The word was once a familiar American icon:
And DC Comics is hoping it will be again.
For the next phase of DC’s historic renumbering and reboot — which already spawned newer, younger versions of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman — the publisher is revamping its once hugely popular Captain Marvel property and his transforming shout of “Shazam!”
“Ours is a very modern Shazam,” said Gary Frank, who’s rebooting the property with superstar writer Geoff Johns. “As with the other characters [in DC’s relaunch], there is a slight shift in emphasis here.”
While the hero won’t get his own comic, DC is strategically placing Shazam’s story inside its top-selling title Justice League, beginning with January’s issue #5. Titled The Curse of Shazam, the new story will be a separate “back-up” tale, placed behind the Justice League story that Johns is also writing.
“The whole thing is being done from the point of view of bringing in new fans as well as trying to excite the existing ones,” Frank said. “Anyone will be able to pick this up even if they have never heard of Shazam, Captain Marvel or Billy Batson.”
Once the most popular comic book in America, Captain Marvel Adventures told the story of a homeless 12-year-old named Billy Batson who, when he uttered the magic word “Shazam,” would turn into the invincible hero known as Captain Marvel. Published at the time by Fawcett Comics, the title eventually added more superhero kids to its roster, including Batson’s twin sister Mary and their friend Freddie Freeman.
In the 1940s, the comic was so popular that it sold an estimated 2 million copies, a record that still stands today. Current top-selling comics top out at around 200,000 copies.
The character, who got his power from the gods, was particularly compelling for young kids because it implied they could be a superhero like Billy Batson. All it took was a magic word.
“It’s a wonderful character. As pure a story of superhero wish-fulfillment as exists,” Frank said.
The challenge for Johns and Frank will be updating that wish fulfillment story for modern audiences, and that will begin with a new costume. DC’s reboot already featured redesigned costumes for heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, but Frank said the costume for Shazam won’t resemble those.
“Both Geoff and I were keen that our costume should look different to the rest of the Justice League’s costumes since it comes from a different place,” the artist said, noting the magic-based origin story behind Shazam. “We’re still ironing it out but, whereas the other costumes feel very modern and cool, ours needs to feel timeless and, hopefully, cool. We are dealing with magic rather than tailoring, so this has to be in there somehow.”
It’s important to note that the title of the story, The Curse of Shazam, and all feedback from Frank avoids the words “Captain Marvel” when referring to the relaunch, using only “Shazam.” For the last few decades — after a series of legal disputes attached to the character — DC has marketed its Captain Marvel comics under the cover name “Shazam,” although it never officially changed the character’s name.
This led to many people identifying the character as “Shazam” instead of his actual name. With this relaunch, it’s implied in communications that the “Marvel” name could be dropped altogether by DC.
The Curse of Shazam is not the first time the Captain Marvel character has been rebooted, but it could represent the most drastic change to the character, whose former relaunches have tended to keep his general look and origin.
In fact, Johns — who also serves as DC’s chief creative officer — just recently introduced a very different version of the “Shazam” property during this summer’s Flashpoint event, which was based in an alternate universe. In that universe, the hero was known as “Captain Thunder,” and he was created by six kids who said the word “Shazam” together.
While the new reboot of Shazam may spin out of the Flashpoint version, an alternate earth is also possible. DC is already reportedly adding an “alternate earth” story to its line-up when the former “Earth 2” superheroes of the Justice Society of America return in an upcoming comic.
The “Shazam” property was recently shown to exist on DC’s separate “Earth 5,” but that was before DC’s reboot. And the fact that Curse of Shazam is appearing in the back of Justice League implies it may instead exist in the same world as DC’s other popular superheroes.
Frank said he became a fan of the Shazam character when he read Kingdom Come, the 1996 comic series by writer Mark Waid and painter Alex Ross.
“I absolutely love Mark’s take on the character, even though we really only see the true Billy Batson for a second or two before he dies,” Frank said. “But on every page you can feel him and his history. It’s all there in the way he is perceived. I love the fact that there is an unease among the other heroes to be in the presence of that much power.
“There are superheroes,” the artist said, “and then there are Billy and Clark [Kent].”
The team-up of Frank and Johns on Shazam follows the completion of another character revamp the two creators are doing for Batman: Earth One — a new take on Batman that is aimed at the bookstore market.
But DC isn’t releasing the graphic novel until spring 2012, so Frank wanted another project to do until he might start on an anticipated sequel to Batman: Earth One.
“I enjoy working with Geoff so much that he was always going to be my first choice as a collaborative partner,” Frank said. “When I first suggested finding another project, it was in response to the fact that there was going to be such a long time before Batman[: Earth One] hit the shelves. I wanted to get another project going so that I would have something out there.”
The artist said he didn’t want to be perceived as a “crazy hermit” who completed a graphic novel and doesn’t want to do any other comics. “I spoke to Geoff about it but, knowing something of his workload, I didn’t have much hope that he’d actually be able to write something, but things sometimes work out better than you hope, I suppose,” he said.
“First Geoff suggested the format and I was in,” Frank said. “My trust in him is absolute so I knew that the project, when it was finally decided, was not going to be a dog. The only thing we both agreed on was that it shouldn’t revolve around Batman.
“When Geoff came back with Shazam, I was very happy.”
Of course, with a character who has been around as long as Captain Marvel, Frank anticipates some backlash from fans for the changes they’re making.
“I realize that there are a lot of very conservative readers out there who are skeptical about radically new approaches, but I hope that at least some of them will judge what we do on it’s own merits rather than just cataloguing the differences between the new and the old,” he said, referring to both The Curse of Shazam and Batman: Earth One. “We’re honestly not trying to destroy the characters people love. We’re trying to make sure that those characters will be there for future generations and, in order to do that, we are producing the best work we can by necessity.
“We have, in Geoff, one of the greatest custodians of these characters that the industry has ever seen,” Frank said. “So if the readers give us a little trust, we’ll give them back a great story that will feel fresh, interesting and familiar at the same time.”