Storytelling Engines: Shazam!
(or “It’s Alive! It’s ALIVE!”)
From one Captain Marvel to another, we now look in on the original CM, whose publication history has been a bit…spotty. How spotty? The company that owns him doesn’t have the trademark to his name, that’s how spotty. (DC generally markets his various series using the word ‘Shazam!’ somewhere in the title to let fans know who he is.) Captain Marvel has gone through a lot of dormant periods in his sixty-nine-year history as he journeyed through legal disputes, multiple publishers, and various creative hands–‘Showcase Presents Shazam!’ collects his second major run, from the 1970s, when DC first acquired the license to the character.
Well, actually, to the whole storytelling engine, because CM’s got a doozy. There’s a whole package that comes with the Big Red Cheese, and although it’s really more aimed at kids than adults, it’s probably one of the best juvenile-fiction storytelling engines out there. First, he’s got one of the best origins in comics. It’s so steeped in myth it’s practically primal; young Billy Batson finds a mystic hall where his subway station should be, and an elderly wizard grants him the best attributes of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury, entrusting the innocent child with the safety of the human race.
Then, it’s got one of the great mad scientists of the genre, Doctor Sivana, acting as the primary villain. Crazy, cantankerous, and filled with berserk glee in a way Luthor was always a bit too pompous to show, he takes a wild delight in trying to do horrible things. Couple that with some good B-listers (Mr. Mind, Ibac, Black Adam), and you’ve got a lot of storytelling potential. (At this point, I’d just like to remind everyone that the target audience for these comics is kids. Anyone complaining that Mr. Mind is “silly” might just want to go take a smoke break until next week, OK?)
Add to that Captain Marvel Junior, Mary Marvel, and Talky Tawny for a supporting cast (OK, even a kid-lit enthusiast like me can’t get behind some of the other Marvels they introduced later on), and Fawcett City as a setting, and you’ve got plenty of material for stories. Unfortunately for DC, you’ve also got an twenty-year gap between the last publication of the series and your attempt to revive it.
This is actually a pretty common event nowadays; with the popularity of DVDs, trade paperbacks, and other archival materials, lots of series come up for revival after some gap or another. (Think ‘Buffy’, ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Battlestar Galactica’, ‘Futurama’, ‘Ghostbusters’, ‘Indiana Jones’…the list goes on and on and on.) So the question becomes, “How do you handle the storytelling engine when you’re reviving a dormant series?”
The approach that DC took in the 1970s was to treat the gap as a real event in the fictional universe, explain what happened during that time, and deal with the changes it made. In the case of the 70s Captain Marvel, it’s done with as little actual change as possible; a concoction of “Suspendium”, created by Doctor Sivana as a weapon against Captain Marvel, freezes Marvel, Sivana, and all of Fawcett City for twenty solid years. They recover, more or less unaware of the passage of time, and resume their normal lives. (This would be the same route as series like ‘Futurama’ took; minimize the disruption, and get back to telling stories. Other series have more dramatic changes; the ‘Angel: After the Fall’ comic, for example, has Los Angeles plummeting into Hell.)
Later, after the revived ‘Shazam’ proved unpopular, DC used ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ as an opportunity to rebuild the storytelling engine from the ground up, starting from the beginning and jettisoning elements they didn’t like. This “reboot” approach is far more common in comics than other media (having been popularized by ‘Crisis’, actually) but does come up from time to time elsewhere. (‘Battlestar Galactica’, anyone? Please, anyone? We’re practically giving it away!)
The present approach to reviving Captain Marvel from another long period of dormancy (although he’s remained active as a supporting character in the DC Universe since his series was canceled in 1999) seems to be a mix of both approaches. In the mainstream DC line, they’re reviving the character through a mini-series that puts Captain Marvel and his supporting cast through a series of changes, resulting in a darker, “edgier” character that (DC hopes) will appeal more to today’s comic readers. At the same time, DC’s putting out several out-of-continuity “reboot” mini-series, featuring high-profile talent like Jeff Smith and Mike Kunkel, that appeal more to the character’s kid-lit roots. Only time will tell if this new trick will succeed…or if we’ll be looking at another Captain Marvel revival, somewhere down the line.