On April 4th lightning strikes and the world will watch Billy Batson become Captai…. Err… Shazam. The buzz for DC Entertainment‘s latest potential hit is at a fever pitch. Early reviews have been generous. While we wait to see if the big red cheese will succeed in filling the temporary void of the big blue boy scout, now is the perfect time to brush up on the comics that once rivalled Superman in popularity.
For more on the history of Captai…umm… sorry… Shazam, read PopCultHQ’s Joshua Winchester’s comprehensive article here. This article covers some of the must-haves, the reboots, the new beginnings, and the back-issue bin specials. Do yourself a favor and hunt them down however you can: your local comic shop, eBay, Amazon, Comixology, or the DC Universe app.
For now, summon 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 as we revisit and highly recommend some of the great comics published in the name of Capt… (Dammit!) Shazam!
The Curse of Shazam!
With the New 52’s instant success, Geoff Johns not only reintroduced the Justice League into the new timeline but also showed the world that The Flash wasn’t the only red-suited thunderbolt he could tell a hell of a tale with. It looks like this serialized back-up story will form the basis of April’s blockbuster movie Shazam!, so it seems the perfect point to kick off this list. Johns managed to strip away everything that had become dated about the character without losing any of the heart and essence. While there’s been plenty of clichéd attempts to “modernize” older properties, this series never felt like it was treading a tired trope and took full advantage of the attention the book was getting at the time. Of course, it never hurts to have Gary Frank as your artist. This has been collected into a trade and is even more gorgeous as its own volume than it was as a support act to Jim Lee and Geoff Johns’ Justice League.
The Power of Shazam (Graphic Novel)
If Jerry Ordway isn’t your quintessential Superman artist (and he should be in everyone’s top 5 at the very least), then he must be THE definitive Shazam artist. If any hero deserves to be shaded in similar visual feel to the paintings of Norman Rockwell, it’s Captain Marvel (look… I’m just going to go with it). This was a soft reboot without being marketed as such and, to date, is the single best reboot of the character, bar none. Timeless, full of love, wonder, adventure, and reverence. Jerry Ordway writes and paints what would eventually lead into an awesome ongoing (is it on this list? …read on!) Whether you want a starting point or a single tome that encapsulates everything perfect about one character, this is at the top of the must-have list.
Let’s get something straight, this isn’t a Justice League story, as the collected versions would have you believe. This isn’t a Superman story, despite his featured role in the epic DC classic. This story really belongs to Captain Marvel. Think of it as “whatever happened to the big red cheese”. Re-read it and consider if the whole story doesn’t hinge on the redemption of Billy Batson. The DC Universe’s beacon of hope and its purest soul who has lost himself and forgotten how to hope himself. His role in the story is instrumental and he’s expertly written by Mark Waid and lovingly rendered by the brush of Alex Ross, both of whom are at the peak of their powers. If you don’t at least well up with tears at this story’s climax, you have no heart in the center of your chest. Not even seven thunders uttering their voices can help you.
Shazam! The Power of Hope
If Jerry Ordway’s Shazam isn’t the definitive rendition (but it is), then that honor goes to Alex Ross in a heartbeat. The son of Kingdom Come’s pastor brings a biblical air to this oversized volume. Part of a series of huge collaborations between Ross and Paul Dini that distilled and bottled everything that is Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Justice League, and Captain Marvel. The Power of Hope is a beautiful book full of wonder and heart that will leave you feeling blessed to live in a world were these literary icons can show us the best in ourselves. After you put this down, you’ll find yourself with Shazam’s irrepressible grin plastered all over your face.
The latest series features stellar art by Dale Eaglesham. who has taken his talents to another level, and is written by DC aficionado and all-around brilliant writer Geoff Johns. Building on his previous work in the Justice League back-ups, Johns brings the infectious fun to an expanded Shazam family and packs loads of story, magic, and mischief into what is so far a promising series.
The Trials of Shazam!
Around the time of Infinite Crisis, DC decided that it was time for a changing of the guard. Magic had died and a new age dawned. Billy Batson’s Shazam assumed the higher calling of the Wizard Shazam, so Freddie Freeman stepped up to drop the Jr. from his heroic alter-ego. But it wasn’t going to be easy. In this series, he faces a trial each issue to collect each individual power the title alludes to. This series re-interpreted not only the role of the former Captain Marvel but also the pantheon of gods and mythology from which he took his powers. This series began with art by Howard Porter. The wunderkind artist had been away from comics for some time and the art in the opening issues serves as a reminder of why he carried the art so consistently on JLA years before.
