A Review of Shazam! Chapter Eleven

The word “family” can mean something a bit different to each of us depending on our childhoods. It’s always held a positive meaning for me, because I am blessed enough to have a strong and cohesive family unit, even larger now that Karen and I are married. That said, it still gets messy sometimes, because we’re all…remember this word…mortals. Still, family can be a great source of strength to conquer the obstacles, challenges, and even the evils that we face at moments in our lives.

Family has been a sort of through-line to DC Comics’ New 52 re-boot of Captain Marvel, now going under the name Shazam, which has been appearing as an additional story line in the back of Justice League. I’ve written before how DC is winning me over with their story, and how they’re capturing the struggle with the nature of a hero that any human would face, and certainly a child…a struggle that is perfectly portrayed in the character of Shazam.

Chapter eleven of the story (and I’m a bit late in reviewing this, as it’s almost two weeks old now), picks up with young Billy Batson running underground in his attempt to find the wizard, where he intends to plead for the removal of his powers. Billy is convinced that he is no hero and that his powers were granted to him by mistake, and is terrified of transforming himself back into Shazam, because then the evil Black Adam will turn his terror of the city above on his intended target…young Billy.

There is wonderful moment when some of his young brothers and sisters from his adopted family…friends who are standing by him even though he was quite mean to them initially…doubt Billy’s mental well being when he commands an abandoned subway to take them to the wizard. That is, all save one of the youngest members of the family, who believes in magic. Then, when Billy encounters the enchanted Francesca, the mystical face in the mirror, on an iPad screen, a voice that none of his young companions can hear, another member of the group insists that everyone believe that “Billy can see and hear things we don’t.”

“Magic things!” replies the youngest, and wonders aloud why they can’t see and hear these things, as well. Francesca asks Billy to communicate to his young sister that this is because she has not established a connection to magic, a cryptic statement at first. This, though becomes quite important…and emphasizes the theme of family…when Mary, the oldest sister, hears Francesca speak a single word: “Family.” Has a connection to magic through the bond of family began for Mary (long-time comic book readers know where this is going, I think)?

Francesca’s encouragement to Billy is inspiring, though it falls initially on ears finding it suspect. It is in overcoming the fears and challenges that we face, she insists, that we become “more than mortals.” There’s an odd bit of philosophical dualism injected into the story here, as Francesca explains to Billy that, his bond to the magic lightning that has made him Shazam being irreversible, he and Black Adam, the only other champion now bound with the lightning, are “forever connected.”  Writer Geoff Johns fleshes this out a bit later though, as Francesca begins to explain…

(Permit me to pause and give you fair warning that everything that follows will contain massive spoilers, in case you want to read this issue and haven’t already)

…Black Adam’s origin, one of tragic isolation and loss of childhood innocence paralleling, and indeed exceeding, Billy’s own. Artist Gary Frank does a masterful job of revealing Billy’s shock and horror at this connection, as he realizes how alike he and his evil rival terrorizing the streets above them are.

This realization changes Billy in a moment, as he embraces the fact that he suddenly views Black Adam as someone who can be saved, and himself as the person who can reason with Black Adam. In this pivotal moment for his character, Billy rushes out of the subway to confront Black Adam, not with the power of Shazam, but with the appeal of one orphan to another…the appeal for Black Adam to choose good as Billy has.

The ending…well, I won’t spoil everything here, but this issue is a great portrayal of the nature of a hero as Billy chooses to overcome his fear and place himself at risk in order to not even necessarily defeat, but to save his adversary. Billy chooses the ultimate good, the good that will make Shazam a centerpiece of the DC universe, and a good to which all of us reading can aspire. In Francesca’s words, this is the good that makes us “more than mortal.” Again, this is why superhero mythology carries such huge philosophical and theological …even spiritual…importance.

I can’t wait for next month’s issue…more to come!

Slowly Adapting

Lady Justice

I remember this local store in my hometown that my parents used to visit nearly every week in some capacity or other. I couldn’t tell you what the store sold specifically. In my memory, perceptually distorted now (way) more than twenty years later, the shop seemed like perhaps an antique store, or a place similarly cluttered. I was never interested in what they sold in the front. When we visited, I went to the back, where there were four walls that were bookshelves, floor to ceiling, of used books. There was a hush that fell when you walked into the back of that store, as though the words, thoughts and ideas contained within those thousands of pages absorbed the stress of the outside world. I loved going there. My love of bookstores began at an early age, and have stayed with me since.

