Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

August 7, 2007

CR Review: Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil #1-4


Creators: Jeff Smith, Steve Hamaker
Publishing Information: DC Comics, four square-bound comics, 48 pages each, 2007 $5.99
Ordering Numbers:

imageWhen I was a kid I watched a show on TV called Superstars, where various sports personages gathered in Hawaii and competed against one another in various decathlon-style sporting events. It was a fun show because the events ranged from straight-up footraces to the world's most famous obstacle course, because people from soccer and skiing seemed to have just as much of a chance to win as Walter Payton, and because it kind of served as a de facto litmus test for the overall athletic prowess of some of your favorite jocks. Granted, it was a silly one, because running through a tube or tandem pedaling weren't exactly Olympic-level skills, but over time you could kind of compare and contrast. It was at least a consistent measure.

I always think of Superstars when I see my favorite cartoonists who usually work with their own material take a trip around the block with a mainstream property or two. I learned a lot about creators like Matt Wagner and Howard Chaykin and Eddie Campbell when I saw them what they did with the consistent measures represented by characters such as Blackhawk and Batman, the choices they made and the choices they didn't. Jeff Smith is the latest to dip his toe into the mainstream comic book pool, and his work on Shazam! Monster Society of Evil brings certain aspects of his skill into relief, too. For one, Smith is an under-appreciated character designer. His monsters are terrific, the giants close to awe-inspiring, even, and his children are like little sweaty, dirty Ronny Howards in a medium that tends to give us pristine, perfect Dakota Fannings. Even those designs where I prefer the original, such as Mr. Mind and Talky/Tawky Tawny, it's hard not to recognize the craft and genuine intelligence behind the creative choices Smith makes in presenting his vision.

imageIt is his vision. The mistake some may make in judging Smith's Shazam! is to see his version of the Captain Marvel mythos as a regurgitation of classic tropes in the face of whatever latest slightly depressing and probably titillating mucking around with the characters DC is inflicting on its readers in the "not special mini-series" books. But actually, Smith's take is fundamentally different than Binder and Beck's. The original Captain Marvel comics traded in everyday, broad fantasy but were rooted on a real sense of space and foreboding and turning a corner as a rite of passage that only New York City exuded 60 years ago. Smith's take on the legend, which even includes a gentle social satire, seems more a dream-like fantasy makeover of that same NYC territory, only this time played for its specific local effect rather than broadened outward. Where Billy's immediate community was I think understood in the early comics, and added to externally, Smith goes to great pains to show an entire group of people transformed or affected along with Billy. Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil has a sweet quality that comes from an outsider's view of place rather than a fevered imagining from one stuck in the belly of the beast. Smith is definitely that outsider, both in terms of his relationship to New York and to the mainstream comic book industry that calls it home. It's classy work, and now we know that Jeff Smith can negotiate an obstacle course with the best of them.

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