It Came from the 1990s: The Power of Shazam part three

I’m continuing my retrospective of The Power of Shazam published by DC Comics from 1995 to 1999.  This time I’m looking at issues #25-37, roughly the third year of the series. (You can find the first part here and the second part here.)

As always, the writer & cover artist on The Power of Shazam is the amazingly talented Jerry Ordway. Peter Krause and Mike Manley return as penciler and inker, respectively. John Costanza and Glenn Whitmore are the letter and colorist. Mike Carlin is the editor, with Chris Duffy providing assistant edits on #25 and #26, and Frank Berrios coming on beginning with #27.

Issues #25-27 are a key turning point in this series, because … History has been changed!

As we witnessed at the end of the previous story, somehow, impossibly, CC & Marilyn Batson are once again alive, and they, rather than their children Billy & Mary, possess the power of the Wizard Shazam, enabling them to become Captains Marvel! And only the Wizard realizes that things are not as they should be, that the timestream has been altered!

The Wizard discovers that the evil Professor Sivana, following the defeat of Mister Mind’s alien invasion, accidentally ended up on the Rock of Eternity, Shazam’s home at the center of all time. Sivana, realizing that all his misfortunes began when Theo Adam murdered CC & Marilyn in Egypt, utilized the Rock to go back in time to warn his past self about what he should and should not do.

So now, in the altered present, things appear idyllic for the Batson family. And having witnessed CC & Marilyn’s deaths in the graphic novel, and the effects of this tragedy on their children, it’s genuinely moving to see them all together in this new timeline.

We also get to see the normal, unpowered Billy & Mary using their courage & intelligence to outwit their father’s arch-enemy Ibic, which really demonstrates why in the “real” timeline they were so worthy to be given the power of Shazam.

Unfortunately, Sivana is still Sivana, and in this altered timeline he still cannot help being evil & self-destructive, with tragic results for the Batsons. Meanwhile the fanatical time-monitoring Linear Men are warning the Wizard that if he doesn’t correct this alteration of time then they will.

CC learns what has happened and reluctantly agrees to go back in time and fix things, even though it will mean he and his wife will no longer exist. However, CC at first tries to go back in time even farther, to before Sivana became a criminal, to try to scare him straight. Waverider of the Linear Men intercedes, showing him that Sivana is a necessary part of the timestream, and without him all sorts of weirdness could occur. Sadly admitting Waverider is correct, CC stops Sivana from changing history, CC and Marilyn fade from existence, and Billy & Mary are once again orphans.

However, in the now-restored timeline, Waverider ensures that CC’s long-lost will, which was hidden by his greedy half-brother Ebenezer, at long last resurfaces. The will grants custody of the children to Nick & Nora Bromfield. Nick & Nora had already adopted Mary years before, and now they are able to take in Billy, officially reuniting the siblings, much to the Wizard’s joy.

Ordway’s story and the art by Krause & Manley really sell the powerful emotions of this storyline.

Plus you have got to love that page where Waverider shows CC some of the possible Captain Marvels that might occur if history is further changed. The scene is a fun nod to the Kree Captain Mar-Vell & Rick Jones, the Monica Rambeau Captain Marvel, the Captain Marvel from the Shazam: The New Beginning miniseries by Roy Thomas & Tom Mandrake, the wacky android Captain Marvel created by Carl Burgos whose arms, legs & head would split off, the expy Captain Thunder from Superman #276, and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny!

Issue #28 finds Billy feeling ambivalent about this adoption by the Bromfields; he is happy that he and his sister are once again living together, but he’s uncomfortable about once again having parents. Billy literally had to survive on his own since their parents’ deaths, and now he has to once again get used to having structure & parental authority in his life. He also misses his old home in Fawcett City, finding the suburban town of Fairfield very different.

I feel that Ordway shifting the status quo was a great move, because he gets a lot of interesting, poignant drama out of Billy, Mary and the Bronfields all having to adjust to this new situation. One of the things that really appealed to me about this series was that it was as much about Billy & Mary’s personal lives as it was about superheroics, and this continues that direction.

Issue #28 is also a spotlight on Mary as Captain Marvel, debuting a brand-new white costume. We’re never explicitly told why Mary made the change, but the implication is that she has some sort of subconscious memory of the alternate timeline in which her mother wore one like it. Whatever the case, it looks great on her, and it makes her stand out from Billy. This issue also introduces Professor Bibbowski, the intellectual brother of salty tavern owner “Bibbo” Bibbowski from the Superman titles. Guest artwork on this story is by the legendary Dick Giordano.

Next is #29, one of my favorite issues of POS, featuring Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. Peter Krause demonstrates his versatility as an artist in this fun story that sees Billy transported to a “funny animal” universe via a magician’s top hat… said magician being the Great Carlini, a nod to editor Mike Carlin.

At the end of the story we’re left wondering whether it was all an hallucination Billy had… but since just a couple issues back Waverider showed CC Batson that Hoppy was a possible incarnation of Captain Marvel, I’m going to say this really did happen. Besides, it’s too much of a great story to write off as a dream.

Giordano becomes the regular inker on with this issue. It’s interesting to compare his work over Krause to Manley’s previous inking. Manley enhanced the cartoony aspects of Krause’s pencils, whereas Giordano brings a slicker ink line. Definitely a good demonstration of how two inkers can have very different effects on the same penciler.

I haven’t previously mentioned Dudley, the middle aged janitor from Billy’s old school in Fawcett. Dudley was one of the few people who knew that Billy was living on his own, and that he was also Captain Marvel, and the kind-hearted maintenance man often covered for him. Dudley is a decent-enough guy, although he is definitely irresponsible and drinks too much. He was previously kept in line first by Billy and then by Tawky Tawny, but now that Billy is in Fairfield and Tawny is off making a movie, Dudley has a serious string of bad luck and gets fired.

