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

My reread of The Power of Shazam by Jerry Ordway and friends enters the fourth year. This is, regrettably, the home stretch. This has been such an enjoyable series to revisit, and I really with it had lasted longer.

We begin with a storyline that literally had my jaw hitting the floor the first time I read it.

Ordway did a very good job of balancing the serious and the whimsical on this series, but with issue #38 the $#^+ totally hit the fan. Mister Mind, the sole surviving member of the telepathic caterpillars from Venus that tried to invade Earth, manages to take control of Sarge Steel, director of Metahuman Affairs. Previously the government had taken custody of the nuclear-powered robot Mister Atom, and now Mister Mind dispatches it to destroy Bill Batson & Mary Bromfield by having it home in on Billy’s Justice League. communicator. Landing in the town of Fairfield, right outside the Bromfields’ house, Mister Atom self-destructs, obliterating the entire town, killing thousands of innocent people!

Billy and Mary in their Captain Marvel forms are in Fawcett City when they see the mushroom cloud on the horizon. They are understandably horrified, especially as they believe their adopted parents Nick & Nora Bronfield are among the dead. The sorcerer Ibis manages to neutralize the radioactive fallout, but he can do nothing for all those who have already perished.

The two Captains fail to prove Sarge Steel is being controlled by Mister Mind. Mary heads over to the laboratory of Professor Bibbowski (the genius brother of tough guy tavern owner Bibbo Bibbowski from the Superman books) and asks him to try to find a way of detecting & neutralizing Mister Mind.

Billy and Mary return to Fawcett, where they are relieved to learn that Nick & Nora managed to survive by pure dumb luck; they were heading out of Fairfield by car to try to find Billy and Mary when the bomb went off.

Mary uses the device invented by the Professor to drive Mister Mind out of Sarge Steel’s head, and to prevent the worm from taking over the President. Mind has already dispatched thousands of clones of himself to take over innocent people, sending them to nuclear facilities across the world, planning to destroy the Earth as revenge for his own species’ destruction. Mind also found out from possessing Sarge Steel that the government had custody of a massive alien exoskeleton another of his species used 50 years earlier, which we saw in the flashback during the Starman crossover.

Mind rampages across Washington DC in the exoskeleton. Jim Barr, aka Bulletman, watches this on TV, and it causes him to at long last remember his encounter with the alien armor during World War II, and to recall that the Green Lantern Abin Sur defeated the alien menace all those years before. Bulletman calls former GL Alan Scott, who in turn contacts current GL Kyle Rayner. Kyle flies to Washington accompanied by a time-displaced Hal Jordan (looooong story). Billy, Mary, and the two GLs have to figure out what is real and what is an illusion caused by Mind, but at last they crack open the armor. Sarge Steel then kills the murderous alien worm, which in turn causes Mind’s clones to die, saving the Earth from nuclear destruction. Whew!

“The Monster Society of Evil” (so named by Ordway after the original Mister Mind storyline from the 1940s) was an emotional rollercoaster. The series had only shifted its setting to Fairfield about a dozen issues earlier, so there really wasn’t too much time for the readers to get to know the new supporting cast, but it’s still a gut-punch to see the entire town destroyed, especially when it appears that Nick & Nora are among the dead.

I was genuinely relieved that the Bromfields had survived. Billy & Mary had already lost their real parents, and the idea that they might be made orphans a second time was horrifying. Plus I like how Nick & Nora, even if they were on the staid, conservative side, nevertheless very quickly adjusted to learning Billy & Mary were the Marvels, and tried their best to be there for the siblings.

POS #38-41 were Peter Krause’s final issues, and he really does a great job on this storyline, conveying the intense emotions and choreographing the dramatic, action-filled scenes. Inker Dick Gordano, letterer John Costanza and colorist Glenn Whitmore fill out the creative team. Whitmore’s coloring definitely plays a major role in setting the mood of these issues. Mike Carlin edited the whole shebang.

With issue #42 writer & cover artist Ordway also assumes penciling duties, with Giordano providing inks / finishes. Ordway is such a great artist, and I was glad to see him now both writing & drawing. Whitmore and Costanza continue as colorist and letterer.

Following the destruction of Fairfield, the President dedicates a memorial to all those who have died. Billy, Mary and Freddy are all there in their superhuman forms. This is the first time we see all three of them together since Mary changed to her new costume, and so this was the moment when it finally occurred to me that Ordway had now given them red, white and blue uniforms. What can I say? Sometimes I’m not the quickest on the uptake.

