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Sunday Slugfest - Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil #1 (of 4)

Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2007
By: Keith Dallas

“Chapter 1: Yroob Szh Z Hvxivg!*” (Title can be decoded at DCComics.com)

Writer/Artist: Jeff Smith

Publisher: DC Comics





Average Rating:

Tobey Cook:
Bruce Logan:
Robert Murray:
Caryn A. Tate:
Ray Tate:
Thom Young:






Tobey Cook

It’s clear from reading all of the interviews with Jeff Smith leading up to the debut of this issue just how much he was enjoying writing and drawing this series. Since it was announced back in 2003, it’s been one of the most highly anticipated books from DC in some time. Everyone who has read Bone knows what a master storyteller Smith is, and he doesn’t disappoint here, either.

Monster Society of Evil is a modern update of both the origin of Captain Marvel as well as the original storyline which gives us the title. The first issue is mainly setup for a revamped status quo of the main character. However, it’s honestly one of the most refreshing parts of the book. For too long, the idea that the lightning was simply turning Billy into an adult version of himself was assumed to be the status quo for the character. That’s not to say it wasn’t used well, but that’s not how C.C Beck originally created the character. Jeff Smith gives Billy and Captain Marvel back their classic origin, with the young Batson’s body being used as a host for the spirit rather than just a focus of the Wizard Shazam’s power.

Jeff Smith illustrates all the wonder and imagination of young Billy Batson, and he has such a firm grasp on portraying emotion and power and all things in between that you can’t help but enjoy reading every single page of this book. Steve Hamaker, the colorist, has done a wonderful job bringing the worlds of Billy Batson and Captain Marvel to life. His vivid use of bright color makes every character really stand out.

I really enjoyed seeing all the wonders of Shazam’s lair drawn by Smith. He really gets how the characters should look and brings a real solid style of storytelling that’s really missing from most comics these days back to the forefront. This book is not so much about the art as it is about the overall quality of the story and how well it comes across as you go from page to page. There’s just so much to absorb here that I almost wish they’d just done it as a single hardcover.

If you were to ask me, this book will be remembered along the lines of Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come and even Alex Ross’ Justice series as an example of what can be done when you let a writer take control of characters he loves to tell a story that really will stand the test of time.

The best thing about this book? It’s perfect for all ages. There’s some minor implied violence in the beginning, but it’s not overdone, and it’s used to good effect to explain Billy’s living conditions.

There are clues in the front and back covers in the code of the Monster Society of Evil, and even more of them over at Jeff Smith’s Shazam! production blog . Give them a look, because you’ll get to see what he’s got coming up in the series.

You owe it to yourself to pick this book up. Even if you don’t like Shazam!, this is just one more example of comics done right.




Bruce Logan:

Now THIS is how you do a light bright yet with a lot of insight (not to mention content) story. That in as short a length as possible is my general reaction after having read the first issue of this four part “Origin” tale of one of DC’ s oldest and underrated characters, the “The World’s Mightiest Mortal,” Captain Marvel (a.k.a. Billy Batson). Granted there were a few things that didn’t quite sit well with me but on the whole, not only does Shazam! - The Monster Society Of Evil #1 score high on its own, its quality is all the more clear when compared against some of the other recent “light” stories/titles from DC (The Spirit for one).

Fifty pages. Half a Century. Five-Zero. That is how long this issue was and not one of them seemed excessive, wasted or just put there for number sake. Be it the art or the writing (both provided by Jeff Smith with Steve Hamaker contributing with the colors), from the story’s introduction of young Billy Batson to its ending with the foreboding of the upcoming evil “mind,” there is a sense of life (and in Billy’s case, innocence) that seems to weave through and join all the characters.

I could go deeper into the actual content of the story, but as with characters such as Batman, Superman, etc., Captain Marvel doesn’t have all that much that is a mystery about his origin. Thankfully, instead of doing a complete retcon, the writer has taken the story of the street orphan and given it subtle twists and additions, ones that while not taking away anything from the main origin give it enough of a personality to put the Jeff Smith stamp on it. Still, both a veteran as well as a new Shazam!-reader will both be informed as well as find something interesting here.

Although my words so far might have made it appear otherwise, everything wasn’t abso-shazam-lutely perfect here. Even though I enjoyed the artwork a lot, there were a couple of places where the colors didn’t quite work all that well; it wasn’t bad, just not at the same level as the rest of the visuals. Similarly for the writing. The constant “morning” restarts brought a shuddering memory of Vertigo’s Deadman and its constant dimension jumps.

Still, minor niggles aside, Shazam! The Monster Society Of Evil #1 turned out to be a very Shazam-a-rific experience.

Conclusion: The Billy-Wizard Shazam dynamic has never been done better. Never.

