of the much-missed monthly comic-book for readers of all ages): writing and drawing a breakneck, riotous romp reintroducing the new Marvel Family to any new readers and, by virtue of that pesky rift in the cosmic curtain, recreating the Captain’s greatest foe: Black Adam.

This time the evil predecessor of the World’s Mightiest Mortal is a powerless but truly vile brat: a bully who returns to Earth after millennia in limbo ready to cause great mischief – but he can’t remember his own magic word…

This hilarious tale has just the right amount of dark underpinning as the atrocious little thug stalks Billy and Mary, trying to wheedle and eventually torture the secret syllables from them, and when inevitably Black Adam regains his mystic might and frees the sinister Seven Deadly Evils of Mankind from their imprisonment on the wizard’s Rock of Eternity, the stage is set for a classic confrontation.

Pitched perfectly at the young reader, with equal parts danger, comedy, sibling rivalry and the regular outwitting of adults, this first storyline screams along with a brilliantly clever feel-good finish…

From issue #5 the writing team of Art Baltazar and Franco (responsible for the incomparably compulsive madness of Tiny Titans and Superman Family) take over, and artists Byron Vaughns & Ken Branch handled the first bombastic tale as convict Doctor Sivana unleashes the destructive giant robot Mr. Atom to cover his escape from prison.

The story-section concludes with another funny and extremely dramatic battle – this time against primordial super-caveman King Kull, who wants to reconquer the planet he ruled millennia ago. Older fans of gentle fantasy will be enthralled and delighted here by the singular art of Stephen DeStefano, who won hearts and minds with his illustration of Bob Rozakis’ seminal series Hero Hotline and ‘Mazing Man (both painfully, criminally overdue for graphic novel collections of their own…)

Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! is an ideal book for getting kids into comics: funny, thrilling, beautifully, stylishly illustrated and perfectly in tune with what young minds want to see. Moreover, with the major motion picture adaptation set to premiere in April, it’s a timely moment to get reacquainted with the Big Red Cheese…

With a gloriously enticing sketches section and a key code for those pages written in the “Monster Society of Evil Code” this is an addictive treat for all readers who can still revel in the power of pure wonderment and still glory in an unbridled capacity for joy.
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