World’s Finest #253-281
As I said in my Detective Comics list, Don Newton is an artist whose career deserves more recognition. His work on Captain Marvel was his favorite of his career and it shows as he visually lavished his praise for the character into every line and shade. Equally as effective in black and white as well as color, he truly breathed life and a sense of realism into each issue’s work and captured the pulp/matinee serial vibe that is a vital part of Rock of Eternity’s champion.
Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam
Mike Kunkel initiated 21 issues of pure fun and excitement. If Brad Bird ever made a Shazam movie, this would be the source material. You often hear people tell you Pixar movies are kids movies for adults and that rings true for this title as well. Something you can read for, to, and with the little ones while also surprise yourself with how much you extract from the experience. These have been collected into multiple volumes and like any good Shazam series, have a timeless quality that will always be a pleasure to read.
Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil
You’re Jeff Smith, renowned creator of seminal indie comic Bone. You can write your own ticket in the comic book industry, work on any title you like. What do you do? You produce a prestige mini-series featuring Shazam and his most vile villains that is a testament to the importance of the character and its influence across every facet of comics. Also available in a collected edition and another great read for all ages, Smith’s heart and fondness for the character drives a simple, but excellent, series that will legitimately take you to the edge of your seat. Pure comic book storytelling at its finest.
Superman/Shazam: First Thunder
A pairing of two underrated creators drives this short series. Judd Winick has had shining lights throughout his career but never seems to get the love he deserves, and Joshua Middleton’s art is one of comic’s true best kept secrets to this day. Both should have been much bigger names and all you need for evidence is the potential showcased in this mini-series. Especially Middleton’s art that mixes an animated, anime-like style with something completely original and undefinable, sometimes comics aren’t highbrow, or milestone masterpieces. Sometimes you just need to let yourself enjoy the words and pictures for their beauty and simplicity.
The Power of Shazam (series)
Everything that was great about Jerry Ordway’s graphic novel of the same name continued a year later into a great 49-issue series. That nostalgic feel was fanned out across multiple storylines with connecting threads that could also be enjoyed individually. Ordway gave way on art duties to Peter Krause, but provided one of the most consistently gorgeous cover galleries in comic history. The pulp feel was back and survived and even thrived during company-wide events that lesser titles would not recover from. Check out the amazing crossover with James Robinson’s Starman title Lightning and Stars for a great example of how two brilliant series can play to each other’s strengths and elevate the other.
Shazam 100-Page Spectacular
Despite ending the title, even DC knew how good Ordway’s Power of Shazam was and, in 2011, they reprinted issues 38-41 and 44-47 under the DC Comics Presents umbrella to remind readers how good the unsupported title was. Nothing more to add here, just another opportunity to rattle on about how good everything about the series was.
Justice League #1-6
Not expressly a Captain Marvel story, although his power is showcased prominently throughout this late ‘80s tenure. J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen absolutely nailed the interplay of the powerhouse who can out-boy-scout Superman, and the rest of the obnoxious and hysterical Leaguers. Kevin McGuire’s art was instrumental to rounding out the perfect creative team, and despite the superhero aspects of the title, this book did a really good job of convincing you how good of a sitcom it would make.
Shazam: The New Beginning
George Perez’s Wonder Woman. John Byrne’s The Man of Steel. DC was knocking post-Crisis on Infinite Earth relaunches out of the park, and somehow this really strong entry gets forgotten all too easily. Great work by Tom Mandrake who plays down his moody dark style that was perfect for The Spectre. The reliable, fun, and substantial story writing you expect from a comic book stalwart like Roy Thomas. Although it would be rebooted repeatedly, this series should be enjoyed for being the first time DC seemed to get over its resentment for Shazam and start treating the acquired property with more respect and recognition as a solo series.
Adventures in the DC Universe #7 and #15
If the Batman and Justice League animated series are widely celebrated and the Superman animated series is recognized as underrated but still awesome, then this series should be the picture in the dictionary beside ‘forgotten gem’. Preceding Justice League and Justice League Unlimited by 8 years, every issue of this criminally short 19-issue run was terrific. Two issues spotlight Captain Marvel, with issue #7 featuring the Marvel family and issue #15 a Brave and the Bold-like pairing of Shazam and Aquaman. Like Paul Dini, writer Steve Vance knew how to craft a great single story from the very essence and core of the character. Penciler John Delaney shifted art style slightly off-message to create an amalgamation of the Timmverse style, the retro pulp serials, and Max Fleischer’s early Superman cartoons.
Shazam! will be in theaters April 4th.
Publisher – DC Comics