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!

Robert L. Washington III: 1964 – 2012

The comic book biz is one of those fields that, to outside fans, often appears to be a glamorous occupation.  But sometimes a case will occur that serves as a reminder that, like any other industry or occupation, it is filled with its share of hardship & tragedy.  Such is the case of Robert L. Washington III, who passed away on June 7 at the age of 47.

Washington was not an especially prolific writer, and his career in the comic book field was confined to the 1990s.  But during that brief time period, he made a significant impact.  With co-writer Dwayne McDuffie and artist John Paul Leon, he created Static for Milestone Media, which was published through DC Comics.  Washington would write 18 issues of Static.  Among his other credits were The Batman Chronicles and Extreme Justice for DC, as well as Ninjak for Valiant Comics.

Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool trade paperback

I first became familiar with Static when it was adapted into the very enjoyable animated series Static Shock, which debuted in 2000 and ran for four seasons.  Several years later, the first four issues of Static (along with a later miniseries) were collected in a trade paperback, Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool.  I bought that, and found it a great read.  It is a real shame that DC did not publish any subsequent volumes.  I’ve been meaning for some time to track down the back issues of Static, but it is something I never got around to.

Washington also wrote a two part tale in 1995 for Valiant Comics’ entertaining Timewalker series.  Timewalker featured the immortal Ivar Anni-Pada, a millennia-old being who traveled back and forth in time via portals called “time arcs,” having all manner of adventures.  Washington’s story “Ashes of the Past” appeared in Timewalker #12-13.  Ivar arrives in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, where he attempts to prevent the lynching of an African American teenager who has been accused of assaulting a white woman.  In contrast to many of the stories in the Timewalker series, it was a very serious, somber tale.  Ivar, despite all his powers, is unable to stop a great tragedy from unfolding.

timewalker 12

The story by Washington that has really stood out in my mind all these years was an emotional two part Firestorm piece “Storm’s Clearing” that appeared in the DC anthology series Showcase ’96.  “Storm’s Clearing” addressed the alcoholism of Ronnie Raymond, as he enters a treatment center to deal with his addiction.  It was a very serious and adult look at the problems of substance abuse.  The unconventional artwork by Randy DuBurke added to the story’s impact.  Years later there were elements to it that I would look back on and identify with when dealing with certain of my own personal problems.

Following the severe downturn of the comic book industry in the late-1990s, Washington found himself out of work.  According to Comic Book Resources, he was able to obtain employment in such odd jobs as a call center and a warehouse.  Tragically, Washington found himself homeless on several occasions, and was forced to rely on financial assistance from the charitable Hero Initiative.  Washington was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital in Queens after suffering a heart attack on June 6, and passed away the next day.

For me, the story of Robert L. Washington III serves as a cautionary tale of the comic book industry.  Despite being a talented writer who had co-created Static, a groundbreaking character who went on to star in a very successful animated series, Washington was reduced to very dire circumstances before passing away at much too young an age.  And there just seem to be too many stories like Washington’s, of creators who worked for DC or Marvel or Archie, only to then be left bereft, their creations taken out of their hands, the profits they generated falling into the pockets of corporate owners.  In a better, more just & fair world, Washington would still be alive, and writing a new Static Shock series for DC.  But that was not to be.

Showase 96 7 pg 24

After Washington’s death, I could not help but bitterly muse that all too often the mainstream comic book industry has taken its best & brightest creators, chewed them up, and spit them out.  Although an extreme example, Washington is just the latest occurrence of a comic book professional falling by the wayside while the corporate machinery of the big companies continues to chug onward.

Other individuals wiser than myself have looked at Washington’s unfortunate plight and taken from it the lesson that those who would enter the comic book biz should have a back-up plan, some other career or occupation to fall back on.  I certainly hope the young creators of today will take this advice to heart.  Perhaps then in the future we will have fewer tragedies such as that which befell Robert L. Washington III.