Talking Shazam with Mark Waid

About a year ago, I had an e-mail interview with Mark Waid over Captain Marvel (Shazam) as part of some research I was doing for a possible book about the character. Though my book isn’t off the table, I’ve pushed it to the back burner in favor of other work. Here’s the Waid interview if you’re interested and if you’re a Captain Marvel fan, let me know because maybe all I need is some motivation.

Popgun Chaos: What is the draw of Captain Marvel for you? What has made his legacy endure? What do you think is the commercial appeal to the character?

Mark Waid: For me personally, the appeal of Captain Marvel has as much to do with how I “met” him as with the character itself. I was ten years old when DC relaunched Captain Marvel at Christmastime of 1972. I’d already heard, in comics history tomes, about this mysterious hero of the 1950s, and the circumstances of his “disappearance” –the rumors that DC had run him out of business for being too derivative of Superman, the talk that his writers and artists had been among the best of the Golden Age, and so forth–had seriously whetted my appetite. When I bought SHAZAM #1, I felt as if I were in on the ground floor of some significant new moment in comics history. In retrospect, not so much. But I didn’t know that when I was a kid; I was just caught up in the excitement of a revival of something I knew about only through hushed whispers.

That said, I immediately fell in love with the character. I loved the simplicity of the concept, and I get why his legacy had endured. Not only does he have a great, prototypical comic-hero name and a striking costume, but all kids love Captain Marvel for the same basic reason: to be Batman, I have to work and study, and to be Superman, I have to come from another planet, but to be Captain Marvel, all I have to do is say a magic word.
PC: What are your favorite Captain Marvel comics? What do you consider to be the definitive Captain Marvel story?
MW: My favorite Captain Marvel comics are the post-WWII Captain Marvel Adventures and Marvel Family books by Fawcett. By then, C.C. Beck and his studio had really polished the concept. The art was bright, the stories were clever, and the Marvel Family stories in particular were epic and full of giant ideas. I’d have to say that in my book, the definitive Captain Marvel story is “The Plot Against The Universe” from CAPTAIN MARVEL ADVENTURES #100–it’s got all the elements of the Captain Marvel mythos, all the important characters, and Sivana.

PC: Most heroes have to struggle with duality between their civilian life and their hero life. What makes Billy’s struggle with duality so unique?

MW: That there’s no conflict there. This is one of the most baffling things to me about Captain Marvel’s longevity as a character, and it’s a puzzle I’m still trying to crack after all these years; other than powers, what’s the difference between Billy and Cap? What does Billy want that Cap doesn’t, or vice-versa? Why would Cap ever even turn back INTO Billy? What’s the advantage to being Billy? It’s not like Cap couldn’t have anything that Billy would want; do you think Mr. Morris wouldn’t give Cap his own radio show if Cap asked? Seriously, there’s no duality here that seems to grow from inside the characters; it’s simply an artificial condition laid down by C.C. Beck, and them’s the rules. So I just roll with it.

PC: Why is it so hard for Captain Marvel to sustain his own series?

MW: Some of that, I’ve just answered above–he’s not a terribly complex character. And, sadly, we tend to gravitate more and more towards dark, complex heroes as a society. The reason Cap can’t sustain his own series is that the creators and publishers keep trying to shoehorn him into the comics-shop-dweller demographics and can’t just let him be a character for kids, because we can’t figure out how to bridge the gulf between comics in their current format and young readers who would love Captain Marvel but don’t know what comics are or how to find them or how to read them. I will go to my grave believing that preschoolers would love Captain Marvel if they could just find him.  Older kids would think he’s too simplistic or too light, but that’s fine. Don’t try to change the character to fit that mold; just find the audience for Cap as he is. That audience is out there.

PC: What can you say to dissuade people that consider Cap to be a poor man’s Superman? What makes Cap different?

