Monday, December 16, 2013

Shazam: Power of Hope, Part One

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

NOTE:  As I've said in the past, some of the images in today's post may seem to have been cropped in a strange manner.  Chalk it up to my desktop scanner and the mammoth size of this book.  You have my apologies.  -- Doug

Doug:  I'm going to say it right from the top -- I know a lot of folks have had a long love affair with Captain Marvel, but I am about as close to a tabula rasa as it gets.  Sure, I watched the Shazam! Saturday morning show off and on, but I don't know that I've ever read a Captain Marvel comic before I bought this one 13 years ago.  Oh, I know the backstory and the cast of supporting characters, but I just couldn't say I'm a fan.  I do not dislike the character, although I'll say that I always felt he was too "juvenile" for me.  You know, I'm a big deal...

Karen: I'm in the same boat. I knew of the character primarily from the TV show, and had seen him in a few comics, notably Justice League #137, as a youngster. Later on, I read the character as written by Geoff Johns in Justice Society and developed something of an appreciation for him. And of course, there was the rather disturbing version of Captain Marvel from Kingdom Come. But that was it. Even today, if you say 'Captain Marvel,' a certain Kree-born hero is more likely to pop into my head first. I really only took notice of the character in the last few years because my husband loves him!

Doug:  I liked this story when I read it a long time ago, and I got that warm fuzzy again on the re-read the week before Thanksgiving.  It's quite a bit lighter than the Superman and Batman books in this series, and maybe that speaks to the prejudice I have that I noted just above.  But it works for the topic and the character.  I'll speak to a few of my misgivings when we get to the end of the story.

Karen: It seems that Captain Marvel should be lighter in tone -he just seems from a different era than the rest of the characters in these books. I think in many ways DC has always struggled to incorporate the Marvel Family into their universe. Their latest attempts with the New 52 -which I admit I am not reading -seem like yet another effort to drain all of the lightness out of the concept.

Doug:  Count me ignorant of the New 52 as well.  And I'd add that even though this story is set in a children's hospital and later deals with another serious topic, it does manage to stay light.  The "power of hope", I guess.

This scan courtesy of

Doug:  We open on a tropical island, where a volcano is erupting, but a city in high danger.  The World's Mightiest Mortal is on the scene, and with a plan that only Superman could execute (hey, this copycat stuff sounds like grounds for a lawsuit!), not only rechannels the lava but is able to plug the top of the mountain with a boulder the size of Rhode Island.  The two-page spread is wonderful.  You know, lately we've criticized Alex Ross's choice of monochromatic color palettes, but this story is so bright and breezy all the way through -- again, the art seems wholly appropriate to the character.  After saving the city, we get a montage of Marvel doing all of the things he does best.  It's a nice opportunity for Ross to cut loose with his photo-realism.  I love the humanism of this book -- I think the facial expressions Ross grafts to Captain Marvel are the highlight to me.  And yes, Fred MacMurray is in the house!

Karen: The depiction of Cap in the lava pounding on the rock really conveyed his godlike nature, as did his throwing the boulder into the cone. Yet he emerges from this all with nary a smudge! Again, godlike. The spread is indeed beautiful as we take in Cap over the broad expanse of land and ocean below. Immediately Dini and Ross establish Cap's credentials, as a being right up there with Superman in stature. The montage was fun, and being a fan of all things ape, I enjoyed seeing him subdue the gorilla. I agree with you regarding the facial expressions Ross gives Cap - look at these in contrast to how he depicts Superman. Cap always seems to be having fun when he commits his feats, basically showing off and messing around with the criminals he captures. Superman is all business. We can chalk it up to the Billy side of the persona.

Doug:  A gorilla then, Miss Karen -- just for you!

Doug:  As we get a few pages into the tale, we realize that Marvel's adventures are being narrated by Billy Batson, youthful radio host of his own show.  Batson signs off, and thinks about how busy he's been -- work at the radio station, doing the research for his broadcasts, going to school, and oh yeah -- being a superhero.  It's a bit of a pity party, and as Billy looks forward to heading home or better yet -- to a baseball game on the station's free tix.  But the assistant GM stops Billy on his way out and explains that the station has been getting a ton of mail -- we're talking the size of a Santa Claus sack -- addressed to Captain Marvel.  She says that the staff is going to split it up and write answers to the children, as if they were Captain Marvel.  Billy sighs... This isn't what he had in mind.  He thinks to himself that this is a job for his alter ego, then lets us in on a secret:  The only time he "abused" the privilege of being the Captain was when he acted as his own "dad" in order to sign the lease on his apartment.  That's perfect!  It gets to the core of being a superhero, and the whole "with great power must also come great responsibility" philosophy.  One should not abuse their gifts.

