by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & Shazam! & r & by Jeff Smith & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n the 1940s, the most popular comic book character wasn't Superman or Mickey Mouse -- it was Captain Marvel. The series based on a kid who could turn into a grownup with super powers by saying "Shazam!" tapped into that escapist notion so central to all comics -- that anybody can be a superhero.
But Captain Marvel kind of fell by the wayside, as Batman, Spiderman and even upstarts like the X-Men became more popular. But now DC Comics has enlisted the talents of Jeff Smith, the man behind the cult comic series Bone, to restart the franchise.
For inspiration, Smith went back to the storyline known as The Monster Society of Evil, which was first created by C.C. Beck and Otto Binder in 1942. He updates it into a post 9/11 New York City, where the head of the Department of Heartland Security might be scarier than the villain from another dimension, Mr. Mind. This book, appropriate for kids except for a couple "Dammit"s, collects the four episodes of Shazam! Smith wrote and illustrated, along with a bunch of behind-the-scenes pages that detail his creative process.
Shazam! includes Captain Marvel's original story, with orphan Billy Batson being transported to the secret underground lair of a mysterious wizard and given the secret word. Unaware of the cosmic nature of his powers, Captain Marvel and Billy unwittingly unleash Mr. Mind, who transforms people into monsters and outfits giant, sci-fi robots to fulfill his final, dark purpose. Captain Marvel, with his sister, Mary Marvel, and friend Talky Tawny (a talking tiger) team up with a daring TV reporter to thwart Mr. Mind -- for now.
Smith is obviously a big comic fan, and Shazam! shows his love of the classics. He manages to update the legend for a new generation of comic lovers, but the simple innocence of early comics makes it a bit clunky -- especially when you compare it to his excellent Bone series. The tribute is heartfelt, but Smith's real spark shows in his own stories. Watch for his next project -- a sci-fi comic about an art thief who can travel through time.