Saturday, January 19, 2008

TRIALS OF SHAZAM — Looking at Judd Winick's Interviews

Prior to BRAVE NEW WORLD and TRIALS OF SHAZAM, writer Judd Winick gave both written and audio interviews in an attempt to justify his reinterpretation of the Marvel Family cast of characters. In this and a few followup installments, I'll be reviewing and refuting many of his comments before reviewing his Shazam stories in BRAVE NEW WORLD and TRIALS OF SHAZAM.

From JUDD WINICK'S TRIALS OF SHAZAM - Jennifer M. Contino, interviewer (October 10, 2006):

He [Judd Winick] said when Dan DiDio came to DC, DiDio had a list of all the big name characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and teams like Teen Titans and the Outsiders that he felt should be topping the comic charts all the time. "Among the biggest characters Dan felt needed a good kick in the pants was Captain Marvel/Shazam," Winick said. "He was the one sitting there staring him in the face all the time. Captain Marvel is one of the most well-known characters in the world. He has been around forever, but, for some reason, since he returned in the 1970s, he's never exactly clicked with this modern audience. There could be all kinds of reasons: people see him as a rip off of Superman, his absence, his lack of evolution."

Yes, all of those things could be reasons that Captain Marvel never clicked, yet they're all highly unlikely the reason. If people see Captain Marvel as a rip-off of Superman, then that's the fault of the writer. Captain Marvel has a personality that is distinct from Superman. Characters, at the end of the day, are not simply their powers. Characters that resonate with fans are those with personality. It is the characterization that makes hero a fan-favorite. If fans see Captain Marvel as merely a Superman-clone, or the sum of his powers, that failure lies at the feet of DC's writers.

I've also heard it postulated that Captain Marvel's 20 year absence from publishing is one of the reasons he never regained his popularity. Obviously it's a hard statement to argue with as we'll never know how popular he'd be if he were on the stands during that time. But I want to put forward this argument: When Cap returned in the early 1970s, he was essentially a new character for many of the readers of the time. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that DC's readership consisted of readers in the 10-to-20 year-old range. That entire span of readers would have had no idea who Captain Marvel was (unless, of course, they had read hand-me-down issues from older brothers or sisters). To them, Captain Marvel was someone who was brand new, so his absence would have meant nothing to the readership-at-large.

Another argument is Cap's lack of evolution. What does this mean? Certainly when Captain Marvel returned, DC tried to ape the story-telling and art style of Fawcett years. But after a few years, DC did try to evolve Cap. They gave him a more contemporary look and feel — first with Alan Weiss and then with Don Newton. No longer was Cap depicted in the C.C. Beck-style of the Golden Age. Writer E. Nelson Bridwell also gave Cap adventures that were more in tune with the style of the other heroes DC was publishing. Writer Roy Thomas and artist Tom Mandrake also added their own take on Cap, by making him a darker character but that take didn't excite fandom. One could argue that the Giffen/DeMatteis take in JUSTICE LEAGUE devolved the character. But it's hard to say that DC hasn't tried to evolve him. They just never hit on the right combination. DC danced around what Captain Marvel's best traits were and then blamed his failure on the character himself.

Winick went on to say:

I thought there was a lot of silliness around Captain Marvel. I got into a lot of trouble with the hardcore fans at the beginning when I said 'The Big Red Cheese is dead!' I think my comment was misconstrued. I thought there would be a sigh of relief when I said that. I want Captain Marvel to be taken seriously, not become a serious comic book.
Where was all this silliness that surrounded Captain Marvel? One of the charming aspects of the character was his ability not to take himself so seriously (something that is lacking in the majority of super-heroes being published today, the BOOSTER GOLD title is a welcome exception). Yes, I think all fans of Captain Marvel want him to be taken seriously but it doesn't have to come at the expense of the character. Sure Cap's nickname, "The Big Red Cheese", might seem silly on the surface until it's clear that it was bestowed on him by his arch-enemy, Dr. Sivana. For fans, it's a term of affection — so to say "The Big Red Cheese" is dead is to essentially say that you're not interested in keeping the fans of the classic character.