Karen: They've gone with a slightly older Billy, and it's a good idea. You can see Billy enjoys talking about his alter ego's adventures, almost to the point of bragging -it's a bit egotistical. On the other hand, Billy doesn't seem to have much of a personal life beyond the station and his duties as Cap. A heavy load indeed. 

Doug:  Ross does a fantastic job on the details of Billy's apartment.  The baseball-themed bobbleheads are great, and the drafting table is probably pretty similar to Ross's own.  Billy begins to sift through the letters, some of which are silly, many even from adults.  Many of the people want things, some of them bordering on miracles.  Billy begins to feel agitated, when he opens one from a Dr. Miller at City Children's Hospital.  She requests a visit to the children from Captain Marvel.  Billy sighs -- hey, it's another one.  But then he notices several pictures of the Captain, drawn by the children who are patients at the hospital.  His dour countenance suddenly turns up.  Paul Dini writes a great caption here:  "Tired as I am, I can't help smiling.  I think about it for a few seconds, then I say, 'Shazam!'"  Very cool.

Karen: I enjoyed 'looking' around Billy's room too -I saw that poster of a baseball player on his wall and my first thought (being an A's fan) was 'it's Joe Rudi' but then I thought, 'No, it looks sort of like Mike Schmidt.' Then I looked at the Oreos on the couch, the airplanes hanging from the ceiling, the bobbleheads -it's these kinds of details that always make a Ross book fun (never mind the crowd scenes).

Doug:  Captain Marvel arrives at the Rock of Eternity in a flash to seek counsel from the wizard Shazam.  The mentor explains to his champion that children are impressionable, and faithful.  It's a pep talk, Shazam telling Marvel that he's aware of the stress he's been under.  He then closes the conversation by telling Marvel to be aware of one child in particular that he will meet.  We scene shift to the children's hospital, where Billy Batson approaches on the sidewalk.  He looks across the lawn, assessing the situation; he thinks about the needs of the kids who are patients.  Suddenly he turns to see a blind girl attempting to cross the street in the direct path of a large delivery truck.  Shazam!  Captain Marvel whisks the girl to safety in the nick of time, and he thinks to himself that he is needed, even here.

Karen: Both of these sequences are so beautifully illustrated. I love the way Shazam is presented as colorless, not wraithlike but fading away perhaps. 

Doug:  Captain Marvel makes his entrance in a playful way.  A young man tosses a baseball in the air, and Marvel catches it and asks if he can play.  He lands as the children come running, rolling -- any way they can get close to him.  Dr. Miller comes out to greet him, and Marvel explains that he'd received word from the radio station that the children have been wanting to meet him.  He tells the kids that he'll be around for the weekend, and they are the bosses -- whatever they want to do, name it!  Marvel then suggests that they start with a game of catch.  But the youngster who had originally tossed the ball into the sky only seems to withdraw.  Marvel wonders if this is the special child to which the Wizard had alluded.  Dr. Miller takes the Captain into the hospital to meet some other children.  It's a wonderful scene as their idol, their hero, strides into a common area where the kids have gathered.  They nearly mob him with requests -- can we go to the jungle?  -to the moon?  -on any kind of adventure?  Marvel thinks to himself, and tells them -- we can sure work something out.

Karen: I've become such a softie in my middle years. Seeing all the children crowd around Marvel brought a smile to me. Ross does a wonderful job capturing a variety of expressions on their young faces. But it was Cap's look, when the one boy tuned away from him, that was truly amazing.

Doug:  Of course Captain Marvel wasn't really going to take the kids on any sort of "superhero ride-along", but he does tell them stories.  Wondrous stories of defeating bad guys, juggling circus bears, and working over giant robots.  We also get a glimpse of Sivana, and of Mr. Tawky Tawny.  The children love it.  Alex Ross does such a great job in these scenes, depicting children with all sorts of ailments, all drawn and painted with dignity.  This is such a beautiful book.

Karen: Cap's adventures are fabulous and I was just as excited as the kids were, looking at those pages with the meteors and the crocodile men and of course the giant robot! I agree, I can't take my eyes off this book.

Doug:  I agree.  On the reread to polish up today's post, as well as on the scanning mission, I really lingered on several pages.  But when we conclude the story a week from today, I'll have a criticism of the plot.  So far so good -- but does it end well?  Stay tuned!


Fred W. Hill said...

Hi, Karen & Doug, like you and maybe most of our regulars, I first became aware of "the original" Captain Marvel through the live action series, which I watched with my brothers regularly although it wasn't one of my Saturday morning favorites. That I was a big fan of Jim Starlin's Marvel version of Captain Marvel likely didn't help in my regard of that other guy from a distant era trying to make a comeback.
Otherwise the only recent Shazam! comics I've read were those included in a Starman omnibus I recently purchased. I was actually impressed enough with that to think about looking for the Shazam series from that era. And certainly Ross' artwork on this story is great.
Captain Marvel is in the same boat as Plastic Man -- a character very much associated with a particular lighthearted style, vision and setting that was difficult enough to transfer to a Silver or Bronze Age sensibility, never mind the ever darker modern age.