MW: A sense of whimsy. A feel of impossible magic, and a willingness to embrace fun. The difference between Cap and Superman is the difference between fairy tales and science-fiction.

PC: I don’t think anyone can disagree that you crafted the greatest battle between Superman and Captain Marvel. What makes Superman vs. Captain Marvel so compelling?
MW: You’re kind to say that, but don’t forget to give Alex Ross at least half the credit, if not more. On the surface, the appeal of that battle is seeing Superman go toe-to-toe with the only man physically able to stand up to him. On a deeper level, it’s an underdog fight; it’s fun to see Cap get a crack at the guy who helped run him off the newsstands all those decades ago.
PC: Many other characters have aged into their 20’s (Dick Grayson, Donna Troy, Wally West , etc) so why hasn’t Billy aged? Some writers depict him as being between the ages of 10 and 12 while others put him around 16 or 17. What age do you think works best for Billy Batson? Recently, in Trials of Shazam, it seems the even Freddie Freeman has been aged to his early 20’s, so why does Billy remain? Do you think there is room in the DCU for an older Billy Batson?
MW: There probably is, but who the hell wants to see that? Again, don’t break the formula. Don’t compromise the concept or you’ll wreck what works. Billy should always be an adolescent who gets the power of an adult with a magic word; that’s the fundament.

PC: Mary Marvel has gone through a lot in the past few years. Do you think this is a natural progression for her character or simply a case of having her do something?
MW: Don’t get me started. A lot of what Mary’s gone through over the past decade or so has nothing to do with what’s broken or not broken about the concept, and everything to do with a bunch of creepy-ass older men working out their issues. Just thinking about it makes me want to take a Silkwood shower. It takes more imagination than most comics creators have to find something interesting about a good girl, but it’s not impossible.


PC: Do Tawky Tawny, the Lieutenant Marvels, and Uncle Marvel have a place in modern comic books or are they simply a product of their time period?

MW: Some of both. Look, anything can be spun to work if the gestalt is right and the stars are in alignment, but it depends on so many factors out of our control. It’s entirely possible that the ancillary Marvel characters, in particular, have gone the way of Fibber McGee and Molly, but who knows?

PC: Captain Marvel’s three main villains were prominently featured in 52. Was this a planned agenda to get the characters into the spotlight or just organic story-telling? What makes Dr. Sivana, Black Adam and Mr. Mind such great villains to you?
MW: It really was just organic. We never set out to spotlight those three specifically; we knew we wanted to use Black Adam, but Sivana was just there as another mad scientist, and Mr. Mind was a late addition once we realized (a few weeks in) that we wanted Skeets to go nuts and he seemed a good tool for that.

PC: What was the rationale for the Black Marvel family? I think a lot people kept expecting the Black Marvels to just be the evil equivalent to Captain Marvel and his family (man fans were predicting Osirus to go Kid Miracleman on everyone). What makes the Black Marvel family so much more than that?
MW: Geoff Johns. He really worked hard on that plotline–it was mostly if not totally his baby–and we all knew Isis was created to die, in order to refocus Adam. Osiris was a late addition, but his creation was specifically intended to give Isis some depth and motivation herself.

PC: After the multiverse was revealed, I remember Wizard ran an interview with Geoff, Grant, Greg, and yourself.  In that interview, I remember Geoff mentioning Captain Marvel’s Earth as being designed for you. To many fans, this seemed like you were going to work on a new Shazam comic. Was this ever a possibility or were fans reading too much into it
MW: It was on the agenda, and Grant and I talked about it–I’d have loved it–but it just never came to pass thanks to office-politics crap.  And now, now that Mike Wieringo has passed away, I’m not sure I’d want to do the Marvels–it was always something he and I were going to collaborate on, and it’s painful to think of Cap without Mike.

