Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil
By Jeff Smith
The world of superheroes deserves a good kick in the tights, every now and again. These days, such attempts are made by the boatload, by injecting risqué subject matter into the storylines of ancient heroes—gritty par for the course that has seemingly become nearly as worn as the hero genre itself, in the last couple of decades since Moore, Miller, and a handful of their most talented contemporaries actually managed to breath fresh air into the style.
While an ever-decreasing number of talented writers (Grant Morrison comes to mind) can still keep the style from falling too far out of reach into the pit of clichés, most whittle away their days rehashing the same worn anti-hero versions of decades old heroes, a trend only solidified as Hollywood sees larger and larger profit margins rediscovering the graphic novel trends and titles of 20 years ago. For far too long, journalists have been bandying about taglines like ‘comics aren’t just for kids anymore’ as if they invented the phrase. With that mystery sufficiently cleared up, it becomes time to move on to the next logical question: what the hell happened to all of the comics for kids?
Perhaps unintentionally, Jeff Smith’s sprawlingly epic Bone series did something to address the issue. Bone managed, as very few other books have before or since—save for a few obvious influences on Smith’s approach such as Walt Kelly and Charles Schulz—to craft a story that proved equally valuable to adults and children, for different, if sometimes intersecting reasons.
Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil, Smith’s first substantial work since the end of Bone, takes a decidedly similar approach to the increasingly often adult-only world of superhero books, beginning with the curse/blessing of Smith’s Kelly-esque line work, which almost entirely prohibits the artist from delving too deep into the easy grit of the genre. As the first issue opens, with an elementary-aged orphaned Billy Batson living alone in an abandoned apartment building, meeting with the boots of a threatening vagrant, given Smith’s version of Batson (the word ‘scamp’ almost immediately springs to mind), it’s difficult to buy into the urgency of the moment—the scenario further handicapped by the well-known knowledge, that, well, Batson can pretty well take care of himself. The result is that the book’s tensest moments are little more frightening the darkest moments from animated Disney films.
The style suits Captain Marvel, with Smith abandoning the admittedly creepy contemporary take on the character, which finds child’s mind trapped in the body of a muscular hero, for a classic lighthearted stoicism, saving small children from other-worldly menaces. There’s still a bit of Batson in Captain Marvels character, however, resulting in moments of comic relief, such as the hero’s taste for hot dogs, and a health dose of sibling rivalry with Mary, who in Smith’s version maintains her young age, after tranformation.
Issue one opens with short and sweet origin story, Smith seemingly intending to get that obligatory aspect out of the way, as soon as possible, given the limited page space of this four issue mini series, as well as the almost taken-for-granted fact that the vast majority of those who will pick up the book are already well-aquainted with the tale, which stays pretty true to the original.
Having sprinted through the origin, The Monster Society of Evil, slips comfortable into a few more obligatory superhero themes. Batson/Marvel must come to grips with their new-found powers, and hopefully learn to trust themselves in the face of great odds, before it’s too late. There’s another important spin on the tale, however, it’s a curious Batson who unleashes the great evil on the world.
Smith successfully strikes a harmonious balance, bringing out the comfortably familiar, rather than the cliché, exploring those themes that have made the superhero genre such a beloved one, without falling into their trappings. It’s a formula that could have only worked with Captain Marvel, and classic and beloved character who has since been all but forgotten in the midst of a new generation of hardened heroes.
It’s tough to say whether The Monster Society of Evil will signal the rebirth of the Captain Marvel character, the way DC is no doubt banking on. It seems unlikely, however, given that the same story in the hands of a craftsman less skilled that Smith would ever take off.