You can find more reviews by Bruce Logan at www.xcave.net




Robert Murray:

I might be a little biased in this review, being such a huge fan of Bone, Jeff Smith’s fantasy masterpiece. So I apologize in advance if my gushing goes a little over the top. I’ll do my best to remain objective, Scout’s Honor (and when you’re writing a review involving Captain Marvel, Scout’s Honor is definitely in order)! Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil is a series that was literally years in the making. Fortunately for us, Mr. Smith has made excellent use of his time, creating a smoothly-plotted first issue full of the Walt Kelly-inspired cartoon flavor that made Bone such a joy to read. However, this isn’t simply Billy Out of Boneville. Smith displays his appreciation for the history of Captain Marvel, as well as for the history of comic books themselves, in this modern update of the Cap’s origin. It’s apropos that this series takes place outside of the normal Marvel continuity, since it gives the immensely talented Smith unlimited freedom to adapt these characters, bordered only by their classic parameters. Smith handles this task ably, giving us a fresh and beautifully presented perspective on these legendary characters.

Smith keeps the basics of Captain Marvel’s origin intact, so there is little to shock the purists out there. Young homeless Billy Batson follows a stranger into the subway, where he takes a train to the mysterious temple of Shazam. There, he encounters Shazam, as well as the statues of the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man. Billy is given the powers of Captain Marvel by Shazam. When Marvel changes back to Billy, the lightning bolt severs the rope holding a stone slab above Shazam, crushing him underneath (never really understood that). Of course, Shazam is not dead: He now resides at the Rock of Eternity, which Marvel and Billy travel to later in this issue. However, instead of following the traditional line and facing Black Adam as his first adventure, Cap encounters a couple of alligator men. Presumably, these are the scouts for Mr. Mind and the Monster Society of Evil (which may include Mr. Atom, if the last page is any indication...). Granted, you don’t need any knowledge of previous Captain Marvel lore to appreciate this comic book, but it does warm my heart to know Smith has respect for the characters’ origins and the creators who designed them.

What Smith has done is modernize a classic character with the playful feel that will thrill the kids as well as the adults in the audience. Similar to Bone, the villains are not sadistic and are just as vulnerable as the heroes, giving the entire issue a lighter tone than most of the stuff DC churns out these days. For the older adults, this series will make you hearken back to the good old days. Speaking of kids, Smith includes some secret codes of the Monster Society of Evil at the beginning and end of the issue. In order to break the codes, you must log onto www.dccomics.com and enter the message. Not only is it fun for the kiddies (or the kids at heart), but one of the messages gives a clue about what to expect in the next issue. There’s something about Mary...

Though the story is involving and moves at a steady pace, the true star of this first issue is the outstanding artwork rendered by Smith, with a pleasant assist by colorist Steve Hamaker. Few cartoonists can nail the facial expressions that Smith does, giving the characters a life beyond the funny pages. Billy’s tormentor in the first issue, a street tough who beats Billy to supposedly teach him fear, is a perfect example of these expressions, as his face changes from hateful intimidation to total fear in the space of a couple of panels (encountering a super strong individual has that effect on punks). Also, the majesty of Captain Marvel, the wisdom of Shazam, and the innocence of Billy are all perfectly represented by Smith lines. The humor of the visuals are still apparent, though, and are enhanced by Hamaker’s bright colors for the larger-than-life Marvel and his magical world. Plus, the noise effects throughout only add to the overall fun, such as when Billy is struck by lightning while at the Rock of Eternity (after the CRACKLE and BOOM, Billy’s hair is standing up like Morpheus).

This was a fun issue to read not only because of my love for Bone (did I mention that already?). I think anyone who picks up this issue, whether you know Smith or Cap Marvel already, will love the energy and the artwork in this first issue and will probably be hooked for the remainder of the series.




Caryn A. Tate:

Now this is what’s been missing in most regular superhero titles: a fun, action packed story with engaging characters and great art. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Yet so few superhero comics deliver in all of these areas.

In the first installment of this four-parter, Billy Batson is a young homeless boy who is alone in the world and lives in a cockroach-infested condemned building. To make things worse, a cruel thief named Lagreen preys upon Billy by breaking into his room and trying to steal what little money he has. But in a flashback, Billy gets on a mysterious (and colorful) train, following a man who he thinks looks like his father. When Billy gets off the train though, he finds himself in the company of the wizard, who chooses the boy as his replacement. We see Captain Marvel and Billy’s lives begin to intermingle, and soon Billy has accidentally done something to cause the return of what I’m assuming is the cause for the title of this book: evil monsters plaguing the city.

