They don’t make comics like they used to… or, at the very least, they don’t make them like they used to very often. However, there are creators who produce works that reflect the comics of yesteryear. Composition and storytelling devices have evolved, and public opinion regarding what is acceptable to cram into a funny books has progressed (for the better), but in many current day superhero comics, creators sometimes rely on snarky humor, pop culture references, and lurid plot elements to get their message across. This doesn’t mean they're lesser works for doing so. In fact, comic books have reached a level of artistic merit which has spawned permanent marks on the very fabric of society and are increasingly being seen as a form of high art (whatever that means).
Yet, for all the strides comic books have made during the better part of a century, childlike wonderment has gotten lost along the way. Some comics have been able to recapture this long-lost sense of rollicking adventure, however; titles like Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse’s Tom Strong and Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross’ Astro City come to mind, but even these works dip into the deep well of modern comic storytelling. Now, we don’t think for a moment comics should revert back to their old ways, but it is refreshing when a comic feels like it a script from or decades ago and has been adapted my modern creators. This is exactly how Geoff Johns and Dale Eaglesham’s Shazam! #1 feels.
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The character of Shazam (or Captain Marvel) is one of the oldest superheroes still having great works written around them today. The character's popularity, which once rivaled that of Superman’s, has seen its ups and down, but when Billy Batson is put into the hands of creators who honor his Golden Age roots, we are often gifted with fantastic works of art that make us feel like kids again. Which only makes sense. Billy is a child, after all, and the idea of a preteen given the power of an entire pantheon of gods is one with endless potential.
Johns and Eaglesham jibe with the conceit of the character and may very well have produced the best debut issue of any relaunch this year. Not only does Shazam! #1 work as solid entry point to a character who has been explored so heavily, it’s a handsome book, presented with heart, humor and callbacks to older stories seasoned comics fans will enjoy. We are introduced to Billy, his best friend Freddy Freeman, and the other member of the Marvel Family within the first few pages. Their relationship dynamics are defined through tight dialogue and kinetic action in lieu of exposition dumps and needless narration. And while some of the things which unfold might leave people unfamiliar with the characters scratching their heads, there’s enough context to get the gist.
Geoff Johns is a man who loves superheroes and, more often than not, treats them with respect. He knows these are not his toys, so he tries rather hard not to break them or scuff them up too badly. He is a writer who wants his readers to feel the same way he did when he first cracked open a comic and discovered a world of wonder within its pages. He doesn’t always succeed, but when he’s firing on all cylinders, he can make even the most jaded comic fan feel like a nine year old kid again. And there’s something truly admirable about doing so. Trying to recapture a feeling that is beyond a simple sense of nostalgia is a noble endeavor for any writer.
Dale Eaglesham’s artwork helps the script achieve its goal. His panel composition has some modern flare, but he doesn't let off kilter panels or puddles hamper the more classical elements of the issue. His heavy ink work never muddies the pages and his detail doesn’t devolve into a crosshatching nightmare. His character design is fluid. The disproportions of the human form he employs are designed to heighten the experience and avoid tipping over into the abstract. Mike Atiyeh’s colors also help things along by keeping the flashy digital aspects of his work to a minimum.
With a film adaption around the corner, it only makes sense for a comic like Shazam! #1 to be released. Not only can it operate as a massive promotional tool for the character, it might reawaken some love from older readers. Shazam! #1 is simply a good time for everyone. There’s no restrictions or hurdles to clear in order to dive right in. Geoff Johns and Dale Eaglesham have crafted something truly worthy of newsprint.