Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

16 January 2011

Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil

Collects: Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil #1-4 (2007)

Released: October 2007 (DC)

Format: 240 pages / color / $29.99 (deluxe hardcover) / ISBN: 9781401214661

What is this?: A retelling of the Golden Age origins of Captain Marvel, a boy who can turn into a full-grown superhero.

The culprit: Jeff Smith

DC’s Captain Marvel is more of a historical footnote than a viable major character. Comic fans know he was, for a time in the ‘40s, more popular than Superman. They know the basic setup: a wizard gives orphan Billy Batson a magic word, which allows him to turn into the adult Captain Marvel. They know lawsuits and Fawcett’s financial troubles kept him dormant for a few decades. They know the name has been usurped by a series of Marvel characters since the 1960s. They know that DC now owns the character and has written and rewritten his origins in their post-Crisis continuities, struggling to figure out what to do with what is essentially a second Superman. And most importantly, they know DC has done little to make them believe that the character’s popularity was anything other than a fluke, a historical abnormality.

Jeff Smith, the creator of Bone, put all of that aside when he wrote and drew Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil. Smith decided he wanted his miniseries to play tribute to the Golden Age Captain Marvel work of Otto Binder and C.C. Beck by retelling one of Marvel’s most popular stories: the battle against Mr. Mind and his monstrous minions.

Shazam!: Monster Society of Evil cover There is an inherent difficulty to revamping or retelling or re-anything a Golden Age concept; stories from that era frequently veer from hokey to insane in the blink of an eye. For the most part, Smith avoids the insane part of the equation — well, other than what is found in the origin story — and makes the story of Billy Batson more grounded. Billy’s squatting in an abandoned apartment, avoiding the predations of a street bully, and getting his money running errands for a hobo. And then into this comes the ultimate of wish-fulfillment fantasies: a magic word, superpowers, a family (in the form of a sister), a sense of purpose. And then the hobo turns out to be a tiger — or an ifrit who can take the form of a tiger or a man — and the sister gets superpowers, although not an adult form, and they fight crocodile men and colossal robots from another universe …

Hmm. Maybe Smith kept the insane aspects after all and managed to slip them by me. How did that happen? Is it something that Smith did? Or is it that I’m familiar enough with the Marvel concept specifically (and comics in general) that such things only seem strange in the aggregate in hindsight? I suspect the latter.

And that’s because I was distracted by all the plates Smith is trying to keep spinning. In one sense, he’s balancing the story in three ways: the boundless imagination of the original (somewhat tempered in Monster Society because Smith is recreating 60-year-old ideas); the corniness of ‘40s simplicity, kids’ comics ideas, and wide-eyed optimism; and the modern realities of homelessness and poverty. Smith does well enough there because those original ideas are familiar, because the optimism is part of Marvel’s character and the rest of the corny ideas (except for talking tiger Talky Tawny) are exiled to the edges of the collection, because the depressing parts are mainly Billy’s initial background. We’ll ignore the subtle joke about a news reporter enjoying the view of Marvel’s unit silhouetted in his tights; it’s just one of those adult jokes put in a children’s story that the children are expected to miss.

But Smith’s ability to fit all of what he needs to the plot to do drags Monster Society down. What is the story of Monster Society? It’s an origin story, and after the superhero boom of the last decade, I am thoroughly sick of seeing the origin stories of characters I am already familiar with. It’s a setup of the start of the Marvel Family. It’s a battle against one of Captain Marvel’s Golden Age archnemeses, Mr. Mind (and his Monster Society of Evil). And it’s also a battle against the other Captain Marvel Golden Age archnemesis, Dr. Sivana. (Who, bizarrely enough, is the attorney general of the United States.) That’s a lot to fit into one four-issue miniseries, even when each issue is 48 pages long; but it’s not like Smith is going to be hurried. Six panels on a page is a lot for him, and anyone who has read Bone knows there are times Smith will not hurry the languid pace of a setup. With that in mind, it would have made sense to cut out two of those threads and concentrate on making the other two stronger. I certainly wanted more of Captain Marvel battling monsters. I wanted more Mr. Mind, more adventure, less origin, less reality.

I want, I want, I want. A very appropriate sentiment to have for a comic about a boy who becomes an adult to fight back against all the injustices that have hemmed him in. Is it fair to Smith and Monster Society? That’s a question for another day — because I want, I want, I want. But the story is too crowded, and that exacerbates my wanting.

Visually, Monster Society is a treat. A Golden Age art style would look bizarre in modern comics, but Smith does a good job of marrying his smooth, clear, detailed style to Beck’s vintage work. Smith somehow manages to keep the art looking active while maintaining the Golden Age’s less kinetic style; the compromise makes the panels frequently look as if they were photographs, captured in the middle of one of Marvel’s short-armed swings or stiff-arms-at-the-side flight sequences. Smith also takes some of the character’s older aspects, such as Captain Marvel’s eyeless squint and media mogul Sterling Morriss’s pupil-less pince nez, and incorporates it into the art. It looks so clear, so bright, so sharp that in many ways it’s what I think the Golden Age should be.

I really wanted to like Monster Society, and there is a lot to like: Smith’s art and light sense of humor, for instance, and his desire to make this hearken back to the original character. But I think that last one led him astray and made him put a little too much into the story, and it suffers somewhat for it.

Rating: Captain Marvel symbol Captain Marvel symbol Captain Marvel symbol Half Captain Marvel symbol (3.5 of 5)

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