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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Shazam!

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Shazam!

(or “It’s Alive! It’s ALIVE!”)

From one Captain Marvel to another, we now look in on the original CM, whose publication history has been a bit…spotty. How spotty? The company that owns him doesn’t have the trademark to his name, that’s how spotty. (DC generally markets his various series using the word ‘Shazam!’ somewhere in the title to let fans know who he is.) Captain Marvel has gone through a lot of dormant periods in his sixty-nine-year history as he journeyed through legal disputes, multiple publishers, and various creative hands–‘Showcase Presents Shazam!’ collects his second major run, from the 1970s, when DC first acquired the license to the character.

Well, actually, to the whole storytelling engine, because CM’s got a doozy. There’s a whole package that comes with the Big Red Cheese, and although it’s really more aimed at kids than adults, it’s probably one of the best juvenile-fiction storytelling engines out there. First, he’s got one of the best origins in comics. It’s so steeped in myth it’s practically primal; young Billy Batson finds a mystic hall where his subway station should be, and an elderly wizard grants him the best attributes of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury, entrusting the innocent child with the safety of the human race.

Then, it’s got one of the great mad scientists of the genre, Doctor Sivana, acting as the primary villain. Crazy, cantankerous, and filled with berserk glee in a way Luthor was always a bit too pompous to show, he takes a wild delight in trying to do horrible things. Couple that with some good B-listers (Mr. Mind, Ibac, Black Adam), and you’ve got a lot of storytelling potential. (At this point, I’d just like to remind everyone that the target audience for these comics is kids. Anyone complaining that Mr. Mind is “silly” might just want to go take a smoke break until next week, OK?)

Add to that Captain Marvel Junior, Mary Marvel, and Talky Tawny for a supporting cast (OK, even a kid-lit enthusiast like me can’t get behind some of the other Marvels they introduced later on), and Fawcett City as a setting, and you’ve got plenty of material for stories. Unfortunately for DC, you’ve also got an twenty-year gap between the last publication of the series and your attempt to revive it.

This is actually a pretty common event nowadays; with the popularity of DVDs, trade paperbacks, and other archival materials, lots of series come up for revival after some gap or another. (Think ‘Buffy’, ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Battlestar Galactica’, ‘Futurama’, ‘Ghostbusters’, ‘Indiana Jones’…the list goes on and on and on.) So the question becomes, “How do you handle the storytelling engine when you’re reviving a dormant series?”

The approach that DC took in the 1970s was to treat the gap as a real event in the fictional universe, explain what happened during that time, and deal with the changes it made. In the case of the 70s Captain Marvel, it’s done with as little actual change as possible; a concoction of “Suspendium”, created by Doctor Sivana as a weapon against Captain Marvel, freezes Marvel, Sivana, and all of Fawcett City for twenty solid years. They recover, more or less unaware of the passage of time, and resume their normal lives. (This would be the same route as series like ‘Futurama’ took; minimize the disruption, and get back to telling stories. Other series have more dramatic changes; the ‘Angel: After the Fall’ comic, for example, has Los Angeles plummeting into Hell.)

Later, after the revived ‘Shazam’ proved unpopular, DC used ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ as an opportunity to rebuild the storytelling engine from the ground up, starting from the beginning and jettisoning elements they didn’t like. This “reboot” approach is far more common in comics than other media (having been popularized by ‘Crisis’, actually) but does come up from time to time elsewhere. (‘Battlestar Galactica’, anyone? Please, anyone? We’re practically giving it away!)

The present approach to reviving Captain Marvel from another long period of dormancy (although he’s remained active as a supporting character in the DC Universe since his series was canceled in 1999) seems to be a mix of both approaches. In the mainstream DC line, they’re reviving the character through a mini-series that puts Captain Marvel and his supporting cast through a series of changes, resulting in a darker, “edgier” character that (DC hopes) will appeal more to today’s comic readers. At the same time, DC’s putting out several out-of-continuity “reboot” mini-series, featuring high-profile talent like Jeff Smith and Mike Kunkel, that appeal more to the character’s kid-lit roots. Only time will tell if this new trick will succeed…or if we’ll be looking at another Captain Marvel revival, somewhere down the line.


Don’t tell Geoff Johns that Black Adam is a b-lister!

