Part One here: REVIEW: Shazam by Geoff Johns (Part 1 of 2)
By the time Issue 6 of the Rebirth Shazam series begins, Eugene Choi and Pedro Pena have been trapped in the Gamelands–one of the Seven Magic Lands at the heart of the run–for a little over three issues. During those three issues, we learn that 1) they’re trapped, 2) the only way out is to beat a new character named the Game-master in a race, 3) no one has ever actually beaten the Game-master before, and 4) due to plot shenanigans, Eugene can’t be the one to race the Game-master, Pedro has to do it.
It’s a good set-up. We know what the stakes are, we have a clear antagonist and a clear objective, and preventing Eugene (the Shazam Family’s resident gamer) from racing and forcing Pedro (who flashbacks inform us has never won at anything) to drive in his place is a great way to both raise the stakes and provide an opportunity for character development.
And then the races begins and the previously-dead Wizard shows up and just teleports Eugene and Pedro out of the Gamelands anyway. The race is never finished, the Game-master is never defeated, and neither Eugene nor Pedro grew as characters. Neither they, nor any other member of the run’s surprisingly large cast, did anything to actually summon the Wizard to their aid. He just shows up with no foreshadowing and solves their problem for them. End of story.
This, in the micro, is a perfect summation of the main problem with the second half of Geoff Johns’ Shazam run: payoff.
Let’s back up.
Normally, I try to avoid talking about the “behind the scenes” stuff when it comes to a book (or film or show), largely so I can examine the work by its own merits. Unfortunately, a lot of the second half (which, to reiterate from Part One, covers Issues #1-11 and 13-14 of the 2018 Shazam series) can really only be explained within the context of what was happening at the time.
So, Geoff Johns completes Shazam’s New 52 origin story in 2013. Elsewhere, he’s been laying down plot threads involving the Trinity of Sin, the Council of Eternity, Black Adam’s resurrection, the Justice League, and others that make it clear he’s gearing up to tell a big Shazam story. The problem, though, is that he wants to do it with Gary Frank as the artist, and an opening in their respective schedules never materializes. Flash forward five years later, and Johns has decided to recruit Dale Eaglesham instead, and DC finally announces a new Shazam ongoing after a two-decade absence.
Except, DC is no longer in the New 52 era by this point; “Rebirth” has begun, restoring characters to a more classic interpretation and effectively retconning out the majority of the groundwork Geoff Johns had laid. Johns still has the New 52 origin story, but whatever story he had intended to tell originally is no longer viable, and it’s going to require a major shift in tone in order to better fit into the much brighter and more heroic Rebirth initiative.
The good news is this means Billy Batson is more-or-less back to his original self. As we mentioned last time, the main problem with the New 52 story was the characterization. Even taken as his own, separate character, New 52 Billy was still whiny, cruel, cynical and just plain unlikeable. Thankfully, Johns has tossed that characterization away in favor of a Billy who’s friendly, optimistic, sincere and kind. For the first time since…well, since “One Year Later,” actually, Billy Batson feels like Billy Batson.
Unfortunately, restoring characters to their classic selves is something of a double-edged sword. Billy’s back to “normal”…but so is Sivana. I mentioned this briefly last time, but one of the better changes Johns made in the New 52 was making Dr. Sivana sympathetic. While “he’s actually doing this to save his family!” is a cliché at this point, Johns made it work by having other characters be the main villain, with Sivana coming off as the hapless stooge getting tossed from one source of evil to the next in a desperate bid to save his family. It allowed us to sympathize with the poor doctor, since all we wanted was for him to finally get away from these people and be with his family.
Post-Rebirth, however, that characterization is gone. This is classic Sivana, cackling evilly and attacking others with glee, proclaiming that he shall one day rule the Earth and get revenge on Billy and his family (revenge for what is never made clear; Billy and Sivana never actually met in the New 52 Origin, and that still counts as canon as far as this series is concerned). Not once does Sivana mention his family or give any hints of a deeper motivation. He still comes off like a stooge for the actual antagonist, but now he feels less like a victim of circumstance and more like the Starscream to Mr. Mind’s Megatron.
(Side note: while we’re on the subject of villains, I kinda freakin’ love Mr. Mind’s new origin? Like, I feel like I should hate it on principle, but “literal bookworm who ate all the spellbooks and now wants to be bigger than everyone” is so goofy I just can’t.)
As for the rest of the returning cast, Mary is still the “put-upon adult,” Freddy is still a troublemaker, Pedro is still the quiet one, Darla is still the excitable one, the Wizard is still grumpy and angry all the time, Black Adam is still someone DC really wants you to think of as a tortured and noble anti-hero and not a murderous monster who killed his own nephew for power and committed a genocide that one time, and foster parents Victor and Rosa Vasquez are still the saintliest saints to have ever sainted. The only real change is to Eugene, who goes from being the “studious one,” to a rambunctious “gamer” instead, possibly to better line him up with his movie counterpart. Otherwise, the supporting cast is…fine, they’re just fine. They’re all likeable and have strong dynamics, but get very little in the way of actual development. Not annoying, not terrible, just fine.
The real problem this go-around is pacing, and, frankly, it’s baffling to see Geoff Johns of all people struggling with this. For those unaware, the main conceit of the on-going is that Billy and his foster family discover that the Earth is but one of seven “magic lands” that the Champions of Eternity are charged with protecting, with Mr. Mind and Dr. Sivana working to free the Monster Society and conquer them all.
In concept, it’s not really all that different from his Green Lantern run, where the “big idea” was also expanding the hero’s mythology by making six more of it and creating an underlying threat lurking in the background. The difference is that Johns took his time with Green Lantern. He introduced each of the new Lantern Corps one-by-one, and didn’t move on to the next until he had fleshed the previous one out. Then, when all seven Lantern Corps had been firmly established, he revealed the real threat in Blackest Night, something he had had been building towards for years.
