Superman Vs. Shazam

If you were collecting comics in the 70s, you no doubt remember the excitement surrounding Superman Vs. Spider-Man, an unprecedented collaborative effort between industry rivals DC and Marvel that even in the era of Détente made the Apollo-Soyuz mission seem like small beer.

vsshazamNo doubt DC hoped for a similar impact with Superman Vs. Shazam, but it wasn't nearly the same. For one thing, the DC/Fawcett feud had already been over for 20+ years at this point, and "Shazam" was by now well-established as a DC property. Furthermore, anyone who did remember the decades-earlier competition between Captain Marvel and Superman would be put off by the very title; everyone knows that guy in the red suit isn't "Shazam!" You couldn't even claim the pairing was "history-making" since the two had met -- and fought -- two years earlier in the pages of Justice League of America #137. Nonetheless, house ads touted the book as "The Battle Nearly Four Decades In the Making!"

The cover, by Rich Buckler and Dick Giordano, showed the World's Mightiest Mortal and the Man of Steel locked in combat in outer space, with two Earths heading for collision. The heroes are turned at awkward angles for a fistfight, presumably to display enough of their respective costumes to be recognizable to all. Swooping in behind them are Supergirl and Mary Marvel.

Writer Gerry Conway provides the script, while Buckler and Giordano do their best Neal Adams impersonation on the art chores. The plot concerns a mad, Martian scientist named Karmang, whose forbidden (but it must be admitted, successful) experiments in achieving immortality a thousand-thousand years ago resulted in the deaths of billions of his fellow Martians.

Now, far be it from me to judge a guy by his appearance, but somebody at the lab probably should have guessed Karmang was bad news when he showed up for work wearing earrings made out of eyeballs. Anyway, things went very wrong, although it may be inaccurate to say "billions died," because they seem to have hung around in semi-alive, wraith-like form to torment their killer for all these eons.

Karmang has a plan to return these lost souls to life, but it will require a tremendous amount of energy, which he hopes to generate by crashing Earth-S (home of Captain Marvel) and Earth-1 into each other. To assist him, he recruits Cap's old enemy Black Adam and the Quarrmer, a.k.a "The Sand Superman."

The two have been chosen for their ability to duplicate the powers of the two titular heroes, and with some help from Karmang's magic (oh yeah, he's a sorceror, too...or something) they become dead ringers for Cap and Supes.

Cut to Metropolis. After rescuing a stadium full of people from a goofy new villan, Superman is surprised to encounter Captain Marvel (actually Black Adam) on Earth-1. He's even more surprised when Cap greets him with an I-beam to the face.

Superman struggles with "Cap" half-heartedly, trying to figure out what's got into the guy, and sends out a super-sonic distress call to Supergirl for help. Struggling at close quarters, "Cap" zaps Superman in the eyes with a gizmo devised by Karmang, which clouds Superman's mind with unreasoning rage. He flies off in search of Captain Marvel with murder in mind, and a confused Supergirl close behind.

On Earth-S we go through pretty much the same scenario as Captain Marvel leaves the scene of a bridge rescue only to be sucker-punched by "Superman" (actually the Quarrmer). He too gets the rage-inducing gizmo flashed in his eyes and takes off for Earth-1 to settle accounts with Superman. Mary Marvel follows him.

The two soon cross paths on Earth-1 and Superman gives Cap a warm greeting.

As the heroes tear into each other over Metropolis, Supergirl pulls Mary Marvel aside for a conference and they realize someone, somewhere is exerting some sort of mind control over the men. They correctly deduce that the fight was started by imposters, and soon determine the most likely candidates are Black Adam and the Quarrmer. Meanwhile, the two in question are installing and activating devices on each Earth which will ultimately bring the worlds together in a galactic cataclysm.

Supes and Cap continue their fight over Niagara Falls (knocking out the power station there and plunging part of the East Coast into blackout) and keep at it til they've crossed the U.S. Over the desert, Air Force fighter jets try to take them both out with air-to-air missiles, with predictable results.

Meanwhile, Mary and Kara have tracked down the Quarrmer and Black Adam. The Quarrmer gives up without a fight and spills the whole plan. Black Adam is far scrappier, but gets beaten anyway. In a neat touch, Kara finds him robbing an Egyptian pyramid; having realized most things from his own Earth-S also exist on Earth-1, Black Adam has decided to steal the Earth-1 version of the powerful "Ibistick" that on his world is wielded by the magician/hero Ibis (apparently there is no Ibis on Earth-1). Kara snatches it from him, however, and uses its magic to change him into his mortal form of Teth Adam. Fight over.

By now, the battle is turning against Captain Marvel, who is considering pulling out the big guns and using his magic lightning against Superman.

Years later, a brainwashed Captain Marvel would use this tactic against Superman in Mark Waid and Alex Ross' Kingdom Come, but here he's talked out of it by the wizard Shazam. Instead, Superman crashes into Cap headlong and for a moment thinks he's killed him. Shazam appears to Superman and says no, Cap is not dead, and now that you two have knocked the rage out of your heads, it's time to save two worlds.

Going on the information gained from the Quarmmer, Kara and Mary attack Karmang on Mars while the men track down his deadly devices. Karmang has booby-trapped the instruments so that any tampering with either device will result in the destruction of the Earth on which it resides, by upsetting that Earth's magnetic field. Superman, has a plan, however:

Yes, that's right, Superman will save the world by spinning around it really fast. There must have been something in the air back in 1978, because this is how he would save Lois Lane, California and New Jersey in "Superman: The Movie." And thus "spinning around the Earth" becomes Superman's version of "reversing the polarity," that all-pupose answer to everything. "Darn it, Superman, won't anything take these gravy stains out?" "Don't worry, a quick spin around the Earth should handle it!" ZOOM!

Anyway, it works. Earth's magnetic field is reinforced and Cap smashes the device to scrap. The process is repeated on Earth-S and all is well.

Back on Mars, the girls activate a device which Karmang says will send them all to limbo, but Kara and Mary take off at super-speed, leaving Karmang to face limbo -- and those angry spirits -- alone.

There's some nice art in this book, with the double-page spreads of the heroes fighting over Niagara Falls and western deserts. There's also the occasional neat touch like the inclusion of the Ibistick, but overall this is an underwhelming book and probably not what most fans were hoping for. Typically for this sort of story, it's never really settled which hero is stronger, and it's hard to root for either one given that they're not in their right minds. Also, while some of the visuals are cool, it's kind of dull to have the two supposed stars of the book reduced to trading punches for most of 72 pages while their female relatives do most of the talking and interacting, and all of the thinking. Along the way, Conway throws in a subplot where Mary develops a crush on Superman (based entirely on how he looks), apparently to set up a "humorous" denouement. It doesn't really work.

There must be something to the idea however, as this wouldn't be the last time a fight between the characters was arranged to drive sales, or in the case of the Justice League cartoon, ratings. But deep down, we know they're really the best of friends. Right, guys? Right? Uh...guys?