SHAZAM!: The Greatest Stories Ever Told


By Bill Parker, C.C. Beck, Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, Otto Binder, Denny O’Neil, Elliot S! Maggin, Roy Thomas, Joey Cavalieri, Alan Grant, Jerry Ordway, Steve Vance, Kurt Schaffenberger, Curt Swan, Gil Kane, Barry Kitson, Peter Krause, John Delaney & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1674-0 (TPB)

Superhero movies season is hurtling down on us now so let’s cash in a bit…

Hard on the heels of the superb Shazam!: Monster Society of Evil collection came a most welcome addition to DC’s much missed Greatest Stories… line: an anthological review featuring some wonderful moments from the stellar, if chequered, career of the World’s Mightiest Mortal.

First seen in the February 1940 issue of Whiz Comics (#2 – there was no #1) and cashing in on the sales phenomenon of Superman, the big red riot was the brainchild of writer/editor Bill Parker and young illustrator Charles Clarence Beck.

Drawn in a style reminiscent of early Hergé, ‘Introducing Captain Marvel’ saw homeless orphan Billy Batson lured into an abandoned subway tunnel to a meeting with millennia-old wizard Shazam. At the end of a long, long life fighting evil, the white-bearded figure grants the lad the power of six gods and heroes (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury) and urges him to carry on the good fight. In thirteen delightfully clean and simple pages Billy gets his powers, has his secret origin revealed (he’s heir to a fortune embezzled by his crooked uncle Ebenezer), gets a job as a radio reporter and defeats the mad scheme of Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana who is holding the airwaves of America hostage.

Originally dispensing the same sort of summary rough justice as his contemporaries, the character soon distanced himself from the pack – Man of Steel included – by an increasingly light, surreal and comedic touch, which made Captain Marvel the best-selling comics character in America. For a period, Captain Marvel Adventures was published twice a month, and he was the star in a number of other titles too.

(Billy’s alter ego could beat everybody but copyright lawyers; during his years of inactivity the trademarked name passed to a number of other publishers before settling at Marvel Comics and they are never, never, never letting go. You can check out their cinematic blockbuster version this summer…)

In the formative years there was actually a scramble to fill pages. From Captain Marvel Adventures #1 (1941) comes an untitled drama of alien slavers produced in a bit of a hurry by Golden Age Dream-Team Joe Simon & Jack Kirby.

It’s probably fair to say that this rambunctious rarity is included for its name-value alone, but the third tale, ‘The Trio of Terror’ (The Marvel Family #21, 1948), is prime stuff from Beck and brilliant prolific writer Otto Binder, full of sly whimsy as three demons escape the netherworld to plague ours.

Many of the storytelling innovations we find commonplace today were invented by the creative folk at Fawcett – the original publishers of Captain Marvel. From Captain Marvel Adventures #137 (1952) comes ‘King Kull and the Seven Deadly Sins’ by Binder and Beck, wherein a beast-king from a pre-human civilisation frees the embodiments of Man’s greatest enemies to plague the planet.

These are wholesome tales for the entire family, however, so don’t worry – “Lust” has become “Injustice” and “Wrath” is “Hatred”, here.

There are two yarns from the good Captain’s final year of Golden Age publication. DC, in their original identity of National Periodical Publications, had filed suit against Fawcett for copyright infringement as soon as Whiz Comics #2 was released, and the companies had slugged it out ever since. In 1953, with sales of superhero comics decimated by changing tastes, Captain Marvel’s publishers decided to capitulate.

DC eventually acquired all rights, titles and properties to the characters. But that last year saw some of the best tales in the entire run, represented here by the wonderfully surreal ‘Captain Marvel Battles the World’ (Captain Marvel Adventures #148, September1952, by Binder and Beck) and ‘The Primate Plot’ (The Marvel Family #85, July 1953): a dramatic and very funny precursor to the movie Planet of the Apes, by Binder and Kurt Schaffenberger.

Beck returned to commercial and magazine illustration, but Binder & Schaffenberger soon joined the victorious opposition, becoming key Superman creators of the next few decades.

In 1973, DC decided to revive the Good Captain for a new generation and see if his unique charm would work another sales miracle during one of comics’ periodic downturns.

From the comicbook re-titled, for those pesky copyright reasons, Shazam!, the tale that bought him back was written by Denny O’Neil, and illustrated by the returned and resurgent Beck.

‘In the Beginning…’ and ‘The World’s Wickedest Plan’ (Shazam! #1, February 1973) retold the origin and explained that the Captain, his super-powered family and all the supporting cast (there’s a very useful seating chart-cum-biography page provided for your perusal) had been trapped in a timeless state for 20 years by the invidious Sivana Family who had subsequently been trapped in their own Suspendium device.

The sales and fan rivalry of the Man of Steel and The Big Red Cheese (Sivana’s pet name for his stout-hearted nemesis) had endured for decades, and in 1974 Julius Schwartz took full advantage by having the two finally – if notionally – meet.

Superman #276 featured ‘Make Way for Captain Thunder’ by Elliot S! Maggin, Curt Swan and Bob Oksner, a trans-dimensional tussle to delight 10-year-olds of all ages. Incidentally, Captain Thunder was one of the options considered in 1940 before Fawcett went with the Marvel name.