An unexpected plot thread in this version of Captain Marvel is that Billy and Marvel are two different people. I had always been under the impression that when Billy turned into the hero, he was still Billy; so while this wasn’t what I had expected, I enjoyed this version of how the hero and the boy become one. Basically, it seems that Billy is still inside Marvel when the hero appears, but the superhero is also still his own person.

I can’t stress enough how sorely needed this type of story is for the Shazam mythos. Personally, I’m not interested at all in reading Captain Marvel stories that are dark and lacking in wonder. Mr. Smith has created a story that, throughout this issue, makes the reader feel like a kid again. The awe that the character and the genre deserves returns in this title, and it’s so refreshing that I just can’t wait for issue #2.

The feeling of enchantment that permeates through this comic is in part due to the fact that Mr. Smith isn’t afraid of exploring the most basic aspects of Captain Marvel’s character—the presence of Billy Batson. In some Shazam comics that I’ve read, it seems that the creators have forgotten about that most important aspect of the hero, and he’s just not Captain Marvel without it—basically, in those cases, he’s like some wannabe Superman. But we already have a Superman! So who wants to read that type of Shazam comic? Why not read Superman?

But here, Mr. Smith has made a Shazam comic that has its own worthy hero that hearkens back to the original Captain Marvel comics. Billy is a necessary part of the storyline, and the story is so much better for it. Billy, with all of his youth and bewilderment at what is happening around him, acts as a sort of jumping on point for the reader and injects the rest of the tale with the youthful wonder that most superhero comics need in order to be fun and readable.

The art is beautifully clean and sharp, providing so much detail in every panel that it’s also extremely effective. The facial expressions, body language, and action are, put simply, portrayed the way they should be in the comic book medium. Mr. Hamaker’s colors are clean and rich, and they complement Mr. Smith’s pencils perfectly.

I’m so happy with this book that all I can say is, if you haven’t bought it yet and you have any interest in the superhero genre or Shazam, you need to read this title. It’s worth the $5.99 price tag, and it’s a sadly rare occasion when I can say that about a lot of modern superhero comics. It’ll have you waiting (impatiently) for issue #2, I promise.




Ray Tate:

Ah, reverence. There’s a lot to admire in Jeff Smith’s retread of Captain Marvel. First and foremost, the art is just spectacular. Second, the story offers the reader new insights into the symbiosis between Billy Batson and his alter-ego.

Smith doesn’t change the story an iota. He updates the tale with a snazzy new subway car delivering Billy to the old wizard Shazam. He compacts into the origin the existence of Mary Bromfield, Billy’s sister. He contrasts the meaner modern world with the optimism of young Billy and the heroism of Captain Marvel.

DC originally fought against Captain Marvel. They believed the character infringed on their less popular character Superman, but nothing really could be farther from the truth. Captain Marvel was more like a genie than a science fiction Man of Tomorrow, and Superman took the guise of Clark Kent. Billy Batson and Cap were two different entities. The original stories in fact had Billy recounting the adventures of Captain Marvel on the radio. You may argue that perhaps Captain Marvel was a work of fiction created by Billy Batson to spice up his broadcasts.

Whatever the case, Smith further distinguishes Cap from Superman. Where others have done this by giving Cap the naiveté of a boy, Smith separates Cap and Superman through different means. Cap is an adult. He doesn’t act like a child. He looks out for Billy. Billy acts like a kid, a resourceful kid, but a kid nevertheless. In a particularly impressive scene, Billy rides Captain Marvel. Billy’s on Cap’s back like a son on a particularly powerful father’s back. If you’re wondering how Cap and Billy can be together at the same time, you need only read the story. The way Smith works the scene gives it credibility. Smith emphasizes the dual nature of Captain Marvel and Billy Batson. Their relationship is much different than that previously seen. Superman and Clark Kent on the other hand are the same person, and Superman isn’t responsible for a smaller, younger alter-ego.

Magic fuels Captain Marvel. Alien physique powers Superman, but in Monster Society of Evil Smith very cleverly boils magic down to the basics of science. This creates a different atmosphere and places limits to instill a sense of danger to the story. Everything cannot happen. Time travel though possible is difficult. The bolts of lightning that crackle against Billy to call forth his alter-ego are elemental rather than supernatural, and while Captain Marvel is powerful enough to save the innocent, the innocent are still threatened. Magic cannot make the world a utopia. Captain Marvel is not omnipresent or omniscient. He is but one creature of magic combating the forces of evil.

Other than good artwork, I really didn’t expect much when picking up the latest foray into Billy Batson territory. However, Jeff Smith makes the adventures of Captain Marvel more sophisticated but without losing the sense of hope that the brightly colored character instills. As a bonus, the book is ad free and square bound. So there’s no reason to wait for the trade unless you miss the individual issues.

