Saying the Magic Word - Part 1

Lowdown - Article

Share this lowdown

  • Button Delicious
  • Bttn Digg
  • Bttn Facebook
  • Bttn Ff
  • Bttn Myspace
  • Bttn Stumble
  • Bttn Twitter
  • Bttn Reddit

After crafting one of comicdom’s most beloved all-ages adventure stories; Jeff Smith takes his turn on one of comicdom’s most beloved heroes.  He stopped by to chat about his upcoming Shazam miniseries.

BROKEN FRONTIER: To start off, I must say that while I was taken a bit by surprise to see your name attached to a DC book, it was also very exciting to see that you were working on a Shazam story.  So the big question for that is, how did you become involved with this project?

JEFF SMITH: It was a surprise to me as well.  As you know, I’ve made my name in comics through independent underground books – black and white books and very unsuperhero type comics.  Bone is much more of a traditional comic strip, similar to Popeye.  But as I was getting near the end of Bone , which was always a finite project (and a 1300 page book); I think everyone pretty much knew that it was winding down.  Even those who weren’t reading the book had heard that it was coming to an end. 

Then one day I got a little pink sticky pad on my desk that said Mike Carlin of DC called and wanted to talk to me.  My first reaction was “Wow!” because that was very surprising because at that time Carlin was the Editor-in-Chief of DC Comics. 

So I called him back to find out what he wanted and he asked me if when I finished up with Bone if I wanted to take a crack at Captain Marvel.  I’ve told this story a few times, but honestly, if he had suggested ANY other character – Green Lantern, Flash, even Superman or Batman – I don’t think I would have been interested.  But there’s something about Captain Marvel that did appeal to me. 

I’ve never been able to quite put my finger on why it appeals to me so much though.  I think it has something to do with the fact that very little has been done with Captain Marvel and he remains somewhat “pure” and still very connected to his roots in the Golden Age of Comics.  When superheroes first burst on the scene and captured the imagination of an entire generation of children, it was a phenomenon. 

Sorry, I think I just lost track of where I was going [Laughs].

BF: Well, I will say that when I saw you were involved with a Captain Marvel book, it immediately felt like it would be the perfect book for you to take over at DC.  Did you also feel that your style of art and storytelling matched with the character, especially with that sense of innocence that he still has?

JS: Clearly at DC they thought that.  I was told later that in the same meeting people were pitching ideas of who would be the perfect creator to match with characters.  And at the same meeting where they came up with the idea to match me with Captain Marvel they also came up with the idea to match Kyle Baker with Plastic Man .  Both of which actually came about, although Kyle, being much faster than I got his property together and put it out and we’re still waiting for mine. [Laughs]

BF: That is interesting because his excellent (and criminally overlooked) series has run its course before yours came out.

JS: Of course, I wasn’t working on Captain Marvel the whole time.  I was finishing up Bone and ran into some story problems.  Bone actually took me 2 years longer to complete than I had originally projected.  And DC, to their credit, did not abandon me.  They kept saying “When you can start it, start it.” And we kept talking behind the scenes.  They could have easily told me not to bother at any point, but I am really glad that they didn’t.  The book has been a lot of fun and I am really proud of it.

BF: I have read elsewhere that you have some fond memories, or at least know that a lot of people have fond memories of the character of Captain Marvel.  Was there any particular story that really drew you into this?

JS: Not really.  Captain Marvel was missing in action in the 60’s when I was reading Fantastic Four and Justice League comics, well, actually at that time I was mostly reading Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck. [Laughs]  It wasn’t until the 70s, I think when I was 10, when DC relaunched Shazam .  It was a new #1 so I picked it up, as I was just a kid.  I kind of liked the character, but I can’t say that I was an extreme fan of him. 

My enjoyment of Captain Marvel came later once I was in comics and I would go to conventions and hang out with friends, go to dinner, and always talk comics.  And Captain Marvel was brought up a whole lot.  He was one of those titles and characters that the first generation of collectors, who had first started creating fan magazines (for some reason I’m blanking on the term we used) like Maggie Thompson, talked about with such reverence. 

When you read Steranko’s History of Comics or Don Thompson’s All in Color For a Dime , there are huge sections devoted to Captain Marvel and the Marvel family.  In all of them you will find references to the Monster Society of Evil.  It has become an almost legendary story that was serialized over 2.5 years in Captain Marvel comics that introduced the villain Mr. Mind. 

It was just one of those legendary things where I thought, “It would be fun to take a look at that and try my hand at updating it.”

BF: Was that your initial plan when you got matched on the book to go back to the source material and try and update it?

JS: When they first approached me I think they wanted someone to do a monthly book.  And I knew that I don’t work that way for 2 reasons.  One, I like to write and draw my own material and that takes way too long for a monthly book.  Secondly, I am really enjoying this new era of graphic novels, which I think allows us cartoonists to tell stories.  Stories that have a beginning, middle, and ending. Monthly series, as much fun as they are and as much as I’ve enjoyed them, are really just endless tales.  Sometimes they have cliffhangers at the end, and storylines that tie together, but really they are endless stories.  I really like this new period of comics that we’re in where you can do these stand-alone tales.

So, I immediately suggested to them that I just wanted do a remake of the Monster Society of Evil and give it a beginning, middle, and end to give it an “arc” so to speak.  And the arc I finally settled on dealt with young Billy Batson, who is an orphan living on the streets, actually an abandoned building under the East Bridge. [Laughs]  He is given this power, but the real story isn’t about good versus evil, the real story is about how he discovers that he has a sister somewhere.  He has a family and he has to find Mary, his long lost sister.

BF: Was that an important element for you then, to bring in this idea of a family?

JS: Very much.  One of the reasons was that as I looked back and read a lot of the Golden Age Captain Marvel stories and Steranko’s History of Comics , it became very clear to me that the Marvel Family was the first family of comics. 

With Captain Marvel, Jr. and Mary Marvel, they had Hoppy the Bunny, Uncle Dudley Marvel; they were all very silly and very fun.  But that was all long before Superman had his extended family and it was actually from the Marvel Family that this idea of Krypto, Supergirl, and Superboy came from.  Supergirl and Superboy are very much copies of Mary and Captain Marvel, Jr.

So to answer your question, yes, creating the Marvel family is very much part of Captain Marvel’s mythos.  You have Billy, who starts off very alone, a homeless, helpless kid on the street, but by the end he has a family.  A crazy family that has talking tigers and wizards, but it is still a family.

BF: It does fit when the main villain is a caterpillar of sorts. [Laughs]

JS: [Laughs] Well, I have made a few changes to Mr. Mind.  I’ve made a few changes to everyone actually, but I’ve tried to keep it within the spirit of the original characters as best I could.

My approach was a little bit like a successful adaptations of comics in the movies.  I thought what Tim Burton did with Batman and what Sam Raimi did with Spider-Man was the best way to approach this: don’t pretend that the audience doesn’t know these characters and just clean and update the best parts of the myth, get them all together, and go from there.

Related content

Related Headlines

Related Lowdowns

Related Reviews

Related Columns


There are no comments yet.

In order to post a comment you have to be logged in. Don't have a profile yet? Register now!

Latest headlines


Latest comments
Comics Discussion
Broken Frontier on Facebook