Published on December 22nd, 2014 | by Brad0
A Guide to the Multiversity – Thunderworld Adventures
It’s the ultimate wish-fulfilment fantasy, isn’t it? A small boy says a magic word and becomes a fully-grown adult with a bevy of cosmic powers; the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Apollo and the speed of Mercury. Shazam! With that word, young Billy Batson is transformed into Captain Marvel, the world’s mightiest mortal. It’s to that world we travel with Grant Morrison this month, as the Multiversity presents Thunderworld Adventures.
In 1939, envious of the success National Comics (DC) was having with their Superman and Batman comics, Fawcett Publications launched their own comics line, hiring writer Bill Parker to create various superhero characters for them. After ill-fated efforts like Ibis the Invincible, Spy Smasher, Golden Arrow, Scoop Smith, Lance O’Casey and Dan Date, Parker eventually hit upon the concept of Captain Thunder. The idea was that six heroes, each imbued with the power of a mythological figure, would be able to combine themselves into one hero who possessed all six powers. This hero would be called Captain Thunder.
This concept was later scrapped as William Fawcett, founder and owner of Fawcett Publications, wanted a character who was “Superman except his secret identity is a ten-year-old”, which proved ingenious. Fawcett were unable to trademark the name Captain Thunder, so that became Captain Marvel. The original concept has re-emerged a few times over the years, notably in Geoff Johns’ Flashpoint event, where six kids of Billy’s age (including Marvel family members Mary Batson and Freddie Freeman) each had an aspect of the power, and upon saying Shazam became Captain Thunder. The idea of multiple heroes combining to become one can also be seen in the likes of Captain Planet and the Planeteers, and Jack Kirby’s Forever People.
Straight from his debut in Whiz Comics #2, drawn by C. C. Beck, Captain Marvel was enormously popular. During the Second World War, Captain Marvel comics were being sold bi-monthly to a circulation of roughly 1.3 million people – the top-selling comics today barely sell 130,000, by comparison. The Captain’s popularity was even in excess of Superman at one point, even beating the Man of Steel to being the first superhero to be adapted for the screen, in the 12-part Adventures of Captain Marvel starring Tom Tyler as Cap. Unfortunately, after 12 years of battling Dr Sivana, Black Adam and the Monster Society, in 1951 Captain Marvel would meet his greatest foe; litigation.
As I mentioned earlier, Captain Marvel began life as, effectively, Superman except his secret identity is a ten-year-old. Unfortunately, this ran afoul of National Comics, owners of Superman. The notion of National suing other people for wrongfully making money out of Superman is bitterly amusing to anyone who knows the publishing history of that character, but that’s a discussion for another day. Suffice it to say, a judge found that Captain Marvel infringed on a number of National’s copyrights and trademarks relating to Superman, and part of the settlement reached involved the immediate, permanent cessation of publishing Captain Marvel comics. This was catastrophic for Fawcett – imagine if DC were today suddenly required to cease publishing Batman comics. Fawcett Comics was dissolved, and Captain Marvel disappeared.
His popularity endured, though, with the word Shazam permeating popular culture, popping up anywhere from Gomer Pyle USMC to a Captain Marvel mention in The Beatles’ ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’. After the superhero resurgence of the 1960s and the birth of the Silver Age of comics, DC took advantage of Fawcett’s inability to publish Captain Marvel comics under the restrictions of the 1951 agreement to licence the character from them in 1972 and publish their own Captain Marvel comics. By this point Marvel had already established the trademark for their own Captain Marvel character, leading DC to publish all subsequent material featuring the character under the title of Shazam!, or some variant thereof (Power of Shazam!, Magic of Shazam!, etc.) Primarily written by the great Denny O’Neil and initially drawn by Captain Marvel co-creator Beck, the series never quite took off, and was cancelled within a couple of years. The character would pop up periodically as a supporting character in Adventure Comics for the next few years, before returning to some prominence in the late 1980s.