Billy, Mary, Nick & Nora move to Fawcett City, where they are joined by Freddy, who has returned to settle his grandfather’s estate. Freddy shows Billy and Mary the classic car he inherited, and the three go for a spin. Unfortunately the metahuman Chain Lightning who suffers from multiple personality disorder is obsessed with Freddy, and she attacks the three teens while they’re driving, causing the car to go off the cliff. The teens try to summon the magic lightning to transform into the two Captains Marvel and CM3, but Chain Lightning somehow intercepts it. Billy, Mary and Freddy all end up in the hospital in critical condition. The magic somehow gives separate physical forms to each of Chain Lightning’s personalities, who go on a rampage in Fawcett City.

Ordway has said that one of his favorite comic books when he was growing up was Avengers by Roy Thomas & John Buscema. The form that Chain Lightning’s personality Amber takes looks like a cross between Arkon the Magnificent and Thundra the Femizon, both of whom were created by Thomas & Buscema.

With the Marvel Family out of action Deanna Barr dons the costume of her late mother Bulletgirl to protect Fawcett, although she uses her Air Force codename Windshear. Her father Jim comes out of retirement to help her, but the two of them can barely hold their own against Amber. Only the intervention of Amy, the “good” Chain Lightning personality, saves them.

Uncle Dudley and Tawky Tawny travel to the Rock of Eternity, hoping they can find some way to heal Billy, Mary and Freddy. The sorcerer Ibis tells Dudley and Tawny that they need to find the Mother Boxes that enable the teens to summon the magic lightning while the Wizard Shazam is on New Genesis.

Issue #42 and #43 are certainly compelling and suspenseful, although I wonder if Ordway would have embarked on this storyline, putting the main characters in the hospital, if he had known cancellation was just around the corner. Fortunately there are still a few more issues to go. Whatever the case, the artwork by Ordway & Giordano is top-notch.

We are now at the editorially-mandated DC One Million crossover issue. This one is a bit painful to read, not because it’s bad, but because the series would be cancelled in just a few short months, and it’s sad that Ordway was forced to cut away from his ongoing storylines to do a totally-unrelated issue set in the far-off 853rd Century.

Nevertheless, Ordway turns in sold work here. We previously saw an ancient Billy Batson having assumed the Wizard Shazam’s role in The Power of Shazam Annual #1. Now, even farther into the distant future, Billy still keeps vigil at the Rock of Eternity, only to have his home overrun by thrill-seeking rich kids from the planet Mercury.

Man oh man, the people in this story are awful. They’re behaving exactly like modern-day humans. Humanity is never going to survive to the 22nd Century, much less the 853rd, if people keep acting like this!

I think Tanist, the new champion of Shazam introduced in this story, popped up in a couple of other DC One Million stories, but hasn’t been seen since. It’s sort of disappointing that Ordway took the time to create this new character and no one else has bothered to use him, because that might have helped save this story from being completely inconsequential.

Anyway, returning to the year 1998, issue #44 resumes the plot of the teens being hospitalized, their powers having been stolen by the multiple personalities of Chain Lightening. Freddy and Mary are attacked by Lightning’s “inner child” and “id” personas. Nick & Nora risk their lives to save her, and the severely injured Mary shows she’s also willing to sacrifice herself for them, all of which surprises Lightning, a survivor of parental abuse. Inner Child and Id make off with Freddy, but he manages to convince them not to kill him, that he isn’t to blame for Lightning’s problems.

Meanwhile, Dudley and Tawky Tawny travel to the Rock of Eternity again, still looking for a way to help the hospitalized teens. Ibis, still suffering from the immense exertion needed to dissipate the radiation from the destruction of Fairfield, is wrapped up as a mummy by his immortal wife Taia so that he can enter suspended animation.

Oh, yeah, I love Tawny’s line… “Dud! Save me! It’s a talking dog!” Dudley and Tawny really did make a great double act.

Taia, working with Dudley, catapults Tawny into the timestream surrounding the Rock, so that the tiger can search for a future incarnation of Captain Marvel to help the teens. Tawny locates CeCe Beck, aka Thunder, previously seen in Annual #1, and is attempting to bring her back to the present when a force knocks them apart. Thunder disappears into the timestream… but don’t worry, she ends up materializing in the 30th Century in Legion of Super-Heroes #110, where she joins the team.

Tawny gets pulled back to the Rock, but he’s not alone. He’s accompanied by the former champion of Shazam turned villain, the infamous Black Adam. Uh oh!

Issue #45 sees Black Adm back on Earth. Surprisingly, rather than acting in his usual villainous manner, Adam is filling in for the still-hospitalized Billy, Mary & Freddy. Understandably skeptical, the Justice League is keeping a close eye on the so-called “Mighty Adam” as he performs heroic deeds across the globe.

