Shazam! by Geoff Johns (writer) and Gary Frank (artist)
Shazam! was told in short installments in the back pages of The Justice League, in issues 7-11, 0, 14-16, and 18-21. As his story progressed, he was eventually added to the primary Justice League story. In other words, by issue #21, Billy Batson, as Shazam, was a member of the Justice League and the short installments were no longer needed. However, DC has collected all these installments into this single trade collection, a wonderful stand-alone volume. Shazam! by Geoff Johns is THE Shazam book I’ve always wanted to read: It gives a great introduction to the character, providing a solid origin story for both Billy Batson and Black Adam, one of the best villains of DC.
What makes the story great and not just good is the character of Billy Batson: I’ve always imagined him as a simplistic, gung-ho kid who is overly excited to be a hero and who brings his needed youthful idealism to the older team of the Justice League. The only problem for me is that I just can’t buy into this type of naïve kid existing any more in our world of high technology that exposes kids to far too many grownup realities at a young age. The Billy Batson I had in my mind was a throwback to the type of kid who was often portrayed in the popular culture, media, and advertisements that existed in the 1950s. I have no idea how accurate this impression is to the original character; it’s largely based on cartoons I’ve seen. However, Geoff Johns impresses me by not using this type of character. As presented by Johns, Billy is a street-wise kid with quite a bit of depth, as well as a lot of anger and selfishness. Billy is realistic.
Billy Batson is adopted into a family’s home, and it’s made clear to us that this family is only the most recent one of many that he’s been asked to join. We find out fairly quickly why Billy has not stayed long with any family before this one. However, this story catches Billy at the key moment in his life when, against his wishes and in spite of his actions, he finds for himself the home he always resisted. The husband and wife, apparently, grew up in adopted families, and so they have taken on the project of giving a loving home to as many kids as possible. Along with Billy’s character, the dynamics between these kids is what gives this book its humanity; it’s not just a book about a kid who becomes a superhero.
The family consists of a large group of children, and each child has a unique backstory. Billy’s selfishness is revealed against this backdrop of children for whom we have even greater sympathy than we do for Billy. We do not like Billy at first, so Johns has a lot of work to do to make us overcome our initial dislike of him, and he does so through these new family members, these new brothers and sisters, who let Billy make mistakes while still being able to forgive him (eventually!). My description sounds a bit like an after-school special, but this plotline is essential, and less syrupy, when seen against the backdrop of the superhero plot and the introduction Johns gives us to the magical world of the DC universe. Plus, the villain Black Adam brings the necessary darkness to make this story a very serious one.
I have little to say about the art other than I love it. Gary Frank does a great job navigating between the real world landscape and the magical realm, and when the two worlds collide, it’s quite electric, literally and figuratively. I highly recommend this book to any fans of the superhero genre; Shazam! is perfectly told and illustrated, and it’s self-contained in a single volume. Plus, one of its best qualities is its humor. I had to show my wife and kids several of the images and panel sequences because I was laughing out loud reading the comic. It’s also one of my son’s favorite comics, and he’s ten. He also loved the humor. In Shazam!, Geoff Johns has created the rare, all-ages superhero comic that deals with serious issues while being absolutely hysterical. You don’t want to miss this one.