‘Just Imagine…’ is a series of graphic novels that Stan Lee wrote for DC Comics, reinterpreting many of their iconic superheroes as they would have been had he created them. Paired up with a different artist for each issue, the series completely reinvents our favourite DC heroes and heroines, giving them new looks, powers, histories and personalities.
Each graphic novel tackles a different character and is an origin story with a primary adventure to set the stage for that hero/heroine. The recurring elements are its setting, which is usually Los Angeles, its main villain, Reverend Dominic Darrk (of the Church of Eternal Empowerment) and a mysterious green element that empowers many of the series’ heroes and heroines.
“Holy $#!tballs, Batdude!”, you might say excitedly. “Stan Lee rewrote all of the DC characters?”. Woah, woah! Hold onto your superbritches, lil’ one: the series was not well received and has largely been forgotten since. But we here at TCE were very curious, and we know some of you are too, so we decided to explore each one in turn, giving them the spotlight they deserve.
This week on ‘Just Imagine…’:
Shazam, by Stan Lee and Gary Frank 7.0
As a kid, Shazam (who was once known as Captain Marvel, until DC officially changed his name in 2011 to avoid any association with their arch nemesis, Marvel Comics) was one of my favourite characters. I knew nothing about him: either his origin or his powers. Heck, I could never even remember his name. I though “Shazam!” (the word he uses to transform) was his actual name, and, let’s face it: it’s not intuitive. But he sure looked pretty damned cool.
I later learned more about Captain Marvel and discovered that his powers were derives from Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury – hence the magic word “Shazam!”. I don’t remember how he got the power, but homeless boy Billy Batson would call on Captain Marvel whenever he felt that there was a need for him. They were two entirely different people with separate identities; when his job was done, Marvel would revert back to Billy.
Stan Lee’s version of Shazam is radically different: The story starts with a prologue featuring Merlin and Morgana Le Fey, who have duel, leading to Le Fey’s banishment for centuries. Afterwards, we find ourselves in India, where Merlin crosses paths with a couple of Interpol agents – one of which, Robert Rogers, learns the secret of Shazam upon the old mage’s death, while trying to help him defend himself against an attack by some masked thugs.
But Shazam is different here: it’s a Hulk-like red beast that can sprout wings, and its powers are mostly different. I actually quite like the look of this Shazam, even if it’s jarring when you consider what Captain Marvel traditionally looks like. The design isn’t especially original, but he looks cool. I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought that he is naked but loses his genitalia when he’s Shazam. It explains why he would ever want to switch back.
In this book, Rogers only inadvertently transforms into the creature, in a sequence that was utterly absurd (Oh sure… he would use the word while drowning, not knowing what it does. Yep, makes total sense…). He eventually finds a use for it, saving the day after his partner is captured by Gunga Khan for interrogation about their interaction with the now-deceased Merlin. In the process, he discovers his powers and defeats Gunga Khan.
It’s not such a bad story; it’s classic, really. It’s just that the plot development is contrived and some of the motivations are a bit off – Khan at one point control’s Shazam’s mind (and with ease, I might add), but it takes the thought of the United States being attacked to snap Shazam out of it – the thought of his partner being killed (even though he came to save her) does nothing of the sort. Hmmm… a little misguided patriotism, mayhaps?
Gunga Khan is your typical megalomaniacal world conqueror, and has designed a satellite that shrinks people. His plan is to aim it at the U.S. and shrink all its population, reducing their ability to defend themselves from his upcoming attack. Meanwhile, Reverend Darrk is involved in that he has somehow scored the assistance of Morgana Le Fey, who is suddenly part of his congregation. They don’t play a major role, but suggest a greater threat…
The writing is a bit better here, contrived though it may be, but the artwork is where the book really shines; it’s stellar, lending the piece credibility. It has a modern look, is precise, detailed and beautifully inked and coloured. Even the paneling is judiciously balanced. I don’t remember if I’ve seen Gary Frank’s work before, but I would certainly love to see more. If he can make a simple book like this one look epic, there’s no limit to what he can do.
On the street…: In this short bit by Michael Uslan and Stan Lee, we learn about the fate of Billy Marvel, a recently orphaned boy whose parents worked for Ambassador Batson in India. Under his mentorship, Billy finds the inner strength to become an everyday hero, going out to make a difference on the streets in India. Consequently, he gets dubbed “Captain Marvel” by the Ambassador, who is impressed with his achievements. It’s not all bad, although it feels geared toward younger crowds. And even the art, by Sergio Aragones (whom I’ve never seen do non-cartoon stuff before), is decent – something not all “On the street” segment can boast.
Next week: Aquaman!