Giant Alligator People Just Want To Be Loved
Wild Cards Volume One. Bantam Spectra (Out of Print)
Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil, DC 2007
Things are getting a little weird this month. You see, true believers and false
deceivers, I'm actually reviewing a book in this column. One with just words, and
no pictures save on the cover.
No pictures, you say? How will you know what's going on?
Don't be afraid. It gets easier as you go on. You might have some funny feelings,
and you may start growing hair in strange places, but you will come out of it a
Like everyone else with eyes, I love George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire
series. If you haven't read these medieval fantasies, they are powerful evocations
of a lost world, where tribal loyalty and betrayal hide just beneath a supposedly
civilized exterior. And they are rich and textured, full of cutthroat politics, gore-soaked battles, and steamy sex scenes that would give your mom a fit if she found
the book. That is, if she could tear herself away from the story long enough to
Like everyone else with a calendar, I've also been waiting for the next book since
. . . well, let's just say that since the last book came out I've earned two degrees
and become the father of a two-year old.
So naturally, instead of breaking into George R.R. Martin's house and standing
over him with a sharpened pogo stick until he finishes the book, which would be
the sensible thing to do (okay, some people really have threatened to do things like
that, so know that was a joke) I've gone out and hunted out his backlog, which
includes a hefty bunch of short fiction, some really good little novels, and an
anthology series of "mosaic novels" he edited called Wild Cards, about a world
where an alien virus struck the earth in 1945, transforming parts of the population
into either superpowered Aces or disfigured monstrous Jokers.
These days, the tongue-in-cheek superhero story, a la Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long
Blog, is almost as common as the sexy vampire story. So you might expect Wild
Cards to be a precursor to a novel like Soon I Will Be Invincible, mocking the
superhero genre. Actually . . . no.
Wild Cards is the most gripping experiment in the consequences of real-life
superpowers I've read since Watchmen. Plus, with dozens of writers to add to the
world, Wild Cards creates a shared universe deeper than Watchmen's and better
thought out than the Marvel or DC Universe.
In 1945, shortly after World War II, a dandyish telepathic alien lands on Earth.
This alien, who will henceforth be known as Doctor Tachyon, comes from a
society that subsists on gladiatorial entertainment, and has come to warn humanity
that his people are about to experiment on humankind by testing a virus meant to
make better subjects for the fighting pits.
He is too late, as a nefarious villain has obtained and released the virus over New
York City, in the process killing the World War II veteran pilot Jetboy. In the
streets below, most people are horrifically disfigured and dying. Roger Zelazny's
amazing story "The Sleeper" has a few particularly horrific details about people
with their flesh melting off their bones, into rainbow-colored puddles. Gah. (As
with all things Martin, this is not the carefully PG universe of Marvel or DC --
wait until you get to the story about the hero who gets his powers from tantric sex.)
Quickly enough, the Aces, who get all the cool powers like flight and telekinesis,
are pressed into government service, while the Jokers, who get to look like
walruses or who bruise at the slightest touch, congregate into their own little
ghetto, Jokertown, away from the world. Aces and Jokers become a countercultural
force during the second half of the twentieth century, as exemplified by the passage
in Martin's story about one hero's college roommate who "hated blacks, queers,
Jews and Jokers."
The tale of the Four Aces, a group of government operatives, is one of the earliest
and the best of the stories in the first Wild Cards. Though the Aces remain a force
for world peace either by busting Nazi war criminals in the face or by serving as
representatives to China, they are not immune to Senator Joseph McCarthy. The
story is written from the point of view of the Judas of the Four Aces, who indicts
his teammates, revealing their liberal pasts, under a paralyzing fear his shallow
personality just can't handle.
After years trying to atone, he goes to a bar frequented by Aces, and when he
orders his drink, just receives thirty silver nickels. It's a beautifully handled scene
by Walter Jon Williams, one of the better-known authors to have come out of Wild
Martin's own story in the collection is the most pure fun. A misfit kid, raised on
comic books, discovers he has the ability, telekinetically, to lift hundreds of times
his own body weight. Unfortunately, he has to be able to concentrate to do it. So he
builds himself an armored shell out of an old Volkswagon Beetle and flies around
the city doing good, dubbing himself "The Great And Powerful Turtle."
I've been told that the first book is only laying groundwork for intersecting stories
throughout the remainder of the series, which might explain why the stories get
worse and the vision of the shared world becomes much more mundane in the
second half. Still, the universe created here is interesting enough to return to again
and again, maybe even for the twenty-something books that it has run for.
Of course, I am sucker for superheroes like a crack addict is a sucker for crack.
Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil is a retelling of a famous Fawcett
Publications Golden Age strip about the origin of the hero Captain Marvel, who,
idiosyncratically enough, is now owned by DC, after his creation at Fawcett
(Actually, that's why the comic is called Shazam! instead of Captain Marvel;
Marvel Comics has the right to the name Captain Marvel. Oddly enough, though,
Marvel Comics will lose that right if they don't publish a series called Captain
Marvel at certain interludes, which explains why they are constantly rebooting the
"Marvel Captain Marvel," even though he's pretty boring. Weird, huh?)
The real Captain Marvel is also not that interesting, since he usually serves as a
poor man's Superman, only interesting because his secret identity is a little boy
names Billy Batson. Why would such a discerning man as myself want to read a
Captain Marvel story? Two words: Jeff Smith.
Jeff Smith is the author of Bone, the thirteen-hundred page comic about three little
Pogo-looking dudes running around an enchanted valley having adventures with
dragons, stupid stupid rat creatures, and the babealicious Princess Thorn. If you've
read Bone, chances are that you've stumbled around giggling to yourself over the
scenes of the Great Cow Race, or Fone Bone's love poems to Thorn. ("Upon your
feet you have ten toes. They look just like potatoes!")
Shazam! is similarly as fun. Some of the best scenes come when Billy Batson's
little sister Mary Marvel gains her powers and proceeds to fly around, trying to
ditch her "big brother" Captain Marvel. She grabs a heavy block of concrete and
tries to lift it. "What else can I do?" And in a crucial scene, she jumps in front of a
de-powered Billy Batson to catch a shot meant for him. "Whew," she says
afterward. "I am bulletproof." And Jeff Smith even inserts an uncharacteristically
risqué joke, when a woman catches a glimpse of Captain Marvel's ahem . . .
"emphasizing" costume. "I can see," she says, "why they call you Captain
Shazam! manages to recapture the joyful spirit of the 1940s Golden Age comics it
is rewriting, with lots of hectic monster fights, a giant storm of bugs, and a punch
so hard from Captain Marvel to the bad guys that it opens a black hole singularity.
I read it all with a big fat smile.
That said, at times Smith falls into the same trap that plagued the last few chapters
of Bone: lots and lots of exposition to the main characters about how their powers
work and what is going on in the world around them. But then again, it's all in the
spirit of the exposition-heavy Golden Age of comics. In a world where Wolverine
and Watchmen are the faces of superheroes, a little levity goes a long way.
There you go. Not so bad, is it? No more crying about more pictures and less
Lots of pics next month, I promise, as we take the plunge into a character who,
despite being a dull concept, usually has the best comic at Marvel.
Daredevil and his killer tomato suit, in thirty.
Read more by Spencer Ellsworth