Beck was profoundly unhappy with the quality of stories he was given to draw and soon left the series. One of his assistants and stable-mates from the Fawcett days had been a Superman Family mainstay for nearly twenty years and smoothly fitted into the vacated lead-artist position. Kurt Schaffenberger was delighted to again be drawing one of his all-time favourite assignments again, and his shining run is represented here by #14’s ‘The Evil Return of the Monster Society’ scripted by Denny O’Neil in 1974.

Captain Marvel’s blend of charm, drama and whimsy made and remade many fans, even prompting a live action TV series, but never enough to keep the series going in such economically trying times. Despite its cancellation, however, the series persevered in back-up slots in other magazines and the character still made the occasional bombastic guest-appearance such as 1984’s DC Comics Presents Annual #3.

‘With One Magic Word’ saw Sivana appropriate the mystic lightning that empowers Billy Batson, leading to a Battle Royale with not just the Marvel Family but also the Supermen of both Earth’s 1 and 2 (this was mere months before Crisis on Infinite Earths lumped all these heroes onto one terribly beleaguered and crowded world).

This cracking 40-page romp was plotted by long-time fan Roy Thomas, written by Joey Cavalieri and illustrated by the fabulous Gil Kane.

Now fully part of the DC universe Captain Marvel popped up everywhere. He was even a long-suffering straight man in Justice League International for a while…

From L.E.G.I.O.N ‘91 #31 (1991), by Alan Grant & Barry Kitson, comes the wickedly funny slugfest ‘Where Dreams End’, as the big guy has to try and reason with a drunk and hostile Lobo, and when he once more had his own series, spinning off from the superb original graphic novel The Power of Shazam!, a new high-point of quality entertainment was achieved – and sustained – by Jerry Ordway, Peter Krause & Dick Giordano.

‘Yeah – This is a Face Only a Mother Could Love…’ (from The Power of Shazam! #33, 1997) is a powerful, poignant treatment of intolerance and the collateral damage of superhero encounters where Billy tries to help a school-friend hideously scarred by his arch-foe the Arson Fiend. It’s possibly the best executed and least known story in the book.

This lovely compilation ends with a zesty delight from all-ages Adventures in the DC Universe (#15, 1998). Here Steve Vance, John Delaney & Ron Boyd create a testing time for Billy when Zeus decides to see if his modern beneficiary is actually worthy of his power in ‘Out of a Dark Cloud’.

The original Captain Marvel is a genuine icon of American comics history and a brilliantly conceived superhero for all ages. This collection, which only scratches the surface of the canon of delights produced over the years, is a perfect introduction to the world of comics and one that will appeal to readers of any age and temperament. Still available in paperback, let’s hope the modern hoopla convinces DC to rerelease it in both printed and digital editions…
© 1940, 1941, 1948, 1952, 1953, 1973, 1974, 1984, 1991, 1997, 1998, 2008, DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

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.
© 2008, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil



By Jeff Smith, coloured by Steve Hamaker (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1466-1 (HB)                    978-1-4012-0974-2 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Immaculate Fight ‘n’ Tights Fiction for the Whole Family… 10/10

Superhero comics don’t get better than this.

No soft-soap, no easing you in. Jeff Smith (in a tale originally published as a 4-issue prestige format miniseries in 2007) came the closest yet to recapturing the naive yet knowing charm that made the World’s Mightiest Innocent far and away the most successful super-character of the Golden Age in this reworking of one of his greatest adventures.

So, with the latest screen interpretation set to bust blocks next year it’s well past time to take another look at the glorious beast – especially as its also available in assorted digital formats too. Now all we need is a sure-fire way to give eBooks as proper gifts…

Following an adulatory Introduction from Alex Ross, the trip back to our communal childhoods kicks off with a scene of appalling deprivation and terror…

Billy Batson is a little homeless kid with a murky past and a glorious destiny. One night he follows a mysterious figure into an abandoned subway station and meets the wizard Shazam, who gives him the ability to turn into a full-grown superhero called Captain Marvel. Gifted with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury, the lad is sent into the world to do good.

Accompanied by verbose tiger-spirit Mr. Tawky Tawny, Billy sets out to find a little sister he never knew he had, and even parlays himself into a job as a source for TV reporter Helen Fidelity

He sets to, fighting evils big and small, but at his heart he’s still just a kid. When he impetuously causes a ripple in the world’s magical fabric it causes cosmic conniptions that endanger the universe. When he finally tracks down his little sister, he accidentally shares his powers with her and suffers the ignominy of having her be better at the job than he is…

He also encounters evil genius Dr. Sivanna, US Attorney General and would-be ruler of the universe, and the deadly and hideous minions of the mysterious Mr. Mind, whose Monster Society of Evil is dedicated to wiping out humanity! Can he make amends and save the day…? Maybe, if Mary Marvel helps…

The original saga this gem is loosely based on ran from 1943-1946 in Captain Marvel Adventures #22-46: a boldly ambitious and captivating chapter-play in the manner of the popular movie serials of the day, and still regarded as one of the most memorable achievements of Golden Age comicbooks. It’s fairly safe to say that this reworking is going to stay in people’s hearts and minds for a good long time, too. It certainly spawned an excellent spin-off series which I’ll be covering next year some time, just to cash in on the movie…

Jeff Smith has accomplished the impossible here. He has created a superhero tale for all ages and hopefully returned some part of the genre to the children for whom it was originally intended. Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil is exciting, spectacular, moving and unselfconscious; revelling in the power of its own roots and the audience’s unbridled capacity for joy.

