Why doesn't Shazam work as a comic book character?
Shazam has been around for almost as long as Superman but he's never enjoyed much success. Why is that? And how do we fix it?
The character of Shazam (previously known as Captain Marvel) has been around longer than you might think. He first appeared in Whiz Comics #2 in late 1939 (cover date February 1940), just a year and a half after Superman’s first appearance. The cover of Shazam's debut issue clearly echoes Action Comics #1, as Captain Marvel throws the same green coupe that Superman smashed in Action #1 into a nearby wall, as bad guys with Tommy guns fly from its interior. “Gangway for Captain Marvel!,” a caption reads.
But for as long as Shazam has been around, and as unique and interesting a character as he is, he never quite seems to work. On team books he’s mostly a background character or the butt of the joke. Though he’s one of the most powerful characters in the DC Universe, he disappears for long stretches, and every time he reappears he seems to get a new origin story.
So after the Shazam family’s universe was devoured by the Anti-Monitor in Crisis on Infinite Earths, writers Dann and Roy Thomas and artist Mandrake’s 1987 miniseries Shazam! A New Beginning did a great job of establishing the character in the main DC universe. But no further Shazam stories followed. In 1994 DC published a whole new reboot, The Power of Shazam.
Similarly in 2006 Judd Winick and Joshua Middleton produced Superman/Shazam!: First ThunderSuperman/Shazam!: First Thunder, a gorgeous and heartfelt story of the first encounter between Superman and Shazam. But once again, the foundations they created were never built upon. Instead five years later Geoff Johns and Gary Frank rebooted the character again within Justice League as part of DC line-wide New 52 reboot.
That reboot would end up being the inspiration for the cinematic Shazam. But it, too, led to nothing further for the character until 8 years later, when Johns and artist Dale Eaglesham did the 13-issue series Shazam! which gave more attention to Billy’s siblings and gave them all an entire magical universe of their own to play in. Together these two series also created the first clear and compelling narrative for Billy Batson and his family in decades.
But since then the most significant use of the Shazam characters has been a Titans Academy story in which Billy loses his powers, then agrees to have his two identities turned into separate beings (!) so that he can become the prison warden for the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse in Hell (!!), while Shazam—lacking Billy to ground him—starts murdering people he believes to be demons (!!!). And if that doesn’t sound like it really tracks from where Johns left the character, you are correct, it really, really doesn’t.
At this point probably the most iconic Shazam story is one in which he’s not even a main character. In Mark Waid and Alex Ross' 1996 dystopian future miniseries Kingdom Come, decades of brainwashing from Lex Luthor (and psychotropic worms) have turned Billy into him a leering, maniacal puppet who hates super heroes. As a battle of all the world’s heroes veers toward Armageddon, Billy has to overcome his programming and eventually saves the world (and Superman), at the cost of his own life.
Shazam has been around forever. He has a unique backstory, a great costume and a power set to equal Superman. His first movie was an unexpected success. So why is it that Shazam never seems to work as a comic book character?
The Two Body Problem
To my mind, what makes Shazam unique and also fun as a character is the fact that he’s actually a child. Essentially, the premise of Shazam is “Big, but with Superheroes.” And Billy Batson is usually represented as quite young—in some iterations just 10 or 11 years old. That might not seem like an important point; certainly the initial giddy wonder of getting your powers looks the same on him as you’d find in early issues of Amazing Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel or other teenage heroes.
But being on the younger side gives Billy a very different point of view. As a late grade schooler/middle schooler, everything is still pretty new to him. On the one side, that translates into a potentially boundless enthusiasm. He’s the kid that gets what every preteen wants: freedom and power.
But his youth also means he doesn’t yet have all the tools necessary to understand and navigate life. Most of us look back on middle school with loathing and with good reason—it’s a period of great vulnerability. We don’t yet have the defenses or experiences to fully handle the challenges that come our way.