Drowning his sorrows in alcohol, Dudley is visited by Mister Finish, a demon who looks like a werewolf. Finish tells Dudley that he’s going to die in three days… unless he comes up with seven other people to take his place! Dudley doesn’t actually accept the deal, but he understandably cannot stop from thinking about it, and Finish plucks the seven names from his mind. The inebriated Dudley rushes off to Fairfield to get Billy and Mary’s help, and they need to prevent Finish from claiming the seven victims. This is another one I liked a lot.

Issue #31 is a crossover with the Genesis event that John Byrne was spearheading. Ordway had a good working relationship with Byrne going back years, so it’s not surprising that POS has a significant tie-in with Genesis. Ordway used the preceding two issues to build up to it, and the actual crossover in #31 is anything by a throw-away story.

Due to the power losses caused by the events in Genesis, and by the Wizard traveling to New Genesis, Billy and Mary have become stuck in their Captain Marvel forms. Nick & Nora are convinced that Billy & Mary have been kidnapped by Dudley, who was the last person they were seen with before they went missing. In order to get Dudley released from jail, and to assuage the Bromfields’ fears, Billy & Mary find that they must reveal their secret identities to their adopted parents. So once again Ordway shifts the status quo, and from here on one of the major themes of this series is Nick & Nora trying their best to be parents to two kids who have superpowers.

After this there were a trio of stand-alone issues that featured some really great writing & character-development by Ordway.

Issue #32 introduces U.S. Air Force text pilot Deanna Barr, daughter of retired World War II costumed hero Jim “Bulletman” Barr. We also see Billy & Mary now using Mother Boxes given them by the New Gods to transform into the Captains Marvel as, following the events of the Genesis crossover, the Wizard has chosen to remain on their world of New Genesis. We also see Nick & Nora still adjusting to finding out their kids are superheroes. All things considered, they handle it pretty well.

Issue #33 is regarded by many as one of the best issues of the series. Billy and Mary are trying to find a way to help their friend & classmate Victor, who several years earlier was left horribly disfigured by their old enemy he superhuman pyromanic the Arson Fiend. This story has been reprinted twice, first in Shazam! The Greatest Stories Ever Told in 2008 and then in Shazam! A Celebration of 75 Years in 2015.

Issue #34 co-stars Jose Delgado, the vigilante Gangbuster, who has been on the run from the law for some time now. For the past few issues Jose has been working as a substitute teacher at Billy & Mary’s school in Fairfield. But when Billy is kidnapped, and unable to change into Captain Marvel, Jose is forced reveal his true identity to save the teen. Ordway utilizes this story to continue the Gangbuster story arc he wrote in a couple of recent issues of the Showcase revival, as well as to set up events for the upcoming crossover between POS and James Robinson’s Starman.

Krause & Giordano do a fine job with some very intelligent, emotional material in these three issues. Krause also once again does great with the comedic material. I love that scene of Deanna Barr giving Captain Marvel a smooch, and the panel of Billy & Mary sampling their stepmother’s attempt at baking cookies speaks for itself. The expressions on their faces!

That brings us to the crossover with Starman written by James Robinson. “Lightning and Stars” runs through Starman #33-40 and POS #35-36.

Jim Barr, has been framed for treason by neo-Nazis! Utilizing decades-old propaganda footage created by the Third Reich, these modern-day fascists have convinced the world that back in 1942 Barr was actually a Nazi double agent responsible for sinking the luxury liner The Normandie in New York Harbor on February 9, 1942.

Barr, in fact, was actually in Alaska on that very day, accompanying Ted Knight, the original Starman, on a top secret mission to prevent the Nazis from acquiring… something. Unfortunately all these decades later the mission is *still* classified, and Jim feels that he cannot reveal the details to the public, even if it’s the only way to clear his name.

Back during that mission Bulletman saved Starman’s life during a fierce battle above the Alaskan tundra, and so Ted now seeks to repay Jim by offering him sanctuary. Government bigwig Sarge Steel is more concerned with making sure the events of February 9th stay a secret than he is in clearing Jim’s name, though. Steel manipulates Captain Marvel into going after the retired Bulletman. This puts Billy Batson into conflict with Ted’s son Jack, the current Starman, in Opal City.

Meanwhile, Mary Bromfield, rather than rushing in blind, actually uses her head. Investigating, she figures out the footage of Bulletman’s treason is a fake. Turning into Captain Marvel, she stops her brother from getting into another fight with Jack Knight. The three of them return to Nick & Nora Bromfield’s home in Fairfield, where Jim and Ted are trying to figure out how to clear Jim’s name, a well-drawn scene I previously spotlighted in one of my Comic Book Coffee entries.

I liked the scene Ordway wrote between Billy and Jack at the end of the crossover. Jack and his father have an often-contentious relationship, But as the orphaned Billy points out to him:

“You — you’re really lucky, y’know — that your dad’s still around for you. And you for him.”

Krause appears to have drawn a great deal of inspiration from primary Starman artist Tony Harris. Krause’s work on these two issues really evokes the layouts & storytelling seen in the other series. As always, Krause does a great job with all of the character-driven sequences.

Ordway’s painted covers for these two issues are very nicely done, forming a single, larger image with scenes both past & present. And, yes, that is Green Lantern Abin Sur on the cover! The revelation of what exactly Bulletmen and Starman found in Alaska in 1942 was definitely an effective surprise. I really did not see it coming.

