Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil (TPB)
By Jeff Smith
If pressed, one could probably imagine a more perfect combination of artist and existing franchise, but the amount of thought that must be invested to concoct such a scenario is surely a good sign of just how perfect a fit Jeff Smith and Captain Marvel truly are for one another.
In his introduction to this hardcover collection of Smith’s four issues of The Monster Society of Evil miniseries, Alex Ross defines the pertinent quality as ‘charm,’ and while its perhaps not the first word I’d have settled on when describing the artist’s too short run with Captain Marvel, it goes a way toward explaining why the Bone artist and the oft-neglected hero are perfect for one another.
Since threatening a suit against the character’s creators in the early 50s and subsequently purchasing the publishing rights from his creators two decades later, DC has largely marginalized the character, rarely portraying him as little more than a shadow of the company’s flagship flying strong man. A decade-and-a-half later, the company opted to complicate the character’s mythology with a psychological screwball worthy of Marvel’s more dysfunctional origins, with the hero retaining the mind of young Billy Batson, post-transformation.
In 2000, Ross and writer Mark Wade cleverly turned the Superman/Captain Marvel rivalry on its ear, by literally pitting the heroes against one another, the later brainwashed by the former’s arch-foe, Lex Luther.
That the character’s appearances have been fairly sporadic since then has given Smith the license to approach Captain Marvel from a more traditional standpoint, eschewing the modern anti-hero dynamic that has largely dominated the genre for the past few decades and beginning the mini-series before Batson is granted the power to change into Captain Marvel, retelling the origin story that younger readers surely don’t know half as well as that of a Superman or Batman.
Smith makes it clear that this consideration for younger readers plays a large roll in his re-imagining of the series, beginning each book with a title that must be unscrambled using ‘The Monster Society Code’ and portraying moments of action with stars and golden age sound effects like ‘Pow’ and ‘Sock.’ However, despite restarting the series in many respects, the story in the present, a fact that is both less likely to alienate younger readers not as eager to embrace a vintage setting and more conducive to the grownup post-90s allusions Smith happily sprinkles throughout the text.
As in his masterpiece, Bone, Smith skillfully plays to both audiences simultaneously, a feat masterfully tied together by the artist’s style, every bit as playfully cartoony as it was in the epic that preceded it, itself wonderfully complimented by the work of Cartoon Books’ in-house colorist, Steve Hamaker.
Shazam certainly possess the charm that Ross describes, but the book’s true magic lies in its embrace of another word too often neglected in today’s superhero books: fun.