And, in point of fact, Billy already has a lot of suffering built into his backstory. Unlike most super hero orphan characters, he didn’t end up in good hands right away. In Johns’ run he was in the foster system. In First Thunder, Billy’s living on the street. In A New Beginning, Billy gets duped into leaving the uncle that loved him and moving in with Dr. Sivana, who hits him. Truly, his story has as much of Stand by Me or Stranger Things in it as it does Big.
All of which is to say, Billy’s age and backstory make the character much more poignant and tender than that of other young heroes. In First Thunder, Winick and Middleton show Billy having to deal with the murder of another boy in front of him. The devastation which that experience wreaks upon him is of a totally different character than in other comic stories, specifically because Billy is just a child. When Superman finds him, he is wide-eyed and weeping.
But rather than treat Shazam as a child, most creators write him as an almost completely different person. In First Thunder, Shazam uses terms like “chitchat” and “my den,” words that no child has ever used. In Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart’s Thunderworld Adventures, the character similarly talks in old-fashioned clichés like “Leave this to me” or “You’re full of big talk.” In Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ Justice League International, Shazam is painted as a sort of Boy Scout, refraining from cursing and calling his teammates “fellas.”
Occasionally (as in JLI) this adult persona works, but not for long. Inevitably Shazam ends up sounding muddled or worse, bland.
A weird side effect of the focus on Shazam-as-adult is that unlike most heroes, Shazam’s secret identity turns out to be more interesting than the hero. The best parts of every Shazam book I’ve ever read have always been the Billy moments. His character is both much more clearly defined and also in a sense more heroic—he’s the one that has had to face big personal hurdles.
The Second Superman Problem
A related issue to why Shazam's voice isn't really compelling is that Shazam looks and behaves a lot like Superman. Though their origins are different, Shazam’s main powers are strength, speed, flight and invulnerability, all just like Superman.
Some modern writers have tried to add some distinctiveness to his power set—he’s now got the ability to call lightning down as a form of attack (and notably, because it’s magic-based, it affects even Superman). Johns has also alluded to the possibility that Shazam can cast spells, and that his powers naturally take him to where there are people in need—both of which are interesting ideas. But thus far, neither has been explored in any meaningful way.
But even with slight adjustments to his powers, in terms of body-shape Shazam still looks pretty much exactly like Superman. The only thing that’s different is his face, which usually has a high forehead and slightly leering quality that lack the boyishness that the character really needs.
These physical similarities to Superman are obviously hugely detrimental to Shazam, particularly when combined with the fact that writers generally don’t write him as a child. Where do you fit in a character that looks just like DC’s premier character (who by the way these days also has a bunch of children and colleagues who also have pretty much the same power set)? The truth is, you don’t.
The Shazam Family Problem
The main thing that Johns brought back to the concept of Shazam was the notion of family. In his origin story, Billy is brought to a foster home where he meets a bunch of other kids as well as loving foster parents who slowly become his family (and also his superpowered peers). “Family is the true power of Shazam,” we’re told at the start of the 2019 series.
In many ways this is a great concept. It’s a totally different take on a super hero’s powers and personal relationships than you can find just about anywhere else. And the fact that eventually all his siblings get super powers of their own also brings with it a lot of story potential. In his 2019 series, Johns really started to explore the personalities and unique power sets of each kid, and it’s clear there’s a lot of fun to be had.
But the flipside of all this is that, in giving Billy’s brothers and sisters powers and costumes, Shazam becomes that much less distinctive. Yes, Mary is more the mother of the group, Freddy the troublemaker, Darla the kid sister, Pedro the silent but strong, and Eugene the gamer who has some sort of power over machines (although how that works is still not really clear). But they all have basically the same costume and can do the same things—they’re strong, they fly and they’re invulnerable. That can’t help but dilute some of Shazam’s originality.
Shazam is also the very rare DC character who has no real friends or relationships in the DC Universe beyond his family. Almost every DC superhero has their own world of stories and friendships: Flash has the Flash Family; Wonder Woman, the gods and Amazons; Green Lantern, the Corps. But they each also have specific relationships within the broader universe: Hal has Ollie; Barry has Dick, Donna and the other Titans; Diana has Clark and Bruce.