Finally we get to issue #37, which is a Captain Marvel Junior spotlight. Freddy Freeman hasn’t been seen in this series for quite a while, having joined the Teen Titans in New York City, and thus been busy appearing in that series. Freddy returns to these pages just in time to accidentally be exposed to the psychic mists of the evil Doctor Morpheus… no relation to the brooding goth fellow who hangs out with Neil Gaiman! As far as I can tell this is the Doctor’s only appearance. Freddy fights his way through the nightmares that Morpheus creates out of Freddy’s own fears & insecurities.

At the end of the story Captain Marvel Junior, who’s magic word is not “Shazam” but “Captain Marvel,” renames himself CM3, because he finally figures out that having a superhero name that he can’t even say without turning back to his non-powered self is not such a great thing. I don’t know if CM3 is much of an improvement, but what can you do?

This issue is interesting in that we see former inker Manley returning to pencil the story, with current inker Giordano providing embellishments. They do a nice job with the weird, creepy story by Ordway.

And with that we bring this installment of this retrospective to a close. Next time Ordway will once again be shaking things up in The Power of Shazam in a major way!

Avengers by Tom Palmer

Comic book artist Tom Palmer passed away at the age of 81 on August 18th.

Palmer started in comic books in 1968 at Marvel Comics, at the tail end of what fans generally refer to as the Silver Age. Although he initially worked as a penciler, Palmer soon transitioned into inking. He quickly established himself as one of the great inkers in the industry. In addition to his work as an inker / embellisher, Palmer was a colorist & painter. Palmer had runs on X-Men inking Neal Adams, Doctor Strange and Tomb of Dracula inking Gene Colan, Star Wars inking Walter Simonson and Ron Frenz, X-Men: The Hidden Years inking John Byrne, and Incredible Hulk inking John Romita Jr and Lee Weeks.

However, the title which I most personally associate Palmer with is Avengers. He initially inked & colored several issues in the early 1970s, first over John Buscema and then Neal Adams. Palmer returned to Avengers with issue #255 in 1985, and he remained on the book thru to issue #402 in 1996, doing inks / finishes for nearly every issue during that 12 year period. Just as Joe Sinnott had previously played a key role in defining the look of Fantastic Four for over a decade and a half via his strong, characteristic inking, so too did Palmer do the same for Avengers.

Here are some highlights from Palmer’s work on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes:

Palmer really hit the ground running on Avengers #255 (May 1985). In addition to once again doing a great job inking John Buscema, who also returned to the series with this issue, Palmer produced a stunning painted cover that spotlighted the then-current Captain Marvel, Monica Rambeau.

Another striking Avengers cover by Palmer is issue #273. The comics released by Marvel with a November 1985 cover-date marked the 25th anniversary of the debut of the Fantastic Four, and each cover had a portrait of its main character, or for the team books, one of the prominent members, surrounded by border artwork by John Romita. Avengers #273 had a portrait of the Black Knight by Palmer, who rendered the character in rich textures.

More often than not Buscema was doing loose pencil breakdowns on Avengers during the second half of the 1980s. It was Palmer’s job to produce the finished artwork, a task he did with incredible skill, rendering some very stylish, detailed pages.

This pages is from Avengers #277, the final chapter of the now-classic “Under Siege” storyline written by Roger Stern, which saw Baron Zemo form a new Masters of Evil to try to destroy the Avengers. Buscema & Palmer did great work on the final battle between Captain America and Zemo.

Buscema left Avengers with issue #300. Following a short stint by Rich Buckler, the new penciler on the series was Paul Ryan, with Palmer remaining on inks.

This amazing poster featuring most of the Avengers members up to that point in time was drawn by Ryan & Palmer. It was released in 1989, and was probably done by them around the same time as when they were working on Avengers #305 (July 1989) which contained a very similar scene.

Larry Hama had a short, underrated stint writing Avengers in the early 1990s, during which he shook up the team’s line-up and introduced some offbeat villains. Chief among these was the strange other-dimensional entities the Tetrarchs of Entropy. Ryan & Palmer certainly did an excellent job depicting those bizarre entities, as seen in issue #329 (February 1991).

Bob Harras became writer on Avengers with issue #334, and the next issue he was joined by penciler Steve Epting. Palmer remained on as inker, and for the next several years they were the creative team on the title, bringing some much-welcome stability to the book.

Palmer once again also began coloring Avengers with issue #343. He would hold the dual roles of inker and colorist on the series for the next three years. Here’s the splash page to Avengers #345 (March 1992), part of the “Operation: Galactic Storm” crossover, featuring Palmer’s inks & colors over Epting’s pencils. Left to right we have Quasar, the Eric Masterson version of Thor, the Vision and Sersi of the Eternals.

Palmer’s coloring was also on display on several Avengers covers such as this one, issue #375 (June 1994), the finale to Harras’ long-running Gatherers storyline. This great wrap-around cover, penciled by Epting and inked by Palmer, is definitely enhanced by Palmer’s vibrant coloring. I always felt Epting & Palmer did a fine job rendering the Black Knight and Sersi on Avengers, and that’s certainly on display here.

This is definitely one of my favorite Avengers covers from the 1990s. Click on the image to see the cover in all its full-sized glory!

Mike Deodato began penciling Avengers with issue #380 (November 1994). It’s interesting to see the very slick work of Deodato embellished by palmer’s highly textured inking, but I think it worked, really making the art stand out from the various other jobs the very popular Deodato was doing at that time. Palmer also does the coloring. The two of them definitely did good work on this dynamic double page spread featuring Quicksilver and Crystal.

