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.