I think the strength of the 1940s and 50s Captain Marvel (and Marvel Family) story is the strength of its storytelling engine itself: simple, powerful, direct stories for kids that intuitively know what parts of a kid’s imagination to stimulate. They were formulaic in the way Krazy Kat or Charlie Brown was formulaic– there was familiar parts like Billy getting into trouble and getting gagged and then saying the magic word, but everything around it was strange and fascinating.

It’s something that, for the most part, the ’70s stories in Shazam! completely ignored. They tried to amalgamate 70s comics with the visuals from the original series. And it never worked. They didn’t get the formulaic parts or the strange and fascinating stuff surrounding it. Denny O’Neil and Elliot Maggin were brilliant writers, just not for this. (Nelson Bridwell was decent, but this was something that needed Otto Binder to be brought out of retirement to write.) They and Julie Schwartz just didn’t get it.

I would know: I was a kid when the revival hit; one of my first comics I ever read (at 6 years old) was the 100 page spectacular issue of Shazam!. The reprints had me at hello: I comprehended them immediately and kept re-reading them. The newer stories were not nearly as interesting or exciting.

Yeah, and once again DC doesn’t “get it”. At least not with the whole “dark Mary Marvel” crap.

I disagree. That is exactly what Binder and Beck would be doing if they were middle aged now. And had to invent the Marvel Family. And sell it to today’s audience. Evil Hot Topic Mary Marvel is exactly what they’d do in this impossible theoretical universe I have just invented.

I don’t agree that C.C. Beck would be happy selling a “Grim” marvel Family. C.C. Beck had strong opinions about how a comic book story should be told and especially a Marvel Family story. In fact he quit illustrating the Shazam comic in the 70s. “I gave up when I realized that the stories were structureless, meaningless and totally worthless.” I’m pretty certain he would not be happy with what has been done to these characters over the years. You can’t just invent your own C.C. Beck and say that’s what the actual person would do.

Captain Marvel had the grave misfortune of having his story-telling engine deconstructed by Alan Moore in ‘Miracleman’. Like a great many concepts he took apart, Moore left very little of the innocent Captain Marvel behind. Characters like Tawky Tawny and Captain Marvel, Jr. make such perfect sense in the Miracleman paradigm that it is hard read the in the CC Beck context anymore.

One of the more interesting things in the recent history of the character is a little teen angst….

As Billy, he’s the same age as his female teammate, Stargirl, and there is a definite interest between the two.

HOWEVER, as the Big Red Cheese, everyone sees him as an adult, and nearly all of the team is unaware Billy is Marvel, so one can imagine the problems that would arise if people thought the two (in their heroic identities) were involved…

HOWEVER, as the Big Red Cheese, everyone sees him as an adult, and nearly all of the team is unaware Billy is Marvel, so one can imagine the problems that would arise if people thought the two (in their heroic identities) were involved…

oh man, THAT would make for a funny funybook.

bagge and kolchaka’s shazam!

I thought DC missed a great opportunity to reboot Captain Marvel after Infinite Crisis (and during 52.) With a New Earth as the status quo and Superman basically out of action for a year, DC could have used the opportunity to introduce Cpt. Marvel as a “new” character to the DC Universe. With some re-tooling, DC could have even kept 52’s Black Adam storyline, just by playing him as a new threat, not a returning one.

Imagine a powerless Clark Kent hearing about a new hero with a look and powers similar to his own operating in Fawcett City (a hero who also shares many disturbing similarities to a new super-human dictator who is rising to power at the same time in the nation of Kahndaq). When the enterprising journalist goes to investigate, Clark discovers that the inexperienced hero, Captain Marvel, is actually just an orphaned kid in his secret identity (shades of the Winick miniseries). So, during that year, Clark and Lois take in Billy Batson as a foster child, and Clark trains him with the help of another orphan (Batman) and another hero steeped in mythology (Wonder Woman).

At the end of the year, Captain Marvel could have distinguished himself as a powerful force in the DC Universe with an affinity toward the more mystical and fantastic elements within it. The series could have built to the innocent, moral, and idealistic Capt. Marvel’s inevitable confrontation with the dark, brutal Black Adam. Finally, by the close of 52, Billy would have discovered his sister, Mary, and her adopted family living in Fawcett City and move in with them to begin a series of new adventures. I think giving Billy Batson a stable family is key to maintaining a light tone to the book, because it removes the depressing cloud of Billy being a homeless orphan living on the street.

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