Avengers #384 (March 1995) is another rare example of Palmer’s full artwork. Harras wrapped up a long-running plotline involving the ruthless machinations of the Greek gods in a genuinely heart-wrenching finale that left Hercules devastated. Palmer’s cover really captured the tragedy of Harras’ story.

All good things must come to an end. So it was with Avengers volume one, which concluded with issue #402 (September 1996) as the “Onslaught” crossover send both the Avengers and Fantastic Four over to an alternate reality for the year-long “Heroes Reborn” event. Palmer departed in style via an incredible painted cover.

I think it really speaks to Palmer’s skill as an illustrator that he does such a good job with this particular odd team line-up which had, among other things, the Wasp transformed into a humanoid insect and Thor wearing an overly-complex costume that just screamed “grim & gritty.”

This marked the end of Palmer’s regular association with the team, although he would return to the team from time to time, such as inking Will Rosado on the eight issue Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes II miniseries in 2007 and inking John Romita on several Avengers issues in 2011.

I was fortunate enough to meet Palmer on a few occasions at comic cons and store signings. He always came across as a good, polite person who made time for the fans.

The news of Tom Palmer’s death is sad. We’ve lost way too many incredible talents in such a very short time.

Happy birthday to Alex Saviuk

Wishing a very happy birthday to comic book artist Alex Saviuk, who turns 70 years old today.

Saviuk’s career in comic books began in late 1977 when he started working DC Comics. Among his early assignments were Green Lantern / Green Arrow, The Flash, Superman Family and back-up stories in Action Comics and DC Comics Presents.

The first time I recall seeing Saviuk’s work was in Action Comics #571, which came out in early June 1985, shortly before my ninth birthday. Behind a shocking, attention-grabbing cover by Brian Bolland was “Mission to Earth,” a rather offbeat, humorous story written by Bronze Age Superman scribe Elliot S! Maggin, penciled by Saviuk, inked by Dave Hunt, lettered by David Weiss and colored by Gene D’Angelo.

“Mission to Earth” sees the alien robot Thresher222 teleport to Earth in search of a cure for the nova radiation that is destroying his fellow living machines. Thresher222 materializes in the Arctic near Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Unfortunately the journey leaves the robot with amnesia. Before Superman can solve the robot visitor’s identity problem, he has another emergency to tackle: In his other identity of Clark Kent, he’s supposed to interview Superman on television. For whatever reason Batman isn’t available to do one of the impersonations he usually does when Superman and Clark need to appear together, so the Man of Steel asks Thresher222 to don a rubber mask and assume Clark’s identity on live television.

Unfortunately the guest that “Clark” has to interview before Superman is Metropolis Councilman Gregg, who is running for Mayor. Gregg proceeds to spew a torrent of political nonsense, overwhelming the already-unbalanced robot, resulting in his head exploding on live television. Saviuk does an amazing job of depicting the left- side of “Clark’s” head going kablooey, an image superbly complemented by Maggin’s sardonic narration. Even now, almost four decades later, I still look at that page and start giggling uncontrollably.

In 1986 Saviuk made the move over to Marvel Comics. After working on a number of fill-ins for Marvel, including three issues of Amazing Spider-Man, at the end of 1987 Saviuk became the regular penciler on Web of Spider-Man beginning with issue #35. Editor Jim Salicrup also brought onboard writer Gerry Conway and inker Keith Williams with that issue.

Other than very short runs by Greg LaRocque and Marc Silvestri, Web of Spider-Man really didn’t have a regular artist for its first three years, and was frequently plagued by fill-in issues. This changed with Saviuk’s arrival. He remained on Web of Spider-Man thru issue #116 in 1994, and during his nearly seven year long run only missed a handful of issues. For most of his run Saviuk was inked by Williams, with later issues embellished by Sam de la Rosa, Don Hudson and Stephen Baskerville.

I’ve previously commented that I felt that Saviuk was overshadowed by Todd McFarlane high-profile runs on first Amazing Spider-Man and then the adjectiveless Spider-Man series. That’s unfortunate, because Saviuk was doing quality work month after month on Web of Spider-Man. Saviuk’s association with the web-slinger would extend well beyond Web.

In 1989 Saviuk penciled the graphic novel Amazing Spider-Man: Parallel Lives, in which writer Gerry Conway explored the complicated intertwined histories of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. Accompanying Conway and Saviuk were inker Andy Mushynsky, letterer Rick Parker and colorist Bob Sharen.

Parallel Lives allowed Saviuk the opportunity to do his own interpretation of many classic Spider-Man moments, among them the iconic “Face it, tiger… you just hit the jackpot!” scene originally depicted by John Romita in Amazing Spider-Man #42.

From 1994 to 1997 Saviuk penciled Spider-Man Adventures / Adventures of Spider-Man, which was based on the animated series that was airing at the time. After that, from 1997 to 2019 Saviuk was the penciler on the Sunday edition of The Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strip.

So, yeah, Saviuk drew Spider-Man continuously for over 30 years. I definitely consider him to be among the all-time great artists to have worked on the character.

In addition to his DC and Marvel work, Saviuk has drawn for several other publishers. In the late 1990s he penciled several issues of the comic book adaptation of The X-Files published by Topps Comics. In the 21st Century he’s drawn a number of stories for Fantomet, the Swedish edition of Lee Falk’s costumed hero The Phantom published by Egmont, as well working on a few issues of The Phantom comic books published in the United States by Moonstone and Hermes Press. Saviuk also drew several covers for Big City Comics in 2006.

I met Saviuk a couple of times at comic cons, and he came across to me as a good person. He did a really nice Spider-Man sketch for me. I also got several issues of Web of Spider-Man autographed by him, among them the infamous “Spider-Hulk” story from issue #70 plotted by Gerry Conway and scripted by David Michelinie.