And, at first, it seems like Johns is going to pull a similar trick here. We start off in the Funlands, and he’s taking his time establishing how things work and fleshing out new villain King Kid…but then Issue 3 ends with the group split up between the Funlands, Wildlands and Gamelands, resulting in the next 3 Issues cutting between those three worlds in addition to cutting to the Earthlands and the Rock of Eternity to show us what Billy’s foster parents, Black Adam, and Sivana and Mr. Mind are all up to. The result is some very choppy pacing that just grinds the narrative to a halt. By Issue 4, Darla and Freddy are arrested in the Wildlands, Pedro and Eugene are trying to escape the Gamelands, Billy and Mary are captured in the Funlands, their foster parents are worried about them, and everyone else is various stages of evil and angry. By Issue 5…these characters are all still in these same situations, having barely progressed at all because the narrative keeps cutting away to something else. By Issue 6, the Wizard just shows up (again, through no actions of the protagonists) and conveniently teleports everyone to where they need to be for the story to progress again (well, except for Freddy and Darla; they at least managed to escape the Wildlands on their own with help from a revamped Tawky Tawny). After this, the pacing gets even more choppy, with characters being magically teleported to exactly where they need to be a surprisingly large number of times until the Wizard just teleports everyone into the same location by the end of Issue 9, just in time for the plot to stop being about exploring the Seven Magic Lands and instead be about defeating the Monster Society. And then Superboy Prime shows up in the very last issue, and suddenly the book stops being about the Magic Lands or the Monster Society and becomes all about stopping him (and, yes, Prime does get some build-up, but he still shows up in the middle of the Monster Society battle in the last issue just so he can serve as the “final boss” despite not having anything to do with the plot or Billy).
Again, it’s baffling to see Johns mishandling the pacing so poorly here, given he usually does take his time with his stories (sometimes even to their own detriment). The book plays out less like his Green Lantern run and more like if he did the Sinestro Corps War, Secrets of the Star Sapphires, Rage of the Red Lanterns, Agent Orange and Blackest Night and Simon Baz’s origin story all in the same 12 issues…and then had Reverse-Flash show up in Issue 13 and declare himself the real threat all along. Characters are shifted from one location to the next at whim, exposition and narration are quickly inserted to make sense of all the various plot points, and multiple story threads are introduced only to be dropped and forgotten. There’s a severe, slap-dashed, “laying down the tracks as the train is leaving” feel to the whole story, as if Johns really was just making it all up on the fly instead of plotting ahead.
And, yes, that type of storytelling can work, but here everything is so disjointed and crammed together that it ends up feeling like a lot of set-up with very little pay-off (and what pay-off there is being disappointing, with Billy literally narrating the ending just to wrap everything up as quickly as possible).
This, incidentally, is where we return all that “behind the scenes” stuff mentioned earlier. Now, I am not saying we should begin speculation on what may have been going on in Johns’ life or within DC itself. Yes, the book suffered massive delays alongside Johns’ other work from the time, and, yes, there were art changes mid-issue sometimes and the solicits for the book’s latter half changed around a lot. However, until an official statement has been released regarding those problems, any discussion as to why they were happening is baseless at best.
That all being said, it’s hard not to look at the way the story progressed and wonder if something else was going on. In addition to the delays, there’s also the matter of Superboy Prime. When the reveal of Prime was first announced, Johns gave an interview for Newsrama that made it sound like Prime would be part of a new arc separate from the Magic Lands storyline. But then the solicits for the book’s latter half kept being changed, to the point that Issue 12 was turned into a “surprise interlude” issue (written by a different author) the week of its release. Issue 13, which was originally billed as the conclusion to the Magic Lands storyline, then dropped a month later and ends on a cliffhanger, promising the actual conclusion in the next issue. Johns himself stated in an interview that he was rewriting Issue 14 to be extra-length and serve as the conclusion to his run as a whole. Then Issue 14 drops, Prime shows up to the big bad of a storyline that never involved him, and Billy gives several pages of narration just to resolve the story as quickly as possible.
Again, I don’t want to engage in speculation on the business and personal decisions in crafting a story, but it’s hard not to look at the delays, the solicit changes, the rushed ending and the massive number of plot threads frontloaded in the book’s first half (only to be completely dropped in the second) and wonder if Johns had originally planned a much longer, more sprawling epic that ended up cut short due to any number of behind-the-scenes factors.
Still, what matters isn’t the book that could have been, but the one we have. Are there good elements? Yes, absolutely. Again, it’s nice to see Billy acting like Billy, and the other characters themselves are all enjoyable (if mostly one-dimensional). The concept of Shazam having six new worlds to play around in is a strong one, and Issue 10, focusing mainly on the Shazam Family stopping an invasion of the Earth by King Kid, is a definite highlight. Speaking of, new villain King Kid is probably the best part of the whole storyline, if only because he’s the one element Johns actually takes his time to develop and bring to a logical, satisfying conclusion. And I’d be remiss to give credit to Scott Kollins and Dale Eaglesham. While the constant shifting of artwork later on can be disorienting, the artwork itself is good and worthy of praise.
I hope this won’t be the last we see of “classic” Billy, his extended foster family, King Kid or the Seven Magic Lands, but rushed and choppy pacing definitely made this series something of a letdown. It’s better than the New 52 Origin for sure, but that really wasn’t much of a bar to clear, either.
Anyway, thanks for reading me ramble way longer than intended on the most recent Shazam run. Let me know your thoughts on the run (and even the character himself) below!