In “The Curse of Shazam,” a backup feature beginning in issue #7 of the monthly comic book series “Justice League,” DC Comics is reinventing Captain Marvel, giving him a more fantasy-oriented approach and settling decades long disputes by officially changing the hero’s name to Shazam. Artist Gary Frank and DC CCO Geoff Johns are collaborating on the backup, bringing the Golden Age character firmly into both the modern day and the New 52.
Originally published by Fawcett Comics, Captain Marvel was the magical alias of teenager Billy Batson. Chosen by the wizard Shazam as the champion of good, when shouting the words “Shazam!” — an acronym for the mighty heroes and gods of the past — Billy transforms into the adult superhero Captain Marvel. Licensed to DC by Fawcett in the 1970s, Captain Marvel was purchased by DC in 1991. However, the legal wrangles over the character had been going on just as long; DC originally sued Fawcett in the 1940s for copyright infringement over the character’s similarity to Superman, and the possibility of legal disputes with Marvel Comics over the name led DC to publish further Captain Marvel adventures under the title “Shazam!” leading many unfamiliar with the character to believe that was his name — and pointed to as one of the reasons for the name change by Johns in a recent New York Post article.
On the creative side of the backup, “The Curse of Shazam” is not the first time Frank and Johns have come together for a project. The two collaborated on “Action Comics” and “Superman: Secret Origin” in the mid-2000s, and later this year DC is releasing the duo’s graphic novel, “Batman: Earth One.”
Speaking with CBR News, Frank gave more details on the backup including what other members of the Marvel family will be making an appearance and reflections on his other projects from “Smallville Season 11” to “Batman: Earth One.”
CBR News: Geoff Johns has said the new version of Billy Batson/Shazam you’re working on is focused on the “magic hero instead of the super hero.” How does that reflect in your redesign of the character and in your art?
Gary Frank: That’s very hard to answer without showing the designs themselves. The first thing is that the cape is now more of a cloak but, beyond that, the magic power is now a part of the look. The idea is that the lightning is always crackling around him, the power barely contained. He is, in effect, a conduit for the power.
Along with changing the focus of Shazam from superhero to more magic and fantasy, editor Brian Cunningham mentioned you are deliberately ditching the “circus strongman” look associated with the character. With the changes to the character, how do you go about differentiating Shazam and Billy visually from other superheroes in the DC Universe?
Well, this goes back to the first question, really. We’re not ditching the muscles and doing Gandalf in a red leotard. Whereas the JLA makeovers have consistent and common elements, the Shazam! costume comes from nowhere. It is born of magic and doesn’t necessarily look like it is from a particular time.
Are you also getting a chance to redesign supporting cast and extended Shazam family members like Tawky Tawny or Mary?
I am, yes. The family is getting a makeover but the idea of “family” is so central to the story that we couldn’t possibly leave it out. And you’ll see Mr. Tawky Tawny in Chapter Two in “Justice League” #8 (sort of).
Historically Captain Marvel has been everything from a very cartoony and silly kids character to a much more serious superhero. From the images we’ve seen of the new Shazam with his cloak and the lightning it looks like you are going for a darker take. Is the tone of this new fantasy-oriented Shazam going to be a lot grimmer?
Hmmm. There is darkness but I wouldn’t say it is grim. This isn’t a gritty version. It’s very much a fantasy story about a group of kids and designed to be enjoyed by kids. That doesn’t mean we need to have rainbows and pixie dust everywhere but it’s not exactly Frank Miller.
Did Geoff Johns’ “Flashpoint” S.H.A.Z.A.M. characters influence your take on Shazam at all? Did you and Geoff pull influence from “Flashpoint” or older Captain Marvel stories, or is this a completely clean slate for Billy?
No, this is something entirely new. There are elements of the Shazam! mythology (obviously) but it isn’t a continuation of any story that has gone before.
Along those lines, what sort of story are you two telling in the backup? Are we getting to see the retelling of Billy’s origins?
Yes. The origins of Billy, Black Adam, Sivana, etc. will all be there. The story is about a group of (semi-)ordinary children so we couldn’t go into the story at a later point without first going along with them into the extraordinary events.
We know that Shazam is going to have a big impact on the Justice League later this year. At this point, how would you describe that impact? Is it something you and Geoff are going to be dealing with right away in your first issues?
No. Our story is completely self-contained. There’s an awareness of how the characters will eventually need to end up in order to fit into the grander scheme but we are building primarily towards later events in our own tale rather than making an intro for a “JLA” arc.
You also collaborated with Geoff on “Batman: Earth One” which is set to come out this year. How has the collaboration on the Shazam backup differed from your work together on “Batman: Earth One?”
The style of the book is very different but the nature of the collaboration is essentially the same. We talk often about where we want to take these characters and how we are going to get them there. Geoff starts with an idea of what kind of story he wants to tell and I try and throw in a few suggestions as to how we can get that across. We’ll talk about the best way to achieve a desired result but the overall vision and tone come from Geoff’s master plan.
When it comes to “Batman: Earth One” what should fans expect from the graphic novel — will it be similar in tone to J. Michael Straczynski’s “Superman: Earth One?”
I suppose so. The concept behind both books is the same. We talked about having a uniform look for the coloring, etc. but, in the end, we decided that the best approach was to do what we each felt was right for own story without too much reference to the other.
Finally, you are also working on the print covers for “Smallville Season 11,” so all in all you’re a pretty busy guy! Does working on the “Smallville” covers give you a different insight into drawing Superman, or a different perspective on your other comics work?
I’ve only done one so far but I think of the characters as being pretty different from the ones I’ve done in the regular books so I don’t really feel that there is much of a connection. The tools are the same but, creatively, it’s a different animal.
“Justice League” #7 with the “Curse Of Shazam!” backup story hits stores March 21; “Batman: Earth One” is slated for release July 4 and “Smallville Season 11” comes out digitally April 13 and in print May 16.