Having been exposed to gamma radiation leeched out of the Incredible Hulk in the previous issue, Spider-Man himself became big, green & angry. Of course by the end of the issue Spider-Man was restored to normal. Nowadays if Marvel did this they’d probably give Spider-Hulk his own series, or team him up with all of the other Hulk knock-offs, or something. In any case, Saviuk pulled of the task of rendering “Spider-Hulk” without the character looking too ridiculous.

More recently Saviuk has drawn several variant covers for Marvel, among them on the five issue miniseries Symbiote Spider-Man, continuing his lengthy association with the web-slinger. He is also a frequent guest at comic book conventions, where he draws amazing sketches & commissions, many of which can be viewed on his Instagram account.

Happy birthday, Alex Saviuk. Thank you for all the amazing artwork throughout the years. I hope there’s many more to come.

“Magic” by Olivia Newton-John

I was sad to hear that Olivia Newton-John had passed away on August 8th. I can’t say I was a huge fan of Newton-John, but I recognize that she was a very talented singer & actress. And my father is definitely a fan of her movies Grease (1978) and Xanadu (1980). When I was growing up he was watching them on television & home video all the time, so I guess I absorbed something of an interest in them, and Newton-John, by osmosis.

Actually, I was surprised to learn that Newton-John was 73 years old when she passed on. I really thought she was younger. I suppose that’s due to the fact she portrayed high school senior Sandy Olsson in Grease. Newton-John was actually 29 years old when the movie was made, which astonishes me. She really didn’t look all that much older than the 17 year old character she was playing.

I haven’t seen Xanadu in many years. All these decades later all I can recall about it was that it was a very strange movie featuring the Greek Muses and a roller disco and song & dance legend Gene Kelly. Xanadu was a box office bomb, but the soundtrack was a huge success, getting certified double platinum, with the song “Magic” becoming a number one hit for Newton-John. And, really, it IS a good song, as is the title track “Xanadu” which Newton-John recorded with Electric Light Orchestra. That one was also very successful, peaking at number eight on the US Billboard Hot 100.

So here’s “Magic” written & produced by John Farrar and performed by Olivia Newton-John. If you haven’t heard it before then definitely give it a listen.

Olivia Newton-John was an incredible singer with a career that stretched over five and a half decades, from the mid 1960s right up until her passing. She will definitely be missed by her many fans.

It Came from the 1990s: The Power of Shazam part two

I’m continuing my retrospective of the fantastic comic book series The Power of Shazam published by DC Comics from 1995 to 1999. You can find the first part here.

Today I’m looking at the second year of the title. The regular creative team is the same as before: writer & cover artist Jerry Ordway, penciler Peter Krause, inker Mike Manley, letterer John Costanza, colorist Glenn Whitmore, assistant editor Chris Duffy, and editor Mike Carlin.

Actually, this is where I first came in.

Yes, it’s true, I did not read the graphic novel when it originally came out in 1994, or the first 13 issues of the ongoing series. But I kept hearing such positive things about the series, so when issue #14 came out with guest pencils by the legendary Gil Kane, I decided to give it a try.

Freddy Freeman, aka Captain Marvel Junior, was a popular guy and a jock before he was crippled by Captain Nazi and then received powers from Billy Batson and Mary Bromfield, the two Captains Marvel. So when Freddy starts showing some interest in Mary in issue #13, Billy becomes extremely overprotective. Billy and Freddy end up coming to blows, and Freddy leaves Fawcett City.

Issue #14 picks up on Freddy, who has arrived in New York City. He encounters Chain Lightning, another teen metahuman, although she suffers from some form of multiple personality disorder, which makes her very dangerous & unpredictable.

Ordway did a great job writing a story that was simultaneously a stand-alone tale, and which also brought new readers such as myself up to speed on what had happened before. That sort of skill has unfortunately become rare in mainstream superhero comics. I found #14 a really engaging issue with great artwork by Kane, so I came back a month later for #15, and I was hooked. I subsequently sought out the graphic novel and the previous issues.

Thinking about it, I was probably also intrigued by the clever “cereal box” house ad that DC ran featuring Ordway’s cover painting for the upcoming issue #16 to promote the Mister Mind storyline. Now that is how you promote a comic book!

Mister Mind was the “big bad” behind the lengthy “Monster Society of Evil” serial that Fawcett Comics published back in the 1940s. Eventually revealed to be a tiny, cartoony-looking worm, Mister Mind’s cute appearance belied the fact that he was a cold-blooded killer. Nevertheless, I really don’t think the character would have worked in that form in the 1990s. Ordway reimagines Mister Mind as the vanguard of a race of millions of telepathic worms from Venus which possess a shared consciousness.

Just like his Golden Age namesake, this modern “Mister Mind” and his race plot to take over the world. The worms have a plan that manages to be simultaneously brilliant and ridiculous, specifically taking over the mind of Billy’s miserly uncle Ebenezer to build a giant casino in Fawcett City, and then have Captain Marvel’s arch-enemy Doctor Sivana teleport the worms from Venus to Earth where they can take over the people who come from across the country to visit the casino. In a tip of the hat to the original Captain Marvel stories, the casino’s mascot is the original cartoony version of Mister Mind.

The worms all speak in an alien language which could be translated via a decoder card that readers got for free by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to DC Comics. Yes, I sent away for one, and yes, I still have it. Maybe it’s no Captain Midnight Decoder Ring, but it’s still pretty cool.

Mike Carlin informed me on Facebook that John Costanza is the one who lettered the Mister Mind Alphabet.

