Shazam! - A Retrospective on Three Tales
Updated: Nov 27, 2019
The original publication of this post can be found here, on ComicsVerse.com.
Additionally, though various of the following referenced works refer to the Shazam character as Captain Marvel, this post will solely refer to the character as Shazam to avoid any confusion with the Marvel Comics character of the same name.
The DC Comics character known as Shazam (or Billy Batson) made his grand debut in comic books back in 1939 thanks to creators Bill Parker and C.C. Beck. Since Shazam’s debut, the character has featured a diverse array of interpretations and adaptations. In 2019, Shazam has been featured in his very own comic book solo series and a live-action feature film.
The film’s success has spawned the development of a sequel.
As aforementioned, since Shazam’s introduction in 1939, the character has been written and drawn by a variety of writers and artists. Thus, it is difficult to pinpoint a specific interpretation that defines the Shazam or Billy Batson character. No one creator or story maintains authority over who Shazam is and who Shazam is supposed to be.
Thus, today I want to analyze three specific Shazam stories written and drawn by varying individuals.
Each of these stories presents Shazam in an incredibly unique way. Therefore, each tale characterizes the superhero differently. However, one can note the common denominators shared amongst these diverse works, aspects that have been a part of Shazam since his 1939 debut. Ultimately, I believe that these particular stories authentically capture the essence of Shazam as they tell us the story of Billy Batson, a young boy who has been granted abilities far beyond his comprehension.
The first of the three tales I will explore is Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil by the
acclaimed creator of Bone, Jeff Smith. This particular Shazam adventure is noted for its cartoony and playful tone. Though, beneath those light-hearted layers, Smith focuses on a juvenile Billy Batson who struggles to survive as he simultaneously searches for his family.
The second work is a more recent one from writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank. Published in 2013, the title was released under the New 52 DC Comics rebrand. It also provides Shazam with a brand new interpretation of his origin story.
Finally, the 1999 Shazam! Power of Hope work from Paul Dini and Alex Ross explores
an older Billy Batson who struggles to maintain the optimism of a hero in the context of the real world.
These works showcase Billy Batson at differing stages of his life. As a result, we witness the
traversal of his own perception of himself as a hero.
We witness him struggling with that perception and understanding his purpose in the world as he grows further and further removed from his initial childlike wonder and awe.
Yes, these three works differ greatly in tone, content, and characterization. However, they remain authentic in the way they portray the relationship between Shazam the Superhero and Billy the Human.
Big Red Cheese
Jeff Smith’s Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil hit stands back in 2007. As previously stated, this story is noted for its light tone and cartoony art in addition to its depiction of an incredibly young Billy Batson. The art is undoubtedly reminiscent of those of Shazam stories published during The Golden Age of comics.
With this, the overarching aesthetic of Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil emphasizes the fact that Billy is indeed a child upholding the burden of a superhero. Despite that grand responsibility though, Billy continuously maintains a hopeful look at the world.
Upon the beginning of the story, we are introduced to a homeless Billy, who is living in a disgusting apartment. He has no family nor any friends. Consequently, Billy has come to the conclusion that no one wants to be around him. This introduction to Billy is completely tragic.
Though, one must note that while he fears his loneliness, he remains hopeful that his family is still out there waiting to embrace him with open arms.
Unfortunately for Billy, that hope is not grounded in reality. With this, it is safe to say that
sometimes one will find what they are looking for in the most unexpected places. It is also safe to say that Billy never expected to encounter a wizard who would render him the host of a magical champion to defend the dark forces of the universe.
Thus, one of the primary differences between Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil and the two other stories I will be discussing is that this story depicts Shazam and Billy Batson as two distinct individuals. Because of that distinction, you see a compelling dynamic between them. Billy inspires Shazam to maintain a more happy-go-lucky attitude and enjoy the little things life has to offer such as a delicious hot dog, depicted in the panels above.
Meanwhile, Shazam inspires Billy to see himself as someone capable of changing the world despite his age. Once again, though serving as Shazam’s host is an incredible responsibility, it is still a burden Billy carries alone. Well, at least he thought he was alone. Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil is a work that delves deep into the themes of family and the intrinsic need for human connection. Therefore, Billy not only finds a sense of purpose in his heroic duties as Shazam, but the magic associated with Shazam also leads him to the discovery of his sister, Mary.
In the context of this tale, and the two others I have mentioned, magic serves as a conduit for characters to find the answers they would be unable to attain with the resources of their orthodox reality. Eventually in Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil, Mary obtains magical abilities as well.
