Shazam! The World’s Mightiest Mortal volume 2

By E. Nelson Bridwell, Gerry Conway, Elliot S! Maggin, Denny O’Neil, Kurt Schaffenberger, Dick Giordano, Rich Buckler, Tenny Henson, Alan Weiss, Don Newton, Bob Oksner & various (DC)
ISBN: 978-1-7795-0117-2 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Joyous Superhero Fun… 9/10

One of the most venerated and loved characters in American comics was created by Bill Parker and Charles Clarence Beck as part of the wave of opportunistic creativity that followed the successful launch of Superman in 1938. Although there were many similarities in the early years, the Fawcett character moved swiftly and solidly into the area of light entertainment and even broad comedy, whilst as the 1940s progressed the Man of Steel increasingly left whimsy behind in favour of action and drama.

Homeless orphan and thoroughly good kid Billy Batson is selected by an ancient wizard to battle injustice and subsequently granted the powers of six gods and mythical heroes. By speaking aloud the wizard’s name – itself an acronym for the six patrons Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury – he can transform from scrawny boy to brawny (adult) hero Captain Marvel.

At the height of his popularity, Captain Marvel hugely outsold Superman and was even published twice a month. However, as the decade progressed and tastes changed, sales slowed, and an infamous court case begun in 1941 by National Comics citing copyright infringement was settled. Like many other superheroes, the “Big Red Cheese” disappeared, becoming a fond memory for older fans. A big syndication success, he was missed all over the world…

In Britain, where an English reprint line had run for many years, creator/publisher Mick Anglo had an avid audience and no product, and transformed Captain Marvel into atomic age hero Marvelman, continuing to thrill readers into the early 1960s.

Then, as America lived through another superhero boom-&-bust, the 1970s dawned with a shrinking industry and wide variety of comics genres servicing a base that was increasingly founded on collectors and fans rather than casual or impulse buyers. National – now DC – Comics needed sales and were prepared to look for them in unusual places.

After the court settlement with Fawcett in 1953 they had secured the rights to Captain Marvel and his spin-off Family. Now, and though the name itself had been taken up by Marvel Comics (via a circuitous and quirky robotic character published by Carl Burgos and M.F. Publications in 1967), the publishing monolith decided to tap into that discriminating if aging fanbase.

In 1973, riding a wave of national nostalgia on TV and in the movies, DC brought back the entire beloved cast of the Captain Marvel crew in their own kinder, weirder universe. To circumvent the intellectual property clash, they named the new title Shazam! (‘With One Magic Word…’): the memorable trigger phrase used by myriad Marvels to transform to and from mortal form and a word that had already entered the American language due to the success of the franchise the first time around.

Now the latest star of film and TV is back in print in this stylish Hardback and digital compendium, collecting select material from Shazam! #14-17 and all of 19-35; and All-New Collectors’ Edition #C-58 (spanning July 1975 – May 1978).

The previous volume – ya gotta gettem all! – revealed how the entire Marvel family was trapped in time for a generation before being released to preserve gain justice and decency on their own kindler, gentler, more whimsical Earth and here Shazam! #19 introduces extra-dimensional delinquent Zazzo, the malevolent culprit revealed when Elliot S! Maggin and Kurt Schaffenberger ask ‘Who Stole Billy Batson’s Thunder?’.

Billy’s super sister Mary Marvel is the back-up feature, cannily solving E. Nelson Bridwell and Bob Oksner’s ‘Secret of the Smiling Swordsman!’, before the next issue teams the entire Marvel Family in full-length sci fi thriller ‘The Strange and Terrible Disappearance of Maxwell Zodiac!’, courtesy of Maggin and Schaffenberger.

Shazam! #21, 22, 23 and 24 were all reprint, represented here by covers from Ernie Chua & Bob Oksner, two from Schaffenberger and then another from Chua & Oksner, reflecting a scheduling change that saw the comic released quarterly.

I suspect, but have no proof, that this coincided with the TV show that ran in parallel being off-air, as – when issue #24 appeared in Spring 1976 – new editor Joe Orlando oversaw a massaging of the scenario which would see young Billy and Uncle Dudley (a mainstay of the TV incarnation) set off around America in a minivan as roving reporters, encountering threats and felons in America’s Bicentennial year.

Bridwell and Schaffenberger became the permanent creative team, with occasional inkers such as Vince Colletta, Bob Wiacek and Bob Smith pitching in, if seldom to the enhancement of Schaffenberger’s pencils.

