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Captain Not-So-Marvelous

Longbox Graveyard #11

I’ve had pretty good luck resurrecting books from the Longbox Graveyard. Micronauts wasn’t as epic as I’d remembered, but Conan the Barbarian held up better than expected, and Walt Simonson‘s Thor is still brilliant (and will be reviewed soon!). I’ve read a few one-off books here and there that haven’t made it to this blog and for the most part I’ve enjoyed them. I’ve even worked up the courage to make a little Pandora-peek into the boxes containing my own work, and that wasn’t so bad as I’ve been dreading.

Returning to Jim Starlin’s run on Captain Marvel, though, was not so marvelous.

I found this run in 1974 with issue #34, the last of ten issues Starlin penciled for Captain Marvel in my Bronze Age heydays of the early 1970s. This was my first encounter with Starlin’s style, and just like “Nitro, the Exploding Man,” it blew me away!

I loved the pace, the fine-lined art style, and even the balls-out dialogue and attitude of what is really a pretty silly issue. From hints scattered in the book, it’s obvious that Jim Starlin knew he was leaving the strip, and I gather he wasn’t happy about it. Despite this, there was a raw energy to this issue that caused me to read it several times (a rarity in those days), and for the first time I flipped to the splash page and took note of who actually wrote and penciled a comic book: Jim Starlin. A creator I would follow in comics for years to come.

Apparently birthed to assert a copyright claim, Captain Marvel was a throw-away book. With ten creative teams in it’s first twenty-four issues, the series was a box of parts that didn’t fit by the time Starlin debuted on the book in issue #25.

Consider:

  • Captain Marvel himself is a block of wood as a character despite his potentially interesting backstory as an exiled Kree warrior.
  • Rick Jones is even worse, popping off seventies slang and pursuing an irredeemably boring career as a folk singer.
  • Rick and Marv are linked to each other by “Nega Bands” that allow them to swap places between our world and the Negative Zone, a gimmick that got old the first time it happened.
  • Marv is dependent on “photonic energy” that lessens his powers at night.
  • Rick’s personal storyline is mostly mooning over his girlfriend, Lou Ann, who did nothing memorable save being enslaved by the Controller.

It was a mess. Captain Marvel was an empty vessel with a bunch of random concepts slapped on him like tattered handbills. It was just the kind of tertiary Marvel book that was ripe for reinvention in the hands of an ambitious creator.

Enter Jim Starlin. Having gotten his start with a few issues of Iron Man (where he introduced his signature creation, Thanos), Starlin quickly deployed that villain here, thrusting Captain Marvel into an interplanetary war where Thanos is using the moon base of Titan as the staging point for his invasion of Earth and then the entire galaxy.

A decade later, Alan Moore would become the master of franchise reinvention, by going inward — his Captain Marvel would have been an exiled warrior suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, dogged by war crimes charges, hunted by the Kree secret service and recruited by corrupt nobility to lead a coup on his homeworld. Hey, I’d read that! I’d even like to write it.

When Starlin reinvented Captain Marvel, he went outward — expanding the scope of the book by co-opting the largely undeveloped “universe” part of the Marvel Universe, creating new characters and backstory that he could make his own. Problem was, all this expansion just cast into stark relief how flat Captain Marvel really was. Against Starlin’s cosmic canvas, Captain Marvel was less interesting than ever. He was a black hole at the center of Starlin’s dynamic universe.

I knew none of that at the time. So impressed was I by that issue #34 that I tracked down back issues of Starlin’s run, and while I liked them enough thirty years ago, I see in them now the echoes of better books. Clearly influenced by Jack Kirby’s New Gods, Starlin roped in cosmic concepts like Olympian gods in exile, a planet-wide computer intelligence, and a divine father, son, and brother engaged in civil war.

Unfortunately, these ambitious elements are little more than window dressing for a book that is for the most part standard superhero fare. When Captain Marvel fights the Controller or the Thing it’s like any other Bronze Age Marvel book — big dumb guys hitting each other with chunks of buildings and saying out loud whatever expository nonsense is on their minds. Scarcely an issue goes by without a gratuitous guest appearance by Iron Man or the Avengers. Throw in the origin of Drax the Destroyer — who is turned into a star-spanning spirit of vengeance while driving his family home from an Elvis concert in Las Vegas (!) — and you have a comic book favorite sandwich.*

Young Starlin is still finding his way as a penciler here, and while his layouts are sometimes something to behold, his anatomy is stiff and his facial expressions — aside from the broad, grim faces of Thanos and the Controller — don’t convey a lot. While the plots are entertaining, the scripting isn’t great. The first issues are written by Mike Friedrich, who seems to fully understand he’s just the most recent writer through the revolving door on this book. He’s eventually shouldered aside by Starlin, who evolves from plotter, to co-writer, to writer on the book, but then goes into such hyperbolic overdrive that the dialogue actually drops a notch on the Bombast-O-Meter when Steve Englehart comes in to write the last couple issues.**