But getting back to the silliness. Sure, Captain Marvel has an interesting array of villains and supporting characters — from the devilish Dr. Sivana to the malevolent Mr. Mind. From the everman Mr. Tawny to the lovable old fraud, Uncle Dudley. Let's even toss Hoppy the Marvel Bunny in good measure. If these characters are what makes Captain Marvel silly, then again it's the fault of the writers. DC has been successful at updating Dr. Sivana (which Winick, himself, had a hand in), Sabbac (Winick again), Mr. Mind (both Ordway and Johns), as well as Uncle Dudley (Ordway, again). All of these writers did away with what could be construed as "silliness." In the case of Hoppy, he appeared probably more times with Captain Marvel at DC than he ever did in his Fawcett days and even then since the CRISIS ON INFINTE EARTHS, only once. The point is this: if a writer feels that a character is silly simply don't write that character. Leave that character alone for another writer to interpret.

Winick said, "That's what we are trying to do, to make it more contemporary, to give him his own realm, so it's not like he's just someone walking in Superman's shoes. I think Dan DiDio said it best when he commented, 'when you have the power of gods, you should not be stopping bank robberies.'"

There are a few problems with Winick's response:

  • Winick has fallen into the same trap that some of DC's readers have: that Captain Marvel is a second-class Superman. If DC's writers think that Cap is a second-class Superman, then they'll certainly write him that way.

  • Winick also suggests that the solution to Cap's Superman-envy is "to give him his own realm." This is just a fancy way of saying that Cap would be better served by putting him in a box. While the stories might seem fresh at the beginning, the problem with putting a character in a box is that they languish there. The character ends up battling the same types of enemies over and over again until the stories become formulaic and boring. The best approach for a character is to avoid the box and allow that character the freedom of story expression.

  • Winick quotes Dan DiDio by saying, in reference to Captain Marvel, 'when you have the power of gods, you should not be stopping bank robberies.' The obvious response to this remark is to ask the question, "then why write stories where Captain Marvel is stopping bank robberies?" The second, even more obvious question is, "why is DC writing stories where Superman is stopping bank robberies?" Is DC saying that it is Superman's realm to "stop bank robberies" and to differentiate Cap from Superman -- stopping bank robberies is something Cap must avoid? What makes Superman with his vast powers, gained from the exposure to Earth's yellow sun, different from the god-bestowed powers of Captain Marvel? This is the question DC's writers have failed to answer and it is why they are side-stepping it by suggesting that the World's Mightiest Mortal needs his own "realm."

  • The other question that needs to be asked is where are all these bank robbery stories that DiDio speaks of and Winick agrees with? Certainly there must be a plethera of them since Jerry Ordway's revival of Captain Marvel. Did Mark Waid, Joe Kelly, Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns overuse bank robbers in the various crossovers, team-ups, and in the JLA and JSA? What I've seen is a spectacular use of the World's Mightiest Mortal in Waid's UNDERWORD UNLEASHED #1-3, where one would hardly call Neron a bank robber. Could Joe Kelly's Frog Princess Heqt be called a common crook (as seen in ACTION COMICS #768)? What about Johns's use of Cap in JLA/JSA: VIRTUE AND VICE?

Does This look like a bank robber to you?
(August 2000, DC Comics)

The interview continued with this:

"Vertigo basically took all the cool stuff and did the best comics with unbelievably great stuff," Winick said. "They took all the cool characters tapped into magic from the DCU and what was left in the DCU were guys in robes with torches and dusty old books of incantations - it was antiquated. We are now in the realm of Joss Whedon and Mike Mignola's Hellboy. It's post-modern, self-aware and more fun. The guys don't wear robes. They wear trench coats. The monsters don't roar and talk in rhyme, they sound like regular people and are more frightening that way. A devil in a three-piece suit is a lot more frightening than a half naked guy with a pitchfork. With the DCU, we want Captain Marvel to exist in a world of magic where 'Shazam' is a title."

I can understand that Winick might wish to recapture some of the Vertigo magic for the DCU, which seems to be more important to him than reinterpreting Captain Marvel. But really, demons in three-piece suits — that's supposed to be scary and more fun? Frankly, I'd be pretty terrified if I encountered a half-naked guy with a pitchfork. So be it, but then add those demons to a Dr. Fate, Zatanna, or Shadowpact book or at the very least, use it sparingly in a Captain Marvel book. If post-modern demons are your thing, create a brand new title to be sure, but don't tack it onto Captain Marvel because you think he needs his own realm.

