Of all the exclamations yelled in the superhero universe, that single word is one of the most recognizable. Most people know exactly what the utterance of these two syllables mean: teenager Billy Batson will be struck by mystical lightning and transform into the adult hero Captain Marvel. Well, all that's about to change…
This month, DC Comics is publishing "The Trials of Shazam!," written by Judd Winick ("Green Arrow," "The Outsiders") with art by Howard Porter ("The Flash," "JLA"). In this twelve-issue series, Captain Marvel gets "kicked upstairs to management" and replaces the wizard Shazam, who died during the "Days of Vengeance" series that led into "Infinite Crisis."
With Billy/Captain Marvel busy in this new position, there is a void left in the superhero world. Stepping up to replace him will – most logically – be Captain Marvel Jr. (a.k.a. Freddy Freeman). But before Freddy can slip on the flashy red outfit, he needs to prove he can fill the Captain's boots – hence, "The Trials of Shazam!"
"This will be twelve issues about Freddy proving himself to be worthy of these powers and proving himself, as in by the trials of Hercules," explained Winick. "The story picks up OYL (One Year Later) from 'Infinite Crisis' and the 'Brave New World' story.
"You see, as a result of the Wizard Shazam's battle with the Spectre in 'Days of Vengeance,' the wizard died and the Rock of Eternity (the Wizard's mystical 'home') was destroyed. However, the rock has now been reformed, and Captain Marvel is the first one on the scene."
For those familiar with Captain Marvel, they may recall that the old Wizard Shazam had to stay on the Rock of Eternity – essentially, he was stuck. When asked if this would be the case when Billy fills the wizard's shoes, the writer said, "He's not 'trapped' there, but he has to spend a great deal of time there."
So, after countless years of Billy Batson being Captain Marvel, one may wonder, why the change? Then again, with all the recent changes in the DC Universe thanks to "Infinite Crisis" and OYL, it must have appeared that the timing was right for a change in the status quo. Winick confirmed this.
"Yeah. This goes back to January 2004, when Dan Didio, Geoff Johns, and Greg Rucka came up with 'Crisis' and the stories that would lead up to it. One of these stories was Shazam. We were thinking of relaunching him, and we knew one of the key points during the Crisis was that the Wizard Shazam would die and the Rock of Eternity would be destroyed. This would leave a void in the world of magic in the DCU that someone would need to fill, and Billy/Captain Marvel made the most sense.
"It was one of those things on our list of 'big' events, and there were many of them. So Bill [Willingham] wrote the death of Shazam into 'Days of Vengeance' as part of this larger plan. The beauty of the Crisis is that a lot of the things that were planted are paying off now."
Captain Marvel has been viewed in the past as a Superman clone. As a matter of fact, there was a lawsuit over this fact way back before DC owned the character of Shazam. If any readers still retain this view of the Captain though, Winick feels certain that this will change by the end of the series.
"Unfortunately, some people do treat him like a poor man's Superman – which he's not. He just lacks an identity," said Winick. "Part of the reason for this is because he's just an old character, and he's never really had an update. He's never really been integrated into the modern day. So, when we started talking about it, we started talking about what it would take to bring Captain Marvel into 2006 – not to start with a Year One on this, but to move him into the modern day.
"A question that we kept coming back to [in initial meetings on the character] was, 'If you have the power of the gods, what are you doing stopping bank robberies?' Captain Marvel shouldn't be out there fighting ordinary crimes, he should be tackling bigger stuff – magic. That should be his realm.
"Vertigo got most of the cool magical toys in the DC Universe awhile ago, though. Most of the characters in magic went to that line, leaving the DCU with a bunch of guys in robes with torches and amulets – basically, old school stuff which isn't that interesting.
"So, this will be the new playground of Captain Marvel – the realm of magic. And it allows us to bring back magic into the DCU in the least antiquated way possible. A little bit of Hellboy, a little bit of Alan Moore, and a lot of Neil Gaiman – we'll try to tap into those things to make it cool."
On the subject of the gods in the DCU, fans may start thinking about another popular hero from the gods – namely, Wonder Woman. Her powers come from the gods, yet she's fighting "ordinary crimes." Readers may be curious as to how she fits into the paradigm Winick is talking about.
"We're addressing that in this series," Winick replied. "There are gods of magic – like Solomon, Hercules, and Mercury – and at the same time, there are also the gods of Olympus who exist in this same universe for Wonder Woman. We're going to make a line in the sand that says, 'These are two different sets of characters – there is a Zeus and a Mercury that exist in Wonder Woman, but who are different from the gods of magic.'
There are many changes occurring in the DCU at the moment, thanks to "Infinite Crisis" and the establishment of "New Earth" (an amalgam of earths as a result of the Crisis). As mentioned, Captain Marvel and his junior counterpart are both getting promotions, but where does this leave Mary Marvel (Captain Marvel's sister)? And does this New Earth mean we'll be seeing any of the Marvels that used to be part of the Marvel Family before "Crisis on Infinite Earths" (which occurred in the '80s)? Winick was happy to clarify.
"My big quote on that is: 'The big red cheese is dead' – meaning that the silliness and the ridiculousness that have surrounded Captain Marvel are gone. He's not being looked at that way anymore. You keep that in there, and people end up not taking him seriously. Hopefully, they won't be saying that when they see what we're doing, and where we're headed.
"Basically, don't expect to see many more than Mary, Jr. and Captain Marvel. I know it was a huge family at one time, and we will be addressing it, but in a 'blanket' way. In reading issue #2 – those paying attention will see it and understand why 'Tall Marvel' (for example) won't be showing up. It'll be taken care of. We're cleaning house – no fat guys in red suits with their guts hanging out flying around."
Some of the more fervent Captain Marvel fans may recall that one of the more popular characters from the book's wilder days was a talking tiger named "Talky Tawny" – and no, he didn't eat Frosted Flakes. In any case, Winick promised that fans of Tawny will have something to smile about.
"He'll be in the book, but slightly re-imagined. There is something cool about Tawny – it's just a matter of finding it and making it digestible in the now, rather than in 1956, when he fit in a little bit better. I'm afraid a dandy who's a talking tiger just doesn't cut it today. I want to be faithful to the original, but at the same time, make it work now."
From everything we've discussed, it seems there is a lot to juggle in writing a character like Captain Marvel. The character was a product of the times he was created in, yet at the same time, one doesn't want to abandon all those elements in updating him. When asked if he was nervous regarding the direction he's taking the character, Winick sounded confident as we wrapped up our interview:
"Everything is saved by a good story. I always fall back on the story – that has to be what's there at the core. No matter how drastic a change you're introducing, if it's good in the telling, makes sense, and is truthful and honest to the characters, I think people will be fine with it."