Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil Review
The old Fawcett Captain Marvel (as opposed to all of the other Captains Marvel since him) is a character that pretty much all comics kibitzers agree should be handled with a light, semi-humorous touch, kept out of tight continuity, and allowed to be fun. But we’re usually left deploring the situation when he’s given yet another grim ‘n’ gritty makeover to be “relevant” and to shoehorn him into continuity. But Jeff Smith is on our side – as a million comics bloggers have mentioned before me – and his Captain Marvel is much closer to Otto Binder & C.C. Beck’s than it is to Judd Winick’s.
Smith spent his first decade-plus in the comics industry working on one long story – the bestselling and critically acclaimed Bone – so the first thing The Monster Society of Evil does is prove that he’s not just a one-trick pony. (It also shows, by implication, that the center of gravity of the field has still not shifted: even a massively successful independent creator, who could do anything at all for his second major project, will still have a tendency to want to work on a superhero for the Big Two, featuring a character created decades before he was born and owned by an international conglomerate.) Smith, as we all suspected, is just a good storyteller, and the odds are that he’ll have a lot more stories to tell over the next few decades.
The Monster Society of Evil is a very loose retelling of the story from Captain Marvel Adventures of the same name, serialized over more than twenty issues during World War II. (Which, incidentally, proves that it wasn’t all “Done in One” stories back in the Good Old Days – there have always been different kinds of stories.) The original story was very much a serial, like the movie serials of the day, with cliffhanger endings and escalating dangers from episode to episode. It’s a fun roller-coaster ride, but, re-reading it these days, it’s also very much of its time.
Smith’s Monster Society of Evil was originally published as four large comic books, so the pacing is very different. He starts with yet another retelling of the origin of Captain Marvel, as Billy Batson boards that mysterious subway train one more time, sees the statues of the Seven Deadly Sins, and meets the wizard Shazam. Smith’s art is clean and crisp as always, and he doesn’t add anything new and extraneous to this origin retelling; it doesn’t feel all that necessary, but it’s a decent retelling. (And, these days, retelling an origin just the same as the original but with nice modern art is about as much as you can expect – there are much worse alternatives.)
From there, Smith adds in many of the classic characters of the Captain Marvel mythos – Talky Tawny, the talking tiger; Mary Marvel; Dr. Sivana; and the mysterious Mr. Mind – with his own modern take on them. Mary Marvel is a real treat, a real headstrong little girl. Sivana is possibly a bit too political for an all-ages book: he’s now the Attorney General, head of the Department of Technology and Heartland Security, and is obviously meant to stand in for the Bush Administration in general. (And, of course, is a villain as always; that’s obvious from the first time we see him.)
But the general tone of The Monster Society of Evil is light adventure: not silly, or jokey, but also not the clenched-teeth tone of most longjohns comics of the past couple of decades. Jeff Smith knows that there’s something weird about dressing up in long underwear and flying around to punch people, and he doesn’t try to make it “realistic” or “relevant.” He just tells a good story with lovely artwork, which used to be enough. Maybe it will be, again.
Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil
DC Comics, 2007, $29.99
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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