If you can track down the hardback volume, it’s stuffed with added features. The dust-jacket opens into a truly magical double-sided poster, there are sketch and script pages for the reader with industry aspirations, biographies and historical sections, a lavishly illustrated production journal, puzzles and even a modern version of the secret code used as a circulation builder in the 1940s. Most important though, and irrespective of what iteration you get, it is the mesmerising quality of the story and artwork that you’ll remember, forever.

Words are cheap and I’ve used enough: now go get this is a truly magical, utterly marvellous book.
© 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Shazam! Family Archives volume 1


By unknown authors, Mac Raboy, Al Carreno, Mark Swayze & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0779-3

One of the most venerated and beloved characters of America’s Golden Age of comicbooks, Captain Marvel was created in 1940 as part of a wave of opportunistic creativity which followed the stunning success of Superman in 1938 and Batman one year later.

Although there were many similarities in the early years, the Fawcett champion quickly moved squarely into the area of light entertainment and even straight comedy, whilst as the years passed the Man of Steel increasingly left whimsy behind in favour of action, drama and suspense.

Homeless orphan and all-around decent kid Billy Batson was selected by an ancient wizard named Shazam to periodically employ the powers of six ancient gods and heroes to battle injustice. Thereafter he could transform from scrawny, precocious kid to brawny (adult) hero Captain Marvel by speaking aloud the wizard’s acronymic name – invoking the powers of legendary patrons Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.

Publishing house Fawcett had first gained prominence through an immensely well-received magazine for WWI veterans entitled Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang, before branching out into books and general interest magazines. Their most successful publication – at least until the Good Captain hit his stride – was the ubiquitous boy’s building bible Mechanix Illustrated and, as the comicbook decade unfolded, the scientific and engineering discipline and “can-do” demeanour underpinning MI suffused and informed both the art and plots of the Marvel Family titles.

Captain Marvel was the brainchild of writer/editor Bill Parker and brilliant illustrator Charles Clarence Beck who, with his assistant Pete Costanza, handled most of the art on the series throughout its stellar run. Before eventually evolving his own affable personality the Captain was a serious, bluff and rather characterless powerhouse whilst junior alter ego Billy was the true star: a Horatio Alger archetype of impoverished, boldly self-reliant and resourceful youth overcoming impossible odds through gumption, grit and sheer determination…

After homeless orphan newsboy Billy was granted access to the power of legendary gods and heroes, he won a job as a roaming radio reporter for Amalgamated Broadcasting and first defeated demonic Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, setting a pattern that would captivate readers for the next 14 years…

At the height of his popularity Captain Marvel – and many of his fellow Shazam!-powered pals – were published twice monthly and frequently outsold Superman, but as the Furious Forties closed, tastes changed, sales slowed and Fawcett saw the way the wind was blowing.

They settled an infamous, long-running copyright infringement suit begun by National Comics in 1940 and the “Big Red Cheese” vanished – like so many other superheroes – becoming no more than a fond memory for older fans…

Fawcett in full bloom, however, was a true publishing innovator and marketing dynamo – now regarded as the inventor of many established comicbook sales tactics we all take for granted today. This stunning and lavishly sturdy full-colour hardback compendium features magnificent examples of the most effective strategy: spin-off characters linked to the primary star…

Fawcett was the company responsible for creating crossover-events and in 1942 they devised a truly unforgettable villain and set him simultaneously loose on their stable of costumed champions whilst using his (temporary) defeat to introduce a new hero to their colourful pantheon.

The epic creation of Captain Marvel Jr. and his originating antithesis Captain Nazi was covered in Shazam! Archives volume 4 so this subsidiary collection gathers his subsequent appearances as brand new headliner in Master Comics #23-32 (February to November 4th 1942) plus the first issue of his own solo title ( 18th November 1942) and also includes the first appearance of mighty Miss Mary Marvel who debuted in Captain Marvel Adventures #18 (December 11th 1942)

Featuring a stunning array of breathtaking and evocative patriotic covers by Mac Raboy and Beck, this splendid compendium kicks off with an erudite and incisive Foreword by P.C. Hammerlinck (artist, editor, historian and former student of C.C. Beck) who reveals many secrets of the original comics’ production before the cartoon classics commence.

Sadly, although the artists involved are easily recognisable, the identities of these tales’ writers are lost to us but strong possibilities include primarily Rod Reed and Ed “France” Herron (both early editors of Fawcett’s comics line) as well as Bill Parker, Joe Millard, Manly Wade Wellman, Otto Binder and William Woolfolk.

Before the advent of the World’s Mightiest Boy, Bulletman – ably assisted by his companion Bulletgirl – was undoubtedly Fawcett’s runner-up star turn; hogging the cover spot in monthly Master Comics and carrying his own solo comicbook. However, that all changed with the twenty-first issue and the murderous arrival of Captain Nazi. Hitler’s Übermensch made manifest, the monstrous villain was despatched to America to spread terror and destruction and kill all its superheroes.