Also in these issues, much to Bill Batson’s chagrin, the Wizard Shazam decides to leave the Rock of Eternity to once more live among humanity… which means posing as Billy’s grandfather and moving in with him.

The Power of Shazam #17 features one last flashback sequence penciled by Silver Age legend Curt Swan, who had previously contributed to issues #8 and #11. This segment reveals exactly how Doctor Sivana and Mister Mind came to be working together. Issue #17 was released in June 1996, the month Swan passed away, making it among the last art he drew. It demonstrates he was doing solid work right up to the end.

I’m glad that Ordway included this sequence, because it helps fill in the gap between the graphic novel and the first issue of the ongoing series. Billy Batson and Sivana barely interact in the graphic novel, but when the monthly series begins four years have passed and Sivana is now Captain Marvel’s arch enemy, as well as one of the few people who know he’s actually Billy. So this segment gives some info on how they became such bitter adversaries, and how Sivana went from being a shady tycoon to a mad scientist on the run from the law.

Another highlight of this four issue story arc is Captain Marvel donning a Wallace Wood-inspired spacesuit for the journey to Venus… where he discovers that Sivana has obviously been raiding Tony Stark’s wardrobe!

Krause & Manley do their usual superb work on issues #15-17, with Manley stepping up to contribute both pencils & inks for the wrap-up in issue #18.

Around this time a couple of other books related to The Power of Shazam came out. The first of these was Showcase ’96 #7 (August 1996), a team-up between Mary Bromfield / Captain Marvel and the vigilante Gangbuster, who Ordway created with writer Marv Wolfman in Adventures of Superman a decade earlier. This enabled Ordway to continue the storyline of Gangbuster being on the run from the law that had been set up in the Superman books and continued through a previous issue of the Showcase anthology. It also allows Mary to again step into the spotlight and demonstrate she is just as much a hero as her brother.

Looking at this story again in 2022, it was a pleasant surprise to see journalist Cat Grant also appeared in it. I miss how Cat was written back in the 1990s as an intelligent, caring person. I really didn’t like how she was depicted when she was brought back in 2008 with a completely different, and very ugly, personality.

Art on the Captain Marvel / Gangbuster story was by penciler John Statema & inker Mike DeCarlo, with letters by Ken Bruzenak and colors by Dave Grafe. Will Rosado & Klaus Janson drew the dynamic cover which shows Mary and Gangbuster facing off against the superhuman pyromaniac the Arson Fiend.

Also released was The Power of Shazam Annual #1 which… hey, wait a minute! I’ve never read this one before! What gives?

Seriously, all these years later I can’t remember why I didn’t get the annual when it came out. It’s possible I never saw it. Or maybe, since it was around the time that I was deciding to start reading the series, I skipped it to focus on the regular issues.

Of course, it’s equally possible that I simply didn’t get it because of the whole “Legends of the Dead Earth” theme of stories set in the far, far distant future that ran through all of DC Comics’ annuals in the Summer of 1996. At the time 17 year old was me was unfortunately hung up on continuity, on whether or not stories were “real” and “actually happened,” and it seemed to me that Legends of the Dead Earth was Elseworlds in all but name, and therefore “didn’t count.” Which was pretty damn silly of me, because years later I read several of those annuals and found them to be entertaining mash-ups of superheroes, pulp sci-fi & fantasy. What can I say? I was a foolish teenager back in 1996.

And, ironically, The Power of Shazam Annual #1 actually “did count” as it introduced teenager CeCe Beck (named after the first Captain Marvel artist C.C. Beck) who transformed into Thunder, an incarnation of Captain Marvel over six thousand years in the future, and who went on to make several more appearances. She even hung out with the Legion of Super-Heroes for a while. Shows what I know!

Since I was doing this reread of the entire series, I finally tracked down this annual and, wow, it’s really good! Writer & cover painter Ordway does a superb job of really subverting a familiar formula. The “plucky rebels fighting an oppressive evil empire” trope gets upended as we see that the resistance has committed some morally questionable acts, with one of their leaders being responsible for the deaths of Beck’s parents. There are people living in the regular society who are perfectly happy with their existence, so simply overthrowing the existing order is only going to make a bad situation worse. Inspector Javert, despite being named after the antagonist from Les Miserables, turns out to be a reasonable authority figure. Beck realizes that both sides need to find a way to co-exist.

Regular inker Mike Manley here turns in some really nice animated-style pencils, neatly balancing the fun and dystopian elements of Ordway’s story. Manley is effectively inked by John Nyberg. John Costanza and Glenn Whitmore once again turn in quality letters and colors.

So, yes, this one was definitely a very unexpected gem!

Returning to the ongoing monthly series, we now get to The Power of Shazam #19. I only have one issue from this series autographed, and it’s this one.

Following up on the Captain Marvel Junior story from a few months earlier, issue #19 sees Freddy Freeman visiting S.T.A.R. Labs to check up on Chain Lighting, and to receive treatment for his own injuries from Dr. Caitlin Rousso.

Caitlin accidentally lets slip that Captain Nazi is being held at S.T.A.R. Labs until he can be transported back to Europe to stand trial for war crimes. Freddy, seeking vengeance, busts out Nazi and takes him to an abandoned industrial area, only to realize that, as much as he wants, he cannot bring himself to kill his enemy in cold blood. Unfortunately Nazi takes the opportunity to escape, and now it’s up to Freddy, working alongside middle aged superhero & World War II veteran Minute Man to recapture the superpowered fascist.

Gil Kane, who penciled issue #14, returns for this story. Regrettably this time Kane was only able to complete the first half of the issue. Joe Staton, another great artist, as well as a personal favorite of me, stepped in to pencil the second half. Around this time Staton was also helping Kane complete the pencils for the graphic novel The Life Story of the Flash, which was published in 1997.