Throughout his run Ordway has been peppering this series with nods to Jack Kirby’s New Gods, with the Marvel Family using Mother Boxes and Boom Tubes, the events of the Genesis crossover being referenced, and the Wizard Shazam relocating to New Genesis. Now we finally get an appearance by one of the New Gods as Orion stops by the hospital to look after Billy and give him advice. And when Black Adam shows up, Orion is more than ready to mix it up with him. Sadly we only get to see them trade blows for a few panels, so who knows how that fight might have gone?

Black Adam insists to the JLA that he is not Theo Adam, the criminal who murdered Billy & Mary’s parents, but an entirely different person, and demands his day in court to argue his case.

If there is a weakness to these last several issues it’s that the story feels somewhat disjointed. First there was DC One Million interrupting things for a month, and now, when #46 opens, events have suddenly leaped forward an unspecified amount of time, with Black Adam having been declared not guilty. The first time I read this I really thought I had missed an issue. Obviously this is Ordway doing the best job he can to fit his storyline into the remaining issues he had left.

For the first time since the accident caused by Chain Lightning, Billy calls on the Wizard’s power, transforming into Captain Marvel, ready to pound Black Adam into the pavement. Superman reluctantly intervenes, as in the eyes of the law Black Adam is not guilty… although it isn’t at all clear as to the specifics of how that works, and how he convinced the courts that he’s not Theo Adam, other than them having different fingerprints. Presumably this is something that Ordway would have explained in more detail if he’d had more issues.

Captain Marvel and Superman trade blows for several pages, until Mary and Freddy also transform, causing Billy’s own powers to weaken enough for Superman to beat him. The Man of Steel departs, and Mary and Freddy finally get Billy to calm down.

Meanwhile, Adam has made his way to the Rock of Eternity where, in an effort to settle accounts, he intends to free his former mistress, the demonic Blaze, from her imprisonment there. Adam recruits the evil Doctor Sivana to help him, and they manage to release Blaze… only to find that they’ve been manipulated into also freeing the Wizard’s ancient adversary the Three Faces of Evil, aka King Ghidorah’s even uglier cousin.

As #47 opens, Mother Box calls up a Boom Tube and transports Billy to the Rock, also bringing the Wizard back from New Genesis. Billy, the Wizard and Adam join forces against the Three Faces of Evil. In a great example of Chekov’s Gun — or more precisely Chekov’s Mystic Raygun — Billy retrieves the mystical Scorpion weapon introduced two years earlier in issue #24 and uses it to seal the Three Faces of Evil back inside the Rock.

The Wizard transports Captain Marvel and Adam to the River of the Dead to settle their differences once and for all. Adan continues to insist that he is a different person than Theo Adam… but if he has to kill Billy to escape the River, he’ll do just that. At the last minute Billy transforms back to his human self, and Adam realizes that he cannot bring himself to kill a child, even if it’s the only way he’ll be free. This convinces both Billy and the Wizard that Adam is sincere, and they let him go on his own way.

The Wizard, having attained godhood on New Genesis, returns to his home on the Rock of Eternity. Billy and Mary’s stepparents Nick and Nora, overjoyed their children are once again healthy & whole, throw a party, inviting over many of the characters we’ve seen over the past four years, and everyone gets a happy ending.

It’s unfortunate the series got cancelled. Ordway revealed in interviews that he had the book plotted out thru to issue #50, and was really looking forward to reaching that milestone, so it’s regrettable that he wasn’t allowed to get there. Still, if you count the graphic novel, the annual, and DC One Million, that is 50 issues. Whatever the official count, POS was a great series.

By the way, looking at these last several issues, it’s now apparent they were a major influence on writers Geoff Johns & David S. Goyer, who just a couple years later made violent antihero Black Adam a central character in their JSA run.

On #45 and #46 Ordway is once again inked by Giordano, resulting in some nice work. Costanza letters #45, with Albert T. Guzman filling in on #46. Whitmore colors both issues.

The finale in #47 has Da Ordster doing full artwork and coloring, with Costanza’s letters. The issue looks great, closing out the series in style.

Ordway’s painted covers for all three issues stand out. Issue #45 has Black Adam fighting the JLA. Captain Marvel and Superman face off on the cover to #46, a homage to Nick Cardy’s cover for Superman #276. And finally #47 has Cap in a fight to the death with the Three Faces of Evil.

If you haven’t read this series then I highly recommend picking up the hardcover collection that reprints the graphic novel & the first 12 issues, and then seek out copies of the other issues. It’s definitely worth the search.

Thank you, Jerry Ordway, for a great read. More than two decades later The Power of Shazam is still incredible.

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.