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On Jeff Smith and the Big Red Cheese June 8, 2009

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Comics, Reviews.
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In his introduction to the Jeff Smith’s collected Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil, Alex Ross submits that “[t]oday in comics the divide between the whimsy of cartoon entertainment and realistic illustrated fare has never been more separate. Most often it doesn’t attempt to bridge the two, keeping the medium a ghettoized environment.” It’s certainly a fair point, especially for superhero comics. Today, it would seem, the world likes its superheroes just so, with darker, grittier and (occasionally) more realistic stories: Batman is now resting in peace, the Justice League went through an identity crisis, Matt Murdock was outed as Daredevil and the Marvel Universe went through a civil war. Got a problem with any of that? Then there’s a copy of Tiny Titans just waiting for you around the corner.

Indeed, a survey of the comic book landscape reveals much more complex and varied stories. Yet rare is the comic that attempts to marry this complexity with the childlike charm comics seemed to possess in bygone days. (Tangent: speaking of marriage, and to emphasize the point, looks like Archie’s getting hitched, too!) Of the many creators who could pull this off, one would think that Jeff Smith has a fighting chance. His critically acclaimed series, Bone, is evidence that a comic book can retain its childlike charm while at the same time possessing surprising amounts of depth. So to have him take the reins for a “reboot” of the Captain Marvel series and a retelling of the Big Red Cheese’s origins — a character arguably well suited to capture the interest of young and old alike — constitutes a recipe seemingly ripe for success.

Is it? For the most part: yes. Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil is by and large a clever re-imagining of the origins of DC’s (nee Fawcett Comics‘) Captain Marvel. Why clever? Because it takes the core elements of Captain Marvel’s backstory — Billy Batson, Mary Marvel, the Wizard Shazam, Dr. Sivana, the Monster Society of Evil — and casts them in the context of the world at present within a story that unfolds like a comic of yesteryear. The result, in short, is more akin to what one might imagine the first Captain Marvel book might have been like if it were put together with same sensibilities as 1939, albeit updated in the context of the 2000s.

But that itself is also a problem. For in pulling this off, Jeff Smith may inadvertently have demonstrated why it may just be better for the comics medium to remain “ghettoized”. Reading a Shazam! story situated in the post-9/11 world, complete with its deliberately campy dialogue and unabashedly cartoonish artwork can be a jarring experience, precisely because it feels like there’s a huge disconnect. From this standpoint, therefore, maybe there is a reason why the whimsical and realistic seldom meet in comics: because in the end, perhaps things are better this way.

So yes, Jeff Smith’s Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil is a decent Captain Marvel title, and one that does manage to bridge childlike whimsy with present day realism, up to a point. Not your cup of tea? Don’t take it too hard. Comic books today have any number of other stories that just might catch your fancy.

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