Since DC Comics’ company-wide series relaunch back in 2011, the Powers That Be have gone a long way toward attempting to bring an accessibility to characters that some readers might have not thought was necessarily present. Origins have been tinkered with in a way that made sense to the writers and artists tackling them, stripping away what they felt didn’t work while putting their own mark on characters to bring fresh takes and ideas to the table.
No other character has benefitted more from this update than Billy Batson, who, upon saying a magic word given to him by an old wizard, gains the powers of the gods—Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury—to become Earth’s Mightiest Mortal, Shazam. While the rough-and-tumble, independent kid seen in his earliest 1940s yarns is still there, writer Geoff Johns update the character that made less of a goody-goody, more of an asshole, and a bit more three-dimensional in the process. In this spit-polished origin, Billy wasn’t exactly the Wizard’s first choice for the powers of Shazam, instead seeking someone with a purer heart than Billy had to offer. In a parallel to our somewhat cynical society, however, Billy convinces the Wizard that a truly pure-hearted person doesn’t exist, thus obtaining the powers from a desperate and morally-defeated Wizard.
Still, in the process, readers are given a hero that speaks more to how people actually act. Most folks, I truly believe, are decent and have an imperative to help one another, and the character of Billy is no different. By presenting him as a bit rough around the edges, however, Johns brought a depth to Billy that wasn’t always evident in the past.
Since Johns’ touch to the character, though, Billy has rarely seen a shake-up to his core like he has in this week’s one-shot Justice League: The Darkseid War: Shazam #1, written by Steve Orlando. Throughout the “Darkseid War” storyline running through the main Justice League title and other one-shots, Justice Leaguers are obtaining new god-like powers, mostly to mixed results. Conversely, however, as a direct result of the events in the story, Billy’s connection to his pantheon is served, leaving the Wizard to scramble to protect his young avatar and call upon other gods to imbue Billy with power. Unlike the previous deities that once backed Billy, however, these new astral being in the teen’s pantheon have not been vetted as well as the Wizard was able to cultivate relationships with Zeus and his crew. Some of these gods are downright hostile and have joined in this weird pact with other deities for their own ends, possibly to control what they believe they see in Billy as mortal frailty.
If DC Comics kept this status quo for a bit, a Shazam series written by Orlando could be one of the best in its catalogue because the writer has tapped into a truth that I don’t believe has been explored with the Billy/Shazam dynamic before. If mythology and religion cross-culturally tell us anything it’s that gods aren’t always benevolent. They’re not always kind and they sure as Hell don’t always have the best in mind for Earth’s human viceroys. As Orlando said in an interview with FreakSugar, “It’s not just Thor, it’s Loki. It’s not just Orion, it’s Kalibak.” The fact that Solomon, Hercules, and the rest of Billy’s old pantheon worked together as well as they did and toward Billy’s and Earth’s common good was because the Wizard wrestled them into cooperation with careful planning and negotiation. Orlando acknowledges the truth that the gods we know throughout the globe are often just like us, with feet of clay and our own agendas, our own virtues and vices.
In a scant 22 pages, Orlando allows the readers to see Billy clash with gods of Appetitie and Hell and Evil and learning how to keep his footing with nothing but his wits and sheer force of will, marveling as Billy dispenses with those deities before wrangling them into submission. While the teen is Earth’s Mightiest Mortal, this Achilles’ heel of having to constantly contend with an unruly gaggle of gods would provide wonderful drama and pathos and suspense to a character that DC has already taken huge leaps into making a more fully-rounded hero. Make this happen, DC, and give Orlando a Shazam book already.