Saturday, September 15, 2012

Shazam! #25: Cindy Lee Loves Danger!

"She's magical... She's mysterious... She's magnificent-- and she's more exciting than any other super heroine!  Part human, part goddess, all wonderment-- with the most unusual powers anyone ever possessed!  She uses them now in a desperate race to save her friend Cindy Lee from certain doom as Andrea Thomas becomes--  ISIS... AS IN CRISIS!"

Ah, Shazam! #25 (DC Comics, September-October 1976).  This is what feel-good comics are all about.  It's also a breakthrough moment enshrined forever in comic book history.  Why?

Because even though cover artist Kurt Schaffenberger seems to have little or no idea who she is, this book marks the sizzling debut of our favorite sidekick and teacher's pet from the CBS Saturday morning live action television show Isis (also know as The Secrets of Isis), Cindy Lee.  Oh yeah, and if the introduction didn't clue you in enough, this is the first comic book appearance of Cindy's co-star Isis, too.  She's okay, too. I guess. I mean, if you're interested in such things.  But we know the real draw is Cindy Lee.  

And what a splash she makes!  Editor Julie Schwartz must have known he had something special in Cindy, because he put his varsity team on this story.  It's written by Denny O'Neil, with art by none other than Dick Giordano himself.  I do miss Giordano.  His art in this story is just so smooth, so appealing.  Rik Estrada and Wally Wood do a bang-up job on The Mighty Isis #1, but after reading this, Giordano is forever my artist pick for these characters.  And I prefer O'Neil as writer.  After all, O'Neil and Giordano are the team-- along with some guy you may have heard of named Neal Adams-- that brought to life some of the most influential and memorable Batman stories of all time.

Here's how it starts:

CINDY LEE?!  OH NO!  The last thing you expect to see when the wrecking ball crashes into your old high school is your star pupil in mortal danger.  This is one of those moments where you can almost see O'Neil's script showing through the drawings.  He has ten pages, needs Isis in action as soon as possible, so he puts Cindy Lee in harm's way.  She's from the TV show, right?  Stick her inside the school as it comes tumbling down, explain it later.

As you can see, science teacher Andrea Thomas and her colleague Rick Mason are a little concerned because they know damn well Cindy's parents didn't sign the school's special permission slip with the indemnity clause regarding any and all Cindy-related fatalities, including her own.  So much for their raises for the next several years.  So much for any more field trips to Egypt.  So much for the computer lab.  So much for art supplies.

The football stadium will still get its new scoreboard and the team its new uniforms, however.  And they can't cut the head coach's pay.  In fact, they can't even fire the guy without buying out his contract to the tune of four or five language, visual arts and home ec faculty members.  Fortunately for the school system, Andrea Thomas has a secret power beyond that of any two or three thousand lawyers.  She's the "dual person" known as Isis.  A quick change and some rhyming magic... 

And then this muscle-headed guy shows up all, "Uh-- er-- Well, I was about to do that, but since you already did it for me..."  Nice try, Captain Marvel.  You zoom in a few long moments after too late and try to make Isis feel less special.  Well, he does exert his male authority figure privilege to get Cindy's explanation of why she thought it would be a good idea to hang out in a building during its demolition.  And here we go...

O'Neil quickly and brilliantly seizes on the little-known fact that the future valedictorian and resident pyramid enthusiast of Larkspur High School (class of 1978) is a sensation-seeker.  Dare you doubt me?  I have proof-- in "Fool's Dare," (September 13, 1975),  the second episode of Isis, Cindy enters a dangerous junkyard in answer to some hurtful words from a classmate and tangles with car thieves wearing pitted-out shirts.

Back here in the four-color world, our secret thrill-junkie was once again doing some sleuthing of her own and followed a couple of suspicious creeps right into danger's maw.  She's so intrepid she'll chase them round Good Hope, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before she'll give them up... if that's what it takes to bring them to justice.  Whatever it was they did.  Which we don't know yet.  We'll find out later, thanks to Cindy.

There's a flashback to Isis's origin at this point in the story, too.  Boring.  And, his work finished, the Big Red Cheese soars away feeling self-satisfied at having patronized Isis.  Back to The Simply Awesome Misadventures of Cindy Lee!