The continuing inability of DC to re-establish Captain Marvel as a top-tier character is a consistent source of bafflement to me. I think a lot of it, though, can be linked to Superman. Though Batman has usurped him as DC’s big-seller, Superman is largely thought of as the DCU’s greatest hero, and its shining light against the darkness. In Captain Marvel, they have a character with a similar power set, whose abilities are sourced from one of the Last Son of Krypton’s few weaknesses, magic. As such, DC have always looked for a way to cut Captain Marvel down to size, that he not be able to overshadow Superman. This manifest itself most prominently in the 1980s when the decision was taken that, rather than Billy Batson and Captain Marvel having distinct personalities, Billy’s personality would be retained when he changed into Captain Marvel. Suddenly the confident, cocksure Captain Marvel was gone, replaced by an awkward, immature child with the powers of a god but not able to maximise their potential. Altogether more interesting was the approach taken by Mark Waid in his and Alex Ross’ seminal 1996 miniseries Kingdom Come. In this alternative universe, Lex Luthor uses worms descended from Mister Mind to control Captain Marvel’s mind and use him as his puppet to destroy Superman. The confrontation between the insane Captain and Superman is an epic encounter, as the two most powerful men on the planet square off. Kingdom Come is one of the last great Captain Marvel comics, prior to Thunderworld Adventures, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
As has been the case in past issues, Thunderworld Adventures sets the tone of the comic with a superb front cover. Morrison said in advance of this issue that it would be a ‘pure’ Captain Marvel story, free of irony and camp. Cameron Stewart’s cover reflects this, with a strong 1940s vibe and a brightly coloured, clean cut hero front and centre. On the first page of the comic proper we are shown The Rock of Eternity, floating among the stars, situated between what is and what might be, according to the text. The title tells us we are reading Captain Marvel and The Day That Never Was (these Multiversity titles sure do get convoluted when you add them all together, don’t they?). Inside the rock we see the seven sins (here Pride, Envy, Greed, Hatred, Selfishness Laziness and Injustice), each represented by a stone figure that resembles a character from a funny animals comic. Again, this harks back to the Captain Marvel of Fawcett Comics and evokes the purity and simplicity Morrison was talking about. Beyond the sin statues sits and old man pontificating. When he sees ‘us’, the reader, approaching, he apologises for practicing his ‘omniscient narrator’ voice. Thus begins the deconstruction that has been such a theme throughout The Multiversity, not only has the old man, identified as the wizard Shazam, acknowledged us as a presence he can sense but he has also referred to a common literary technique (for the uninitiated, an Omniscient narrator is the narrator of a story who know everything that happens in a story, rather than merely, say, the events which they themselves witnessed). Shazam seems to be saying here that he is aware that his is in a story. In truth though, as we’ll discover, this month’s comic is actually far lighter on this kind of thing than we’ve come to expect.
Looking at his Cosmic Calendar, Shazam notices that a new day has appeared, the so called ‘Sivanaday’. At the moment of discovery, the Rock of Eternity comes under attack from a much larger, technological version of itself; think the Tyrell building from Blade Runner, in space. Inside, as sharp readers will know, is Doctor Sivana, Captain Marvel’s sworn enemy. Those who think Lex Luthor is too prominent a villain in various Superman media need merely look to Doctor Sivana who appeared in well over half of the original Captain Marvel stories. Like Luthor, Sivana is a prototypical mad scientist, a man of incredible intellect and small stature as well as a plethora of evil schemes. In this instance, as he explains to his children, he has traced Captain Marvel’s magical lightning to its source and found a scientific alternative to Shazam’s sorcery. By merely saying their father’s name, his three children turn into mighty (and stereotypically good looking) warriors. ‘Maybe now your mother will take me back’, says Sivana under his breath.
On the following page we’re introduced to Billy Batson, boy reporter, in the middle of a hectic scene. Behind him we see biplanes and flying cars, a dinosaur, a Native American on horseback, a space marine type, a Neanderthal and a man on an old-timey bicycle. Billy says that these phenomena are the result of a Timequake (with apologies to Kurt Vonnegut) and Morrison takes a pop at the trend of having boy reporters and the like in comics of yore by referring to ‘loosely enforced child labour laws’. These early scenes are an excellent showcase for the twin talents of artist Cameron Stewart and colourist Nathan Fairbairn, who imbues the pages with a wonderful sense of colour without it coming across as garish.