The Horrendous Hun stormed in, taking on Bulletman and Captain Marvel who united to stop the Fascist Fiend wrecking New York City. The battle ended inconclusively but restarted when the Nazi nemesis tried to wreck a hydroelectric dam. Foiled again, the monster sought to smash a new fighter plane prototype before Captain Marvel countered him, but was not quick enough to prevent the killer murdering an old man and brutally crushing a young boy.

Freddy Freeman seemed destined to follow his grandfather into eternity, but guilt-plagued Billy brought the dying lad to Shazam’s mystic citadel where the old wizard saved his life by granting him access to the power of the ancient gods and heroes. Physically cured – except for a permanently maimed leg – there was a secondary effect: whenever he uttered the phrase “Captain Marvel” Freeman transformed into a super-powered, invulnerable version of his mortal self…

The prototype crossover epic concluded in Master Comics #22 when the teen titan joined Bulletman and Bulletgirl in stopping a string of Captain Nazi-sponsored murders, victoriously concluding with a bold announcement that from the very next issue he would be starring in his own solo adventures…

The triumphant parade of epic adventures starts in this tome with ‘Captain Nazi’s Assassination Plot’ (Master Comics #22), immaculately rendered by the Alex Raymond-inspired Raboy who would produce some of the most iconic art of his illustrious career, albeit struggling all the time with punishing deadlines and his own impossibly harsh standards…

Earning a living selling newspapers on street corners, young Freddie spots Captain Nazi again and dogs his corpse-strewn trail as the fascist kills a British agent and attempts to murder President Roosevelt. Then ‘Death by Radio’ introduces sinister serial killer Mr. Macabre who brazenly broadcasts his intention to assassinate former business partners until the young Marvel confronts him…

Master Comics #22 sees Freddie investigate a little lad’s broken balloon in ‘The Case of the Face in the Dark!’ only to stumble upon a cunning plot by the Japanese to invade Alaska. Whereas his senior partner’s tales were always laced with whimsy, Junior’s beautifully depicted exploits were always drenched in angst, tension and explosive action. The climax, which involved the bombastic boy-warrior shredding wave after wave of bombers, is possibly one of the most staggering spectacles of the Golden Age…

On a smaller scale, the next issue featured ‘The Return of Mr. Macabre!’ as the killer, turned sickly green after a failed suicide attempt, kidnaps a US inventor ferrying vital plans to England. The plot goes well until Macabre’s rendezvous with Captain Nazi in mid-Atlantic is interrupted by Junior who saves the day by ripping their battleship apart with his bare hands…

In a rare display of close continuity, Freddie then carries on to London in MC #27 to counter ‘Captain Nazi and the Blackout Terror’, with the malign master of disguise setting out to neutralise the city’s anti-Blitz protocols. For his service Freddie is made a special agent for Winston Churchill…

Never captive for long, in the next issue the Hunnish Hauptman spearheads an Atlantic reign of terror and kidnaps America’s chief of War Production until Junior single-handedly invades ‘Hitler’s Headquarters of Horror’, linking up with the German Resistance movement to free the crucial captive.

After such smashing successes it was no surprise that in #29 British Intelligence tapped innocuous Freddie Freeman to infiltrate Hitler’s Fortress Europa and prepare the enslaved populations under ‘The Iron Heel of the Huns’ to rise when the inevitable Allied counterattack came…

Master #30 saw the wonder boy back in the USA to stop Captain Nazi’s plan to poison an entire military base in ‘Captain Marvel Jr. Saves the Doomed Army’ before malignant Mr. Macabre joins the Japanese to abduct a crucially-placed diplomat in ‘The Case of the Missing Ambassador’ inevitably tasting frustrating defeat and receiving the sound thrashing he so richly deserves…

With Master Comics #32, the title became a fortnightly publication but Freddie barely noticed since he was embroiled in a decidedly domestic atrocity where corrupt orphanage officials collected and abused disabled kids to turn a profit from ‘The Cripple Crimes’

A blockbuster hit, “The Most Sensational Boy in the World” won his own title as 1942 drew to a close, but with Raboy already hard-pressed to draw 14 pages a month to his own exacting standards, Captain Marvel Jr. #1 was illustrated by reliable Al Carreno – a Fawcett regular who had covered almost every character in the company’s stable.

The bumper book began by briefly reprising ‘The Origin of Captain Marvel Jr.’ before depicting ‘Wings of Dazaggar!’ wherein Junior follows Captain Nazi to an occupied West African colony and uncovers a flight of secret super-planes intended to bomb America to dust…

After scotching that scheme Freddie is drawn into an eerie murder-mystery as a succession of gangsters and investigative reporters fall victim to ‘The Shadow that Walked!’, after which thugs snatching beggars off the street to fuel a fantastically callous insurance scam make their biggest mistake by grabbing lame Freddie Freeman as their next patsy in ‘The Case of the Cripple Kidnappers’

The soaring sagas conclude on a redemptive note as Captain Marvel Jr. “encourages” ‘The Cracked Safecracker’ to renounce his criminal ways and look after his elderly, ailing and extremely gullible parents…

This superb graphic treat concludes with ‘Captain Marvel Introduces Mary Marvel’ capably rendered by Fawcett mainstay Mark Swayze from Captain Marvel Adventures #18. Preceded by a glorious painted cover from Beck of what would become known as “The Marvel Family”, the story saw boy broadcaster Billy Batson hosting a radio quiz show and finding himself drawn to sweet rich kid Mary Bromfield.

