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Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Trials of Shazam Volume 1 and 2


Writer: Judd Winick
Art: Howard Porter (volume 1, on the left), Howard Porter and Mauro Cascioloi (volume 2, on the right)
Letterer: Rob Leigh
Publisher: DC Comics

What's it about?
There's an ancient wizard named Shazam who has, in the past, bestowed some of his power onto mortals.  Three such mortals were Billy Batson, Mary Batson and Freddie Freeman, collectively known as the Marvel family, after their hero names - Captain Marvel.  Trials of Shazam continues their story.  We have previously reviewed another Marvel family book, First Thunder, but unlike First Thunder this book is for an older audience.  It is more sophisticated, both in terms of the plot and the execution of the story.

We start thus..
The laws of magic have recently undergone massive changes.  The wizard Shazam is dead.  Billy Batson, as Captain Marvel, has taken Shazam's place on the rock of eternity which leaves a gap on earth for an human champion of the powers.  Enter Freddy Freeman.  Previously known as Captain Marvel Junior, or CM3, he has been called upon by Billy to take up the mantle of Earth's Captain Marvel.  To prove he is worthy he must undergo six trials and prove to each God of Magic - Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury - that he deserves their power, the power of Shazam.

There's one more problem, the dark users of magic also desire the powers of Shazam, so they send their own champion, named Sabina to do battle with the Gods and wrest their gifts from them. 

What's good about it?
It's a well crafted, deftly put together, epic hero narrative.  If you have a penchant for myths especially ones like the Labours of Hercules you'll probably like this.
 There's a bit of genderbending and race changing amongst the Gods, meaning they are no longer all white and male.  Some have moved into new professions and are found in unlikely places, part of the fun of the book is working out who will appear as what and when.

Then there's the villain Sabina.  Sabina is, to borrow a phrase, totally badass.  Skilled, calculating, ruthless and bright she's a tough opponent to go up against and a welcome addition to the DC Universe.  This is her in action:
See what I mean?  Badass.
(Image by Cascioloi)

What's bad about it?
On first glance, you might think that the Gods of Magic were of Greek origin (with the exception of Solomon), but any fan of Greek mythology is likely to take umbrage at the names.  Captain Marvel was created in the 1940s by C C Beck and Bill Parker, who I can only imagine had difficulty finding other suitable Gods to fill the S, H, A and M aspects of the name Shazam.  Still, this discrepancy is explained reasonably satisfactorily in the book.

Image painted by Mauro Casciolo.
The other annoying thing is how the female heroes are depicted.  A couple of them, including Wonder Woman, have irritatingly high leg lines to their costume (see left) and there is one instance of a completely unnecessary bum shot.  There is no reason to do this other than to make them look sexy, something which the male heroes don't have to contend with.  Unlike other artists, say Amanda Connor who imbue their characters with personality, the few women who do have these high cut costumes aren't given much role within the story, other than to be eye candy.  This is insulting and wrong and normally would be enough to have this book knocked off the list of potential reviews.
However because these gratuitous panels are minimal (there's about 3 examples over both books) but mostly because of the awesome treatment of Sabina this book gets a pass and gets to be reviewed.

The rest of it is truly good.

What's the art like?
There are two artists on this series, Howard Porter started on the art and did 9 issues (halfway through volume 2), until he suffered a hand injury and had to stop drawing.  Mauro Cascioloi then took over the art for the remaining 3 issues.  Each artist is quite distinct and they produce all the work themselves, with only a letterer providing other visual iconography.

Porter's style of art is geared more towards fantasy than your regular comic artist, which leads him to producing these visually stunning pieces:


Mauro Cascioloi's style is quite different and provides a different feel to the book, while still grounding it in the hero narrative:

You can see the different levels of detail that each artists uses.  Personally, I think both styles work and I don't find the sudden change too jarring.

Other information:
Volume 1 ISBN: 1401213316
Volume 1 price: £9.99
Volume 2 ISBN: 1401218296
Volume 2 price: £9.99

If you want to read more there is precious little out there.  DC hasn't seen fit to publish that many trades focusing on the Marvel family, especially not ones at a similar level to Trials of Shazam.  A full list of Marvel family specific stories can be found at the bottom of this review for Superman/Shazam: First Thunder, but they are mostly for younger audiences.

Freddie Freeman has appeared in other books like Final Crisis and Cry for Justice.  These are not specific to the Marvel family and are about many other heroes including Freddie.

Unfortunately, while Final Crisis is good it's completely inaccessible to new readers, and doesn't even make sense to a lot of long term DC Universe readers (including this one!).  Cry for Justice is also probably fairly inaccessible but more to the point, it just isn't very good.  On the other hand, Mauro Cascioloi does do most of the art, so if you are head over heels in love with his work and want to see more, you could check it out.  Just don't expect a cohesive, well planned out story or sympathetic characters.

Lastly, you can read about the Marvel Family's foes in JSA: Black Adam and Isis.  I haven't read this so can't comment on the quality or accessibility of the story, but I do know that Black Adam and Isis are interesting characters.

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