I got this one autographed by Kane the one time I was fortunate enough to meet him, and subsequently had Ordway and Staton add their signatures. Hopefully one of these days I will also get the opportunity to also have this issue signed by Manley.

The first year and a half of The Power of Shazam was pretty much self-contained. Ordway understandably wanted to take the time to introduce Billy Batson, Mary Bromfield, Freddy Freeman and the rest of the cast, to tell his own stories. Fortunately DC allowed him the opportunity to do just that. Yes, Captain Marvel popped over to the Underworld Unleashed event in-between issues, but it was done in such a way that if you didn’t read that crossover you really wouldn’t have missed anything.

Starting with issue #20, though, Ordway starts linking The Power of Shazam with the rest of DC Universe. A tie-in with The Final Night crossover brings in guest star Superman, a character Ordway is, of course, very familiar with. But even here Ordway uses the crisis of the Sun Eater as the impetus to have Captain Marvel Junior return to Fawcett City and bury the hatchet with the rest of the Marvel Family, and to engage in some nice character development.

Issue #21 features a wacky guest appearance by Plastic Man. The artwork by Krause & Manley is really well-suited to the oddball humor of Pas and his sidekick Woozy Winks. There were some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments in this one.

Then in issue #22 Batman stops by Fawcett City to investigate organized crime. Billy’s already got gym class and homework and a school bully on his plate, but when the Dark Knight tells you he expects you to meet up with him, well, what can you do?

Issue #23 sees Ordway introduce another post-Crisis revamp of an old Captain Marvel enemy, the radioactive robot Mister Atom. The story also once again showcases how the series has become an ensemble piece. Billy and Mary are pretty much equal co-stars, and both of them are referred to as Captain Marvel. “Mary Marvel” is only a nickname that Billy calls Mary; everyone else refers to her as “Captain Marvel Lady” or “the Lady Marvel” or variations thereof. Even the opening narration refers to Mary as Captain Marvel.

Speaking of the opening, the double page spread on this issue by Krause & Manley is gorgeous.

I do have to admit, on first reading issue #23 did feel like somewhat of a throwaway story… but about 15 months down the line it turned out to be very significant to the series. Ordway did a good job of setting up plotlines & character arcs on this series that would pay off later.

Oh, yeah, among the various mindless missives printed in this issue’s lettercol is some inane drivel by a Ben Herman of Harrison, New York. I think I heard that guy later moved to Queens, NYC and started writing long, rambling blog posts 😼

The second year of The Power of Shazam came to a close with issue #24. It has a gorgeous pulp-style painted cover from Ordway. Krause & Manley do a fine job illustrating the flashback adventure within.

The now-retired costumed hero Spy Smasher is recounting to Billy & Mary an incident from back during the Cold War when he worked with their late father, archaeologist Clarence Charles Batson, to retrieve an ancient artifact known as the Scorpion from East Germany. Once the property of the Wizard, the Scorpion has the potential to be an incredibly powerful weapon, so naturally both the Communists and a group of Nazi war criminals also want to get their grubby mitts on it.

After several very close calls, including a fight with the armored Baron Blitzkrieg, CC and Spy Smasher at last escape from behind the Iron Curtain with the Scorpion. Spy Smasher wraps up his tale… just in time for Billy & Mary’s father to arrive and tell them it’s time to come home, because their mother is making dinner.

Holy moley! What in the name of Shazam is going on? Aren’t Clarence & Marilyn Batson dead? How can any of this be happening? What a cliffhanger!

I’ll be looking at what happens next in an upcoming post when I cover the third year of The Power of Shazam. I hope you’ll come back for it!

It Came from the 1990s: The Power of Shazam

Last month I started doing a re-read of The Power of Shazam comic book series that was published by DC Comics for four years between 1995 and 1999. One of the reasons why I like to do this “It Came from the 1990s” feature here on this blog is because the decade as a whole tends to get a bad rap among comic book fans. There were some great comic books published during the 1990s, and The Power of Shazam, which was written by Jerry Ordway for its entire run, is among the very best.

The Power of Shazam features Billy Batson, the original Golden Age version of Captain Marvel originally published by Fawcett Comics from 1939 to 1953 before DC Comics ultimately litigated them out of existence, with the character subsequently being acquired by DC itself two decades later. Ordway’s run is often regarded as the best incarnation of the character since the original Golden Age version.

The Power of Shazam actually started out as a standalone graphic novel written, drawn & painted by Jerry Ordway, with lettering by John Costanza, that DC published in early 1994. Coming off the Superman family of titles, on which he regularly worked in the late 1980s and early 90s, Ordway set out to tell the definitive post-Crisis on Infinite Earths origin of Billy Batson / Captain Marvel.

The graphic novel initially opens in the Egyptian desert several years in the past. Husband and wife archaeologists Charles Clarence Batson & Marilyn Batson are excavating a previously-undiscovered tomb. With them is Theo Adam, an agent of the expedition’s financier Thaddeus Sivana. In a hidden chamber the trio discovers a sarcophagus with a beautiful scarab necklace. The thuggish Adam becomes strangely fixated on the scarab. He brutally murders C.C. and Marilyn, but not before Marilyn hides the scarab inside her daughter Mary’s stuffed Tawky Tawny doll. Adam kidnaps Mary and flees back to America.

