The Return of the Big Red Cheese: “The Multiversity: Thunderworld Adventures #1”

After the tour de force of last issue's Pax Americana, this issue demonstrates conclusively that Grant Morrison is a master of all the genres in the comicbook superhero playbook.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood toys recently. Perhaps watching my kids open up the gifts that Santa left for them under the tree has made me a little melancholy for my own childhood treasures. Other kids might have longed for footballs or video games or bicycles. Not me. All I ever wanted was action figures.

Six Million Dollar Man and Bigfoot; Stretch Armstrong; Pulsar: The Ultimate Man of Adventure; Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy from Mego. (Along with the the Enterprise play set, oh yeah!). And from Mego’s super-hero collection: Spider-Man, Batman and Robin, Superman, the Hulk and, in my opinion, the most spectacular of them all, Captain Marvel. I got my hands on all of the other action figures. Captain Marvel, however, was never in stock, always on backorder, forever out of reach.

I loved Captain Marvel. Billy Batson spoke the magic word and, SHAZAM!, he was transformed into the world’s mightiest mortal. Captain Marvel was past his prime by the time I came along, way past his prime. In the 1940’s he was more popular than Superman. Then there was an ugly lawsuit and the character all but disappeared for twenty years. I was there for his first revival. For three years in the mid-70s he starred in a live-action Saturday morning TV show: Shazam! At about the same time, DC launched a new comicbook which featured some reprints of classic tales from the 40s and some new stories by Denny O’Neil and original Captain Marvel artist C.C. Beck. It was good stuff: innocent, juvenile, fun. Consequently, it had no place in the rapidly maturing world of comicbook superheroes that characterized the latter years of that decade and didn’t stay around for very long.

In my honest opinion, Captain Marvel hasn’t been that good, that fun, ever again. (Okay, Jeff Smith’s Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil came pretty close.)

I confess that I was a little worried when I picked up the Thunderworld Adventures issue of The Multiversity. So far, things have been pretty dark in Morrison’s multiverse spanning series. I guess that I should have known better, but I was hoping that last issue, which featured the return of the old Charlton line of action heroes to the New 52, might recapture some of the magic of the original stories, and some of the madness and brilliance of artist and writer Steve Ditko. Instead, Morrison offered up a brilliant, if cold, tribute to Alan Moore’s Watchmen. It was a complex and sophisticated tale, worthy of Moore, but I am afraid that it means that Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and the rest will be all dark and mature for the foreseeable future. (Morrison’s work does tend to be influential in that way.) What if Morrison does the same thing to Captain Marvel, I wondered. What if things go all dark and it’s the kind of story that I have to read seven times, both forwards and backwards, and consult Wikipedia every other panel just to figure out what’s going on? That would be great for some characters, but please, please not Captain Marvel.

I shouldn’t have been worried. Thunderworld Adventures #1 is just right. It has the Rock of Eternity; the old wizard, Shazam; Dr. Sivana and his incompetent brood; Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel, Jr.; a version of the Monster Society of Evil; the Lieutenant Marvels and Uncle Marvel. It is pretty-near complete.

There is a good bit of punching, a few lame jokes, an overabundance of magical transformations. The plot itself is only loosely tied into the bigger story that Morrison is telling in The Multiversity, but that’s okay – it’s a great plot all on its own, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Everybody’s smiling in this. Nobody has any kind of dark secret. There is a happy ending.

After the tour de force of last issue’s Pax Americana, this issue demonstrates conclusively that Morrison is a master of all the genres in the comicbook superhero playbook. As masterfully as he captured Alan Moore’s style last issue, he has now produced a story that is a spot-on likeness of Captain Marvel at his mid-40s and mid-70s best, though with the kind of complexity and thoughtfulness that contemporary readers expect.

Cameron Stewart’s illustrations are equally up to the task. This is good stuff, compelling modern yet as innocent and clear-eyed as if the pencils had been done by Beck himself.

So, maybe it’s not perfect. Maybe I would have liked to have seen a little of the old, wormy Mr. Mind. I know that I would have liked to have seen a lot more of Tawky Tawny. But those are little things. I don’t really mind. (I’m kinda glad there was no Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny, though. I never really liked that guy.)

Of course, it’s possible that I am missing something. This is Grant Morrison, after all. Maybe there is really something deeper going on here that I have missed. If so, I don’t want to know. Please, please don’t tell me. I like Captain Marvel simple and pure. And that is the way this story seems to me. Morrsion has brought my Captain Marvel into the New 52. He’s not dark and brooding. He’s not burdened with responsibility. He’s nothing less than the Big Red Cheese.

I never got that Captain Marvel action figure. But Morrison’s “Thunderworld Adventures #1 makes that fact a little easier to take.

RATING 9 / 10