Saying the Magic Word - Part 3

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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
Part Two

BROKEN FRONTIER: Of the characters, you’re obviously using Mary Marvel, Tawky Tawny, and Mr. Mind.  Were these characters all your choices?

JEFF SMITH: As soon as I hit on the Monster Society of Evil, you immediately have to include Mr. Mind, because that was his first story and when he came to Earth.  But he’s kind of in the background.  Savannah is actually Captain Marvel’s main nemesis, his Joker or Luthor if you will.  And in the original he plays a very minor role in the Monster Society.  I brought him back and gave him a much larger role in the story because he’s a good character.  He’s a short little bald guy with a huge ego and I love him.

BF: Out of all of them, which one of the characters was the most fun to write and which one was the most fun to draw?

JS: I started off having the most fun with Billy.  I was surprised he had a personality first of all. [Laughs]  If you read the old comic you know what I mean.

But Mary was just a lot of fun to write.  When I looked at the old Whiz comics and the origin stories the kids were a lot younger than we would remember them.  We look at Billy as being close to fifteen and Mary was his twin.  But when you look at those early Whiz comics Billy looks like he’s about 10 and that really hit with me because that really stretches the difference between him and Captain Marvel.  It’s a bigger polarization and I thought that was a good contrast.  And it’s the same with Mary.

So, I put Billy between 8-10 year old (but never really specify) and made Mary a little younger (I didn’t see a need to follow the twin thing).  And I also started playing around with the idea that Mary gets her Shazam power when a stray bolt shoots out of Captain Marvel’s thigh and hits her.  Kind of playing off the old Greek God origins and mythology like Athena being born out of Zeus’ forehead. 

It was my way to have a mythological birth for Mary.  She ends up getting some of his powers but not much – not enough to make her big and not enough to make her as strong as Billy gets.  BUT, she is vulnerable and she can fly faster than Billy.  So her personality came out of that and she just became a lot of fun to write.

The most fun to draw was Tawky Tawny, by far.  Something about the tiger stripes was really difficult, but when you get it working it’s really cool.

BF: I wanted to ask you a bit about that transformation, I’ve read before that when Billy becomes Captain Marvel he basically becomes an adult because it not only affects his body but also his mind.  With Mary, you mentioned that she only gets the stray lightning bolt and not all the power so she basically stays a child.  Was that an attempt on your part to keep a real separation between them and show that contrast?

JS: Definitely.  I look at Captain Marvel almost like a genie and Billy as Aladdin.  And him saying the magic word is then akin to him rubbing the lamp and this genie appears.  So it’s Billy, but it’s not Billy.  Captain Marvel actually is this entity, this genie, this power who has been around through all these civilizations and then he has to be attached to a host.  So now he’s attached, and even tasked, to Billy by the Wizard.  So Billy and Captain Marvel have to get to know each other first and slowly become one person.

Mary on the other hand just gets some powers and doesn’t really change who she is at all in that sense.  That’s how I thought of it.  It seemed like that from the early books as well, not so specifically, but it seemed like Billy and Captain Marvel were slightly separate.  It’s not like Billy’s body is enlarged and becomes 25 years old.

BF: In line with that do they exist at the same plane?  Like, are there times when Captain Marvel will be there and he’ll here Billy’s voice and vice versa?

JS: Well, some stuff I want you to read the book for. [Laughs] 

BF: [Laughs] I will say that you don’t have to worry, I’m not going to skip this book because of the interview.

JS: [Laughs] But still I’ve got to leave some surprises!

BF: Since I asked you who was more fun to write and draw, I also wanted to see what your creative process is like.  Do you write it and draw at the same time?  Do you put together a script to work off of?

JS: My process is pretty simple.  I do an outline to do the story in the right order, but when I start the comic I sit down with a pencil and some plain white paper and just draw out a really simple, rough form of the comic.  And in each panel I write some words down and do a little scribble of what is in the panel.  So I do them both at the same time.

BF: Ok. Now, while Bone is being currently translated into color, this is your first book that is being colored as it is produced.  Like you mentioned, you’ve always been a “black and white guy” did the fact that color was going to be involved change your process at all?

JS: At first it didn’t.  I went through it early on thinking that it shouldn’t matter and that I should draw everything in the panel no matter what.  But going through it I did slightly modify my approach working on the mini.  Because working with Steve Amaker, my colorist on the book, I found that we could do things with color that were never available to me before. 

The simplest thing I can think of is just skies.  You can do color skies with stars and clouds and sunsets, where if I was working without color I would have had to draw all that in.  So there are a lot of lighting effects that in Bone I would have had to draw in, but with Captain Marvel I knew that we could add some things with color later on.  So it did alter my technique, but not that much.  If you look at the boards they are pretty similar to a lot of the boards from Bone.

BF: Well, you could send me a couple and I’ll take a look at them [Laughs].

JS: [Laughs]

BF: Since Shazam! is just a four-issue series, what do you have planned after that?  Did working on this book give you a nice taste for working with other people’s characters?

JS: It was fun and I wouldn’t say I won’t do it again, but I have a couple more personal things I think I want to work on next.  I have had a great time working with DC and would be open to talk with them again about more work.

BF: Would it have to be Captain Marvel again?  Like you said before, Superman and Batman didn’t interest you now; would that change?

JS: No, it would probably have to be Captain Marvel again. [Laughs]  Can’t see much use for the Flash.

BF: Is that because your style of storytelling fits it best?

JS: No, I think it’s just my interests.

BF: Ok. Is there anything else with this story that we didn’t cover that you wanted to discuss?

JS: Well, I am having a lot of fun with secret codes and things like that.  I’m starting to put secret codes in my blog and I’ll have some more surprises coming up in the next week or so.  You’ll have to decode the Monster Code and it’ll give you a secret behind the scene stuff.

That was part of the original Monster Society, in having a special decoder ring.  I am actually using the same code as the original Monster Society, but I don’t have a secret decoder ring.  So I’m just relying on the comic community to figure it out and they have.  I put up the first code the other day and already people have figured it out.  I mean, immediately people came back and answered me… and did it in Monster Code! [Laughs]  I was very pleased with that.

So I’m just trying to do this one shot silly comic book thing where all the back covers, if you put them together they form a puzzle.  Which reminds me of when I was younger and bought trading cards and they had puzzles on the back.

BF: I remember those, you get them all and lay them across the table…

JS: Yeah, yeah!  You can lay them out and see it, then fold them up and put them in your back pocket.

BF: Funny you should mention that because when I moved into my new house recently, my parents came by and dropped off all of my baseball cards and comic books.  And I had a box of old cards where there were puzzle pieces in them… and now those cards and puzzle pieces are my coasters.

JS: [Laughs] Good for you man!  Make everyone else’s cards go up in value!

BF: Just trying to make use of everything.  It’s even funnier when people come over and ask me why I’m using them and I say, well, we could put together the puzzle if you want or you can just use the coaster!

JS: Awesome.

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