The books do have transcendent moments. When Thanos and Drax confront each other, or when Captain Marvel gets his brain turned inside-out by Eon, we see the future Starlin emerge. Channeling Steve Ditko, Starlin’s cosmos becomes a starfield populated by menacing maws, eyeballs, skulls, and faces, and his layouts twist in fractured spirals to suggest infinite struggles and strange destinies, a kind of crazy mash-up of superhero showdown and the last reel of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Starlin is groping toward something larger when he positions the Captain as a kind of enlightened Zen warrior who is at one with the universe, but the concept is vaguely developed and rings hollow when Cap has to keep reminding us how enlightened he is, usually by admonishing an enemy for using violence just before hitting him with something heavy. Starlin gets points for trying, with a bonus for degree of difficulty, but in the end, Cap’s “Cosmic Awareness” is just another one of those weathered handbills slapped on his red-and-blue hide.

All sins are forgiven, though, when Starlin reveals Thanos’ motivation for wanting to destroy the universe. Thanos steps free from the shadow of Jack Kirby’s Darkseid when he reveals that he pursues universal genocide in the name of love!

Captain Marvel #25-34 is an idiosyncratic and uneven run, highlighted by outbreaks of cosmic concepts that aren’t always properly realized on the page. The series veers between standard superhero beat downs, to the secrets of the universe, to teen romance, to space ship battles, to shady music promoters — from issue to issue, even page to page, you don’t know what you’re going to get.

Viewed as Starlin’s first full experience in comics, we can see his craft improving and elements and obsessions come onto the stage that will be better realized in his later Warlock series.*** On it’s own, though, Captain Marvel #25-34 escapes the Longbox Graveyard for nostalgia alone. They have been bagged, boarded, and entered into the database, but as was the case with Micronauts, I doubt these books will come out of their plastic again.

NEXT WEEK: #12 Top Ten DC Comics Characters

*Favorite Sandwich — Term attributed to an old colleague who characterized first year art projects as an unholy pile of everything someone liked, even if they didn’t go together … like piling ham, ice cream, potato chips, and scrambled eggs into the same sandwich.

**Remember! My beloved Steve Englehart! Ends every! Sentence! With an exclamation mark!!

***And I’m not setting myself up for more disappointment — I peeked ahead, and those Warlock books are a lot better.

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About Longbox Graveyard

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978. There's a new blog every odd Wednesday at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on August 31, 2011, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Even as a youngster it was apparent to us this book was not on the level of Dreadstar or even Warlock. We still have a fondness for it: Watching an artist work out his ideas in rough form which we know will later become vibrant masterpieces. Starlin’s too constrained by the superhero formula here, it’s true. He’d shatter that mold later. (Plus, he’s got some sweet drawings on the back covers of the Life of Captain Marvel reprints.)

    Your imaginary “Alan Moore” version deserves some exploration, even if it requires the thin veneer of a ‘new’ character to make it happen. We’d like to read that one too!

    Amongst the comic book intelligentsia, we seem to be in the minority on this one but who cares: We also liked the Ultimate Secret version of Mar-Vell and his radical high-tech suit.

    • I am of the same feeling, Mars — Captain Marvel has its moments, but Warlock is where it’s at for Starlin’s Marvel “Cosmics.” I have a Warlock appreciation coming up here at LBG late this month or early next; that work is better, and you really can see how Marvel was training wheels for Warlock. I also think (but can’t prove) that Captain Marvel was hampered by changing editorial objectives and rotating creative partners — when Starlin is more-or-less in full control on Warlock, the work is improved (notwithstanding that uninspired Space Shark issue).

      Looking back on the series, Starlin may have been well advised to make Captain Marvel even more of a superhero series … some of the strongest characterization comes when we see the respect other Marvel heroes have for Marv (something ballooned up to maudlin overkill in the Death of Captain Marvel). The guest stars feel like a distraction in this run because we want more “cosmic,” but maybe by embracing the earthly/Marvel universe elements more firmly, and using the cosmic stuff as backdrop, the stories would have felt more relevant and had greater commercial viability. I’m writing my blog on Simonson’s Thor right now and this is one of the things he handles masterfully — getting the balance just right between “Marvel Superhero” and “Asgard Myth” themes and influences.

      Never saw the Ultimate version of Cap, but with Marvel’s seemingly-mandatory requirement of pushing out a new version of the character once every five years or so, maybe we will eventually see that “Alan Moore” version!

      Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting, Mars!

  2. My first Nitro story was Captain Marvel #54. Solid single issue story. But, I was never a loyal reader of this title.

    • It’s second-rate Starlin, but second-rate Starlin is better than many people’s A-game. (I’m sure I’ve said that someplace before, but it bears repeating).

      Trivia: it was the poison gas that Marv absorbed in this issue that caused the cancer that took him out in The Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel.

      • I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me before. The art team on Captain Marvel #54 was George Tuska and Terry Austin. A rare pairing.

        • Terry Austin was one of those guys who made EVERYONE look better (and there were days when Mr. Tuska needed all the help he could get). Austin is definitely in my Marvel inker hall-of-fame along with guys like Tom Palmer, Klaus Jansen, and Joe Rubinstein.

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