Gary said...

I know I'm in the minority but I just never got into Ross's art. While I acknowledge that it is technically pretty, to me his art seems lifeless and soulless. Its not dynamic at all. It leaves me cold.

The story looks like fun though even though I've only read a few Shazam stories.

I enjoy your web site. Keep up the good work.

Doug said...

Fred -- thanks for getting up early with us!

Gary -- alas, I think in the BAB community, at least among our regular commenters, you are not in any minority. While Karen and I love Alex Ross's work, our sentiments are not shared by many of our readers. But, that disagreement does provide for good conversation and ongoing debate, which is healthy. Thanks for leaving us a note this morning!


david_b said...

A couple items come to mind for me to mention.

Like Gary (and others here), I'm not a huge fan of Ross. It's quite frankly warm-cold for me, depending on the subject matter. I will say I like him far more on DC characters than Marvel. The openness of the DC character interpretation just seems to lend itself better to different artists than Marvel characters. To me personally, visualizing the vintage Marvel characters belong to the Buscema's, Romita, Andru, Colan, Tuska, you name it.

That being said, he typically does museum-quality work, and this is one of his best. He depicts CM as how I believe he was originally meant, a light-weight, fun-over-drama style, his head sculpt true to the Fred MacMurray-style innocence and heroics he was originally modeled after.

DC's trial comeback of CM in the early '70s were quite a treat as long as he was drawn by C.C. Beck. I really couldn't enjoy CM being drawn by any other artist, it just didn't seem correct, whatever that might mean.

Besides the legal wranglings behind the name and likeness, the return timing fit perfectly with the early '70s as an alternative to the increasingly-darker Batman.

Doug said...

Norman Rockwell (painter of covers of the Saturday Evening Post)
Haddon Sundblom (the original painter of the Coca Cola Santa Claus)

Ross brings this sort of work to comic book heroes.


david_b said...

Yeah, I mentioned the Rockwell influence a few columns ago, it's just Ross's take on the heroes.

I just take it for what it is, just magnificent one-time tributes to beloved heroes. Like Rockwell, Ross has his own special way of composition, perspective, lighting, and timeless, museum-quality facial expressions that never gets old.

I do like the special attention to the long chin, a typically-unsung feature of classic CM.

Garett said...

Great book and great review! I like how you've hilighted the special aspects of Ross's art here. This is my favorite book by Ross/Dini, along with the JLA book. I think Captain Marvel is a great character, and it's interesting that he was such a huge hit for many years, then hasn't quite found his footing again. I watched the Saturday morning tv show, then noticed Don Newton's very good art on the character. Jack Kirby also drew him, in Captain Marvel Adventures #1, which I saw in an archives edition--more energetic and rough than the CC Beck version, as you'd expect.

I agree with David that Ross is better with DC characters, although I still enjoy his posters for Marvel that you've been posting. After reading Bob Layton's Hercules recently, perhaps he's one of the creators that would have the right touch for Cap--some humour, some action.

Nice zeroing in on the facial expressions in this book. Looking forward to part 2 of the review.

MattComix said...

This is one is my personal favorite out of the entire Dini/Ross collection. I can't wait for you guys to review part 2 because I adore that ending.

Ross has stated in interviews that he's a fan of the 70's Filmation show as was I when I was little. It doesn't hold up well today but there's some things from it that are still pretty cool to me. For instance Billy being advised by the gods whose names made up the word Shazam actually made more sense to me than the Wizard. But one of the many .reasons I like this story is because the Wizard is being presented very much in a mentor role.

I usually find superhero stories hammering "realism" or topical issues to be tedious but here Dini and Ross are able to deal with a sad subject in a way that doesn't suck all the inherent optimism that Captain Marvel should have.

..and I think that's the thing. So many superhero comics now come from a fanfic mentality and one of the first things 90% of fanfic writers do is take something from their childhood and either gratuitously darken it or pervert it some fashion. Then par themselves on the back for being "sophisticated".

Possibly moreso than with any other superhero if you do that with Captain Marvel, the whole damn thing falls apart. That's not to say all Captain Marvel comics need to be humor driven but they can't but the ongoing exercise in anti-joy that modern superhero comics have come to specialize in.

Doc Savage said...

"Up there in stature with Superman"???? no, far beyond Superman! Captain Marvel is the greatest super hero of all time. It's the lightheartedness that puts him over the top, the knowing wink to the adult reader saying that yes, super heroes are inherently silly but let's have some fun, something comics have almost entirely forgotten. This is the rare occasion where I like Alex Ross because he understands and appreciates the core of the character. Captain Marvel is not a scowling sourpuss angst-ridden hero. He is an ideal come to life. I wish we could get more stories of the big red cheese done right!

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