During the course of the show – which also includes Freddie Freeman amongst the contestants – Billy is made shockingly aware that Mary is in fact a long-lost twin sister he never knew he had (take that, Luke Skywalker!) but before he can share the knowledge with her, gangsters kidnap her for a hefty ransom.

Although Captain Marvel and Junior rescue her they foolishly fall under the sway of the crooks and are astounded when Mary idly mutters the word “Shazam!”, transforms into the World’s Mightiest Girl and rescues them all…

Crisis over, the trio then quiz the old wizard and learn the secret of Mary’s powers – gifts of a group of goddesses who have endowed the plucky lass with the grace of Selene, the strength of Hippolyta, the skill of Ariadne, the fleetness of Zephyrus, the beauty of Aurora and the wisdom of Minerva – before welcoming their new companion to a life of unending adventure…

Notwithstanding the acute implied sexism of Mary’s talents coming from goddesses rather the same source as the boys’, her creation was a landmark of progress which added a formidable and unbeatable female to the ranks of the almost universally male mystery-man population of comicbooks.

The original Captain Marvel is a true milestone of American comics history and a brilliantly conceived superhero for all ages. These enchanting, compelling tales show why “The Big Red Cheese” and his oddly extended family was such an icon of the industry and prove that such timeless, sublime graphic masterpieces are an ideal introduction to the world of superhero fiction: tales that cannot help but appeal to readers of every age and temperament…
© 1942, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Shazam! Archives volume 4


By William Woolfolk, C.C. Beck, Mac Raboy & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0160-1

One of the most venerated and beloved characters of America’s Golden Age of comics, Captain Marvel was created in 1940 as part of a wave of opportunistic creativity which followed the stunning success of Superman in 1938.

Although there were many similarities in the early years, the Fawcett champion quickly moved squarely into the area of light entertainment and even straight comedy, whilst as the years passed the Man of Steel increasingly left whimsy behind in favour of action, drama and suspense.

Homeless orphan and good kid Billy Batson was selected by an ancient wizard to be given the powers of six gods and heroes to battle injustice. He transforms from scrawny precocious kid to brawny (adult) hero Captain Marvel by speaking aloud the wizard’s acronymic name – invoking the powers of legendary patrons Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.

Publishing house Fawcett had first gained prominence through an immensely well-received light entertainment magazine for WWI veterans named Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang, before branching out into books and general interest magazines. Their most successful publication – at least until the Good Captain hit his stride – was the ubiquitous boy’s building bible Mechanix Illustrated and, as the decade unfolded, the scientific and engineering discipline and can-do demeanour underpinning MI suffused and informed both the art and plots of the Marvel Family titles.

Captain Marvel was the brainchild of writer/editor Bill Parker and brilliant young illustrator Charles Clarence Beck who, with his assistant Pete Costanza, handled most of the art on the series throughout its stellar run. Before eventually evolving his own affable personality the full-grown hero was a serious, bluff and rather characterless powerhouse whilst junior alter ego Billy was the true star: a Horatio Alger archetype of impoverished, bold, self-reliant and resourceful youth overcoming impossible odds through gumption, grit and sheer determination…

After homeless orphan newsboy Billy was granted access to the power of legendary gods and heroes he won a job as a roaming radio reporter for Amalgamated Broadcasting and first defeated the demonic Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana, setting a pattern that would captivate readers for the next 14 years…

At the height of his popularity Captain Marvel was published twice-monthly and outsold Superman, but as the Furious Forties closed tastes changed, sales slowed and Fawcett saw the way the wind was blowing. They finally settled an infamous, long-running copyright infringement suit begun by National Comics in 1940 and the Big Red Cheese vanished – as did so many superheroes – becoming little more than a fond memory for older fans…

Fawcett in full bloom, however, was a true publishing innovator and marketing powerhouse – and regarded as the inventor of many established comicbook sales tactics we all take for granted today. In this fourth magnificent deluxe full-colour hardback compendium we can see one of their best manoeuvres at play as the company responsible for creating crossover-events invented a truly unforgettable villain, set him simultaneously loose on a range of costumed champions and used his (temporary) defeat to introduce a new hero to their colourful pantheon.

Spanning the fraught yet productive period October 31st 1941 to May 13th 1942 and collecting in their entirety Captain Marvel Adventures #4-5, exploits from Master Comics #21-22, an adventure from fortnightly Whiz Comics #25 and another from anthology America’s Greatest Comics #2 – plus all the stunning covers by Beck and Raboy – this splendid compendium kicks off with an erudite and incisive Foreword by P.C. Hammerlinck (artist, editor, historian and former student of C.C. Beck) who reveals many secrets of the original comics’ production before the cartoon classic commences.