Some months later the Batsons’ other child, ten year old Billy, is living on the streets of Fawcett City, his inheritance having been stolen by his miserly Uncle Ebenezer. A ghostly figure beckons to Billy one rainy night, leading him into a subway tunnel which is connected to the other-dimensional Rock of Eternity, the home of the ancient Wizard Shazam. The Wizard bids Billy to say his name. Calling out “Shazam!” Billy is transformed into the super-powered adult form of Captain Marvel.

The understandably confused & angry Billy takes some time to adjust to this new body and its amazing powers, but he soon finds himself on a collision course with Theo Adam, who is revealed to be reincarnation of Black Adam, the Wizard’s original champion from ancient times who was corrupted by his awesome powers. Finally locating the mystic scarab, Theo transforms into Black Adam for the first time in the modern age.

Billy defeats Adam and resists the temptation to exact vengeance against the man who murdered his parents. The Wizard robs Adam of his powers & ability to speak. The figure who led Billy to the Rock of Eternity is none other than the ghost of Billy’s father, who drops enough clues to cause Billy to realize his sister Mary is still alive somewhere.

Ordway did a superb job updating the concept of Captain Marvel for the 1990s while still retaining much of the charm & whimsy of the original stories. Ordway’s painted artwork on the graphic novel was stunning.

The graphic novel was a huge success and DC greenlit an ongoing monthly series which made its debut in early 1995. Leaping forward four years to the “present day” the series features the now 14 year old Billy still attempting to juggle the life of a teen with the powers of Captain Marvel. Complicating matters, Billy continues to hide the fact that his uncle threw him out on the streets, because he doesn’t want to end up in foster care or an orphanage.

In addition to writing The Power of Shazam series, Ordway created gorgeous painted covers for each issue. The new art team was Peter Krause on pencils / layouts and Mike Manley on inks / finishes. John Costanza returns as letterer, with coloring by Glen Whitmore. Rounding things out were assistant editor Chris Duffy and editor Mike Carlin.

The first 12 issues of the monthly title formed a complete story arc. Billy at last discovers his long-missing sister Mary, who has been adopted by her mother’s cousin Nora and her husband Nick Bromfield. Mary is prompted by the magically animated Tawky Tawny stuffed animal to call out the magic work “Shazam” also gaining the Wizard’s powers.

Billy and Mary are reunited and befriend fellow teen Freddy Freeman. When Freddy is crippled by the superpowered fascist Captain Nazi, the Batson siblings share the powers given to them by the Wizard with their friend, enabling him to become Captain Marvel Jr. With the intro of first Mary as a second Captain Marvel, and then Freddy Freeman as Captain Marvel Jr, The Power of Shazam quickly became an ensemble title.

Just as he did with Bill Batson, Ordway does fantastic work with the character of Mary Bromfield. In certain respects Mary actually makes a better Captain Marvel than Billy, with the Wizard telling her:

“You have shown an intuitive grasp of my powers, Mary… in many ways, using them better than your brother had, when he first received them.”

It actually makes sense that Mary has that ability, as she was adopted by the Bromfields and given a loving, stable upbringing, whereas poor Billy was thrown out by his greedy uncle, forcing the young boy to survive by his wits on the streets of Fawcett City. I like that Ordway shows the siblings having very different approaches to crimefighting. Ordway also did a superb job rendering Mary on the book’s painted covers.

I definitely want to acknowledge the work of Peter Krause. I’d classify Krause as one of those good, solid artists who can turn in clear, dynamic pages on a deadline. I think if Krause had been around 20 years earlier he probably would have been one of the top artists of the Bronze Age. Regrettably by the mid 1990s his sort of art style had mostly fallen out of fashion. Fortunately this series was the perfect venue for Krause’s work.

Krause perfectly balanced the action & drama with the comedy & whimsy. He was equally adept at drawing dynamic action sequences as he was at bringing to life the humorous characters & moments in Ordway’s stories such as all of the really fun Tawky Tawny scenes. Manley’s finishes superbly complemented Krause’s pencils. They made a top-notch art team.

Silver and Bronze Age legend Curt Swan penciled a flashback sequence in The Power of Shazam #8 featuring Bulletman, Minute Man and Spy Smasher mixing it up with the diabolical Captain Nazi and his goosestepping lackeys during World War II. Swan’s lovely traditional style is a good fit for this segment, and Mike Manley’s inking complements his work really well.

Ordway himself pencils a pair of flashbacks in issue #10 and #12, which reveal the origin of the Wizard Shazam and his role in the history of Fawcett City and the Batson Family. We discover the Wizard had an origin very much like Billy, when as a young boy his family was murdered by bandits thousands of years ago in the Middle East. Entreating to the gods for the power to fight against injustice, the future Shazam became a champion in the region, protecting the innocent, allowing civilization to flourish.

Unfortunately, much as would one day happen to his successor Black Adam, the Wizard became overconfident, and his arrogance led to him being seduced by a beautiful demonic temptress. The inhuman seductress then gives birth to twins, the diabolical siblings Blaze and Satanus, who had previously been introduced in the Superman books during Ordway’s time on them.

Much of the events in the first year of The Power of Shazam revolves around Blaze’s efforts to undo the good works of her father the Wizard Shazam, and her brother Satanus’ own machinations to prevent his sister from becoming the ruling monarch of Hell.

The graphic novel and first 12 issues of The Power of Shazam were collected together by DC Comics in 2020 in the hardcover In the Beginning. There are tentative plans for a second collection, which I really hope will materialize, because it would be great if eventually the entire series got reprinted.

In any case, I’ll be looking at the second year of The Power of Shazam in a future blog post. Maybe I’ll do one post for each year of the series? I guess I’ll see how it goes. Anyway, I’m really enjoying this reread, and I hope those of you who follow this blog will enjoy my retrospectives of this great series.