Thousand Faced: Shazam-The Power of Hope

For Shazam: The Power of Hope I needed to regress to a state of childhood innocence . So I had some thin mint cookies and a frosty glass of milk while reading this great book one more time. Back in a minute folks. Munch…munch.

There. All stoked up and armed with a willing suspension of disbelief now. Let’s begin with even when I was a kid I wasn’t very child-like. The sure way to lose me as an audience was trying to pander to me by throwing some awkward performing child at me; especially the precocious ones that are supposed to be clever but are just a hair brighter than the mental wastelands they are surrounded by. That’s pretty much how I always saw DC’s Captain Marvel. In this case the original seemed to be a clumsy attempt to dumb down the Superman concept for the little ones. He came complete with other children that followed him around unctuously that he gifted with great powers so they could be worse than a trainload of saccharine trundling down a mountain of good intentions. Captain Marvel was the one hero that made me root for the villains so his smug ersatz good boy doing good deeds act could be ended. I never bought a Captain Marvel from DC ever. And usually when somebody starts peddling, “It’s good for the chirren” I head for the hills because it usually prefaces some kind of scam by some low-life playing on the severe lack of discernment possessed by those the scam is aimed at. You know like “traditional values” or “God and country” or all the other concepts of jingoism that power the Stepford communities out there who tout charity from behind gated communities and the armed guards that keep them that way.
This was a hard sell for even the brilliance of Paul Dini and Alex Ross to make.

They made it; I was hostile to this but the anal nature of collectors will take you places sometimes you don’t even want to go. Damn, I have to get Shazam to complete this set. Well…it will look good at the least. I already saw how well Ross illustrated Captain Marvel in the immortal Kingdom Come so it had that going for it. So I plunked down my $10 and took it home grudgingly. That first huge splash page with the boulder being thrown into the volcano. God! So that’s what a Captain Marvel is like at his greatness. My breath came in short hitches. It was soooo beautiful to look at. Preconceptions be damned I’m going all in. Disbelief jettisoned.

It’s the face. The eyes being windows to the soul and that undeniably infectious smile that says “Everything will be all right.” It was the face by Ross which so clearly shows that despite the bulk and power of Captain Marvel he is still a child inside. Innocent good intention just lights up his features and I want to believe in that simple grace. Ross, you manipulative bastard! Another sepia montage of an origin and this one ends in the bolt of lightning which transforms a small abused but indomitable boy into Captain Marvel. The child face is in wonder and shock as the lightning hits his chest and then the joyous smile at the hero he morphs into who realizes he is invulnerable. Nothing can hurt him anymore not even lightning.

We start after the introductory demonstration of Captain Marvel saving people and defeating big and small evils with a work weary Billy Batson finishing his board shift at WHIZ radio. He plans to enjoy baseball with what there is of his free time. He’s told about all the letters that Captain Marvel has received in care of the station that covers his adventures. Billy has a sense of great responsibility even when he is not sharing his body with Captain Marvel. He starts to answer the letters as Billy even though he could do it all within a minute if he utters “Shazam” and gains the power of Captain Marvel but he doesn’t want to abuse the privilege. This is why Shazam gave him these powers. Billy Batson is a good kid for real, for real. I have one of those who served in Iraq and if you want to thank anybody for your “freedom” you can put a name to it and call him “Jacob”. The wizard, Shazam tells Marvel he will soon meet a special child who will be very important to him. He must be watchful for him.

Billy reads a group of letters from children in a terminal ward at a local hospital. Many of these kids have no hope of recovery but Billy is determined to give them hope by becoming Captain Marvel and visiting them. He goes through his bag of super tricks and duly impresses all of them but one boy with a baseball and glove who just sits there in his wheelchair in sullen withdrawal. Nothing Captain Marvel does seems to draw the boy out of his enclosed inner world. It’s always the faces that get into your heart. I’d like to be cool and dismiss my gushy tendencies but for a labor of love like this one I’m going to open myself up and remember what it was like before I put up all the protective walls, before the abuse, before the bullies, before I got convincing that I could give back far worse than I received and learned how to play cowards like violins.

I went back to when it would have meant so much to know an adult who looked out for me and would protect me. After awhile bitterness itself becomes a drug. Disappointment becomes justification for delivering the same on others. Without the heart of a child you can become like that and perhaps have a Tea Party to punish all those not like you for your spiritually crabbed life.

Bobby. The sullen boy who is withdrawn and silent in his wheelchair. The good Captain realizes the boy was beaten by his father. Billy Batson tries to speak to the father with a voice of inquiring reason but gets threatened with a baseball bat. Probably the same one he used on his own son.  Then Captain Marvel is at the door and the bully is wetting himself in fear when confronted by somebody more powerful. He extracts a promise from Bobby’s father to not beat on his son anymore. Well we know the value of the word of cowards and so does Captain Marvel. He has the innocence of a child but not the naivete.

At the hospital, Marvel makes the observation that he means so much to the children because they sense he has never forgotten what it is to be a kid. He also realizes there are limits to his power as he sits with a girl who is claimed by her sickness. The sadness in that face. The slumping of those mighty shoulders as he shuffles tearfully from her room with the lady doctor’s hand touching him with  tenderness on that broad back. You only see his back but it shows so much. Ross, you bastard. It makes me sniffle just to write this.

Shazam tells The Captain, now in need of cosmic comfort that he reminded the children to keep their hopes and dreams alive that he did well and is a true friend and hero to those that need him. There is another brilliant two page panel of Captain Marvel flying from The Rock of Eternity feeling good about being good. I get it and love him for it.
At the end Billy Batson plays catch with Bobby. It’s also a good way to keep tabs on his violent father.  The power of a hero can just as easily come from a friend who shares a passion for baseball with you. As is the pattern in these tales it is the human part of the character which is the most heroic.

by Bill Hilburn

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