Although there was increasing talk of inevitable war amongst the American public at the time, most of these tales were created before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, making the role of Adolf Hitler as a recurring villain and the creation of Captain Nazi in those by-no-means certain days acts of prophetic calculation…

However, as the thinly-veiled saboteur and spy sagas which previously permeated the genre until official Hostilities were finally established gave way to certainty, the Axis became the overarching threat of many comicbook heroes and this tome re-presents some of the very best clashes between exactingly defined polar opposites.

Of more interest perhaps is that at this period the stories – many of them still sadly uncredited – largely portray Marvel as a grimly heroic figure not averse to slaughtering the truly irredeemable villain and losing no sleep over it…

In those formative years, as the World’s Mightiest Mortal catapulted to the first rank of superhero superstars, there was actually a scramble to fill pages and, just as CMA #1 had been farmed out to up-and-coming whiz-kids Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, these first two solo issues were rapidly compiled by anonymous scripters under the guiding hand of veteran Jack Binder (whose brother Otto would soon become the assorted Marvels’ definitive scripter), another rising star who drew the issues in a hurry, working from Beck and Parker’s style guides.

The first of those uncredited issues is Captain Marvel Adventures #4 (October 31st 1941) with possible authors including Parker, Rod Reed, Joe Millard, Manly Wade Wellman, Otto Binder and William Woolfolk, whilst the Jack Binder Studio consisted of the man himself plus neophyte artists and recent graduates from Pratt Institute including young Bob Butts and Bill Ward.

‘Sivana’s Revenge’ kicks things off with a return engagement for the Three Lieutenant Marvels (a trio of other kids named Billy Batson who somehow shared the magic of Shazam’s gift). Fat Billy, Tall Billy and Hill Billy were visiting their namesake when the Devil Doctor repeatedly attempted to murder the radio reporter before seemingly losing his life in the detonation of a trap consisting of one million tons of dynamite…

The next tale introduced Hitler as the German-accented “warlord” of an aggressor nation which used slave labour from conquered European countries to dig ‘The Tunnel of Invasion’ right into the heart of Florida. Upon discovering the plot Marvel helped complete the project… but only so that he could trap the entire Nazi army at the bottom of the Atlantic.

‘The Secret Submarine Base’ found Billy investigating a murder and wrecking a scheme by sinister Mr. Fog to hide ambushing U-Boats in South America before calling in his adult alter ego to smash the site. Thereafter he teamed up with crusading DA Shaw to destroy the criminal empire of mobster Giggy Golton and his band of merciless assassins ‘The Lawless Legion’

Captain Marvel Adventures #5 (December 12th) was communally illustrated by Beck’s “Fawcett Captain Marvel Art Staff” – which generally comprised Costanza, Marc Swayze, Pete Riss and Kurt Schaffenberger amongst others – opening with a stunning recap ‘Frontispiece’ before Sivana again rears his gleaming evil-stuffed head to perpetrate ‘Captain Marvel’s Double Trouble’ wherein a refugee princess is kidnapped by a boxer the wily genius has transformed through surgery. He’s still no match for the real deal though…

Nor is the volcano-making ‘King of the Crater’ who attempts to turn America into a bubbling ring of fire until Billy and the Captain spectacularly upset his engineering applecart, after which a reclamation project is saved from sabotage by a cunning mastermind and an aquatic monster when ‘Captain Marvel Solves the Swamp Mystery’

The issue ends with another bout of weird science as ‘Sivana’s Strange Chemical Potion’ transforms people into completely different… people!

When Billy is replaced by a new kid with no memory of the power of Shazam, it takes fate in the form of a bunch of kids playing Captain Marvel to release the hero and unleash justice…

Bulletman – ably assisted by his companion Bulletgirl – was undoubtedly Fawcett’s second – if lesser – leading light, with his own solo comicbook and the star spot in monthly Master Comics. However, that all changed with issue #21 (December 1941) and ‘The Coming of Captain Nazi’ by William Woolfolk & Mac Raboy. In the rousing tale Hitler and his staff despatch their newest weapon – a literal Übermensch – to spread terror and destruction in America and kill all its superheroes.

The murdering braggart gets right to work in New York City and soon Bulletman meets Captain Marvel as they both strive to stop the Fascist Fiend from wrecking the town and slaughtering innocents. The astounding battle – gracefully and immaculately rendered by Alex Raymond-inspired Raboy – only results in driving off the monster…

The saga picks up in Whiz Comics #25 (December 12th) with ‘The Origin of Captain Marvel Jr.’ (Woolfolk, Beck & Raboy) as the Nazi nemesis attempts to destroy a monumental hydroelectric dam before once again being foiled and fleeing…

When the monster tries to smash a new fighter plane prototype Captain Marvel stops him, but whilst pursuing the maniac is not quick enough to prevent him murdering an old man and brutally crushing a young boy.