PC: I have a new favorite moment from Kingdom Come. I’ve read the mini-series dozens and dozens of times and I never noticed it until specifically looking at Captain Marvel moments, but as Billy inspects Batman’s troops, you describe his smile as being “eerie.” I had never noticed the dual-nature of his grin until that moment. It is usually so warm and comforting, but in this universe it is so mysterious and frightening. Symbolically, it really shows how much the world has changed (and in addition, how far comics have changed). Any thoughts on this?
MW: Just that you sussed it out pretty accurately. That was absolutely the intent. A giant ton of Kingdom Come came out of Alex Ross’s head, but I don’t think he’d argue that I can be proud of the fact that I gave Cap and Billy their role in that story (which Alex realized so beautifully in his paintings).
PC: Batman tells Billy that Captain Marvel has the hardest time adjusting to the changing times. Why is this? Is it because Marvel is too pure? Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but is this a commentary on the difficulty of writing a Captain Marvel book in the modern age?
MW: It’s absolutely a commentary on that.  It’s a distillation of the series’ theme, really.
PC: Billy decides the best course of action at the end of Kingdom Come because he is both mortal and godlike. That’s the only time I can recall Billy’s powers seeming more like a burden rather than a gift. The issue isn’t that his powers will allow him to save the day, but no matter what his decision is, he will decide the fate of many lives. Why put Billy in such a difficult situation?

MW: Because he had to be the fulcrum of the conflict. That was the one thing that made Billy/Cap unique in that world; he had one foot firmly in the world of mortals and the other firmly in the world of superheroes. And since that was what the final battle was about–the war between humans and superhumans–Cap had to be the one to decide how it all paid off.

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15 Responses to Talking Shazam with Mark Waid

  1. Chance Thulin says:

    Too bad the Marvel family has gotten the shaft in recent years, what with them getting brutalized, corrupted, depowered, “killed”, and more. I wish the Marvel family could get back to their former glory so Dr. Sivana can get back to putting mayonaise inside chocolate covered cherries to spread evil in Fawcett City.

  2. J.R. LeMar says:

    Great interview. Cap is my favorite character, and I can’t find a single thing that I disagree with here.

  3. Cathartic Lobster says:

    J.R. – thanks so much! I’m a huge fan of Cap as well, and I’ve slowly been working on a book to celebrate the character. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Pingback: Comics A.M. | One Piece doubles yearly sales, Comico art auction questioned | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment

  5. Joey Doe says:

    If you really want to read a great fan-fic Shazam movie script, it is at billybatsonandthelegendofshazam.blogspot.com.

  6. Michael Mikulovsky says:

    I’d love to see Mark write a Shazam series. With the covers once again painted by Jerry Ordway of Power of Shazam fame. As well as the interior art or maybe John Byrne as the artist & Ordway inking him. DC has royalled screwed up the Marvels. I agree with Mark about Mary Marvel & the creepy old men too! I really enjoyed Mark’s stories with BB/CM in two issues of The Flash. When he was writing the Flash’s book. I think Mark gets Billy & CM. Come on Mark, do a new Power of Shazam monthly. Or bring back the original POS series with issue #49! Team up with Jerry Ordway!

  7. Luke Mattison says:

    Great interview. I have been a huge Captain Marvel fan for years, but DC has never been able to get a handle on him. I think one of the biggest problems with him is the copyright issue. Since Marvel has owned the copyright to Captain Marvel since the late 60s, DC can’t use the name. It’s hard to have name recognition when you can’t use the name.
    The only way it could ever work is if you have big name creators who could put their heart and soul into Captian Marvel. Imagine if Jim Lee loved him, and would draw a 24 issue run with Waid or Johns. You couldn’t tell me that Lee wouldn’t have a HUGE impact on Cap (Lee is just an example, but it really would take a writer AND an artist with a lot of clout and commitment to make this work).
    Again, great interview. Please continue this book!!!

  8. Cathartic Lobster says:

    Joey – Thanks! I’ll be sure to check it out!

    Michael – Waid understands silver age characters like no one else, so I think he would have made a perfect Captain Marvel series.

