Because “Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!” is so clearly targeted to younger children, and because I wasn’t sure if someone even as old as seven would like it, I enlisted my seven-year-old son’s opinion of the first issue. He was excited after reading it, saying, “I like the art!” Then he added, “I really like how he pretends to be a grown-up — that was funny,” in reference to the way Mike Kunkel shows Captain Marvel putting on a shirt and tie to visit the elementary school principal for a “parent” conference. My son also said that he likes to do codes, “but there are too many of them, so [he] might do them later.” Kunkel follows Jeff Smith’s lead (inspired by the Golden Age comics and their secret messages) and includes encoded messages for the reader. Kunkel actually uses a recap of Smith’s “Monster Society” story to start this issue, and provides half of the exposition and all of the dialogue on those first few pages in code. It’s a bonus for the reader willing to put in the effort to translate, but it’s not essential for those who aren’t. Kunkel goes a bit too far with the amount of encoded lines, since even my son, who loves figuring out codes, doesn’t feel like tackling that many lines anytime soon. But my son liked the comic quite a bit, and when I asked him to score it on the five-point scale, he gave it four and a half stars, and said, “overall, it was great!”
But I have my own opinion of the issue, and since I’d give it three and a half stars, we’ll average it out to four for the purposes of this joint review. I’m evaluating the comic with a bit more critical perspective, of course, and although my son has read dozens of comics in his life, he’s never read a Captain Marvel comic before — so while he wasn’t comparing it to other incarnations of the character, I can’t help but think in those terms. I’m also looking at it from an adult perspective, and gauging whether or not it might appeal to adult readers.
Short answer: it’s for kids.
Long answer: it’s for adults as well, if they can enjoy the simplicity of the story and the whimsy of Kunkel’s characterizations. Kunkel’s style is nothing like Jeff Smith’s — Kunkel is all about movement and gesture, often packing his pages with a five-tier layout and panels of all sizes, while Smith was more about the precision of the individual drawings and the freeze-frame poses worth capturing. Kunkel’s style is manic, while Smith’s is more restrained. And unlike Smith — whose injection of real-world political satire into a Captain Marvel comic seemed out of place — Kunkel keeps the subtext as simple as the plot: Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel save a circus train, and Billy Batson has to use his adult self to pretend to be his own parent, while young Theo Adam begins making evil faces and thinking evil thoughts. There’s a sense of menace from Adam, but the kind of school-yard bully menace appropriate for the tone of this comic, and even though Billy and Mary are orphans, there’s no sense of desperation about them — they have nice little lives where they get to play hero.
One of the biggest changes Kunkel brings to what is supposedly a spin-off of the Jeff Smith series is that the Captain Marvel in this comic has the mentality of Billy Batson. Smith portrayed Marvel as a mature version of Billy — after all, Captain Marvel supposedly has the wisdom of Solomon — while Kunkel portrays Marvel as a muscle-bound superhero with the mind of a child. Kunkel’s Captain Marvel means well, and tries hard, but little Mary Marvel can think circles around him. And I think that choice makes the character more interesting. This version of Captain Marvel may have the wisdom of Solomon, but he doesn’t know how to use it yet, and that increases the potential for humor.
Mike Kunkel’s series doesn’t have the continuity jokes or quick gags of “Tiny Titans” but it’s of a similar cloth. Like Art Baltazar, Kunkel brings his own style to the DC Universe, and it’s always nice to have another fun comic for the whole family to enjoy.
I’ll leave the final words to my son, who says, “I’m really excited for the next issue.”