Saying the Magic Word - Part 2

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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.

Part One

BROKEN FRONTIER: You said you read through the old Monster Society stories; how much research did you do for this project?

JEFF SMITH: I did a lot.  It’s a lot of work being a cartoonist; you have to watch old movie serials from the 1940s [laughs] and read a lot of comic books.  I did do that.  There is an old Republic serial called Captain Marvel Meets the Scorpion or something like that.  It was a really good serial for the time, he was flying at times and there were a few things that I picked up from that that I tried to incorporate into the comic.  Things like the transformation – this little kid says “SHAZAM!” and BOOM! he’s Captain Marvel.  We tried to play up the magic behind taking this little helpless kid and transforming him into the mightiest man in the world.

I also watched the old Fleischer Bros. Superman cartoons.  Have you seen those?

BF: Of course!

JS: Well they are just beautiful.  Just gorgeous.  The palette is beautiful.  I love the designs and compositions.  I thought that that would be a nice, visual place to start with this comic.  So there’s things in there that were inspired by trying to recreate some of the things I loved about those.

BF: Would you say you’re going for a more classic feel on this book then?

JS: Yeah.  I’m not trying to do a 1940s comic though, I’m trying to do a modern comic.  While trying to do something that today’s readers can enjoy and get caught up in, I am trying to capture some of that magic that was in those old Golden Age comics – the simple-ness, the fun, the lack of logic. [Laughs]

BF: There was that.  It’s probably what made them so much fun.

JS: They are a lot of fun!  You couldn’t do a straight Captain Marvel comic the way it was done in its heyday when Captain Marvel was outselling Superman by a zillion to one margin, because modern audiences would just be bored by it.  They are fairly flat and without a lot of emotional depth.  Today we are such a visual society.  We’re used to stories like Law & Order; we’re used to a more sophisticated method of visual storytelling.  So you have to take the old Captain Marvel and bring him into the 21st century.

BF: I’ve heard that you are redoing the origin as part of the story…

JS: Yes, but just as a part of the story.  I’m hoping that this will be a standalone graphic novel at some point, where anyone can pick it up.  Everyone knows SHAZAM.  It is one of the most famous expressions in pop culture.  So if someone wanted to pick it up they could get the whole idea and the whole story with this.  Similar to the way that Sam Raimi incorporated Spiderman’s origin in the first movie, I thought it was best to do that with the comic too.

BF: You mentioned magic and obviously the word SHAZAM is built on mythology… do those elements play into your story a lot?

JS: Sure, just the fact that Tawky Tawny is a talking tiger walking around New York City (and trying to stay out of sight of course [laughs]) I think that all plays into the ideas that Captain Marvel’s powers are very mythological.  It’s all Greek gods and one biblical sage.  When you start talking about storytelling traditions and Gods and talking animals those are the oldest traditions we have – going back all the way to Aesop and old traditional Greek tales and myths.  So it kind of makes sense to me.

That’s also why I would never want to do a comic book with Captain Marvel meeting Superman or Batman.  I mean, how is Batman supposed to talk to a tiger?  He can’t!  It doesn’t exist in his world; he’s a detective with chemicals in his belt to make everything happen.  It’s all science.  But with Captain Marvel he’s part Hercules; he’s part Zeus, so what’s it to him to talk to a tiger?

BF: That is a good point.  Going back a little bit, you mentioned that Captain Marvel remained “pure” and there haven’t been a lot of attempts to bring him away from that.  Even the book in the 70s had a very nostalgic look and classic feel.  I’ve read before that part of the joy for you about this character was that he stayed out of the “grim and gritty” crowd.  Was it more appealing to you because of that?

JS: Yeah.  I like comic books.  I’ve been reading through them since I was a kid.  And part of reading comics is also going through the Overstreet Price Guide and looking at old comics to see what they’re worth.  This is the Golden Age and you rarely see Golden Age books out there.  Collectors have them out at shows.

BF: Now you have to see them in CGC cases.

JS: I absolutely detest that!  I’ve got my Golden Age Captain Marvel comics just piled up on my desk.

BF: Really?  Anyway I could come and visit? [Laughs]

JS: [Laughs] I’ll tell you what – I’ll fold one up, put it in my back pocket and take a picture to send to you.

BF: Wow! [Laughs]

JS: No, these are for reading man!  I am not a collector.  But I am fascinated by the collecting.  I don’t like the slabbing because that keeps you from reading them.  I do think it’s kind of fun to keep them in the plastic so you can pull them out and read them. 

There is something about the Golden Age of Comics.  When you open up the book and the smell hits you and the yellow paper.  The drawings are so different – so primitive and raw.  As I alluded to earlier, they were just feeling their way through the visual culture.  There was no TV or anything.  I just think that being able to take the characters and to be able to go right back to the Golden Age and look at him, it’s almost as if he was frozen in ice since that point.  There have been a few attempts to do something with him over the years – in the 1970s they even brought some of the old creative team back (which is why it had that real classic feel), later on with The Power of Shazam, and of course they’re working on him now but focusing on Black Adam and Captain Marvel, Jr.

I don’t know if I’m explaining myself quite clearly.  It’s like reaching through this character back to the roots of comic books themselves.

BF: Why do you think that of all the characters, Captain Marvel has been left in a state where you can do something like this with the character?

JS: I’m not quite sure.  There is something about the character himself that is just really appealing and just works.  The idea of this word, SHAZAM!, somehow they just hit on a good word.  I still see people saying it in music videos and feature films.  What it means is that you are transformed in a powerful way, especially with this little helpless kid who has this word and suddenly he’s invincible.  There is something about that concept that just grabs you.

Why has he been so hard to revive?  I don’t know.  I think the main problem is trying to fit him into the DC Universe.  Because the DC Universe is a drama, it’s an adventure story about superheroes, explosions, and the like.  Captain Marvel is… I don’t want to say it’s “lighter”, but maybe it has a sort of wink to it and questioning just what is going on takes some of the fun away.

BF: Do you think that a character like Captain Marvel works better outside of a monthly book?

JS: No.  I think he would be fine if you got the right team doing it.  I just think that having him run around with Batman is ridiculous.  But I think that of any two superheroes, because then it suddenly becomes World of Warcraft. [Laughs]  And then you’ve got all these characters running around.  Just keep them separate.

As far as I’m concerned, Captain Marvel is the ONLY superhero in New York.  Spider-Man is just a comic book [laughs] that Captain Marvel could read if he felt like!

BF: The only one!

JS: The only one!  The strongest and the best looking too! [Laughs]

BF: [Laughs] I guess when you get all your powers from Greek Gods you’re going to be the strongest and best looking!

JS: Don’t even come over here! [Laughs] I’ve got the strength of Hercules and Zeus for heaven’s sake! [Laughs]

I do have to say that I’m much more in love with the character now than when I started the project.

Come back here tomorrow as we wrap up our conversation with the almighty Jeff Smith. Shazam!

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