There were even bigger changes in store. Shazam! #25 (September/October 1976) featured a team-up of the Captain with Mighty Isis, a TV character that DC was then licensing for a tie-in comic book. ‘Isis… as in Crisis!’ is by Denny O’Neil & Dick Giordano and sees Cap reduced to a cameo as Isis recalls how archaeologist Andrea Thomas uncovered an Egyptian Amulet and scroll, gaining the powers of an ancient goddess to fight modern crime and injustice…

That issue’s back-up ‘The Bicentennial Villain’ introduces a new roving format as TV reporter Billy briefly clashes with arch-nemesis Dr. Sivana and learns of a far-reaching plot to destroy America in its anniversary year, courtesy of Bridwell & Schaffenberger …

Issue #26 sees the saga properly launched in a highly enjoyable romp. ‘The Case of the Kidnapped Congress’ finds Billy and Uncle Dudley battling Sivana in Washington DC. Vince Colletta inked the self-explanatory ‘Fear in Philadelphia’, but that doesn’t detract from a right royal romp as the Mad Doctor uses a resurrection machine to bring back the greatest rogues in America’s history – a much shorter list to pick from in 1976…

Clearly having tremendous fun, writer Bridwell began his own resurrections: bringing back Fawcett and Quality Comics characters as guest-stars. First up was the ghostly Kid Eternity and Mister Keeper, and with issue #28 he scripted his masterstroke with ‘The Return of Black Adam’: a Golden-Age villain whose fabled single appearance was a landmark long remembered by fans.

That he is still a huge favourite today shows the astuteness of that decision. That was in Boston, with #29 set in Buffalo and Niagara Falls where ‘Ibac meets Aunt Minerva!’: a comedic battle of the sexes that was heavy on the hitting.

Another faux meeting with his greatest rival occurred in #30’s ‘Captain Marvel Fights the Man of Steel’, wherein the Batson bus reaches Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here, inspired by a comic book Sivana recrates local folk legend Joe Magarac (the Paul Bunyan of Steel workers) and the Three Lieutenant Marvels guest-star.

All girl villain-team ‘The Rainbow Squad’ expose Captain Marvel’s gentlemanly weakness in #31, heralding the return of patriotic hero Minute Man to step in, step up and save the day.

Tenny Henson pencilled #32’s tale from Detroit (with Bob Smith inking) as aliens led by wicked space worm Mr. Mindattempt to eliminate baseball in ‘Mr. Tawny’s Big Game!’ and fans knew that the good old days were coming to an end. A radical change to Shazam!

issue #33 heralded the metamorphosis in ‘The World’s Mightiest Race’ (Bridwell, Henson & Colletta) as Nuclear robotic menace Mister Atom tries to disrupt the Indianapolis 500 motor race. The radical about-face came with #34 (April 1978) as Bridwell, Alan Weiss & Joe Rubinstein ditch the charming light-heartedness to insert a brutal dose of reality. ‘The Fuhrer of Chicago’ reintroduces sadistic super-fascist Captain Nazi, but his plans to annexe the city are brought to sorry end by a vengeful Captain Marvel Junior, eager for some payback on the monster who crippled him…

The realism was reinforced in #34 as Bridwell, Don Newton & Schaffenberger decreed ‘Backward, Turn Backward, O Time in Your Flight!’ with the Marvels battling murderous Beastman King Kull’s attempts to roll back history and re-establish his extinct race and empire. The war carries on into Hell itself and features a return for infernal foe Sabbac

Part of DC’s experimental line of bigger, bolder comics, All-New Collectors’ Edition #C-58 was a tabloid-sized, 72-page extravaganza intended to restore the “wow-factor” to the medium and industry.

Crafted by Gerry Conway, Rich Buckler & Giordano, ‘When Earths Collide!’ features a trans-dimensional team up of Captain Marvel and Superman, engineered by primordial Martian sorcerer Karmang, who seeks to resurrect his people and civilisation by destroying two Earths. Aid, abetting and adding tension are Black Adam and the Quarrmer Sand-Thing Superman, with Supergirl and Mary Marvel also intent on averting Armageddon.

The epic adventure wraps up with a series of essays and vignettes from Shazam! #14-17 and 22, detailing the histories of the Patrons in ‘Legends of Shazam!’ – specifically Solomon, Hercules, Atlas and Zeus in prose by Bridwell with Achilles rendered in strip form by Schaffenberger & George Papp.

Although still controversial amongst older fans like me, the 1970’s incarnation of Captain Marvel/Shazam! has a tremendous amount going for it. Gloriously free of angst and agony (mostly), beautifully, simply illustrated, and charmingly scripted, these are clever, funny wholesome adventures that would appeal to any child and positively promote a love of graphic narrative. There’s a horrible dearth of exuberant superhero adventure these days. Isn’t it great that there is somewhere to go for a little light action?
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