There’s always been a wonderful whimsy to Captain Marvel, or Shazam! as he’s now known. Going back to the Fawcett days, he was the fantastical symbol of magical possibility and wonder to contrast the social crusading Superman or the pulp vigilante of Batman, being closest to the fairy tale-like fantasy of Marston and Peter’s Wonder Woman. Thus his realm has talking Tiger-men who dress well and speak well, as well as superpowered bunnies and cosmic trains. It’s always been part of the charm.
The New 52 revamp put away some of that for a more grounded take, one that could ostensibly be adapted with relative ease into a feature film. But the new ongoing, by the same Geoff Johns at the helm, has radically distanced itself from that take and approach, moving back to the Fawcett roots and power of possibility that are at the very heart of the core concept. So what do we get? Why, a talking Tigerman in a suit, of course!
Tawky Tawny, the intelligent and goofy Tiger sidekick of Billy Batson, is an all important figure of comic fiction. Fans across the globe adore the character of Jimmy Olsen, but few realize that Olsen is very much what Tawny used to be. In The Golden Age, Captain Marvel was the biggest figure imaginable, doubling the sales of Superman, featuring in live-action and making big waves under creators Otto Binder and C.C Beck. His comics invented so many of the story mechanics that superhero comics now depend on and have been built out of and Tawny was a part of that. He was the original Jimmy Olsen, really and he was also a talking Tiger. And in a way, isn’t that somewhat cooler?
After DC took down Fawcett, they grabbed Binder, the chief writer of Captain Marvel, and put him to work on Superman. And Binder, with no more Captain Marvel to play around with, made Superman his Captain Marvel, really. That’s where so much of what we love and know comes from, in a sense. Supergirl was him making up for the lack of Mary Marvel — Superman suddenly had a sprawling Super-family, much in the way Billy Batson once did back in the day. And Tawny? With no Tawny around, Binder took a hot new radio-show creation, an original character by the name of Jimmy Olsen and used him as his Tawny in stories, often getting into fun scenarios in tales with interesting contexts. But those originals? They’ve mostly been ignored or forgotten, when they really shouldn’t be. They’re important, they matter and they’re full of life and potential.
The creative crew of Geoff Johns, Dale Eaglesham, Marco Santucci, and Mike Atiyeh all come together here once more to bring the wild world of the Fawcett hero to life. Though this time, it quite literally is wild. We’re thrown into The Wildlands, a brand new addition to the DC Universe, which is a Zootopia-esque world of anthropomorphic creatures, living in a place called Civilized City. It’s a world of fox-thieves, crocodile-crooks, pig-nurses, cat-heiresses and more. It’s also a world where in tigers, as carnivores, typically eat people. Tawky Tawny, our well-dressed tiger, however, differs. He refuses to eat others and even carries around a favorite book of his by the name “How To Stop Eating Your Friends” (a very Geoff Johnsian idea), which in this realm is forbidden literature and must not be read. Tawny is an affable and anxious tiger, practicing his social skills as he prepares to brush, trying to just be the best he can be and not what others want or expect him to be. It’s a solid revamp of the charming hero in the contemporary age and it certainly works.
Eaglesham, Santucci and Atiyeh as the art team do a really strong job here, making their different styles coalesce into a whole that doesn’t feel jarring but works as a collective package. From the lovely, textured fur of Tawny to the wide double-page spreads of wonder full of characters and personality in The Wildlands to The Gamelands and the characters there, there’s a beautiful sense of possibility abound, with Atiyeh’s bright colors popping through the pages to sell the reader on the entire endeavor.
Segmented into three parts: The Wildlands narrative introducing Tawny and dealing with Darla and Freddie, who’re trapped there, The Funlands tale with Billy and Mary and The Gamelands story with Eugene and Pedro, the book is a roaring ride across realms that feels full of the lively energy that imbued so many of those original Fawcett stories with the charm they held. Updated and retooled a bit for a 2019 contemporary audience, the approach works.
Even Johns, Eaglesham and Santucci’s big new addition, King Kid, feels like a figure who fits right into that. A child with a seething hatred for all adults and one who, by the virtue of his magic, never grows up, he’s a monster who makes all children who do grow to 18 work as slaves to keep his Funlands running. In a horrifically potent spread with bubbly borders and a fading white surrounding things, the book presents the readers with a horrific realm of servitude under the guise of charm.
While all of this is going on, the story adds another segment: The Earthlands segment. The police have arrived at the Vasquez home and everyone’s worried about the missing kids, with Billy’s supposedly biological father drowning himself in sorrow, exclaiming how this isn’t the first time Billy’s run away. It’s a choice that will play into later installments, but if it proves true, it’s set to be a huge change to Batson’s story and that’s worth keeping an eye on. But on the absolute opposite end, on the magic side of things, Johns takes us to The Rock of Eternity and shows off his favorite anti-hero not named Sinestro or Captain Cold. He shows off Black Adam, who’s very much the last page stinger.
Leigh’s work is worth noting in this book, as he moves through a variety of different approaches, as suited to a different world he’s in, with big, bulky and arcade-esque font for the Game world and a more hardened one to fill-up The Wildlands, so on and so forth.
Shazam #4 is the best issue of what is proving to be a very solid revitalization of one of the greatest ideas in all of superhero fiction. The Big Red Cheese is back and so is his world and cast, for what is Shazam! without family? And what is family if not a well-dressed Tiger gentleman named Tawny?
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