So, though the burden of a hero is great, it is a burden that Billy does not have to carry on his own. In fact, he never had to. For the first time in his life, Billy no longer sees obstacles as
insurmountable because he does not have to take them on alone.
Out of Mind
Of course, a hero cannot exist without some opposing force obstructing them from accomplishing their duties. Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil presents those forces in the form of notable Shazam villains, Doctor Sivana and Mister Mind. Doctor Sivana serves as the nation’s Attorney General in this tale, a figure attempting to become a war profiteer by obtaining the technology used by Mister Mind.
Consequently, Mister Mind serves as this work’s primary villain. His goal is simple, to rid the world of humans and replace them with monsters. Digging into that plan, one can interpret
his efforts as a way to eliminate empathy and vulnerability in the world by displacing those
characteristics with chaos and atrocity.
Billy and his sister truly embody those empathetic and vulnerable traits. As they are children, they do not fear expressing their sensitivity. Despite Billy’s ability to become a powerful superhero, he remains grounded. He expresses fear, sadness, and joy in a raw manner.
That humanity is what enables him to remain grounded and utilize his abilities to protect the world. That childlike wonder and awe towards his role as Shazam and towards his own identity as Billy allows him to maintain his humility.
So, despite his age in Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil, Billy proves to be an honorable hero, who finds himself on an unexpected road to self-discovery and companionship.
The next Shazam tale in the queue features an adolescent Billy, who is a bit of a pain in the ass.
That’s right, the 2013 reinterpretation of Shazam features a fresh characterization of Billy Batson himself. This time around, writer Geoff Johns depicts Billy as being a bit of a delinquent. Upon this new interpretation, many fans expressed some discontent over the fact that the beloved, corny Billy Batson of the 20th century had become a different person.
However, after reading past the first few pages, you come to understand this teenage Billy better. Similar to his depiction in Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil, Billy is a loner. Upon the beginning of this story though, he manages to have one confidant, a zoo tiger named Tawny. Thus, the world this teenage Billy lives in is a bleak one.
He has no direct family, and, frankly, he does not want one as he finds them exhausting and contrived.
Truly, one cannot blame him since he has not had positive experiences with families anyway, having been kicked out of foster homes multiple times.
Thus, there is an interesting concept present in this story and arguably in the other Shazam stories presented in this article. The reality that our titular character and supporting characters exist in is exceptionally grim. Additionally, these characters have little to no agency over their personal identity as they are unable to define it. For example, Billy does not even know where he comes from, nor does he believe he is capable of doing or becoming anything significant.
As a result, magic becomes the pivotal factor that not only provides Billy and others with literal powers, but also provides these characters with a tether to a tangible purpose they could not have found roaming in their orthodox reality. This perspective is shared by Doctor Sivana, who believes that magic can succeed where science failed for him, in relation to the loss of his family.
Consequently, he and Billy’s exposure to magic is not so different as they wish to use magic to acquire aspects they have lost or do not have anymore. Now, in regards to Billy’s exposure to magic, the process is essentially parallel to that of Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil.
Interestingly though, when the Wizard tells Billy about the abilities he would acquire as Shazam, The Wizard states that he has been searching for a wholly good person for
quite some time, with no success. Billy informs The Wizard that he has failed to find any good person because there is no such thing as a totally good person.
Billy thus tells The Wizard that he has ultimately been searching for something that has never and will never exist. However, as Billy continues to express disbelief in The Wizard's motives, The Wizard notes when Billy states that he himself has tried to be good in a world full of terrible people.
This statement motivates The Wizard to take a chance on the boy.
Upon the beginning of Shazam, Billy does not hide his chagrin towards the idea of family. This is most apparent when he is first introduced to his new foster family and is particularly stand-offish towards his new siblings. However, despite that chagrin, he defends his foster brother, Freddy, from bullies. Billy’s bond with Freddy, despite Billy’s initial sentiments toward family, is one of Shazam‘s best aspects.
Witnessing Freddy tagging along with Billy when he first turns into Shazam is an
incredibly heartwarming moment. This sequence authentically exemplifies the childlike captivation of superheroes. In relation to this, one of the best lines from this story is, “Family is what it can be, not what it should be".
For the majority of Shazam’s beginning, Billy rejects the idea of “family” he had constructed in his mind. Thus, he makes an effort to escape even the possibility of a family.