Freddy Freeman seems destined to follow his grandfather into eternity, but remorseful Billy takes the dying lad to Shazam’s mystic citadel where the old wizard saves the boy’s life by giving him access to the power of the ancient gods and heroes. Now he will live – albeit with a permanently maimed leg – and whenever he pronounces the phrase “Captain Marvel” he will become a super-powered invulnerable version of himself…

With the stage set the lad then rockets over to Master Comics #22 (January 1942) to join Bulletman and Bulletgirl in stopping a string of Captain Nazi-sponsored assassinations in ‘Dr. Eternity’s Wax Death’ (by Woolfolk & Raboy), victoriously ending with a bold announcement that from the very next issue (not included here, curses!) the mighty boy will be starring in his own solo adventures…

The merits of the ongoing court-case notwithstanding, Fawcett undeniably took some of their publishing cues from the examples of Superman and Batman. Following on from a brace of Premium editions celebrating the New York World’s Fair, National Comics had released World’s Finest Comics; a huge, quarterly card-cover anthology featuring a host of their comicbook mainstays in new adventures, and early in 1941, Fawcett produced a 100-page bumper comic dedicated to their own dashing new hero and the other mystery-men in their stable: Spy Smasher, Bulletman, Minute Man and Mr. Scarlet & Pinky and more.

This startling slice of World War II Wonderment concludes with a Captain Marvel yarn from America’s Greatest Comics #2 (February 11th – May 13th 1942).

‘The Park Robberies’, anonymously scripted but illustrated by Beck, Berg and the Fawcett Captain Marvel Art Staff, features Billy’s battle to stop and redeem a gang of underage muggers headed for prison or worse, with Captain Marvel going undercover as an ordinary beat cop, but is most noteworthy today for introducing comedy sidekick – and by today’s standards, appalling minority stereotype – Steamboat Bill, who saved the day when real hardboiled thugs took over the scam…

After a rash of complaints, Steamboat was dropped and didn’t resurface when DC acquired the Fawcett properties and characters in 1973. The revived series brought the Captain and his genial crew to a new generation in a savvy experiment to see if his unique charm would work another sales miracle during one of comics’ periodic downturns.

Re-titled Shazam! – due to the incontestable power of lawyers and copyright convention – the revived heroic ideal enjoyed mixed success and a live action TV series in his own unique world before being subsumed into the company’s vast stable of characters…

Notwithstanding, Captain Marvel is a true milestone of American comic history and a brilliantly conceived superhero for all ages. These magical tales again show why “The Big Red Cheese” was such an icon of the industry and proves that such timeless, sublime comic masterpieces are an ideal introduction to the world of superhero fiction: tales that cannot help but appeal to readers of every age and temperament…

© 1941, 1942, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder

New, Revised Review

By Judd Winick & Joshua Middleton (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0923-0

At their most impressive, superhero comics combine all the gravitas of mythology with all the sheer child-like fun and exuberance of a first rollercoaster ride. A perfect example of this is the 4-issue miniseries from November – February of 2006 collected as Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder.

One of the most venerated and loved characters in American comics, (the original) Captain Marvel 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 solidly into the area of light entertainment and even comedy, whilst as the 1940s progressed the Man of Steel increasingly left whimsy behind in favour of action and drama.

At the height of his popularity the World’s Mightiest Mortal outsold the Man of Steel by a wide margin and was even published twice-monthly, but as the Furious Forties closed tastes changed, sales slowed and Fawcett saw the way the wind was blowing. They settled an infamous long-running copyright infringement case instigated by DC/National in 1940 and the Big Red Cheese vanished – as did so many superheroes – becoming little more than a fond memory for older fans.

As America lived through another superhero boom-and-bust from 1956-1968, the 1970s dawned with a shrinking industry and a wide variety of comics genres servicing a base that was increasingly founded on collector/fans and not casual or impulse buys. DC Comics needed sales and were prepared to look for them in unusual places.

After the settlement with Fawcett in 1953 they had secured the rights to Captain Marvel and Family, and even 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) decided to tap into that discriminating older, nostalgia fuelled fan-base, even as the entire entertainment world began looking back in time for fresh entertainments such as The Waltons or Little House on the Prairie

In 1973, riding that burgeoning wave of nostalgia, DC brought back the entire beloved cast of the Captain Marvel strips: restored to their own kinder, weirder universe. To circumvent an intellectual property clash, they entitled the new comic book Shazam! (‘With One Magic Word…’; the trigger phrase used by the 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.

You know what comics fans are like: they had been arguing for decades – and still do – over who was best (for which read “who would win if they fought?”) out of Superman or Captain Marvel. Eventually, though excised from the regular DCU and stuck on a parallel universe, the old commercial rivals met and clashed a number of times, but until the landmark Crisis on Infinite Earths subsumed all those myriad worlds into one overarching continuity, the most powerful heroes in existence maintained the status of “equal but separate”.

In that new reality everything happened in one cosmos and Captain Marvel was fully rebooted and integrated. The basics remained untouched: homeless orphan and good kid Billy Batson was selected by an ancient wizard to be given the powers of six gods and heroes to battle injustice. He is given the ability to transform from scrawny precocious kid to brawny (adult) hero by speaking aloud the wizard’s acronymic name – invoking the powers of legendary patrons Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.

After twenty years in this iteration, Captain Marvel’s early days were re-explored in this canny, big-hearted thriller which reveals the details of the first shared case of paragons of power.

