Monday, December 23, 2013

Shazam: Power of Hope, Part Two

Shazam: Power of Hope (November 2000)
Paul Dini-Alex Ross

Karen: We're back with part two of our review of this story.When we left off, Captain Marvel had been entertaining some ill children at a hospital with tales of his adventures. While at the hospital, he learns of a young girl who has had an accident and lost her sight. A doctor tells Cap that the girl's vision might be restored by a specialist in Japan with the skill to perform a complicated operation, but the girl cannot make the long trip. Cap decides to bring the doctor to her and in no time he is in Tokyo, where he locates the surgeon. He convinces the doctor he can get him there and back quickly. He puts the doc in a car and tells him to bundle up -and run the heater. You see, in order to get there as quickly as possible, Cap is going to fly them over the North Pole! He grabs the car and hoists it over him and off they go.

Doug:  Last week I alluded to my sense that the adventures of Captain Marvel always seemed to have a somewhat juvenile air about them, and that I'd even considered them beneath me.  But you know what?  I find that when I read this story I just totally suspend all disbelief, and take this for what it is -- and it's really, really fun!  For whatever reason, I don't look at this character or story through the same lens that I would a Superman or Batman tale.  And that's fine.

Karen: After he drops the doctor at the hospital, Cap begins taking the kids out to grant their wishes. Ross draws a two-page spread showing the Captain flying over the city, carrying the children with him, so they can experience the thrill of flight. In another section of the pages, he takes them to a zoo to get up close with a jaguar. And then he carries them under the ocean in a glass sphere so they can see the teeming life beneath its surface. He reflects that although he has done all of these things many times himself, doing them with the children and seeing the wonder on their faces makes it feel new again.

Doug:  My kind words above notwithstanding, I was unable to shake my reservations at these scenes of the Captain and the kids doing all of these risky things.  Yes, I know he's the World's Mightiest Mortal, and that he could probably save each and every child from whatever danger presented itself, but I still had a certain degree of parental uneasiness about these pages.  On the other hand, it was a wonderful display of one super person being able to be a one-man Make-A-Wish Foundation for these afflicted children, and that was heartwarming.


Karen: Considering what happens next, I think your concerns are well-founded! Next up is a trip to a national park. The kids pile into a van and Cap lifts them up and flies them over the countryside. It really is a breath-taking view, with beautiful green pine forests and a bright blue lake. Suddenly the placid flight is shattered by the sound of an explosion. Cap looks around and sees a rockslide and cracks in the near-by dam. He sets the van down away from the rockslide and quickly piles up boulders to slow the leak from the dam. Then there is another explosion, and when he investigates, Cap finds men trying to blast open a closed mine. He realizes the men are trying to illegally re-open the mine to get ore. Cap's appearance startles the men. He gives them a chance to surrender, and is answered with a shotgun blast to the chest, and then a bulldozer tries to run him down. Cap easily handles both, but one of the men sets off another explosion, and this one causes a massive rockslide on top of the looters. Cap manages to get them to safety, but the dam has completely sprung. He realizes the kids are right in the path of the surging water! He flies quickly to the van, which is already being carried down a newly-created stream, and grabs it and carries it away, just before it is about to plunge over a cliff. Placing the van on top of a mountain road to check on the kids, Cap mentally berates himself for not doing a better job. The kids are probably terrified. He opens the van doors and finds his young charges are thrilled -this is the most fun they've ever had!

Doug:  Well, back to me being a wet blanket.  I don't want to declare Paul Dini's script predictable, but I saw this one coming a mile away.  And I didn't like it when Cap set the van down, and I certainly didn't like it when I knew the dam was going to break.  I loved the thrill Captain Marvel was able to bring to these children, but it's sort of like being asked to go on a ridealong with a cop.  If the cop's nightly duties are working security at a high school basketball game, that's one thing.  However, if his patrol that night is through the roughest part of town in the middle of a hot, irritable summer, it's quite another.  Maybe I'm overthinking this -- of course Captain Marvel didn't know ahead of time that he was going to encounter the blasts, etc. And no, I haven't tried to shield my sons from all of life's travails.  I just thought these children were pretty defenseless in the event something did go wrong -- and when it did go wrong...

