Sunday, January 24, 2016

Retro Reads: Shazam! (1972)

It was big news when DC acquired the rights to rival Fawcett's line of superheroes, leaving the latter publisher with just Dennis The Menace on store shelves. More than a decade later, Dennis' license was transferred to Marvel for a brief bit, but that's another story for another time.

Anyway, because Marvel had a Captain Marvel book on the shelves at the time, about an alien hero, DC couldn't quite revive Captain Marvel Adventures, and didn't feel as though Whiz Comics was a marketable brand in the Bronze Age, although Whiz #1 would later be reprinted in one of their oversized reprint volumes. Instead, the "Big Red Cheese" starred in---wait for it---Shazam!, which lasted 35 issues in all from 1972-8.

C. C. Beck, Captain Marvel's creator, was on board for the first 10 issues, before the art chores were turned over to editor Julius Schwartz's staff of artists, including Bob Oksner and Kurt Schaffenberger, with Denny O'Neil, Elliott S! Maggin, and Edward Nelson Bridwell doing the bulk of the writing. Over the course of the first couple of years, the series remained faithful to Beck's original vision. However, in 1976, someone at DC decided that, with the TV version of Shazam! in reruns, it was time to reboot the book, and transform "Uncle" Dudley into the comics version of the show's Mentor (Les Tremayne), giving him the travel trailer used on the show to take him and Billy Batson, who thankfully wasn't turned into a teenager like on the show (as played by Michael Gray), across the country. Unfortunately, in the minds of readers, this was where the series jumped the shark. The book was downgraded from 8 times a year to bi-monthly, and was cancelled prior to the DC Explosion in the summer of '78.

I actually bought a few issues when they first came out, gave them away to clear space in my room, then reacquired as many as I could through back issue hunting after moving downtown. Ah, those were the days.

DC collected the first 33 issues, or at least most of them, since all 33 covers are represented, indicating that a few issues were reprints, for their Showcase line of black & white reprint volumes. The final issues were left off, likely for a second volume to come.

Rating: B+.

Around 1973, comics icon Jack Kirby was asked to take over one of DC's long running war books, Our Fighting Forces, an anthology series that needed a major sales boost. So, Kirby revived a feature from earlier in the run, The Losers, writing and pencilling 12 issues in all, inked by regular partners D. Bruce Berry and Mike Royer, though some of the covers were done by another legend, Joe Kubert. As memory serves, Captain Storm was later spun off from the original Losers series in the 60's into his own book, but that was a distant memory by the time Kirby got his hands on him. Kirby's artistic style had changed during his run at Marvel in the 60's, and used the same approach on all of his DC projects (Kamandi, The Demon, New Gods, etc.). While there weren't too many two page splashes like in his more contemporary action books, Kirby treated the characters with the respect they deserved. His run ended with Our Fighting Forces 162 as he headed back to Marvel and to one of his earlier creations---Captain America.

Rating: A-.

The last time Poison Ivy had a book bearing her name, it was a 1-shot special right around the time of the movie, "Batman & Robin", in 1997. Until now, she hadn't had a series of any length, but DC has changed all that with a six issue miniseries, bearing the sub-title, Cycle of Life & Death. Rebooted as a sort of eco-terrorist some years back, Dr. Pamela Isley, aka Poison Ivy, is getting the same kind of anti-hero vibe that Catwoman & Harley Quinn have enjoyed. Writer Amy Chu, perhaps with a little editorial persuasion, wrote Harley into the first issue, and Catwoman will play a part as the story rolls along. I'm loving S. Clay Mann's artwork here, and the cover to the first issue looks like a poster waiting to be sold. If this clicks, and it probably will, look for Ivy to get an ongoing series, preferably by the same team, before the end of the year.

Rating: A.

Rumors are circulating that DC will relaunch their line yet again come June. Will they never learn? Not even five years after the "New 52", and they feel they have to hit the reset button again? I believe it was Shakespeare who wrote, "what fools these mortals be?". Fools, indeed.

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