Monday, August 04, 2008

Supermonth: Straightforward Reviews II

So, in the giant pile o' comics I've bought but not yet read (which is rapidly approaching "two long boxes full" status), there's probably a disproportionately large number of Superman comics, because I tend to purchase a disproportionately large number of Superman comics. But I'm making a dent in them, slowly but surely, and the extra-long Supermonth has been a great motivator for catching up on the Man of Steel.

Oh no, it's Booger Beast!Case in point: Judd Winick and Joshua Middleton's 2005 miniseries "Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder." I read the first issue some time ago, but never quite managed to finish off the last three. A weekend alone in a secluded cabin house in the suburbs has allowed me to rectify that, and I can now give my impressions.

Insert here the obligatory play on the word "impression," wherein I perform a hilarious but clearly strained imitation of some famous person, say, Groucho Marx. Also, I believe this is the part where the duck comes down.

While this may be damning with faint praise, the miniseries is easily the best thing I've read by Judd Winick in quite some time. It's also the first thing I've read by Judd Winick in quite some time, since I haven't actually followed the man's work since he was on Batman, and I don't think I've read a single issue by him since the Checkmate/Outsiders crossover. I don't think it would be innovative to say that Winick's work tends to be melodramatic and have an inflated sense of its own importance (not to mention that it tends to be preachy and full of tokenism), but that's a fair assessment.

And it's present here, too, at least to some degree. The short format (a four-issue miniseries? In this day and age? I thought six was the new four) prevents things from going too far off the rails, but the tropes are still there in an abbreviated form.

In fact, "abbreviated form" might be the phrase of the day with regard to the miniseries, because it feels as though it's trying to accomplish an awful lot in such a short time. Surprisingly, it mostly works, despite introducing Dr. Sivana and Sabbac, while also bringing Lex Luthor and Eclipso into the mix, as well as a superpowered mercenary named Spec, who admittedly doesn't do much (nor does Luthor, but the focus is clearly on Sivana).

The art is good, the action is fast-paced, and the character work is generally pretty on-key. The conceit of the series is that it presents the first encounter between Captain Marvel and Superman, set in the first few years of both their careers.

Superman gets some nice chances to shine. Even though he's been at the superheroing thing for only a little while, he's portrayed as much more mature and down-to-Earth than Captain the former case, for obvious reasons.

Marvel, on the other hand, is immature without being particularly brash or stereotypical. He's mostly just energetic and enthusiastic, while also more than a little naive and emotional. The wisdom of Solomon makes up for some of the slack, particularly when he proves to be the more skilled hero at handling magic threats, but his youth comes through when he's starstruck at meeting Superman, or when he throws a bit of a tantrum after his friend is killed in gunfire intended for him.

Which brings us to one of those Winickian trope moments. I've got no problem with Billy Batson's black friend--in fact, the story could use a bit more of all sorts of diversity--I have a problem with how telegraphed his fate was from moment one. As soon as you saw Billy sharing his secret identity exploits with a character we'd never heard of before, you knew he was going to be worm food--and the requisite "defining tragedy" for our budding hero.

Because, um, apparently being a homeless orphan just isn't enough. It's a shame, because while Billy's anguish and anger over losing his friend--and because he wasn't able to save him--feels fairly genuine and is handled well, it has no dramatic tension or power for the reader, since anyone even slightly familiar with Captain Marvel's history knows that this kid doesn't continue to be a presence in Billy's life. So it's a little hollow to try to present this as a character-defining tragedy when we know that Billy's had worse tragedies before, and when we had a defined character without ever hearing about this tragedy before.

Those are fairly minor complaints, though. I seem to recall some people bothered by Cap's decision to barge into Sivana's office and choke him over orchestrating the hit that killed his friend, but it seemed to me exactly the kind of thing a superpowered eleven-year-old would do. And that leads nicely into Superman's shining moment, where he chases Cap to Mount Everest (where they had talked in a previous issue) to tell him off for his brash actions--and finds out that he's been crying out of remorse and fear. Superman is clearly taken aback, and awkwardly offers some kind of support as he tries to figure out what the hell is actually going on. Billy finally clears things up by revealing his true form...which leads Superman to ask "who did this to you?"

And then he lectures Shazam. Now, that's awesome.

Shazam gives a bunch of dodgy "old wizard" answers to Superman's "how could you; he's just a boy" speech, until Shazam offers that the boy could use some guidance. We move then to Clark Kent finding Billy's room in an otherwise empty apartment building. He sits down and reveals his identity to Billy as a way of bonding, more or less.

It's a good story, and there are some nice thematic beats to it. The characterizations, at least as far as Superman and Captain Marvel go, are pretty spot-on. Which isn't to say that there aren't some problems--the biggest of which is that this is set in the wrong era.

See, the first issue opens with Shazam narrating that Superman and Batman have barely been operational for a year, while Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash all have yet to make their debuts. This is a problem on every conceivable level, and it only gets worse later in the series.

We're told that Billy Batson, during these events, is eleven years old (with perhaps a year or two of uncertainty, but that's about where I would have guessed before they made it explicit). In JSA, when he's kind of kindling a relationship with Stargirl, he's sixteen (and that's well before the One Year Gap). That means that everything of the modern DCU would be compressed into a five-year span. Think about that for a minute--Batman went through four sidekicks in five years. Dick Grayson went from kid to college to cop in five years. Barry Allen must have been active as Flash for a span counted in months!

Moreover, Superman here isn't acting like a rookie. He's more experienced, more mature, and more dad-esque than he ought to be for his first year on the job. There's no real awkwardness to him; he acts in a professional manner that doesn't suggest greenness.

What makes the most sense is to ignore Shazam's speech and figure that this is three to five years into the modern age of superheroes. The Justice League has gone through a roster or two, Batman's had at least one Robin, and Superman's become the de facto leader of the superhero community, with all the respect and experience that commands. This makes more sense with regard to the timeframe, Billy's age, Clark's mannerisms, and even the logic of superhero debuts.

Aside from those continuity concerns, the only other problem I have is with Superman's identity reveal at the end. Superman and Batman's identities are supposed to be the DCU's best-kept secrets, yet it seems like they get revealed to absolutely everyone. Here's a kid that Superman has known for all of two weeks, and he's already handing over the glasses? That rang a bit false.

But it can't be entirely blamed on Judd Winick. Someone at DC needs to write up a scorecard with who knows whose secret identities--at least among the major heroes. It would go a long way toward combatting basic continuity errors (Jay Garrick was often surprisingly unaware of Billy's secret identity for someone who had seen him transform) and to keeping the Justice League from referring to each other by their first names in the heat of battle.

Anyway, to the point, Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder--recommended. Pretty good stuff, as long as you can get past the setting issues.

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