Welcome to another installment of The Dollar Box, where I look at special or significant comics with an original cover price of a dollar or less. This month’s issue is Captain Marvel #34, a Jim Starlin effort (with a script assist from Steve Englehart) published by Marvel Comics in the summer of 1974. This isn’t the most memorable or important issue in Starlin’s Captain Marvel run, but it has an energetic visual style, with a superior use of sound effects, and does conclude with what would prove to be a pivotal moment in Captain Marvel’s life — his death!
Created only to protect a trademark, Captain Marvel was always a tertiary book at Marvel, suffering through a series of unmemorable (yet accidentally brilliant) stories by rotating creative teams before the series was handed to a young Jim Starlin, first as penciller with issue #25, with with full creative duties by issue #27. Over the brief span of ten issues (which I previously reviewed here) Starlin would redefine Captain Marvel, transforming him into a cosmic warrior for peace and balance, and setting him to battle against the Death God Thanos of Titan, in the first of many such great outer space sagas that would become Starlin’s stock-in-trade.
By issue #34, though, that arc was in the rear-view mirror, and Captain Marvel — and creator Jim Starlin — were ready to move on to the next phase in their lives.
The first several pages of the issue were basic stuff for a 1970s Marvel Comic. The previous story was briefly recapped, then some long-simmering subplots were serviced, as Rick Jones — Captain Marvel’s earthly companion, with whom our hero must trade places if he is to escape the Negative Zone — caught up on a private life that was sidelined by a certain war for the fate of the solar system. Rick whined a bit about being Marv’s sidekick, broke up with his girlfriend, then departed on a music tour with his manager and an unenthusiastic new partner …
… and that’s where things got weird.
Weird, at least, by the standards of your usual 1970s Marvel fist opera. It wasn’t the set-up that was unusual — it was another off-the-shelf Marvel set piece, with Rick and his companions fatefully crossing paths with a villain intent on stealing a deadly nerve gas. But the entire tone and style of the issue was over-the-top and doom-driven, and also loaded with fannish Easter eggs, including a cameo appearance by Carol Danvers (who later would become one of the more significant female characters in the Marvel line as Ms. Marvel, before assuming the title duties of Captain Marvel, herself).
The plot was also enlivened by the first appearance of Nitro, one of the most gleefully-silly villains in Marvel history, a crazy man who’s entire repertoire involved blowing himself to atoms. As befit a man with such a one-trick resume, he entered the scene with a special kind of recklessness …
… and then went after what he wanted in a dynamic page that served notice that on a visual level, at least, this wouldn’t be your usual kind of superhero fight.
At this point I should note this issue was a personal turning point for me as a comics fan. Probably every comics fan has “that” issue — the one where the form came alive for them, when they first flipped to the credits page to see who it was that had written or drawn a story. For twelve-year-old me, soldiering through a visually indifferent summer of comic books in 1974, this issue left me “Blown Away” (which just happened to be the title of the story). Having come to comics too late to see Jack Kirby at the top of his game (or to see Jim Steranko infuse Kirby’s work with his own particular cinematic aesthetic), the way Starlin drew this otherwise-unremarkable action opened a doorway in my consciousness.
It blew my twelve-year-old mind.
Forty years later, it’s still pretty sweet. Sure, all we really have here is Captain Marvel — a throw-away character who had just had his Elvis Year thanks to Starlin’s run — slugging it out with a dumb supervillain for a half-dozen pages, but the contest is carried off with exceptional style.
There is real visual power behind the blows traded by Marv and Nitro, and the action seems more visceral and personal when Nitro curses like a street-level thug.
That “FOOM” sound effect gets an potent workout, too, as Nitro blows himself up in ever more explosive fashion …
… before meeting his own end with one last FOOM, thanks to a deft bit of trickery by our Kree soldier-hero, Captain Marvel.
Alas, the fun was ending just as it was getting started. Captain Marvel #34 was Jim Starlin’s last issue on the series. Jim knew it, even if the audience had no inkling, though it was spelled out plainly enough (if backwards) on a mysterious road sign …
… and with the freedom of a man quitting his job, Starlin did the unthinkable. He killed Captain Marvel.
(Actually, he did.)
Cliffhangers where heroes (appeared to) die were no unusual thing in comics, then or now, but this conclusion seemed to have an unusual degree of bite. Having finally defeated Nitro, Captain Marvel struggled to seal off the ruptured canisters of Compound 13 that the villain was trying to steal — a gas that we’d previously been told was the ultimate nerve agent.
Marv pulled it off, but just barely, and even Rick Jones, watching from the Negative Zone, seemed to sense that this wasn’t a routine cliffhanger. The next issue box assured us there will be a next issue, but this did seem an unusually “final” final image.
In issue #35, of course, a new creative team picked up the pieces, and contrived to restore Captain Marvel to life, and his book would continue on through another thirty-odd mostly-unmemorable issues before its cancellation in 1979.
But the events of this story would prove unusually far-ranging.
In 1982, Jim Starlin was back at Marvel, and the publisher was experimenting with a new, full-length graphic novel form. The first installment in the Marvel Graphic Novel line would be The Death of Captain Marvel, where Starlin revealed that Marv had an incurable cancer brought on by … his exposure to Compound 13! So it turns out that Starlin really did, kinda-sorta, kill off Captain Marvel back in issue #34 of his own book — it just took eight years for it to stick!
And stick it did. Captain Marvel’s death has proven one of the more significant character deaths in the Marvel universe, touching a number of other costumed heroes, and proving almost singular in offering a genuine end to the story of Captain Marvel. The character would appear again in flashbacks and brief life-after-death cameos, but his big 2008 “Secret Invasion” resurrection was a fake-out, and now the trademark-protecting mantle of Captain Marvel has been taken up by Carol Danvers (the former Ms. Marvel) in the latest incarnation of this particular title.
But all of that was in the distant future, back in the summer of 1974, when this particular comic opened my eyes and made me a comics fan for life. The cover price was .25, but a copy in decent condition will run you about five bucks now. That seems a small price to pay for a well-crafted issue with such a cool secret history, but I’d never tell you to purchase a comic on the basis of its events forming some permanent part of a comic book universe. If Bucky can come back from the dead, then no one is safe in eternal rest … though ol’ Marv has been there, more-or-less without interruption, for going on thirty years!
May he rest in peace.
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