Written by Judd Winick and illustrated by Joshua Middleton in a painterly style gloriously reminiscent of the old Fleischer Studio Superman cartoons, this magical treat is chronologically set just after Superman: Man of Steel volume 1 and The Power of Shazam! original graphic novel, and opens with ‘A Face in the Crowd’ as a new hero begins saving lives in West Coast Fawcett City, whilst a continent eastwards in Metropolis, Superman stumbles onto a museum robbery and is surprisingly beaten by thieves employing magic. The robbers belong to a cult – the Temple of Bagdan – and are on a nationwide spree to collect ancient Russian relics for some sinister master-plan…

In Fawcett, Marvel destroys giant robots attacking a new solar powered construction site designed by Doctor Bruce Gordon, unexpectedly inspiring the enmity of billionaire industrialist Thaddeus Sivana. Although the owner of the Solar Center project, Sivana has huge petrochemical interests and only intended his eco-friendly enterprise as a tax-shelter. He certainly has no intention of supplying cheap, clean energy to the proles of “his” city…

In a make-shift shelter, homeless kid Billy Batson talks his day over with Scoot Cooper, another hard-luck kid and the only person who knows his secret, even as Sivana deals with his hated East Coast rival Lex Luthor. The arrogant Metropolis financier has experience with super-powered meddlers and resources to combat their interference. It’s time to make a deal with a devil…

Later when the Bagdan cultists raid Fawcett’s McKeon History Museum, Marvel is waiting for them but is also overmatched by the magical Mallus Trolls employed by the thieves. At least until Superman shows up…

The team-up explodes into action in ‘Odd Couples’ with the heroes battling together, discovering their similarities and major differences even as in Metropolis Luthor sells Sivana the answer to all his superhero problems: an exemplary operative dubbed Spec

The cultists have again escaped however and are in the final stage of their plan. Having secured the mystic paraphernalia to summon consummate evil they then force disturbed kidnap victim Timothy Barnes to become host to six infernal fiends. Sabbac is the antithesis of Shazam’s agent: a supernatural super-being sponsored by devil-lords Satan, Aym, Belial, Beeelzebub, Asmodeus and Createis in the way the ancient gods and heroes empower Captain Marvel, and he is free to wreak havoc and destruction upon the world.

To make matters worse, at that very moment Bruce Gordon succumbs to his own twilight curse at the Solar Centre as a lunar eclipse allows the diabolical Spirit of Vengeance to escape from his fleshy prison…

‘Titans’ finds Captain Marvel furious battling his dark counterpart as Superman struggles against not only the evil Eclipso but also his possessed army of innocents enslaved by the dark destroyer’s black diamond. When Sivana secretly funded the cultists he intended their tool to simply destroy Gordon and his power plant but now events have spiralled beyond anyone’s control. Even as the hated heroes inadvertently fix both of Sivana’s awry schemes, Spec is hunting through Fawcett. Soon his astounding abilities have ferreted out Billy Batson’s secret and arranged a permanent solution…

The drama roars to a terrific conclusion in ‘Men and Boys! Gods and Thunder!’ as a paramilitary hit squad attempts to gun down the merely human Billy but only hits his best friend instead, leaving Sivana to face the wrath of a lonely, bitter 10-year old boy, amok and enraged with righteous fury in the body of one of the most powerful creatures in the universe…

In the awesome aftermath Superman decides to deal with the shell-shocked Marvel in a way that will change both of their lives forever…

This is a big, bold, grand old fashioned comicbook romp full of big fights, dastardly villains, giant monsters, big robots and lasting camaraderie that will delight all lovers of Fights ‘n’ Tights fiction, and whilst not a breakthrough classic like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, is an equally mythic retelling of superhero mythology which ranks amongst the very best of the genre.
© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!


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.

Here, 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 wooly 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 followed a mysterious figure into an abandoned subway station and met the wizard Shazam, who gave him the ability to turn into an adult superhero called Captain Marvel. Gifted with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury, the lad was sent into the world to do good, a good if immature boy in a super man’s body.

Accompanied by the talking tiger-spirit Mr. Tawky Tawny, Billy tracked down his missing little sister, but whilst battling evil genius Dr. Sivana (US Attorney General and would-be ruler of the universe) he impetuously caused 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 monthly comic-book for readers of all ages) writing and drawing a breakneck, riotous romp that reintroduces the new Marvel Family to any new readers and, by virtue of that pesky rift in the cosmic curtain, recreates 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 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 story screams along with a brilliantly clever feel-good finish…

With issue #5 the writing team of Art Baltazar and Franco (responsible for the incomparably compulsive madness of Tiny Titans) took over, and artists Byron Vaughns and 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 wanted to reconquer the planet he ruled thousands of years 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. 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.

© 2008, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder

Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder

By Judd Winick & Joshua Middleton

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-296-7

Good, old fashioned comic book romp as the Man of Steel meets up with neophyte superhero Captain Marvel, who is in fact a little boy with a tremendous gift. Full of big fights, dastardly villains, giant monsters and robots, all rendered in a painterly style very reminiscent of the old Fleischer Studio Superman cartoons.

This is a great read for all ages and serves as a solid introduction for anyone unfamiliar with some of the major players of the Infinite Crisis volumes.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.