Doug:  What did you think of the way Ross drew the Captain when he was telling the miners that enough was enough?  That was a menacing countenance on our hero!  To be honest, and again this may speak to my limited experience with the character, it almost seemed out of character.  Totally in-character, however, were Marvel's facial expressions in this vignette; Ross knocks it out of the park on more than one panel. 

Karen: Oh, I would agree, the different expressions Ross imbues the character with are a highlight of the book. And my experience with the Captain is about as limited as yours, but my impression is that he is 'quick to wrath,' in an almost Biblical, eye-for-an-eye sense. Sort of a rough justice, I suppose, or Old Testament version anyway.

Karen: Back at the hospital, the kids excitedly relay their story to everyone, and Cap tells the young female doctor  in charge that if she thinks his presence is having a stressful effect on the children, he'll leave. Dr. Miller ("call me Ellen") says not to be silly -his time with the children might be the best medicine of all. She even gives him a little kiss, and that leaves the good Captain speechless. But only momentarily. Cap then asks about the boy he saw when he first arrived (back in part one of our review) who was playing catch by himself, and took off when Cap showed up. Cap suspects that this is the child Shazam told him about, the one who will look to Captain Marvel for hope. Ellen tells Cap that the boy's name is Bobby and he's been withdrawn since he arrived at the hospital. Bobby suffered a bad fall down his basement stairs -or at least, that's the story his father told the doctors. Cap tries to talk to him, but the big hero clearly intimidates the boy. Marvel -perhaps utilizing that wisdom of Solomon for once? - intuits that his imposing frame reminds Bobby of someone big who hurt him. He checks the boy's injuries and can tell they were not the result of a fall, but deliberately inflicted. He decides to try a different approach: stepping into a room, Cap disappears, and Billy Batson emerges. Bobby and Billy discuss baseball, a common interest, and soon, Bobby opens up, just a little. It's enough for Billy to be positive about the source of Bobby's injuries. He heads over to Bobby's house.

Doug:  So let's see...  Captain Marvel has to report to one of the head honchos at the children's hospital that he placed the children in front of a jaguar, flew at high rates of speed with no security harnesses, and rescued them from a locked van that was about to go over a waterfall.  Honestly, I can't see any lawsuits coming out of that.  

Doug:  I have another question for our regular Captain Marvel fans.  And no, I'm not playing dumb here for conversation -- I honestly don't know: Who is Captain Marvel?  Is he a being in and of himself, or is he more of an aura, or some sort of ethereal entity that must have a host such as Billy Batson to manifest a physical form?  I know this isn't the same situation as Marvel's Rick Jones/Mar-Vell dichotomy.  How does it work?

Karen: Yeah, I've kind of wondered that. It seems like there is a lot of Billy in the Captain. I never got the impression the Captain was a separate being but some sort of extension of Billy. But I don't really know, and I'm not sure if it was ever explained, or just suggested.

Doug:  We've remarked in each of our two previous reviews of books in this Dini/Ross series how humanistic these stories are.  While this one certainly has been up to this point, it really reaches full speed once the Captain approaches Bobby.  The switch from Captain Marvel to Billy Batson is a stroke of genius and brings the story to where it belongs.  No heroes, no super powers -- just Billy Batson wanting to confront a major social problem at its base level.  But this scene also brings one more question:  does the thunder and lightning only come when Billy changes to Marvel?  Because this switch from Marvel to Billy brings only a small puff of smoke. 

Karen: Billy reaches Bobby's house and his father, Mr. Bronsky, opens the door. Bronsky is a somewhat stereotypical view of what we expect of a child-abuser: a beefy guy in a tank top. When Billy tries to talk to him, Bronsky says he should mind his own business and slams the door in his face. The next time Billy knocks, it is much louder. Bronsky opens the door, baseball bat in hand, saying now he's going to get tough, but who should be standing there but a very stern-looking Captain Marvel. He grabs the bat and tosses it away, telling Bronsky he'll give him a chance to do right by Bobby, but if he ever hurts him again, he'll be back. So far I've really enjoyed this book but this was a big mis-step for me. Now Doug and I have already discussed our misgivings over this behind the scenes, but I'll let my partner elucidate, because he does it so well.