Additionally, Billy does not enjoy being a child, feeling helpless and powerless. This is why when he first becomes Shazam, he expresses a desire to stay that way rather than go back to being Billy.
Billy had always associated his childhood with a lack of connection to people and just a general sense of isolation. However, experiencing what it is like to be a superhero with Freddy by his side in addition to discovering a sense of purpose through his responsibilities as Shazam provides Billy's youth with an unprecedented gravity that motivates him to reassess and redefine his identity as Billy the Human.
Mortality at its Finest
Like Billy said to The Wizard, humans are far from perfect. Though, some try their best to be good. Billy is 100% mortal. As a result, he is susceptible to temptation and making mistakes. Consequently, his own mortality provides the great risk that Shazam could become just like his enemy, Black Adam. Of course, in the context of Shazam! Black Adam serves as Billy’s double.
He exemplifies the type of person Billy would have become had he not anchored his Shazam identity in that of Billy’s. So, though, Shazam! initially showcases Billy as a young, troublemaking boy who, seemingly, has a disregard towards others, the story comes to show us that Billy was primarily just reluctant to having hope and expressing the empathy he kept buried.
Billy refused to believe that he would find individuals who wanted to bring him into their home. As a result, he pushed back against the world. He decided to shut the world out. So, his transformation into Shazam not only exposed him to the idea that people can be good, but it also allowed him to believe that he, Billy, was also capable of enacting good despite his initial lack of hope.
Most importantly, Billy learns that family is not a static concept and is not entirely lost with one’s biological relations. Rather, a family can come about dynamically through one’s life in the most unexpected ways.
All Grown Up
The final story to speak of is Shazam! Power of Hope. This story is arguably the most distinct from the preceding comics we have analyzed.
Firstly, the tale showcases an older Billy, who has taken up work at the radio station, Whiz. Upon the beginning of this story, one can immediately note the distinctions between this particular Billy and the “Billies” of other Shazam stories. The Billy of Shazam! Power of Hope does not exemplify that awe towards his superhero status anymore. In fact, he appears exhausted due to the responsibilities he carries as Shazam.
As a result, and despite his exhaustion, Billy refuses to give up his life as Shazam because of its gravity and necessity. Therefore, he reality that can easily generate cynicism and despair amongst adult individuals has begun setting in for Billy.
So, to obtain some clarity regarding his own self-perception, Billy transforms into Shazam and travels to the Rock of Eternity to meet with The Wizard, who informs Billy to be strong as his strength is needed to provide hope to a child in despair.
The Shazam of Tomorrow
Pursuing his obligations, Shazam travels to a children’s hospital. There, he interacts with a
multitude of children who unfortunately do not have much time left on Earth due to terrible
illnesses. Amongst these children, Shazam notes that one in particular is a rather
withdrawn, a child named Bobby.
While he is unable to successfully speak to Bobby as Shazam, Shazam reverts to Billy to see if Bobby feels more comfortable speaking to someone closer to his age. Bobby does and proceeds to open up about his abusive father.
This moment leads Shazam to pay Bobby's father a visit, which results in Shazam intimidating him into leaving Bobby alone.
Some time after this, Shazam revisits the Rock of Eternity to speak to The Wizard.
The Wizard reveals that the child he had hoped Shazam would pull out of despair was Billy himself. The Wizard states that he understands that the burden of heroism falling on such a young person is a colossal one.
However, even in a time of great despair, Billy acted unselfishly and did everything he could to inspire hope in children who do not experience hope often.
What Lies Beyond
Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil, Shazam, and Shazam! Power of Hope are undoubtedly three distinct stories. The tone, art, and overarching plot of each differ greatly. However, each story deconstructs Billy’s character.
Billy has spent his life fighting battles, even before he became Shazam.
Despite the despair he has faced during these battles though, Billy always tries to believe in
something good, even when he does not realize it. He tries to be an honest human being, even when the world has not been kind to him.
Perhaps the hardest battle Billy faces in these stories is the tension between himself and his own childhood. There are various moments throughout these stories in which Billy wishes to reject his childhood. He often believes he has been robbed of an authentic one and that being a child has only worsened his life. When he becomes Shazam though, Billy comes to learn that his youth and the mindset that comes with it empowers his heroism. Billy comes to realize that he is capable of doing far more than he ever envisioned.
Ultimately, Billy is not defined by the losses he has experienced. He is not defined by the isolation he has been subjected to for most of his life.
Instead, Billy is capable of reaching for the skies and reveling in the flight.