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!