The New 52’s introduction to Shazam! concludes in Justice League #21 this month, and, unlike it’s previous installments which have ran as extra stories in the backs of Justice League issues, this takes the entire issue. This, after all, is Shazam’s “last stand,” or so the cover proclaims, and it’s only worthy of it taking the entire book.
I’ve been so impressed with where Johns and Frank have taken this character in the New 52, and I was excited to see an entire issue devoted to it this month. We begin where the previous chapter ended, with Black Adam holding Billy’s friends and adopted family, Mary and Freddy, on the edge of death if Billy does not capitulate and give over his magic to Adam. Billy must make a decision…and, I won’t spoil the story for you, but I will reveal to long-time comics readers that we see Mary Marvel in this issue.
What Johns has done with this story arc is to tie heroism to family, a good counterpoint to the image of the hero standing alone that often dominates super-hero mythology. Adam tells Billy that they are as connected as family because both have been bestowed with the magic lightning, yet Billy realizes the power in accepting the second chance offered to him by his new, adoptive family. When confronted with this act of grace, he chooses a potentially self-sacrificial path to defeat Adam in the end, realizing his true nature as a hero and overcoming his natural childhood fear.
The art in this issue is outstanding, especially in the way Frank has captured the character’s facial expressions: Billy’s childhood emotions dominating the face of a strong adult hero, Adam’s face twisted with centuries of anger, Mary’s face confused but determined. The action sequences are expertly drawn, and I’m particularly fond of a splash page in which Mary is duking it out with the demonic giant representing the Seven Deadly Sins and attacking the city. Just as striking is a beautifully drawn series of panels in which Shazam stands in the snow beneath a sign reading “No Child Should Be Alone at Xmas.” The character details, as well as the story, are illustrated with poetic, if crisp, clarity in this issue.
There were moments, though…albeit fewer of them on my second reading…that felt anticlimactic after such an excellent series. Perhaps the story was stretched to fit the full issue, I’m not certain, but there were moments…especially with the tiger (again, I’m trying to keep away from spoilers)…that felt contrived and almost as though they were filler to me. And, while I understand how Johns is tying his familial theme together, the ending fell a bit flat after such thorough character development previously.
Perhaps I’m reading this story arc slightly off its center. Perhaps it’s meant as a child’s story, a coming-of-age hero’s tale of a YA vane. If so, I’ll soften that final critique. Whichever way you want to read it, though, this issue is certainly worth picking up as the conclusion to a well-written story arc re-introducing a fascinating character for a wider audience. I’m very interested to see how Shazam (I’m still struggling with not calling him Captain Marvel, by the way) will fit into the larger universe of the New 52.