Doug:  Marvel didn't just toss that bat out of the way -- I think it landed in the next county!  If this was a tale of Daredevil, we know that somehow Bobby Bronsky's case would have landed in court where the DA would have convicted Bobby's father of child abuse.  But here the solution seems to come much too quickly, and is any justice really meted out?  As Karen says, this seems to show us that answering intimidation and violence in kind is an appropriate (and successful) response.  I don't think there are statistics anywhere that would support this notion.  And while the title of this story is aptly named "The Power of Hope", there is no one reading this who could possibly hope to solve the day's problems with the assistance of a superhero.  Dini and Ross seem to suggest that Bronsky is suddenly cured of whatever inclinations he has toward domestic violence.  It would be great if this is all it took.  What was Bronsky's deal?  Why does he behave this way?  Is he chronically unemployed, or an alcoholic?  Was he abused as a boy?  Is there a Mrs. Bronsky facing similar circumstances?  Is Bobby an only child?  As Karen said, we discussed this briefly via email and these concerns ran along the lines of our prior conversation.


Karen: I was thinking, they could have skipped the whole dam sequence and really built more of the story around this, delving a little more deeply into the situation. It just comes across as very poorly handled. When Marvel gets back to the hospital, he visits the children's intensive care ward and he spends time with them. While there, he becomes aware of how his special dual identity allows him to connect with the children - they recognize his child-like nature, despite his outward appearance. He sits by the bedside of a small girl who is dying and holds her hand. She smiles and they speak to each other, and she slowly passes away. Marvel knows, despite his great power, there are some lives he cannot save. This sequence is particularly touching.

Doug:  It is extremely touching, and full of dignity.  I was very pleased that in this scene it's not just the Captain at the bedsides of these terminally-ill kids, but their families are shown as well.


Karen: As the weekend comes to a close, Cap flies back to the Rock of Eternity, still feeling a bit troubled. The wizard asks him about how things went with the children. Cap struggles -he's not sure. He's glad he was able to make many of them happy but he feels bad that he could not help them all. Shazam reminds him that not even Captain Marvel can win every battle. Cap says that doesn't mean he'll stop trying - he wants to always fight for those who need him, those who are in despair.  The wizard nods and agrees, saying that Cap has given them hope. "It is a good and powerful force, one that I feared someone young and dear to me was losing. Have you not yet realized who?" Cap now realizes that the youth who was most in need of hope was himself -Billy! Shazam continues, saying that the responsibilities placed upon him are heavy ones and that by expressing kindness towards the children, they rekindled the hope in Cap's/Billy's heart. Shazam praises his protege for his selflessness.

Doug:  When there have been philosophical moments in these stories, they've been handled very well.  Each of the three books has been rife with proverbs and other bits of wisdom.  Dini's scripts for the most part have been outstanding!

Karen: Captain Marvel bursts out of the Rock of Eternity in pure jubilance (and quite an amazing painting by Ross). His heart is light again. Soon, we see Billy going over to a recovered Bobby's house, to play catch with him. Friendship is another gift that heals the human soul.

Image found at

Karen: Another spectacular and heart-warming book, although I did feel the child-abuse angle was misplayed, surprisingly, by Dini and Ross here. But ignoring that, it really is quite gorgeous and well worth the time to read. Captain Marvel is distinctly different from Superman - after reading this, you'd never compare the two characters again, except power-wise.

Doug:  I agree with your summation.  I know that Alex Ross is a huge Captain Marvel fan, and his love for the character shines through these paintings.  This truly is a gorgeous book, and each of these stories have been wonderful all-ages reads.  And if memory serves, the Wonder Woman book, "Spirit of Truth" is no different.  But you'll have to wait 11 months to read our thoughts on that one...


MattComix said...

The Captain has been approached as a separate entity who is essentially a being made up of all the attributes that comprise the acronym for the word Shazam with Billy switching places with him. I would rec' Jeff Smiths Monster Society of Evil as an example of this.

