I’ll admit that I was a bit skeptical when DC Comics began releasing it’s New 52 version of Captain Marvel, and announced that he would be called Shazam from here forward. For those of you who don’t know, Captain Marvel, a powerful but lesser known hero in the DC Universe, is a boy named Billy Batson who was gifted with amazing powers by the wizard Shazam in order to do good and protect the weak. In order to summon his power and transform himself into Captain Marvel, Billy calls out, “Shazam!” DC reasoned, apparently, that the word that invoked his power was better known to their new target audience, and opted to re-name the hero.
They made what was likely a wise choice, given the doubtless hesitancy of many like myself, and began releasing the first story arc of Billy Batson as extra back-up stories in issues of the Justice League, one of their flagship and best-selling titles. That made it easy to read each issue, as it was packaged with a title that I was buying every month, anyway.
Initially, I feared that my skepticism was well-founded. I found Batson to be arrogant and childish in his newfound identity as (I’m trying to bring myself to say it…) Shazam, acting in the immature way that a child would when given amazing abilities. I wasn’t buying it, but I was reading it because I wasn’t buying it, or at least not explicitly. This origin story-arc follows Batson as a fifteen-year-old child, bounced into yet another foster home, through his meeting of the wizard and becoming (it’s not getting any easier to say…) Shazam. And, so the misadventures continued.
Which is why I was pleasantly surprised with the story as it progressed in the most recent issue of the Justice League. Black Adam is proving a more than formidable opponent for Shazam, and terrorizing both the city and the child within the hero. Billy’s friends from his foster home find him having changed back into his childhood self, and hiding in fear because he knows that Black Adam cannot find him as long as he is not in his identity as (oh, fine, I’m getting the hang of it…) Shazam. The issue ends with Billy attempting to locate the wizard again, insisting that he was given his powers by mistake, and that they need to be taken back by the wizard and given to someone else.
Billy cannot recognize his own ability to be a hero, and cannot recognize the destiny that has been given him. He cannot see beyond his fear, and the reader cannot blame him, because he is, in his own words, “only a kid”, though suddenly entrusted with a man’s responsibility.
Even greater than this, a hero’s responsibility.
Writer Geoff Johns is painting an unexpected component of the nature of a hero, that of a hero who cannot at first find himself worthy, who is attempting to walk through the very human struggle of coming to terms with the tension between courage and terror. I’m fascinated to see how Johns develops (it still hurts…) Shazam, because he is realizing the potential of the character for portraying the process through which a hero overcomes their fear and stands tall to champion those who cannot defend themselves.