The original Captain Marvel. Shazam. The Big Red Cheese. Billy Batson has gone by many names, but most know him as the Big of superheroes, a boy in a man’s body wielding such abilities as the power of Zeus and the wisdom of Solomon. While an iconic figure in comics and within the DC Universe, Shazam’s comic book past is actually quite complicated, going through multiple reboots and reimaginings over the last seventy years. With the new movie right around the corner (read my review here), let’s take a look at some of the comics you need to prepare for his big screen debut!
Captain Marvel Adventures Vol. 1 (By Bill Parker and C.C. Beck)
The stories that started it all, packaged here for your convenience! In 1939, publisher Fawcett Publications started a comics line to get in on the superhero craze popularized by National Comics’ (DC’s old name) characters Superman and Batman. Writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck were employed to create their own Superman, and that’s how Captain Marvel was born! While the old-timey nature of the comics might throw some off, these old tales hold up surprisingly well, full of action, adventure and good old-fashioned fun. It’s easy to see why Captain Marvel became more popular than Superman throughout the Golden Age! These stories were also the first appearances of classic villains like Black Adam, Mr. Mind and Dr. Sivana, and also explored the trials of the young Billy Batson as he tries to balance his life with the responsibilities of being a hero. While DC wound up derailing Captain Marvel’s popularity with a decade long copyright lawsuit, which destroyed Fawcett Comics for good, these comics remain the definitive Captain Marvel run for many fans.
The Power of Shazam! (By Jerry Ordway)
Years after Fawcett closed its doors, DC decided to add insult to injury by taking the rights to Billy Batson (though not the name Captain Marvel, currently in use at Marvel), putting the character in its Multiverse on Earth-S. Following the mega event Crisis on Infinite Earths, which shattered the Multiverse, the Captain waffled between various titles before comics legend Jerry Ordway stepped in. Giving the Big Red Cheese a revised origin in the vein of the Fawcett comics, Ordway successfully reintroduced Captain Marvel into the DC Universe. As an origin story it’s very new reader friendly, and introduces us to Billy Batson’s supporting characters and primary villains in a fun and interesting way. Plus the art is to die for, painted by Ordway himself. This graphic novel was so successful that it led to an ongoing series of the same name, one that is also a must read. It is Ordway’s brilliant work that kicked it all off, though, and it is the best story from this era for anyone looking to dive into the character.
Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil (By Jeff Smith)
Set outside of the regular DC continuity, this 2007 four issue series features Captain Marvel in the midst of a massive battle with aliens and the titular Monster Society. It does go into his backstory again, but updates it for modern audiences while also featuring some amazing action between the Big Red Cheese and his dangerous foes. Unlike something like Power of Shazam!, this tale features the breadth of Captain Marvel’s Rogues Gallery and is written with all ages in mind, making this story an adventure for the whole family. Featuring stunning art and an excellent script from Jeff Smith (the creator of the also brilliant Bone) and an unforgettable adventure, The Monster Society of Evil is the perfect introduction to Shazam for the whole family, especially with the family friendly movie right around the corner.
Shazam: Power of Hope (By Paul Dini and Alex Ross)
As you can see from this list there are a lot of stories featuring Captain Marvel/Shazam, many good and many bad (thanks, Judd Winnick), but there is only one that speaks to what Shazam is really about as a character. When Billy receives a letter about a children’s hospital with patients in need of uplifting, he summons the magic lightning and decides to pay them a visit as his heroic alter ego. As he spends time with the kids, he has to reckon with his inability to help them despite his great powers, especially when he meets a little girl with an incurable disease. Most people see Shazam as just another Superman clone, boring and stale with no defining features of his own, but this story proves those ideas false. While it is always touching to see Superman interact with children, some forget that Shazam is still a child himself, and seeing him around these kids is both inspiring and heart-rending. Paul Dini’s excellent script showcases all of the things that make Billy Batson a special character, from his fun-loving antics to the more somber and heartstring-tugging “grown up” moments. Alex Ross is always a treat to look at and is on his A-game here, adding a lot of dimension and emotion through his paintings. While not a traditional comic story, this is well worth checking out if you want to understand what this character stands for and why he is so compelling.
The Multiversity: Thunderworld #1 (By Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart)
When comics fans think of Grant Morrison they usually think of darker, heavier sci-fi works like Batman R.I.P., Final Crisis and the rest of his work in the Multiversity series. What I was not prepared for, however, was just how much he really loves the Shazam mythos. Set in the old Earth-S, this 40 page giant takes readers on a fun, action-packed and decidedly old school Captain Marvel adventure. Everyone is here, from Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind to the entire Marvel family, and there are tons of Easter eggs for fans of the franchise. While this story does tie in to the larger Multiversity plotline, you can read it on its own and be totally fine. DC’s New 52 initiative may have darkened the story of Shazam in the prime Earth, but Grant Morrison (backed by the always amazing Cameron Stewart’s art) showed just why the classic and fun Shazam is the best version of that character, and anyone looking to see the movie should pick this up.
Shazam: Rebirth (By Geoff Johns and Dale Eaglesham)
I was decidedly not a fan of the reworking of Shazam’s (now officially Shazam, as Carol Danvers was legally given the title Captain Marvel) origins in the New 52. I thought it was too dark, way too “realistic” and just a big mess writing-wise. However, with the spirit of Rebirth in the air, writer Geoff Johns has made a complete 180 and brought Billy back in a big way. As I’ve discussed on our podcast, Johns is focused on delivering a fun and exciting read, as the Shazam family explores several new worlds within the Rock of Eternity, from the Tron-looking Gamelands to the eternal carnival known as the Funlands. It’s fast-paced, it’s funny, and it’s an incredibly entertaining ride. Johns is clearly having a blast with this title and is backed by the incomparable art of Dale Eaglesham, the only modern artist I’d put up there with Jack Kirby and George Perez in terms of sheer talent. It’s only three issues in and very easy to catch up on, so jump on this train now, because you definitely don’t want to miss this!
Go out and read some comics guys! Shazam is a special character that deserves a lot more love and attention than he receives. Hopefully the movie will create more fans of this character and to these incredible stories. Make sure to check out Shazam! in theaters on April 4th!