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I believe that our experiences affect HOW we read WHAT we read. Expectation is another strong influence. Expectation leads to either satisfaction or disappointment. But, for the moment let’s look at how experiences color reading. As an example, let’s look at the 12-page Shazam relaunch by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank in Justice League #7 and #8. This is not so much a review, but a look at the story as an adoption story by an adoptive dad.
My son, Justin, came home with me for good last October 23rd. He’s been with his mother and me for six months now. May wife and I completed his adoption process in a record six weeks in Kiev, Ukraine, after nine months of processing forms. Right now, we’re in thr process of bringing Justin’s cousin, Ethan, home for good. That should be done by fall. We’d been trying to adopt for seven years, when we were first introduced to him in January of last year. We spent seven years on one waiting list or another; we even considered our county’s foster-to-adopt program, until we learned that we would be hosting children taken from broken homes of one kind or another. It wasn’t just the idea that we would be in the middle of some family drama, like in Lifetime movie – based on a true story – that made me reconsider. The idea that we would be standing in the way of a mother or a father or both, trying to reconnect with their child. It was the idea that it was all just temporary. That we would be hosting a child in the process of reconnecting with his or her natural parents. I wanted to be what is called a “forever dad”. I wanted my son or daughter to be part of a “forever family”.
So, I was curious to see how Johns and Frank would be updating Billy Batson’s story. I picked up Justice League #7, and found that, after five pages of Dr. Sivana reviewing similar stories from a lot of different people that have been whisked away to the Rock of Eternity for evaluation in worthiness by the old wizard, Shazam, we come to Billy Batson. It’s Christmas in Philadelphia. He’s distracted from meeting his prospective new parents, the Vasquezes by seeing a family out the window carrying presents. They are sharing hot chocolate. He can smell the hot chocolate. He likes hot chocolate. He asks the Vasquezes if they like hot chocolate. They do, too. They want to know more about Billy. What his interests are. He likes to read. He enjoys the podcast he does, especially when it’s about Mrs. Glover, who runs the orphanage, and the social work she does. Obviously, this is an updating of Billy’s historic radio background. He likes to organize his room. It is interesting that he says the word “organize“. What child likes to clean, let alone organize his or her space. It sounds like he has a room to himself. My son Justin slept in a boys’ dorm room in the orphanage he was in. Billy likes to cook, fix things, and learn. He almost sounds too good to be true. The Vasquezes invite Billy to come live with them and would like to be his new foster parents. After they leave, He calls them a couple of idiots to Mrs. Glover. It appears that his behavior for the Vasquezes was just an act. Mrs. Glover calls him the most unpleasant boy she’s ever had the UNpleasure of knowing. Is this another tell? Most people use the word DISpleasure.
Justice League #8 finds Billy and Mrs. Glover sniping at one another outside the Vasuez home. Billy calls the place a dump. He and Mrs. Glover put on fake smiles for the Vasquezes. Mrs. Glover leaves Billy to settle in to his new home. He is surprised to learn that the couple has more children. Mary, has a bunny named Hoppy; Blond Freddie Freeman steals Billy’s wallet when he helps him take off his jacket; Pedro is a big, bulky quiet boy; Eugene likes to read, just like Billy, but seems more of a brain; and, Darla is a little sweetheart. If this were Speilberg, this could be an update of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. If this were Marvel, these kids could be the Runaways. After hot chocolate, the Vasquezes leave the kids to show Billy his room and share with him the House Rules: put the lid down, curfew is at sunset, laundry and dishes are family activities. The MOST important rule: “We ALWAYS have each other’s backs.” Billy scoffs at this. The only rule Billy follows: “I leave YOU alone and YOU leave ME along.” Telling this to Darla, and calling her a “Tiny Tina”, Billy makes her cry. He incurs the scorn of the others, and the wrath of Mary. He makes it clear that he is only looking out for himself. In his room, on his bunk, he pulls a picture out of his backpack of a man and a woman sitting on a bench in front of a tiger in it’s cage.
I’m not rocket scientist, but I have learned a few things from my son over the last six months, and over the last year from adoption. I realize that Billy’s story is extreme. It’s both exaggerated and simplistic. In trying to avoid past sterotypes and present a fresh take on Billy Batson, Johns’ script presents a Billy Batson that is a lot like Jason Todd. Or, Johns’ more infamous creation, Superboy-Prime. My son is an angry boy. But he is not hateful. Orphans don’t tend to be hateful. They tend to be fearful. My son is more afraid of being left alone than he is mad at the world. Most orphans, like Billy, would be told that if they misbehave, or they are not good enough, their new parents might not want them, just like their birth parents. So, Billy would tend to be a little two-faced, but he would also be desperate to please, and desperate to find acceptance. He might not even have a memory of his birth parents, let alone a photo of them. Again, Johns is most likely using the photo as a plot device. There is a social order among orphans. Billy might have been near the top in the orphanage, but there is no way he could expect to be an Alpha in the Vasquez’s home. Just like earning acceptance from his new parents, he would have to earn a place with his new siblings.
I’m not sure Johns should be taking on Billy Batson and Shazam. Not that he’s a bad writer. He brought back Hal Jordan. He brought back Barry Allen. He’s reviving both Aquaman and the Justice League. I’m not sure Johns should be tackling Billy Batson so soon after Clark Kent, if at all. Clark Kent’s adoption story is so much more clearly defined. Krypton is about to explode. Jor-El knows he and Lara won’t survive. So, he puts his son into a rocket and sends him to Earth to live. The Kents find him and take him in as their own. He grows up to be Superman. I’ve read Jerry Ordway’s Power of Shazam! I am aware that Billy’s parents were archeologists. Somehow they died. Sivana may or may not have been involved. Unfortunately, Captain Marvel – or Shazam! – really is such a closely related character to Superman, that the only way to make him different is to make his adoption story a sad one, like in the animated movie Megamind. Unfortunately, while trying not to play into sterotypes, Johns ends up playing into cliches.
I’m not sure I really want a realistic take or approach to adoption, especially involving Billy Batson. Billy is Clark’s dark twin. It’s all opposites. Everything good that happened to Clark goes horribly, terribly wrong for Billy. When bad things happen to Billy, it creates a sad, unfortunate adoption picture. There are sad, unfortunate adoption stories, but they are few and far between. More adoptions are positive than negative. But Captain Marvel – or, Shazam! – is one of the more well known comic characters.
When I look for stories to show my son, Justin, how positive his adoption has been – for him and for me – with good role models all around – the only one I keep coming back to is Superman. I want him to see a little of Jonathan Kent in me. The old wizard Shazam seems cold and mean. Mr. Vasquez is not clearly defined enough. And unfortunately, neither Billy or Mrs. Glover think positive of him, and the other children haven’t shown any influence or kindness from him yet. He seems a bit “Magoo”. So far we’re only two chapters in, but already it is not looking good for adoption.