Another Billy arrives, purportedly from ‘tomorrow’, an artificial day created by Sivana in which Captain Marvel dies. With excellent timing, Sivana’s children turn up to ruin Billy’s day. Billy distracts them just long enough to mutter his magic word and turn into Captain Marvel, ‘the World’s Mightiest Mortal’. He sends out a super whistle to summon his allies, Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr (which, in the litany of superhero sidekick names, ranks pretty low). Interestingly, in his every day guise as Freddie Freeman, Jr is seen picking up a Batman comic, which would suggest Batman is a fictional character in this world. The scene shifts to Sivana, raging against comics (in this instance previous Multiversity comic ‘S.O.S’) which are being used to send messages to parallel universes. Sivana’s particular beef is that maverick scientists are ‘presented as stereotypical cackling madmen’. As if to prove his point, Sivana then talks to his counterparts from other worlds – variously a snake, a vampire and a luchador, among others, about multiple Sivanas ruling the Multiverse. His plan is the use the Suspendium mined from each universe to create a new day to his own specifications, one in which Sivana wins and Captain Marvel dies. He goes on to say that it was S.O.S, a ‘worthless comic book’ that inspired the scheme. Of course eventually all the comics in this series will be linked by the overarching narrative so once again the line between fact and fiction is being blurred here. Sivana says he plans to manufacture enough Suspendium to create an eternity of Sivana, all the while his army of robots are erecting a very bland looking office cubicle in the Rock of Eternity. All the while, Shazam the wizard tells Sivana that the magic is being hollowed out and that when it is all gone the universe will lose its ‘secret heart’. This puts me in mind of the Sheeda from Seven Soldiers and The Outer Church from The Invisibles, both of whom want to effectively strip mine humanity. A running theme throughout Morrison’s books is villains who want to bring banality where once was wonder. The office cubicles are further evidence of this.
The scene switches back to Captain Marvel’s ongoing fight with the three Sivana children. These scenes to me are notable for being an old fashioned superhero fight being presented utterly straight. There’s no attempt at irony, no deconstruction or convoluted story, just a square-jawed hero knocking his opponents flat. As is common in these types of stories, the villains finally get powers the equal of the hero but lack his nous and experience and Marvel soon gets the upper hand even before Mary and Junior show up to lend a hand. A highlight of this sequence is Junior hitting one of the Sivanas with a digger so hard that said Sivana lands on the moon. Sivana’s daughter, Georgia interrupts her fight with Mary to ask Mary to admit that Georgia is now prettier than Mary is. This again seems very similar to the sort of thing comics in the 1940s would have, with only Georgia’s reference to ‘a body like this’ out of place with wartime sensibilities. Junior once again plays a blinder as he plays up to Georgia’s vanity, asking her to say her full name and thus reverting to type, whereupon Mary gags here with what looks like train track. The old ‘Mxyzptlk gambit’. Magnificus Sivana reveals that he and his siblings were merely distractions while their father released The Monster Society, who are revealed in their full glory across the page. In the old Fawcett Comics, The Monster Society was the name given to a team-up of various Captain Marvel villains, notable in that they were a collection of previous villains, rather than new ones created for the story. In this story they leave up to the name more literally, each one looks like a kaiju of some kind. We have a gigantic insect, possibly Mr Mind who in truth bares more than a passing resemblance to the ‘Good, Good’ creature from Family Guy, a giant crocodile which is either Herkimer from the classic Captain Marvel comics of Sobek from 52 (a Morrison creation himself), a 50s style robot named Mister Atom and Ibac, another dark reflection of Captain Marvel who has the terror of Ivan the Terrible, the cunning of Cesare Borgia, the fierceness of Atilla the Hun and the cruelty of Caligula. I kid you not. Each towers above the high rises in the city. Fortunately back up arrives in the form of the Lieutenant Marvels, who also heard the Captain’s whistle. In the older comics, the Lieutenants were three young kids also name Billy Batson, who upon saying the word would transform into men (based on Fawcett staff) who had Marvel’s powers divided between the three of them. Here, they are joined by Uncle Marvel, a con-man who once pretended to be Mary’s Uncle and was kept around as he amused the Marvel family, and Mr. Tawky Tawny, an anthropomorphic tiger and friend of the family (of course!), each with a jet pack and futuristic looking guns which would suggest a lack of superpowers. They eagerly join the fray, which allows the good Captain to track the problem to its source – the Rock of Eternity. As he tries the subway entrance to the Rock, Captain Marvel encounters a surreal scene as multi-coloured train carriages fly through an orange and yellow void, depicted on a full two page spread. The scene reminds me of the psychedelic finale of Half Life.
