As much as people have blown the DC Relaunch out of proportion, reboots and relaunches have been a part of comics for decades now.The number of reboots that Captain Marvel has gone through since his creation are a perfect example of how stories change over the years and while I would normally defend the idea of different interpretations and while I usually champion that there is no “right” way to tell a story, Roy Thomas’s Shazam: The New Beginning is proof that sometimes, there is a wrong way to do things.
Our story begins with a rainy night much like in the original origin. Instead of orphan Billy Batson handing out newspapers outside of a train station, we have a car speeding through the rainy streets of San Francisco. The car slams into a light pole and on the next page, a strike of lightning seems to punctuate the deaths of Billy Batson’s parents – the lightning being a symbol of what is to come for Billy.
Billy is at his Uncle Dudley’s house – Dudley’s relation to Billy being one of the more minor and inoffensive changes to the origin story considering he went by the name “Uncle Marvel” in the original series- when a phone call informs them that Billy’s parents have died in a car accident.
In the original origin story, Billy Batson is sympathetic without being melodramatic. Because he has no one, he is an Everyman character. Everyone can relate to him because we’ve all felt alone and powerless. Though his origin was simple, it was still elegant in its simplicity.
New Beginning heaps on tons of needless back story to the point of making the narrative heavy-handed rather than sympathetic. For fourteen pages, Billy Batson is put through the emotional wringer that only begins with his parent’s death. Tom Mandrake’s art is haunting and absolutely devoid of fun – not surprising since Thomas clearly stated in the introduction that whimsy and fun are no longer allowed. The funeral scene is particularly interesting because it is wonderfully symbolic. The once comically aloof Dr. Sivana comes off as menacing and disturbing as he stands in the rain and tries to convince Billy to come with him. And even though Uncle Dudley holds Billy close under his umbrella to protect him, there is a sense that Billy will never be safe and comfortable. Everything is out to get him and make his life hell.
Uncle Dudley is in a custody battle with Billy’s uncle Sivana – having Captain Marvel’s arch-nemesis be his uncle is an idiotic change to the origin – and Billy is caught in the middle. The names of Billy’s parents are revealed as Donald and Marilyn here and though his parents were never named in the original series, the fact that their names have no significance (outside of Marilyn being similar to Mary – the name of Billy’s sister) further shows how much Roy Thomas wanted to eliminate the past. When so many relaunches and reboots sneak in references to past creators in order to honor the past (the most recent example being Scott Snyder’s Swamp Thing which featured not only Totleben’s Motel, but also a motorcycle sporting a Bissette’s motors brand name), this comic refuses.
Billy talks with Sivana’s children Beautia and Magnificus, and they convince him that Dudley will have to stop performing stage magic in order to take care of Billy. And so, Billy Batson sacrifices his happiness with Uncle Dudley to live with his Uncle Sivana. It’s worth noting that Billy does so in the worst way possible – by belittling and demeaning Uncle Dudley.
Billy yells, “You never even went to college! I want to be somebody someday — not just fool around with card tricks and rabbits, till — till I’m an old man like you!”
Of course, Beautia and Magnificus were lying to Billy so that Dr. Sivana would get the life insurance policy from the deaths of Billy’s parents to fund his experiments. If that weren’t enough, Billy is beaten up at school by some bullies for standing on a basketball court.
To recap: His parents are dead by page 2. He makes friends with his cousins on page 8. He tries to be selfless by sacrificing his happiness so that Uncle Dudley would be happy on page 10. He’s betrayed by his cousins on page 11. Abused by Sivana on page 12. Abused by bullies on page 13. And learns that Sivana only wants his money on page 14.
If the initial origin channeled Charles Dickens, then this took Dickensian sentimentality to a completely different level. It transformed the very idea of sympathy for the protagonist and added some trademark 80′s perversion because that was “real.”
Eventually, it’s all too much for Billy to take, so he runs away from home to the fated subway station where he meets the Shadow Man. Billy realizes, “I don’t know which I noticed first == that I was on the very street corner where I knew mom and dad had died or the dark, shadowed figure pointing a floved finger at me … from inside the locked grating of a Muny subway station!”