"I'm not trying to concentrate on making any of it darker or more adult. I just want him to be taken seriously. It doesn't mean it is serious. The name 'Big Red Cheese' is not a compliment. It means people view him as a joke, a poorly created and executed character. There's not respect in 'Big Red Cheese.' It's 'Superman light' or a silly cartoon character from the '40s and '50s, not a character with weight or gravity and meaning. I think it's unfair, because he's super cool on so many levels."

Up to now I've tried to cut Winick some slack but this has got to be the biggest line of hogwash ever. Winick is so caught up in Cap's nickname that he bends over backwards to try and turn it into an albatross around Cap's neck. While I agree that there are fans who consider Captain Marvel a Superman-clone — again, the only reason they might consider that way or even as a Superman-lite is if DC's writers write him that way. In no way, does the nickname, "The Big Red Cheese", denote a poorly created or executed character and to prospose that it does shows a lack of understanding of Captain Marvel. Winick is correct, however, when he says there's no respect in "Big Red Cheese" because as I mentiond earlier it was Dr. Sivana's derogatory nickname for him. But that doesn't mean that Cap is a "Superman-lite" or "silly cartoon character from the '40s and '50s" when fans use it affectionately. Yes, Captain Marvel is "super cool on so many levels" and I would have hoped that those levels could've been tapped into without drastically changing the character and by giving him his own "realm".

"We didn't want to do a revamp," Winick continued. "We felt it wasn't going to work that way, so we brought Captain Marvel back in a conventional way. If it was just about Billy Batson and Captain Marvel, we thought it wouldn't be enough to get the readers interested, and none of us had the heart to see Shazam fail again. So we wanted to do something radical to interest old readers in good and bad ways, and bring in new ones. We wanted to open the doors as the story of Shazam. We wanted the story and the characters to pop into 2006 with both feet."

If Winick thought that readers didn't want to read about Billy Batson and Captain Marvel, then he thought wrong. What is sad to read is that he wanted to interest old readers in good and bad ways. Why tick off the old readers? What it says is that he couldn't find the magic inherent in Captain Marvel and so had to create his own.

A few Marvels they won't be following are the Marvel Bunny, Mr. Tawny, The Hillbilly Marvels, the other Lieutenant Marvels and Kid Eternity. Although Mary Marvel does appear in the series, Winick said he's not sure if Isis or others will appear. "We touch upon the fact that there are no more Marvels - their powers are gone," Winick said. "It doesn't work now to have all those other Marvels. Only Captain Marvel has his powers now. If you read the first issue, you'll see we have subtly pointed out Captain Marvel's powers have changed, and, within the Rock of Eternity, he can control magic and do more than he ever did before -- things are changing. At the end of the issue, you'll see a change in Captain Marvel, but all will be explained in the second issue."

Again Winick doesn't get it. Hoppy was never part of Cap's adventures. Mr. Tawny's adventures were his with Cap as a guest star. There were no Hillbilly Marvels just the one who was a member of the Lieutenant Marvels (a group who never reappeared in the post-CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS DCU). Kid Eternity also was never directly connected back to the Marvels after the Crisis. So to throw all of these characters into the dirty water bucket and then throw them out the window is overkill at best. It suggests that Winick knows little about Cap's post-Crisis adventures.

Winick goes onto say that TRIALS OF SHAZAM will be about Freddy reclaiming the Shazam power and taking on the name of Shazam. That day will be a sad one for fans of the classic Captain Marvel looking for a contemporary retake.

It appears that Winick let the cart lead the horse in thse statements as the means to bolster his case for his reinvention of the Marvel Family. It's a shame really. Captain Marvel and his cast of characters have a rich lore that's been begging for mining by the right writer. It seems, unfortunately, that Mr. Winick wasn't the right one to be given the job.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I couldn't have said this better myself. In fact most of what you said I've said before.

I never found those bank robbers either. but all this time I have been biting my tongue because I thought that story in Action Comics was written by Judd Winick and I never wanted to give him credit for writing a good story. Now I see it was Joe Kelly. Even that was a successful example of a contemporary and sophisticated Captain Marvel DC may have made work. At least I think it would have.