    Luke – I completely agree with the sentiment about Jim Lee. Cap is a character that deserves to be a big name, so major talent should start him off and let other people run with the character. It worked with the Johns/Manapul transition for Superboy.

    I’ll keep working on the Cap book, but I was so worried that no one else would care but me. It’s nice to see that others actually DO care.

  9. Torsten Adair says:

    Marvel Comics owns the TRADEMARK to “Captain Marvel”, DC owns the copyright to the Fawcett “Shazam” stories.

    So, DC can call the character “Captain Marvel” inside the comic, but the title cannot be “Captain Marvel”.

    I think Jim Lee is the wrong artist for Shazam. Even Ordway had the wrong style. A simpler style is required. Not necessarily an animated style (although Mike Norton’s run was excellent), but also not too realistic.

    My favorite Shazam story? “Sivana’s Nobel”

    • Joey Doe says:

      I think either Steve Rude or Mike Allred would be perfect “Shazam” artists. Cameron Stewart will draw Grant Morrison’s earth-5 Shazam one-shot, “ThunderWorld”, due in the summer of 2011. I hope they capture the Fawcett flavor. If they do, it would be great if it can launch an ongoing series.

  10. The recent release of Chip Kidd’s “Shazam!: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal” would make this book a tough sell unless you’re bringing something special to the table that Kidd’s book doesn’t cover.

  11. Cathartic Lobster says:

    Joey – Man, I didn’t even THINK about Rude or Allred. You’re totally right!

    Aaron – I’ve thumbed through Chip Kidd’s book (hopefully getting it for Christmas) and while it is excellent and a perfect scrapbook of Shazam, I would be taking a more literary/critical look at the character along the lines of the work done by http://www.sequart.com

  12. I can’t say I disagree with a single thing here. He seems to get it and while I was never a huge Wieringo fan, he would have made a good choice.

    As for why he would ever change back, the only thing that makes sense is if they are two different people, as Beck always intended (and the one time I disagree with the original creator). If he’s not Billy when he’s Cap, then that explains him changing back and Billy’s reluctance to change into him to often. However, I think it has more potential as a concept if he IS Billy.

    I’ve said this a million times. If done in a “Harry Potter” epic, magic, fun but dark, escapist way, Captain Marvel has incredible potential. ESPECIALLY in movies. More so than comics because the very audience who would love him in movies, kids, (and the kid in all of us) women etc., are absent in the biz today.

  13. Hanzo the Razor says:

    GREAT interview.

    I’d still love to read a History of Shazam book — while the recent Chip Kidd book was nice, it was more of an art book featuring photos and artwork from the golden age mythos and not really meaty at all in terms of content and history — it’s not like the Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman Complete History books.

    It’s just a damn shame Weiringo couldn’t have done that Cap book, it would have been solid gold and I imagine it’d even trump their wonderful FF run.

  14. Cedron Spaulding says:

    I have been a fan of “The Big Red Cheese” for what seems to be my entire life…I have dim but pleasant memories of my brother and I scrambling to watch the live action Captain Marvel TV show, and a few years later NBC’s animated series. As I grew older my tastes changed, and the Captain was largely forgotten. Ostrander’s Shazam miniseries opened my eyes. As a relatively quiet, introverted teenager, here was a kid who was liberated from mundane life by the use of one magic word. The core of the character resonated with me, but Ostrander and Mandrake’s version was a little to dark for public consumption, and a graphic novel retcon came afterwards.

    Since then I have watched DC’s handling of Captain Marvel with mixed emotions. For a character who rivals Superman in power, there is very little joy or sense of wonder that bleeds through the printed page. In the Justice League he was used for poor comic effect. The JSA attempted to rectify that but seemed to tilt interest in Black Adam’s favor instead.

    Lately, it seems that the only character who recognizes that the Captain is Superman-class is Superman himself. :(

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