The moment Geoff Johns has been building to throughout several recent issues of Justice League back-up stories has finally arrived – Billy Batson says "Shazam" for the first time in Justice League #0.
Unfortunately, despite the lightning bolt that accompanies it, the event doesn't really feel like it has nearly the level of electricity it should. In fact, it's kind of a charmless affair, which is all the more depressing, because charm was something Captain Marvel used to have in spades.
I won't claim that I was always a huge Captain Marvel fanatic, but I had his Underoos as a kid, and I've always had a soft spot for him as this cool-looking Magic Superman. He had such a distinct face, which is something rather rare in comics. Most heroes have Generic Handsome Young Man face, but Cap always seemed to have a very specific visage. Then, as I began to learn more about him when I was older, I was surprised to learn he was regarded as The Big Red Cheese, this dorky throwback from a gee-whiz era. I didn't think it would take all that much tweaking to make him a bit more relevant in a modern era (dial down the "golly," give him a functioning sense of humor, polish up his power-set and maybe forget about Hoppy The Marvel Bunny), since he still had a very unique core of being that one in a million kid who was as earnest as all get out. Not perfect, but earnest, well-meaning and not caught up with being a jaded, too-cool-for-the-room standard issue teenage character.
Johns, however, has conflated that earnest nature of the old Billy Batson with being "too perfect," and has set about giving us a very different take on the young man, and one that's supremely difficult to give a damn about. Ostensibly, it's the story of an orphaned kid who's good at his core, but who's had such a hard life that he's built up a defensive wall of aggressive spite and a hurt-them-before-they-hurt-you attitide towards the world. That scruffy ne'er-do-well who should clean up nice if anyone ever gave him a chance, a kind of scrappy underdog with a heart of tarnished gold that we should want to root for. But we don't. At least I don't. He is just kind of an ass.
The kicker is that all the tweaking Johns has done to the whole mythology of Shazam is actually not bad. Black Adam was legitimately scary when Dr. Sivana recently released him, and the fact that he killed everybody on the Council of Eternity – save for our elder wizard – gives him a terrible weight. The notion that the Wizard has been misguided in searching for an impossible "pure good" person to pass his power to for so many centuries is a compelling choice. Giving him a white cloak with gold trim instead of the little blankety half-cape with the rope collar is kind of neat. Making his powers not so much chained to the divine beings in the acronym that was SHAZAM (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, Mercury),but instead varied and vested with mystic spellcasting talents could be interesting. Dropping the name 'Captain Marvel' and just calling him Shazam might not be great, but it's understandable and passable. Incidentally, for those wondering how the hell he was ever going to say his own name without zapping back and forth, that question is answered in JL #0. He has to "say it with purpose" for it to work.
The new look, the new style – it all could've worked fairly well. But when it all centers around a character you want to punch in the face, it falls apart.
Some of that might have to be laid at the feet of artist Gary Frank, who generally does really good work (and thankfully keeps up that heavy-eyebrow look that's been the calling card of the character for ages), but makes Billy Batson's face so full of constant sneering dickishness that he's irritatingly unlikable even when his 'goodness' pokes through. Billy Freakin' Batson is unlikable. That's not supposed to be possible, but Frank has succeeded in making us want to kick this kid in the mouth. By extension, we kind of want to kick Shazam in the mouth, too. Thus, it's hard to think it's fun or cute when Billy and his foster brother Freddy Freeman realize he can use his power to make them both rich.
Shazam: Hero For Hire could have been cool, but instead, Johns and Frank have somehow made it so I wish harm to an imaginary orphan.
The backup story gives us a bit more on the Trinity of Sin build-up, as the Wizard's last act is to find Pandora and apologize for the Council of Eternity passing a foolishly extreme judgment on her for simple curiosity – something that makes us wonder if Black Adam might not have had good reason to kill them all. We also get our first glimpse of The Question, fighting street crime and spouting to himself about his search for answers. Still not sure if making Q into this eternally damned immortal is a wise direction, but we'll see.