As the Year of the Villain rolls to its conclusion, the DC Universe has been embroiled in conflict between the Justice League and the Legion of Doom. Batman/Superman introduces a new faction into this conflict, the Batman Who Laughs and his Secret Six. This one-shot features Black Adam leading Kahndaq against the assault of the Shazam Who Laughs, a twist on the regular conflict between Adam and Billy.
The issue opens on Black Adam being briefed about the current state of the DC Universe to serve as exposition, and the story begins with the Shazam Who Laughs appearing in Kahndaq. On paper, Shazam is trying to educate the populace about their oppression under Adam’s dictatorship. Yet this is clearly a farce, as he immediately relishes in the opportunity to fight Adam. Adam’s ruthless attitude mixes with his concern for his citizens, while Billy’s ruthlessness is juxtaposed with his lack of concern for anyone. The plot as a whole is a fight between Adam and Billy, which ends based on Adam’s planning and the faith of the people he rules. Jenkins writes Adam’s voice incredibly well, and uses this issue as a way to explore how power affects those with it, and the different paths people can take with the power they have.
Unfortunately, power is not the only theme the issue dwells on, and Adam is not the only character given voice. The Shazam Who Laughs is written as a kid, with what Jenkins seems to consider average kids’ dialogue. Billy says “dude” a lot, which may be for effect because of his infection by the Batman Who Laughs, but just comes across stilted. There’s a full panel where Shazam declares “I like video games” and it feels incredibly out of place. The fight between them spends a lot of time on Black Adam lecturing Shazam on how his age prevents him from seeing the bigger picture, and that he is incredibly immature and could not win. Billy is portrayed as a petulant child (perpetuated by his shouting “Don’t call me petulant!”) and Black Adam is portrayed as one who is able to see the world for what it is because of his age and experience. It’s a bit of a bizarre turn for the story to take, and is punctuated with the lesson that Black Adam’s totalitarian regime is actually good, because it means his citizens pray for him and will help him win. The idea is that Adam understands that his people are the ones with the power, but when the opening is framed as the Shazam Who Laughs trying to free an oppressed people, it doesn’t fit as well.
Inaki Miranda does the art for the issue, with Hi-Fi on colors. Miranda does a serviceable job with the issue. The layouts are the best part, with the fight scene between Adam and Billy properly feeling up to scale. The massive explosions caused by their impact takes up significant portions of the pages, and it provides an excellent contrast to the more subdued moments. The inks on characters’ faces and bodies are a bit strange, heavier in places that tend to have lighter inks and vice versa, but it works for the style of the issue very well. The Shazam Who Laughs is drawn incredibly well throughout the issue, feeling unsettling and wrong compared to the rest of the characters, an effect that works in tandem with Tom Napolitano’s letters to ensure that Billy is clearly framed as a villain.
This issue is a mix of good and bad pieces, that ultimately is an okay reading experience with some frustrating undertones. Jenkins has Adam’s relationship with his people locked down, but his take on Shazam and how Billy’s age reflects his relationship with power doesn’t feel befitting of either Shazam or Black Adam. This issue is ultimately a weak return for both Paul Jenkins and Black Adam, who have both proven they have the potential for better stories than this.