On the other side, Sivana is still conversing with his counterparts about their grand plan. Even our Sivana is slightly creeped out by his psychotic, mask wearing doppelganger, who holds a knife and is covered in blood. ‘I can’t wait to mess them up bad’ his declares, to which our Sivana can only reply ‘Er. Quite’. The action switches between Marvel rampaging through Sivana’s legion of robots and the scientist’s conversations with his counterparts, one of whom seems astonished that all his other versions are criminals (he describes himself as a ‘scientist with some personal problems). The Hannibal Lecter Sivana reveals his might be craftier than first thought – he used time travel to ensure the Captain Marvel of his world was never born. He also says he’s been bored and needs ‘new Marvels to torture’, which is about the only hint in this comic of Morrison’s usual darkness.
Naturally Captain Marvel makes short work of the robots and confronts his nemesis. He deals with both Sivana’s threats and Shazam’s dire warnings with his usual confident swagger, but Sivana transforms himself into ‘Black Sivana’ a portmanteau of Sivana and Black Adam. Black Adam has only recently achieved great prominence in the DC Universe but I think he’s an excellent character and may yet achieve a greater profile – Dwayne Johnson is set to play him in the new DC slate of films. Here, however, Sivana has merely borrowed his physique and uniform to fight Marvel in the ‘ultimate battle’ between science and magic. Marvel though says that his wisdom of Solomon tells him that science and magic are but two sides of the same coin. With Sivana gaining the upper hand, Marvel transforms back into Billy Batson and uses the Suspendium crystals to travel back and warn his younger self, as we’ve seen. As he does so, Black Sivana charges at him, shouting ‘You think you’re so clever, don’t you?’, as his son had in the first battle. Billy’s reply remains the same – ‘just clever enough!’. He transforms back into Captain Marvel, but is instantly flattened. Black Sivana gloats over his fallen enemy but Marvel has an ace up his sleeve – Sivanaday has ended. As Sivana had observed, his duplicates were just as, pardon me, duplicitous as he was. What he had failed to notice, however, was that they’d stiffed him on the Suspendium, only giving him enough to create an eight hour day. ‘Curse you Sivana!’ he bellows at the Sivanas of the multiverse, a variation on his usual cry of ‘Curse you Captain Marvel!’. This device is very similar to Morrison’s All-Star Superman, a book he says he has deliberately tried to bring to mind here. In that comic, Lex Luthor concocts a cocktail that gives him Superman’s powers for 24 hours. However, Superman attacks him with a gravity gun which warps the time around Luthor, meaning his day is up very quickly. Similarly here Sivana’s day of triumph is literally cut short.
Sivana finds that he cannot transform any more. ‘There was a sudden paradigm shift’, Marvel tells him, which is about as esoteric as this book gets. The Lecter Sivana, via video screen, utters the ominous threat ‘Now I’ve seen her. I want that girl’. Will we see more of him and his attempts to take Mary Marvel in future books? Over the page, we see the various Marvels and Lieutenants standing victorious over the Monster Society. Mary speculates about how different she would be in other universes (the answer being ‘very’ for anyone who has read Final Crisis) and Marvel reads the comics that inspired Sivana, noting that even comics can be dangerous in the wrong hands. ‘I sell a ton of those DC and Major books at the newsstand’ Freddy tells him, and goes on to tell his that S.O.S was cancelled. ‘No wonder’ replies Captain Marvel ‘whatever happened to happy endings?’. He quotes the line ‘I’ll get out and destroy everything’, before tossing it into the trash. Happy endings aren’t entirely a thing of the past though – Captain Marvel, Jr and Mary fly off into the sunset, with big beaming smiles, to close this month’s issue.
So what does this mean for the future? Well Captain Marvel said on S.O.S’s conclusion ‘that sounds to me like tomorrow’s big adventure!’. Does this hint that he’ll play a part in the finale? I suspect it does. After all, he and his allies have won a clean victory here, unlike the heroes in several of the other books. There is no mystery left in the pure world of Earth-5, nor is it under any immediate threat. I also think Mary might meet a counterpart of two as foreshadowed here, and we know a Sivana on another plane of existence is now obsessed with ‘getting’ her, which does not bode well for her.
Overall this is a much simpler issue of Multiversity than we’ve been used to, but none the worse for it. It is very accessible, both in terms of only being tangentially being related to the overall arc and also in the sense that it not convoluted or esoteric in the way some of the previous issues have been. It is also very light in tone, striking a very optimistic note, contrasting strongly with the previous two issues, in particular.
So consumers, what did you make of ‘Thunderworld Adventures’?. How did it stack up, what does it portend for the future? Let us know in the comments.