Those relationships are important. They cement each character’s place in the broader universe, and also allow different aspects of each character to come out. Consider Logan and Peter Parker: as characters they would seem to have nothing in common, and yet when they team-up, it’s always a delight. Logan brings out Peter’s relative innocence and goodness; and Peter’s awkwardness keeps Logan off-balance.
Shazam has not had anyone like that in the DC Universe. Perhaps that’s because he is just a little boy, and having friendships with adults would consequently seem weird—although with the right character it could also lead to some very funny misunderstandings (Consider what it would be like if Shazam hung out with Booster Gold, for instance, or Guy Gardner, each of whom is kind of a child themselves).
But Shazam could also certainly use a mentor, or friendships with other younger characters. Because of his power set, if he’s placed on a team, it’s usually the Justice League, but psychologically he really belongs on Young Justice or Teen Titans.
Bringing the magic back to Shazam
So how do we lean into the magic of Shazam? When it comes to the Two-Body Problem and more generally the issue of holding onto Billy’s youth and vulnerability, fixing the issue is really as simple as writing Shazam as the kid that he is, rather than as an adult. Allow him to be both vulnerable and exuberant in the ways that younger kids are. Standard super hero things like fighting or dealing with aliens should affect him more deeply.
Also, don’t be afraid to lean into the humor: when Billy is Shazam, basically we’re watching the superhero equivalent of two kids in a trench coat playing their father. When he’s on his best behavior, he’s impersonating an adult. And he’s going to get a lot of it wrong—he’s going to use exclamations or lingo that adults don’t, ask Cyborg way too many questions about his implants or stay up too late fighting crime.
One specific technique that has worked in the past is narration. In his 1987 reboot of the character, writer Roy Thomas has Billy narrate his story. And as a result, even when Billy turns into Captain Marvel, we’re still getting his point of view on things, still seeing that experience through the eyes of a child. So when he first turns into Shazam, Billy says he felt like “I was blowing up—you know, like a balloon.” It’s (no pun intended) marvelous.
Locking in on the idea of Shazam as a child would also go a long way to distinguishing him from Superman. But Winick’s and Waid’s minis offer a second, ingenious solution, one which also addresses Shazam’s lack of relationships: put Superman and Shazam together. In both minis, when these characters are put side by side, it makes them each more distinct. Perhaps because Shazam is actually a kid, Superman is someone he instinctively trusts. He’s someone with whom Billy can be vulnerable.
Meanwhile Billy brings out a protective and mentoring quality in Clark that is different even than the way he is with his own son. The ending of Winick’s mini is extraordinary in this regard: discovering that Shazam is in fact a boy, Superman immediately goes to confront the Wizard. “This is wrong,” he says. “No boy should have the responsibility of the world on his shoulders.”
When the Wizard refuses to change what he’s done, Clark hunts Billy down, living alone in an abandoned building, in a mostly silent four-page sequence from Middleton which really brings out the pathos of Billy’s situation, his youth and fragility. As he watches, puzzled about who this man is and what he wants, Clark unbuttons his shirt and reveals he’s Superman, while Billy’s eyes go wide. “The End of the Beginning,” the caption reads.
You can practically see Billy's future unspool in those few words—slowly learning that in Clark/Kal he has someone he can look up to and lean on, maybe for the first time in his whole life. You think about all the heroes that have rallied around Naomi since her introduction just a few years ago. Billy has never had any of that, and at the same time in most iterations, he's had far less of a personal support structure, too.
Truly, for as warmly innocent and shiny as Shazam seems, he is one of the most lonely characters in the DC Universe. I'm haunted by that moment at the end of First Thunder when Clark finally sees Billy "at home," sitting on a discarded mattress in an abandoned building, staring into the distance, alone. To me that moment encapsulates most of Billy's existence as a character. And I want so much more for him than that.
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