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Monday, 3 January 2011

Superman/Shazam: First Thunder

Writer: Judd Winick
Artist: Joshua Middleton
Letterer: Nick J Napolitano
Publisher: DC Comics

What's it about?
First Thunder tells of one the first meetings between Superman and Captain Marvel.  I will assume that you all have an idea who Superman is and skip straight to explaining Captain Marvel.

12 year old Billy Batson has been given the powers of the Gods of magic.  By uttering the word Shazam he becomes Captain Marvel - the World's Mightiest Mortal!  He is blessed with the Wisdom of Solomon, strength of Hercules, stamina of Atlas, power of Zeus, courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.
Mythology fans might spot a disparity here - Achilles isn't a God and there is a mix up between the Greek and Roman names for the Gods.  I can only imagine that the people creating the character weren't too concerned with the facts.  Nevermind, just think of it as a separate pantheon.

Throughout America ancient mystical artifacts are being stolen from museums.  This spate of thefts brings both Superman and Captain Marvel to Fawcett City to investigate further, whereupon they discover an ancient sect wanting to unleash a demon on the world.  Meanwhile, Dr Sivana, Captain Marvel's nemesis, sets out to destroy the Captain once and for all.  These two plots weave together to form a memorable climax that is unexpectedly affecting.

This book is probably more for the young adult/older child age range.  It can be read an enjoyed as an adult - certainly, I think it's great - but I can imagine many non comic reading adults not being too impressed.

What's good about it?
Collecting just four issues it's a nice short read.  The first three issues are very light hearted and fun.  There's plenty of action scenes but also some good character moments where Superman and Captain Marvel get to know each other.  The Captain may have the wisdom of Solomon but even when he's transformed he's still a little kid, so when he meets Superman for the first time he is completely in awe.  Between them, Winick and Middleton have captured this feeling really well.

The whole of idea of Captain Marvel is a brilliant power fantasy for children.  Who when they're young didn't dream of transforming into a superpowered being and taking part in epic fights?  Not many.  Billy may be homeless and poor, relying on his friends to bring him his washing, but whenever he wants he can escape from the day to day drudgery and become a hero, loved by millions.  First Thunder depicts this feeling very well and you can't help but smile at it.

Superman is a true hero in this book - he fights the good fight, he stands up for what is right and he looks out for those in trouble.  People who think of Superman as nothing more than a cheesey boy scout would do well to read this, as Winick has captured the essence of his character and shows why he his one of the world's most enduring icons.

Although it is more likely to be enjoyed by children than adults, it is never patronising or simplified.  The ending brought tears to my eyes and was unexpectedly mature for such an otherwise simple and fun story.

What's bad about it?
I don't know what age group Winick was writing this for, most of his other superhero books deal with social problems as much the capes and tights world, but First Thunder is not going to be considered a great piece of adult fiction.  However, when considered as an all ages book, it's good. 

What's the art like?
Joshua Middleton is one of those artists whose work I find difficult to describe.  It has an ethereal, airy quality to it that compels the gaze.  He's good at capturing nuances of mood and expressions,  and is certainly able to tell a story in pictures, as evidenced by this page from First Thunder, (the link takes you through to Middleton's blog), as well as in the scans shown below:

The world of DC's superheroes is one of magic and the art work portrays this magnificently.


Superman and Captain Marvel are such bulky figures Middleton's work almost seems too gentle for them.  It's difficult to comprehend how he could show the harder side of their natures, such as their anger or potential for violence.  Yet somehow he does and this allows us to see the characters in a more complex light.

Other information
ISBN: 1845762967
Price:  At the time of writing, it doesn't look like this book is in print at the moment, but you can buy copies from Amazon Marketplace and Ebay.  I would pay up to about £12 for a good copy.

If you want to find more Captain Marvel stuff, there are several books available but the quality is variable.  Unless, stated otherwise, assume these are aimed at young readers:

Shazam: Greatest Stories Ever Told
Shazam! (Showcase Presents)
The Shazam! Archives vol 1 (these go up to 4 volumes)
Shazam! Family Archives Volume 1 (including stories about Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Junior, Billy's friends who share his power).
These 4 volumes collect stories from Captain Marvel's first appearance through to the issues published in the 1990s.  They may be viewed as imaginative, whimsical and fun, or they may be viewed as badly put together, poorly written, cliched rubbish.  Speaking for myself, I find it difficult to read many of these early stories.

The Power of Shazam Collecting issues from the 1990s series
The Power of Shazam - Different to the above, but collecting different issues from the same series.  Rather stupidly these two collections are named the same.  These would be suitable for young teenagers or older kids.  Examples of the contents can be viewed herehere.

Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil
Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam

Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam: Mr Mind Over Matter
These books are far more modern and have been created specifically with younger kids in mind.

The Trials of Shazam: Volume 1 and Volume 2
Written by the same gentleman who wrote First Thunder, these books are for adults and take place when a great change in magic has occurred.  The Wizard Shazam is dead and Billy Batson has taken on his duties.  Freddy Freeman, another child wielding the power of the Gods has to undertake a set of trials to prove himself worthy of this new power.  These books will be reviewed on this site at a later date.

Shazam: Power of Hope
I have not read this but as it's painted and written by Alex Ross I expect that it's pretty darn good.  I also expect that it is aimed more at adults who will appreciate Ross' detailed and realistic style of art more than children will do.

As for Superman books, take a look at the other ones we've reviewed here.  You may want to scroll down through the entries as at the time of writing the Superman focused books (as opposed to those where he appears alongside lots of other characters) are listed further down.

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