I do have one question. What does DC consider this book? Is it an imaginary story? An Elseworlds? A retcon? A result of Superboy punching time? I consider it an All-Star version of Captain Marvel, clearly updated for the present day, which slides it right out of continuity, and quite entertaining.




Thom Young:

After C.C. Beck and Otto Binder’s great work on Captain Marvel in the old Fawcett comics, there have only been three versions of the character that I have cared for. In order, they are:
  • Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman’s Marvelman/Miracleman—which, of course, was a slightly altered British copy of the Fawcett character that allowed L. Miller and Son’s to continue publishing “Captain Marvel” stories after Fawcett had to stop publishing their character in the early 1950s;

  • Jerry Ordway’s The Power of Shazam! in the 1990s; and

  • E. Nelson Bridwell and Don Newton’s “Shazam!” back-up stories in World’s Finest in the late 70s and early 80s.
Jeff Smith’s latest version isn’t as good as those three, but it’s definitely the fourth best take on the character following Beck and Binder’s stories from the 40s and 50s. It’s also a great improvement over what little I saw of Judd Winick and Howard Porter’s Trials of Shazam! when it was previewed in DCU: Brave New World several months ago.

One of the problems I had with Smith’s iteration of the Big Red Cheese is how he resolved the challenges of updating Captain Marvel’s origin from Beck and Bill Parker’s 68-year-old story published in Whiz Comics #2. In 1939, Billy Batson was a ten-year-old homeless boy who slept in a subway station and sold newspapers on the corner to get his money.

Of course, 67 years later, America’s subway stations are too secure for a child to be able to sleep in them, and major newspapers are no longer sold by children standing on street corners. So, faced with the challenge of depicting a homeless child who could survive on his own in 21st-century America, Smith chose to make Billy a squatter in an abandoned apartment building—where he is routinely preyed upon by a homeless man who beats him and tries to steal his money.

Additionally, instead of selling papers, Billy gets his money by being allowed to keep the change when another homeless man, Talky, gives him cash to run such errands as buying groceries. Where Talky gets the money to give Billy isn’t explained.

Given the “realism” of Billy squatting in an abandoned apartment and being beaten by a homeless for his money, I guess we’re lucky that Smith didn’t turn Billy into a child prostitute—which would be more realistic for such a child living on the streets in 21st-century America.

Keep in mind, though, that the reason the old wizard chooses Billy as the host for Captain Marvel is because Billy is “ filled with good electricity.” I imagine that being a child prostitute on the streets would have given Billy bad electricity.

To emphasize Billy’s inherent goodness, Smith alters Billy’s appearance from Beck’s traditional design. Instead of depicting Billy as a ten-year old boy, Smith draws him as a four-year-old child. At least that’s how he appears based on two things:
  • Billy’s size when standing next to adults, and

  • The size of Billy’s head in proportion to the rest of his small body.
Smith also draws Billy with huge eyes (as opposed to Beck’s black dots), which emphasizes the child’s wide-eyed innocence without making him look like a manga character. However, I don’t like these choices.

Smith’s style is reminiscent of Beck’s in some regards. For instance, rather than the “hyper-realistic” style of such illustrators as the Kubert brothers or Jim Lee, Smith’s style is “cartoony” in the same way that Beck’s was. In 1939, Joe Shuster (who was not a skilled illustrator) attempted a “realistic” science fiction style 68 years ago on Superman, and Beck contrasted Shuster’s approach with a “cartoonish” fantasy style on Captain Marvel.

The cartoon-styled illustrations of Beck and Smith are appropriate for stories that give us the type of jovial-but-naïve Captain Marvel that Binder perfected. Smith does a good job of recreating the jovial-but-naïve character in the scene where Captain Marvel interacts with a hotdog vendor.

I’m giving the issue three and a half bullets because I enjoyed it for the most part. I didn’t particularly like pages two through seven. However, beginning on page eight with the scene where Billy follows the mysterious stranger into the subway station, I had a good time. Still, I didn’t enjoy the issue as much as I had hoped I would.

What I didn’t like was Billy being drawn as a four-year-old child while acting like a thirteen-year-old kid who’s still innocent despite his hardships.

I also didn’t like the depiction of those hardships in contrast to the otherwise whimsical nature of the majority of the story.

Finally, there is a lack of consistency in the way Smith draws Captain Marvel—sometimes imitating Beck’s concept of Fred MacMurray, and sometimes giving us a rather generic-looking cartoon image of the character.

The series will probably end up being better than most comics on the market today. However, in my need to cut back on my monthly comics budget, this first issue doesn’t allow the series to make the cut for me.

I’ll save my money to buy reprints of Beck’s stories from the 40s and early 50s—as well as (hopefully) Moore’s Marvelman (if those comics are ever again reprinted).



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