Yehudi Mercado on ‘Shazam! Thundercrack’ | Interview
Yehudi Mercado’s new DC Comics graphic novel Shazam! Thundercrack seems specially made for fans of the original 2019 Shazam movie. In fact, it’s set within that film’s run time; specifically, during the time before young Billy Batson comes into his own as a superhero, learning that he can fly and sharing his magical superheroes with his fellow foster children.
In Mercado’s tale, Billy and his new brother Freddy are still deep into testing Billy’s adult alter ego’s powers when Billy throws a notebook containing their research out of reach of the Fawcett High’s resource officer. It’s a pretty good throw, as it comes to the attention of the school’s football coach. Down a quarterback, he recruits Billy to the team, and Billy seems to excel at the sport; apparently his Shazam powers lead to better-than-average athletic prowess in his Billy form, too.
While the still egotistical Billy still has a lot to learn about teamwork—”This should be called Superman and the Dead Weights Who He Has To Rescue All The Time,” he scoffs at Freddy’s Justice League comic—there’s genuine danger afoot as well. It seems the Fawcett Tigers’ rivals, the Fishtown Atoms, have been souped-up with experimental nanotechnology from a shifty scientist who works for Sivana Labs.
Will Billy learn to be a team player? Can Freddy balance being his hero manager with cheering him on from the sidelines as the new school mascot? Will the “Atom Men” bench our heroes before the game even begins? Those answers can all be found in the book itself, of course. For the answers to other questions about Thundercrack, we spoke to Mercado himself.
Thundercrack seems to be set during the first Shazam movie, based on where the characters of Billy and Freddy are throughout it. How did you decide on that particular setting for your story?
Mercado: The directive from DC was that the story had to take place before Billy/Shazam learned how to fly and I didn’t have access to the script for the sequel to the movie. Other than that I had free rein. I loved the training montage in the first movie, where Freddy and Billy are testing his powers, so I came up with a different reason why they wind up with all those video games and X-Boxes.
I always got in trouble in school, even though I was a good kid, so I wanted to have the threat of detention be the catalyst for the story.
As a cartoonist, how different was the experience of telling a story featuring such a long-lived character and corporate-owned intellectual property versus working on your own characters and concepts?
Mercado: The tone and humor of the first Shazam movie were right in my wheelhouse. I knew I could nail that. And as far as playing within lore of the Shazam world, it wasn’t restricting at all. I turned the old Shazam villain Mister Atom into a football team called the Atoms with their coach being Charles Langley. When that was approved I knew DC was open to letting me have fun with the world.
What was the character design process like for you? Was it at all a challenge to draw characters based on real-life actors in your own style, or did it all come pretty naturally to you?
Mercado: It was great to work from a reference. I used to draw a lot of fan art. When I saw a movie I loved I would come home and draw some of the characters. That’s what it felt like. DC sent me a lot of production references to work from. But finding a cartoony way to depict Freddy and Billy was the real challenge. Matching the color palette of the world was a big help.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you construct a graphic novel like Thundercrack? Do you write a full script and then go back and draw it, or are you drawing and writing simultaneously? Do you have a system worked out at this point in your career, or is every book you work on a little different?
Mercado: When I pitched the story I drew the cover first to show the kind of tone I wanted to do. I drew Shazam holding a skateboard while flinging a yo-yo and walking on a cloud. Once the premise was approved I wrote the whole story as a screenplay and then adapted that into a graphic novel. It’s just how I like to work. I thumbnail the whole book in Adobe Flash and include the dialogue so the whole book is readable pretty quickly. After that, it’s a matter of rendering each page.
While the Captain Marvel/Shazam character is being introduced to a whole new audience via the movies and new comics like your own, he’s one of the oldest superheroes who’s still around. To what do you think we can attribute the enduring popularity, or at least the enduring survival, of the character for so many decades?
Mercado: The decision to lean into the wish fulfillment of a kid instantly becoming a superhero was a genius stroke. That’s such a timeless idea that could speak to many generations.
You found a way to introduce Mr. Tawky Tawny, one of the more beloved if sillier characters from the original comics, into the modern, slightly more realistic world of Shazam. How did that decision come about?
Mercado: The movie did a great job of planting Easter Eggs for the tiger in the background; he was the mascot for the school. Having Billy join the football team was a great opportunity to put Freddy in the mascot uniform. I tried to be the mascot in my high school but they told me only girls could be mascot. I could have done a whole book of Tawky and Freddy in the retro style; that was fun. The only challenge was trying to squeeze in all the gags I wanted to do in only two pages.
Did you play football or any sports in high school yourself?
Mercado: Oh yeah. I recommend checking out my middle-grade graphic novel memoir Chunky (HarperCollins). It’s all about my trials and tribulations with sports as a kid. I love sports movies, but I am terrible at sports. Every time I tried to play sports I wound up in the hospital. It was interesting to see that in Shazam 2, he had his final showdown in the baseball stadium where the Phillies play. It felt like a nice cohesion to my story.
The book ends with the words “The End”…and a question mark. How much should readers read into that? Do you have more Shazam stories you’d like to tell?
Mercado: I would love to do more Shazam stories. My dream would be to do a book that focuses on each of the foster kids turned superheroes. There’s a deleted scene for Shazam 2 where Mary balances working as a postmates delivery driver with her family’s super duties. That’s the kind of story I can make a meal out of.
Can you tell us what you’re currently working on?
Mercado: I am working on another middle-grade graphic novel for DC set in the Batman universe. As someone who loves Batman and grew up obsessed with the 1989 Batman movie this book is truly a dream come true.
Filed under: Interviews
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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