Here There Be Monsters: Smith talks "Shazam"

Thu, February 1st, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Emmett Furey, Staff Writer

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"Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil" #1

When "Bone" creator Jeff Smith first picked up an issue of "Shazam!" during his formative years, he couldn't help but identify with the wish-fulfillment of a young boy uttering a magic word and transforming into a superhero. Years later, the now renowned comics creator has been given the opportunity to put his stamp on Captain Marvel in DC's "Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil." And the fan-favorite writer/artist took a few minutes to tell CBR News about this, his first non-creator-owned work.

Although Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel didn't predate the man of steel, it certainly outshined its competitor's flagship hero in sales when he originally appeared. Created by writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck in 1940, the second issue of "Whiz Comics" told the story of street-urchin Billy Batson and his fateful encounter with the wizard Shazam. From that time forward, whenever Billy spoke the wizard's name, Billy was transformed into his superhero alter ego, Captain Marvel.

"Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil" #1, pages 5 and 6
But in the early '50s, DC comics alleged that Fawcett's Captain Marvel bore more than a passing resemblance to their own Superman, and filed a copyright infringement suit against the company. Fawcett settled out of court with DC and ceased publishing Captain Marvel comics in 1953. The character didn't appear again until DC licensed the Marvel family and relaunched the character in 1972, bringing him into the DCU proper. And it was in this era that Smith first became fascinated with Captain Marvel.

"I was 10, I think, when DC acquired the rights and started trying to bring the character back in his own comic," Smith said. "And I think there was a TV show on television where there was, like, some guy with really big hair in a Captain Marvel suit. That was the first time I saw the character, and I was interested even then in the idea of a kid being able to say a magic word and change into a superhero, I liked that."

Work-in-progress from Smith's blog
In 2001, with the end of Smith's creator-owned "Bone" in sight, DC's Mike Carlin approached Smith about relaunching Captain Marvel. "And I thought that would be fun. I like that character, he's one of the few that has had relatively few changes made to him," Smith said. "And what interested me about that was, in order to do anything with him, I had to actually go back to the Golden Age of comics to find out who he was."

As a case in point, the Monster Society of Evil hearkens back to the character's Fawcett days. "The original 'Monster Society of Evil' was a serialized story that went from 1942 to 1945 in Captain Marvel comics," Smith told CBR News. "And that makes it the first really long-form comic book story ever, for sure in American comics. It was this serial about this Monster Society that threatens him and the rest of the world. It's a really silly thing to read nowadays. It's very '40s with ridiculous monsters - on the other hand, that's part of the fun as well."

Smith inking a panel from "Monster Society of Evil"
When DC first approached the writer in 2001, Captain Marvel was off the DCU radar, and Smith was tasked with relaunching the hero. But "Bone" took a full two years longer to complete than Smith had originally anticipated, and in those intervening years, Billy Batson's alter ego had once again taken center stage in the DC universe. So rather than a relaunch, Smith's contribution to the character became a Year-One-style mini-series. But as far as the writer knows, "Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil" is going to be in continuity. "It's not that important to me, I know it is to a lot of comic book readers, but for me, all that I really wanted to do was do this remake of the 'Monster Society of Evil,' and try to capture all the things that are fun about the characters," Smith said.

Smith's sketches of Mary Marvel
"I've updated it in a couple of ways," Smith continued. "For one thing, Billy's life on the street is a little bit harsher than it's ever been depicted before. He actually lives in an abandoned building under the East Bridge on the south side of Manhattan, and he has to deal with other people that are on the street that are higher in the hierarchy than him, that want a little piece of the action. So he has to survive, he's pretty much been abandoned."

Smith asserted that his story is tighter than the serialized adventures that were chronicled in the '40s and '50s. "Unlike the old Captain Marvel serial, which was just meant to be, each adventure got you to the next cliffhanger. And though it did eventually have a resolution, comic books generally don't have beginning, middle and ends to their whole stories, they're just endless adventures," Smith said. "In the era of the graphic novel, it's kind of fun to be able to take a character and give him a starting point and an ending point and actually have a narrative in between there."

Family has always been a cornerstone of Captain Marvel's life, and Smith's reimagining is no exception. The new "Monster Society of Evil" sees young Billy Batson engaged in a search for his only living relative, his missing sister, Mary. "I had a lot of fun playing around with Billy Batson and giving him a personality, and then of course when he finally finds his little sister, Mary, which we all know he does, it was fun to give her a personality too," Smith said. Longtime fans of the character know that Mary Marvel is destined to share a piece of Shazam's power, and in the second issue of Smith's series, Mary Batson finds out exactly what happens when you stand too close to Captain Marvel during his transformation.

"But instead of her just being his equal, and being Captain Marvel as a girl, she only gets a little bit of his powers, just because it was sort of accidentally broken off from him and got into her," Smith continued. "So she doesn't get enough power to make her big, but she does get enough power to make her invulnerable, and she can fly really fast. And as I played around with this idea in my head, this little character just started to be more and more fun, and I just fell in love with her.

As you can see from these comparison panels, Smith treated the work of Captain Marvel creator CC Beck with enormous reverence
"Because Billy's just starting out, I didn't want to introduce everybody in the Marvel pantheon all at once. I wanted to slowly build up," the author said. But so far as Smith is concerned, no Captain Marvel origin story is complete without Tawky Tawny, the talking tiger. "And of course by the end of it, [Billy] not only has a sister, he has a wizard, and a big brother in a sense with Captain Marvel, and a talking Tiger, and he makes friends with the head of SNN, Sterling News Network, Sterling Morris. And even an adult love interest for Captain Marvel named Helen Fidelity, which is a brand-new character I made up for the series."

Smith said working on an established character like Captain Marvel was a decidedly different experience from producing his own creator-owned work. "I had to pass all my ideas past somebody for approval first, that was different," Smith said. "But it was not unpleasant, DC has been really cool. I've been working really closely with Mike Carlin and his assistant Tom Palmer Jr., and they've been great, I haven't had any problems. They've made suggestions, and they've always been really good, so I didn't mind it at all."

And while Smith tends to prefer the freedom of original work, he hasn't ruled out a return to mainstream superhero comics. "I think DC likes the story and they made it pretty clear that if I wanted to do something else, the door was open," Smith said. "I think I'm too slow for that world. It's an incredible amount of work to write and draw a book, and to put it out on a schedule. I may do something with DC again, but I would like to just write."

 
His previous statement notwithstanding, Smith does generally prefer to draw his own work. "I did write a book called 'Rose,' that Charles Vass illustrated, and that was an awful lot of fun," Smith said. "So when there's an artist that I really want to work with, and I just want to have that experience of collaborating with, then I'll do it, but it's an art form that I think works best when one person writes it and that same person draws it."

For Smith, words and visuals are all but indistinguishable. "First I just jot down an outline trying to get the basic beats of a story in some kind of an order that they make sense, but then the actual writing process, where words start to come out of people's mouths, and they start to have emotional reactions to what each other are saying, that all happens when I sit down and I very quickly scribble a comic," Smith explained. "So I kind of draw comics, draw a little picture, and scribble little words almost simultaneously. So it's a lot like a comic, because I have to think that way, I have to think visually at the same time as I'm actually writing. And once I do that, once I commit that to paper, it usually stays that way throughout the process."

The first issue of the prestige-format limited series "Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil" hits stands on February 7th.

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