‘Shazam!’: Geoff Johns looks for new magic in Captain Marvel

April 03, 2012 | 2:24 p.m.
geoffjohns 600 Shazam!: Geoff Johns looks for new magic in Captain Marvel

Geoff Johns (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

Few superheroes have soared as high as Captain Marvel — he was the first comic-book character to reach Hollywood’s silver screen (Republic’s “Adventures of Captain Marvel” beat the Fleischer “Superman” cartoons to theaters by six months) and he was a newsstand powerhouse, outselling every rival in the 1940s. But Earth’s Mightiest Mortal plummeted from pop culture due to changing tastes and legal issues and, from 1954 to 1972, his comics weren’t published at all. He’s been in the DC Universe since that 1972 revival but (despite some bright spots) he’s never lived up to that illustrious heritage. Now, in the pages of “Justice League,” Geoff Johns, the star writer and chief creative officer of DC Entertainment, and artist Gary Frank are adding new wrinkles to the mythology and hope to put some of the old magic back in the word “Shazam!”

captain marvel2 Shazam!: Geoff Johns looks for new magic in Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel by Gary Frank. (DC Comics)

HC: We’ve seen different versions of Captain Marvel’s alter ego, young Billy Batson, over the years — in many of them he’s wholesome and, well, somewhat bland. This first story in “Justice League” No. 7 shows a more conniving version of Billy and signals that you’re going for an edgier take. Can you talk about that choice and what sort of opportunities come with it?

GJ: Gary [Frank] and I wanted the story of this boy being bestowed great magical power to be about more than a perfect kid becoming a perfect superhero. Billy Batson is a lot more complicated and nuanced than that to us, just like every character is compared to their 1950s equivalent. But it’s not about making Billy edgy, because I don’t think edgy is the right word to describe who Billy Batson is. Billy is trouble, but trouble in a way that I think we’ll find understandable, relatable and fun. He has a heart, a big one, but he also has a protective shell around it. He’s mischievous, independent and strong. He’s conflicted, tough and sad. And many other things. For us, Billy had to be as complex and as interesting as his alter ego.

HC: Going back to “Whiz Comics” in 1940, the origin tale of Captain Marvel has some great visual touchstones — the subterranean tunnel, the wizard, the stone chair, those statues — and a dream-like progress to its story logic. Can you describe your thoughts on that classic scene and how you approached any changes to it?

GJ: The Rock of Eternity is much more than just a cave with a throne at the end. It was actually once a fortress – a castle-like structure – that was built by the first magic users in the world. It was a place they gathered to share secrets and spells. A place where magical artifacts were analyzed and locked away. A place where all who practiced magic made pilgrimage to. It was run by a cabal of sorcerers and sorceresses, but after a horrific attack it was hidden from the world. Now it’s only accessible through specific magical entryways across the Earth. It still has the iconic elements you describe above, but it’s got so much more history to it, which we’ll delve in. One of the main goals is to amp up the magic element of Shazam, from locations and enemies to abilities and perception. It’s all about finding magic in our lives. You just have to know where to look.

captain marvel fawcett Shazam!: Geoff Johns looks for new magic in Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel was a newsstand powerhouse in the 1940s. (Los Angeles Times archives)

HC: This story hints that you’re going to add a sort of “sword in the stone” element to Billy’s selection — he’s not going to be a random choice who gets his powers by luck. Do you see him as a King Arthur who needs a Merlin to reach his destiny?

GJ: Billy’s a bit like King Arthur, but the entire scenario around him being chosen is going to play out differently than expected. There’s much more responsibility to what Billy’s inheriting and he has no idea what much of it really is. He’s not just – BOOM! – a superhero. He’s the champion of all magic.

HC: Captain Marvel outsold Superman for a time in the 1940s and he made it to the screen in some great serials,  as well as the 1970s television show that a lot of people our age remember fondly. When you view him clinically, as a storyteller, what do you see as his strengths?

GJ: The sense of wonder and transformation are clearly strengths. But to transform with one word into a magical superhero is something that captures people’s imaginations. Coupled with the great mythology he has – from his magical family to his insane enemies like Mr. Mind to the great iconic locations like the Rock of Eternity and bizarre friends like talking tigers – there’s so much depth here. And Gary and I are hoping to add more to all of it, including new characters throughout.

HC: When I was a kid I always wondered why Captain Marvel would turn back into Billy. Is that one of the challenges you see in the mythology? (And if not, what are?)

GJ: You’ll see specifically why Billy would ever change back to a boy once he has the power. It’s a main point of our origin story.

HC: Tell us three things about this new Sivana and how he compares to the classic scientist.

GJ: Doctor Sivana was a classic mad scientist who went up against Billy throughout his adventures. What you’ve seen in Chapter 1 is a very different Sivana. He is not rich or established. He has no company. He’s been a scientist all his life who is now desperate to discover magic. He wants its power – and he believes it can save his family, which we’ll learn about. Physically, when we meet him he’s more imposing and even Lex Luthor-like. He’s always been a bit Luthor-lite, but he’ll be undergoing some changes that will send him into a new direction in the chapters ahead. He plays a pivotal role in the story of Billy Batson. I think that’s more than three.

– Geoff Boucher

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