Yet he has also been approached as Billy's mind in an adult body. The later is more of a modern approach and one that Dini and Ross have clearly adopted for this story.

Basically he's Billy but with access to everything the magic word is made of such as the wisdom of Solomon.

On the way the abusive father angle is handled. After trying to reason with him fails, Billy in the form of the Captain is to an extent handling the Dad the way he would any other thug. But rather than fly him off to jail he's giving him one chance to change for the better. It's not a case of Dini saying this is a practical application so much as a wish fulfillment moment which is part of what Captain Marvel is about. Billy wanted the Dad to feel as small and powerless as Bobby does as a way to make him realize what he was doing. Now some abusive Dads wouldn't even give a damn but Billy is clearly betting that Bobby's Dad does actually love his son somewhere underneath all that anger.

The reaction on the Captain's face when he realizes who Shazam is talking about gets me every time. The scene with the dying girl was such an emotional punch but then this moment had me smiling where seconds before I was welling up. Even though he has the face of the Captain you totally see Billy in there.

Doc Savage said...

The original Cap was a separate being and personality. He was not childish and a "grown-up Billy" as we have seen in recent decades. They portray a man with the wisdom of Solomon as a naive dope. I hate the more recent portrayal. It also flies in the face of having seen them both exist simultaneously. I also wish they would go back to his other costume and lose that godawful button-up military look.

MattComix said...

I don't think the problem there is "grown-up Billy" much as it is the product of bad writers who can't rationalize a character like Captain Marvel with the requisite gratuitous grimdark that's become their stock and trade.

Edo Bosnar said...

Last week, several commenters noted that the way Ross draws Captain Marvel seems to really suit the character, and I'm inclined to agree in this case. However, that first image in today's post, from the book's back cover I assume, is hideous. Seriously, it gives me the creeps - he looks like a sex offender (i.e., there's no way I'd let someone with that look on his face put a bunch of kids in a van).

And not to be entirely negative, I have to say that Dini's story in this book, like the Batman one you reviewed earlier, seems pretty solid, although I agree with your criticism of how that child abuse angle is handed.

Garett said...

Yes placing a van of kids just down from a leaky dam may not have been the best idea! But it's a fun surprise when we see with the Captain afterward that the kids loved it.

With the abusive man, I like MattComix's explanation. There's also a simple satisfaction in seeing the hero stand up to the bully. My thought reading it was, that's great for the moment, but what happens when the boy gets home and Cap isn't there? But the last page handled that nicely by suggesting that Billy will be coming around to play with the boy and check up on how things are going.

I think it's great that both Cap and Billy are heroes in this story. Billy's playful friendship is just as important as Cap's superheroics.

I think Ross must like lightning bolt characters, as he's also a huge fan of the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. : ) I love the art in this book--who else in the history of comics could do something like this? Great face expressions as mentioned, and Cap's red outfit really stands out in the scenes.

Doc Savage said...

The problem is comics readers being embarrassed by comic books and feeling the need to present them as "dark" and "serious" to compensate. It's a weird situation I'm not sure exists in other media. Does anyone feel embarrassed because they watch sitcoms and want a few decapitation and rape scenes thrown in to make it more "mature"?

William Preston said...

Re: Ed's comment on the look on the Captain's face: It's the same creepy-as-hell grin he wears in Kingdom Come, when he's a soulless tool of Luthor. Horrible.

Doc Savage said...

I don't think the angry Cap face works too well. Maybe a stern face is about as close to that as he should get.

William Preston said...

You see, I think, the limits of Ross's process, his reliance on posed people.

Anonymous said...

All I gotta say is - Alex Ross is a freakin' genius!

- Mike 'jingle bells' from Trinidad & Tobago.

MattComix said...

In regards to comments on the first pic, while it's not as good as the rest of the art in the book I think what's happening here is really just a unintentional side effect of Ross keeping the Captains cartoony eyebrows which are very pointy and arched combined with the smile. There's also a bit of an odd thing going on with the lighting of his face in that one that isn't at all present in the book itself.

Still I'll take Ross on bad day over a lot of artists on their best one ever.

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