This time, the Shadow Man says nothing and Billy hauntingly follows him down the stairs and down the train tracks to the lair of Shazam. Again, in order to eliminate whimsy, the psychedelic train is taken out of the story. Billy now seems hypnotized by the Shadow Man as he is led to statues of the Seven Enemies of Man.
A friend of mine once described the film Black Swan as a movie about who was going to have sex with Natalie Portman first. Obviously, a simplistic interpretation, but the film had moments were one could be led to believe this way. Likewise, Shazam: A New Beginning has moments where it seems as if the story that Thomas and Mandrake are trying to tell is about a boy just asking to be molested.
Billy likes to hang out with his overweight, seems-like-he-tries-too-hard stage magician Uncle Dudley. He gives up hanging out with Dudley so he can live in a rickety old mansion with his other uncle who seems like an even bigger creep. Then, when he learns that Uncle Sivana only wants him for his money, Billy is more than eager to follow a COMPLETE STRANGER down a tunnel to a place where statues of the Seven Deadly Sins await him.
Unfortunately, the narrative does nothing but enhance this interpretation of the story as Thomas seems to be crafting Billy’s narration straight from a trashy romance novel.
I couldn’t see his face — but I could feel his eyes boring into me like two invisible drills. He didn’t say anything, yet I knew somehow that he’d been waiting there for me — just for me — I knew it even before he opened the grating and motioned for me to come in. Even weirder yet — I did.
When Billy reaches the statues, he says, “I’d never even heard of the Seven Deadly Sins, but even then those statues sure didn’t look to me like the kind anybody’d carve in stone down some offshoot tunnel of the Muny System. Hey, I was starting to think maybe I wasn’t even in San Francisco anymore.” It’s an odd statement to make and one that suggests that Billy’s morality is shaped outside of religious dogma, but even his morality is called into question because outside of a seemingly selfless act to make Uncle Dudley happy, Billy hasn’t done anything heroic or moral – he has simply been a victim of cruelty which is hardly enough qualification for becoming Earth’s Mightiest Mortal.
Moreover, his statement of being unaware of the Seven Deadly Sins suggests that this Shadow Man has taught him something about sin – which when it is put like that, is absurdly creepy.
Maybe I’m reaching here. After all, Freud famously said that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” but let’s be realistic – a silent Shadow Man leading a young boy down a long tunnel to a den of sin is pretty much begging for more than just a literal interpretation. It’s creepy. It’s absolutely wrong and perverted, but more importantly, it was intentional. In his introduction, Roy Thomas suggests that this is what people want from comics. That this creepy, nearly sadomasochistic narrative is what audiences wanted.
Billy FINALLY meets Shazam who lacks the majesty of the past interpretation. He is simply an old man on a throne with a stone above his head. Once Billy transforms into Captain Marvel for the first time (complete with that annoying 80′s too-much-exposition), Billy says perhaps the most pseudo-Freudian sentence ever uttered in a comic, “You talk like you’ve done this boy-into-man bit before!”
Shazam replies, “I have! Once, there was a whole family of beings such as you. Once — but no! That never happened! That is, it did — but now it did not. I must push such memories forever from my mind — for that way lies madness.” Here, Shazam is making a reference to Pre-Crisis continuity and the stories that existed before this reboot. It’s only humorous and worth mentioning today because it is interesting when compared with the fan reaction to the DC Relaunch.
The internet exploded after the announcement that DC would relaunch all of their titles. Fans claimed this was a terrible way to get new readers and that it wouldn’t work and all sorts of other complaints. Yet, comics have always done this. Comics have to change in order to get new readers and that’s something that fans forget sometimes.
But as this series has taught us, not all change is good. There is a fine line between creating a bold new path for a character and completely going off the rails and ruining a story. Some characters can benefit from a dramatic restructuring of their narrative, but Captain Marvel couldn’t.