 Wow!  Check that out!  She actually puts moves on Rick Mason!  Cindy Lee, bold seeker of dangerous, age-inappropriate love.  Certainly can't blame her.  In life, if you want something, you have to go right for it.  It's good Cindy understands this, and of course, we all know Rick Mason is one swell fella.  At least he's not married.  Cindy is no Tracy Flick.  However, for her well being, I really think Cindy should go for someone more in her peer group.  A student.  Like photographer/budding cryptozoologist Lee Webster.  

What a guy, that Rick Mason.  He's right to quash Cindy's romantic notions.  While it's natural for a student-- especially one we now know harbors a hell-bent streak-- to confuse admiration for an authority figure with love, as a dedicated educator Rick Mason knows even giving Cindy the slightest--- WHAT THE HELL?  Loaning her his car?  What kind of responsible teacher does something like that?  I take it all back.  Rick Mason is a mixed-signal sending bastard.

And look how nonchalantly he does it.  It's the ol' over the shoulder "I'm godlike in my lack of concern whether you live or die" keys toss.  It's not even a decent throw because Cindy has to lunge into a semi-crouch to catch them.  The least Rick Mason could have done-- since even this much is wildly beyond the bounds of proper teacher-student interaction-- is place the keys in her hand.  Once the school officials get wind of this, he's out on his guitar-strumming ass faster than you can say, "Matthew Broderick as Mr. McAllister" anyway.  Show some class while you simultaneously destroy a girl's feelings and your career.  Instead, our ostensibly nice guy teacher puts on this smug, superior act as if to tell her, "You can't have me, but take my car for a spin, you baby."

Down in the dumps, sitting on a pile of rubble that visually symbolizes her fractured heart, Cindy soon finds another adrenaline-pumping adventure.  I'm so impressed with this characterization I'd buy a Cindy Lee monthly.  No superheroics.  Just Cindy Lee and her pals getting themselves into all kinds of crazy scrapes.  You know what this comic is starting to remind me of?  A mid-70s kiddie version of David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

Now there's a thought.  In fact, Cindy prefigures Kyle MacLachlan's Jeffrey Beaumont in many ways.  He finds an ear, becomes involved with an older woman and discovers an underworld of crime and perversion in his little town, Cindy Lee sees the aftermath of a crime, wants to become involved with an older man and finds a tame young-readers version of the Lynchian paradigm right there in whatever town it is she lives in.  And much like Jeffrey, Cindy's involvement nearly results in her death.

"When the green field comes off like a lid/Revealing what was much better hid," wrote W.H. Auden in his poem "The Two."  Some things you and I-- and Cindy Lee-- are just not meant to know.  But characters like Jeffrey Beaumont and Cindy are impelled to pull off that lid and reveal the sinister, sordid things happening all around us.  There are no gas-huffing Dennis Hoppers or lip-synching, make-up wearing Dean Stockwells in Cindy's world.  Just vaguely menacing thugs in leisure jackets  Luckily for Cindy her planet orbits a sun a bit brighter and friendlier than the one in Blue Velvet.

But Cindy and pals would easily update to modern, darker storytelling.  Lynch famously described his film as "The Hardy Boys Go to Hell."  Well, apparently O'Neil's take-- which I'm guessing he based largely on "Fool's Dare"-- on Cindy Lee is she's a 21st century Nancy Drew with a knack for getting herself into trouble of the same sort.  We could build on that and have her enthusiastically investigate crimes, her optimism and incorruptible innocence contrasted with the sick, perverse things she uncovers and reveals to the world.  Meth labs, porn rings, bizarre blackmail plots, public figures who are secret degenerates.  Narrow escapes without an Isis there to bail her out, forcing Cindy to rely on her own pluck and quick wits.

Or not.  Maybe she'll always need an Isis for advice and guidance.  Cindy is smart and spunky but she is, after all, a risk taker.  She's lucky to have a friend and guardian like Isis.  Solve a crime and win Rick Mason's heart?  Oh, Cindy...

As a special bonus, here's Captain Marvel beating up a bear.


Richard Bensam said...

Giordano was certainly the best artist Cindy Lee ever had. But I have to say, I never cared for O'Neil's writing in this issue or any other in his Shazam! tenure. Every script he wrote for the Marvel Family seemed to me as if it was written at gunpoint. Or worse, as if it was written by a writer thinking to himself "Christ, I was going to be a novelist! What horrible sins did I commit that I must repent by hacking out this garbage?"

(That's not the case with all of his work, but his Captain Marvel and related fare don't show any affection for the characters.)

Joel Bryan said...

I'm almost certain that's the case here! But I had to put a more positive spin on it. For Cindy's sake.