Whenever the phrases “we removed the circus strongman elements of his costume” or “the emotional journey of this troubled teenager” get used in an interview about a character’s redesign, I have to admit I get a little bit frustrated. This was the case with a March 5 article on DC Entertainment’s public relations blog, The Source, in which Justice League writer Geoff Johns discussed his and artist Gary Frank’s new direction for the superhero Captain Marvel. Set to debut in Justice League #7, this new version of Captain Marvel, rechristened “Shazam,” is said to be a more mystical, magical take on the Big Red Cheese.
Now, I will admit that I am not the biggest Captain Marvel fan in the world. The character wasn’t really at the forefront of the superhero genre during the ‘80s and ‘90s, so a lot of fans like me just grew up bypassing the character altogether. Most of the time I just thought he was a half-hearted attempt at creating another Superman. It wasn’t until I began reading up on the Captain Marvel stories that Fawcett Publications put out in the 1940s that I saw the real charm behind this character.
Rather than being just another Superman knock off, Captain Marvel had taken a decidedly goofy and absurd direction with the concept, creating a family of spin-off heroes to go on adventures with, and paling around with a walking, talking tiger. But it was when I read about the epic, two-year “Monster Society of Evil” story arc that my idea of the character changed forever. The story gave readers their first look at Mister Mind, the greatest enemy that Marvel had ever faced. What they were shown was… a two-inch long talking worm with glasses.
That’s when I began to see the real brilliance of the Captain Marvel franchise. It was unabashedly a kids comic. It was a goofy, absurd superhero fairy tale. Winnie the Pooh with capes and thunder. Sadly, once the character was revived by DC in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the character never again rose to its original prominence. Writers and artists have been trying ever since to reconcile the storybook childishness of Captain Marvel with the progressively grim, melancholy DC universe, but their attempts at making characters like Mister Mind into something we should take seriously never hit the mark.
And that’s largely where I stand with this latest reboot of the character from Johns and Frank. In the New York Post’s article about the reboot, the first image of the character was revealed, and it wasn’t pretty. Rather than a dauntless, smiling Captain Marvel (or Shazam, if that’s what they want to call him now to make him more accessible to non-comic book readers) dashing around above the clouds, we’re treated to a tortured soul gritting his teeth and looking predictably angst-y. Bolts of angry lightning shoot from his eyes and skin, but fail to illuminate his body or hooded face, which are cloaked in the darkness of blah blah blah I couldn’t care less.
This is Captain Marvel we’re talking about here guys, not Moon Knight. The hood and the cape and the darkness and the anger and the lightning (which we’re told will cause electrical devices to EXPLODE when he transforms… sigh…) all just smack to me of forcing a character to go in a direction that he doesn’t want to go in. Is there no room in the JL for a character that is lighthearted, optimistic and fun? Does everything in the DCU have to remind us about how dark and troubling the world is?
Captain Marvel, more than any other superhero, is a superhero for kids. You do not need to go dark with him. A grim and gritty Captain Marvel is entirely unnecessary. This might be hard for people inside the DC bubble to imagine, since the only mainstream success that they seem to find is with their darker properties, particularly Batman. But the lesson in that isn’t for them to start making all their characters dark. Batman has always been a troubled guy, and although one could make the case that he’d pretty much moved on from his initial dark motivations by the time Robin had shown up less than a year later, he’s always been the go-to superhero for exploring the darker themes of the genre.
Having a dark Batman story is a good idea, not simply because it’s dark, but because it’s true to the character. And on top of that, the reason the current Batman movies are so good are because they’re actually really solid films, not just because they’re bleak and ugly. The key to finding success with these characters is in turning out quality stories that speak to the true nature of the characters, and with Captain Marvel, the true nature of the character is childhood.
The magic in Captain Marvel isn’t the same as the magic in the stories of Doctor Strange or Dr. Fate. It’s the magic of being a child, of seeing the fantasy and wonder in the world around us. The character is, after all, a child that becomes a grown-up superhero when he says a magic word. This could, for all intents and purposes, just be a game that a 5-year-old boy is playing with his stuffed animals in his backyard. It’s wide-eyed, technicolor fun, pure and simple.
This new Captain Marvel design makes me wonder if we’re even allowed to have fun in comics anymore. There was a time when DC comics was the place you went for fun stories about larger-than-life, absolutely good, godlike superheroes, as opposed to the everyman characters that Marvel offered. Now it’s a place where superheroes must be taken dead seriously, where kids like Billy Batson are punished for having too much fun. Superheroes aren’t for kids anymore, Johns and Frank seem to be saying, they’re for troubled teens and bitter adults… who are embarrassed about liking superhero comics.
I know I talk a lot about making characters true and believable, but if there’s one thing I can’t abide by, it’s making the characters needlessly dark and depressing. My aim is to flesh out the characters and explore their themes so that we understand more about them and they feel more real in our hearts and minds. This is very different from taking all the pain and suffering from the real world and lumping it on the superheroes’ shoulders. We have, with superheroes like Captain Marvel, the opportunity to preserve our childlike sense of wonderment and magic toward the world. We could use this as a way to counteract all the everyday problems of the real world, and even to present our children with an example of a better world to shoot for. Or we could just rub our own shit on everything and perpetuate the cynicism and fear of all the generations that came before us.
You don’t have to be a two-inch talking worm to see which solution I like better.