Today, I still love visiting used bookstores. I have other motivators now, as well…namely, that I would much prefer to give my business to a local establishment. This is the same reason that I make every effort to buy my comic books from local shops, as well, even though I find reading them digitally to be quite addictive.

This weekend, I watched our daughter run and squeal excitedly through the children’s section of our local library. I am thrilled that she is thrilled around books. She brings them to us, asks to sit on Daddy’s lap and have a book read to her. I want her to fall more and more in love with books every day.

The reason that I’m excited by new media is that it makes possible the discovery of great art, important ideas and critical information to those who quite possibly would not have had this access in the beginning. Yet, this leaves me torn at times. I was exploring our same library’s ebook offerings this weekend, and found them sorely disappointing. When I decide to buy a new book, the first place I go is to my Nook. I would rather download and click than turn pages. I think that it is wonderful to have access to great books in this way. And, all the while, I’m cognizant that we may be losing something important in the transition. In the interest of balance, I try to do things like visit used book stores regularly.

Still, this passing concern re-surfaced over the weekend when I read this article about the controversy over the first sale doctrine. This court case is fascinating as it depicts how our legal system struggles to keep pace with technological innovations. We’re potentially at risk of legal action with the most innocent and natural usages of our technology, it would seem, and even those who prefer to purchase our media legally aren’t safe.

Of course, this brings us around to the issue of big businesses controlling artistic expression in the name of profit, as well, but that is a topic for at least one of its own posts.

One of two things needs to happen: either our legal system needs to keep pace, or our innovation must slow. I don’t want innovation to slow, for exactly the benefits that I mentioned earlier. And, I don’t think that it will. I know that I want our daughter to enjoy the same freedom of passing books and music that she loves between friends and family as I did in my childhood. I want that to be even easier for her than it was for me, and I don’t want legal tripwires to prevent that from being a part of her life, or to limit it in her life.

I think that it might, though, if we don’t learn to speed this process up a bit.

Photo Attribution: JvL under Creative Commons

Again. And Again.

My first year living in New England, and Boston is the subject of senseless violence in what is now being referred to with the “t”-word. If I am to apply the seriousness by which my friends in other parts of the country take these events…that is, by which events cause phone calls and text messages to arrive inquiring as to whether or not I am okay…as a litmus test for their level of tragedy, then I suppose I haven’t experienced anything quite of this magnitude since that day on a past September that we all wish had never occurred. Still, those of us in the U.S. now have another day on which we will be able to identify where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news.

The 9/11 attacks were particularly dramatic for me as I was traveling by air when they occurred. When the tragedy of Virginia Tech was wrought, I lived only about an hour away. On Monday, I was in class just outside of Boston. My first instinct was to feel what those who orchestrate these events want us to feel: fear. Or, at least uncertainty. I’ve never panicked during these events, but one certainly feels anxious at times.

Now, another moment has occurred in which I want to scream as loudly as I can, “For God’s sake, for the sake of all that is holy, we have to stop killing each other!” Yet, man never seems happy unless we’re doing just that. Often in the name of an ideology, or under the flag of patriotism, or occasionally even in the name of God (which doesn’t make Him happy at all, I suspect), we continue to do exactly that. We ambush, we invade, we attack, we let the wrath of our righteous anger fall.

I’m not sure our anger is righteous, but when we hear that the fatalities of this latest attack include a child, our anger is at least justifiable. And, so, angry we are.

And stern if veiled threats are made from a leader’s podium.

And, days or weeks or months from now, actions of retribution will be taken in the name of justice, and more bodies will likely be added to the count. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll find yet another reason to wage war against someone else.

The cycle will continue, because it’s easier to respond to violence with violence than to take the higher ground. Partly, I think, because the higher ground is obscured in these moments. As I said, our anger is justifiable. It is difficult to see higher ground through such a fog.

Still, that doesn’t stop the cycle.

I’m not naive enough to think that it will stop, though, at least not completely. Sociologically, I see it continuing. Theologically, I see it continuing. Realistically, I know that it will continue. That grim resignation, though, does nothing to lift the weariness that I feel in my soul when I know that more souls have been ripped from our company without cause or reason. I’m so, so exhausted with the weight of the knowledge that human life continues to be taken by other humans.

Karen said to me last night in a succinct moment of realism, “It will only get worse.”

“I know.” I responded. “But that doesn’t make it any easier to take.”