I’m four decades past my own personal comic book Golden Age, so I don’t expect everyone else to attach a lot of importance to many of the books I’ve examined here at Longbox Graveyard. Titles like Ms. Marvel, Micronauts, The Defenders, and Deathlok were obscure in their day — I’ve celebrated them here but I am fully aware few of today’s fans share my enthusiasm for these moldy oldies. But there are some titles from my heyday that I would expect to resonate with “kids these days” — titles with characters that are still active today, with events that form the historic underpinnings of continuing comic book universes.
I thought the Avengers‘ Kree/Skrull War was one of those events, but no dice. My twenty-something office pal — who loves comics, and previously borrowed my copy of Avengers #196 to read the origin of Taskmaster — had never heard of the Kree/Skrull War!
What are they teaching in our schools??
Listen up, you whippersnappers! Before Avengers vs. X-Men, before Secret Wars, before Crisis on Infinite Earths, before even the Avengers/Defenders War there was the Kree/Skrull War! This was a mega-crossover in the old school style, the natural evolution of storytelling in a single book — not a mandated summer crossover, not some bloated high concept that poisons an entire comics line for six months of the year, and definitely NOT an imaginary story!
The Kree/Skrull War story arc ran from issues #89-97 of the Avengers (though when Marvel reprinted the saga in 1983, they restricted themselves to just the final five issues of the run). Nearing the end of his iconic six-year stint on Avengers, Roy Thomas — along with artists Neal Adams and Sal & John Buscema — delivered what was up to then arguably the longest and most complex continuing story in superhero comics, as Earth became a battleground between the warring Skrull and Kree star empires. Nowadays, company-wide meta-stories sprawling over dozens (hundreds?) of issues are a recurring summer plague, but in 1971 any story running more than a couple issues was a big deal.
The tale is deeply enmeshed in Marvel continuity but in the style of the day, it’s easy to jump on board as a new reader, thanks to liberal flashbacks and recaps of what has come before. Summarizing the tale makes it seem more complex than it reads, but I’ll give it a go anyways.
The action kicks off with Captain Marvel cracking out of the Negative Zone, then racing off half-cocked (and leaking radiation) on a mission to steal a rocket to return to his Kree homeworld. But no sooner do the Avengers lay him out cold than everyone is attacked by an awakened Kree sentry, acting on the orders of Ronan the Accuser, who has staged a coup against the Kree Supreme Intelligence and is seizing the moment to settle old scores with Mar-Vell and everyone else on Earth. The battle with the Kree sets off a worldwide alien panic, aided by a Skrull agent provocateur masquerading as a Joe McCarthy-style Senate investigator, and suddenly our heroes are facing some classic, shades-of-grey Bronze Age comic book hard choices as they decide whether or not they should turn Mar-Vell over to the authorities.
The public turns against the Avengers while Mar-Vell, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver become hostages of the Skrulls. The series climaxes with the Avengers facing down the Skrull warfleet, while Rick Jones — captured and brought to the Kree homeworld — is empowered by the Kree Supreme Intelligence to end the battle via a (frankly disappointing) deus ex machina. The story ends right when it should be getting started, offering an unfortunate and arbitrary end to what had been a superior run.
Despite this disappointing climax there is a lot to like here. The series is broad and ambitious, and there’s always something impressive about watching the Avengers fight in outer space, as they would later do in memorable issues of Captain Marvel and Warlock. But those later battles were all-hands-on-deck affairs for the fate of the universe. This battle was just a few Avengers in the lonely void of space against an entire Skrull battlefleet, made to feel underplayed and epic at the same time through Roy Thomas’ borderline-purple prose storytelling.
One of the strongest elements of this run is the way Roy Thomas handles the Vision. Introduced by Thomas in the classic issue #57 of Avengers, the Vision would evolve from android assassin to one of the most unique and fascinating members of the team. It’s hard to overstate what a superstar the Vision was during the 1970s (and one of Marvel’s great sins is how they so thoroughly worked over this character for no real gain in their late 1980s-era “Vision Quest” storyline). It is in this arc that we see the Vision’s soul well and truly begin to evolve, first by brooding on his sense of separation from and yearning for human emotions …
… then finding himself prey to all-too-human emotions as the long-simmering romance with the Scarlet Witch come out in the open in issue #91 (which also featured the debut of the Vision’s characteristic “rounded rectangle” word balloons, though they wouldn’t be yellow until issue #93):
What follows is the right kind of comic book soap opera, where the characters spend several issues coming around to what the reader has already accepted — that these two characters are made for each other. Roy Thomas gives us a master class in superhero romance.
The run is also kind of haphazard. Thomas admits he didn’t have a masterplan for the Kree/Skrull War, and the event really is more like a continuing subplot than a world-shattering event. Reading these issues today, you might be disappointed that there is so little waring between Kree and Skrull in the Kree/Skrull war! The event is largely off-stage, and while Earth is threatened with becoming the key battleground in the war between the empires, that event never materializes, as our heroes head off the worst of the war before it can get started. Likewise, issues devoted to the Inhumans and an (admittedly very cool) issue where Ant Man explores the innards of a deactivated Vision distract from the war, but it is important to remember that this was almost an accidental event, and that unlike the top-down editorial events of the present age, the point wasn’t to replace the rhythms of the host book so much as it was to provide context and color to the usual Avengers adventure of the month.
the Kree/Skrull War begins (and also rescues the Avengers from a tight spot in issue #91)
It’s worth noting how Roy Thomas assembled pieces from all over the Marvel Universe to create a story that was greater than the sum-of-its parts. Always a fiend for continuity, Thomas reached all the way back to Fantastic Four #4 to find the Skrull secret agents central to his story, and the Kree — who had been kicking around Marvel stories since 1967, mostly as the heavies in the pages of Captain Marvel — suddenly seemed more interesting, coherent, and purposeful than we’d seen them in earlier books.
The art, too, deserves mention. Even Sal Buscema — whom I’ve damned with faint praise here at Longbox Graveyard — turns in notable work, with clear storytelling and a bit of visual flair.
a nice three-panel sequence from Sal Buscema in Avengers #90
John Buscema is his reliable self here, coming to the end of his legendary Avengers tenure, but it is Neal Adams who is best remembered from this run, and it is easy to understand why. Adams’ realistic approach to composition and anatomy set him apart from most artists of his day, giving the Adams Avengers a kind of rooted and believable quality more akin to film than comic books.
Also deserving accolades is Tom Palmer on inks, who handles the final issues of the series, and smooths the transition between alternating John Buscema and Neal Adams chapters.
So what do you think? Am I living in the past by insisting events like the Kree/Skrull War form an essential part of the Marvel canon? Should I have picked a more recent Avengers event to celebrate here on the eve of the movie’s release? Or is this Avengers run a classic despite my callow twenty-something office mate’s ignorance of these mighty events? Assemble your Avengers reactions in the comments section below!
… Captain Marvel! (1968)
And here I mean the copyright-driven version of the character published by Marvel Comics, and not the original holder of the name.
With this selection, I’m clearly picking a sentimental favorite book that is pretty far from being the best “C” comic out there (whatever “best” means when we are talking comics nostalgia). My attachment to Captain Marvel is emotional and multi-layered. It was reading Jim Starlin’s Captain Marvel #34 as a kid that I first understood what a dynamic and energetic form of storytelling that comics can be. I’ve written that the character’s story arc is a kind of accidental masterpiece — and I am still deeply attracted to Captain Marvel’s journey from war hero to enlightened man of peace. I have an unaccountable nostalgia for Cap’s white-and-greens phase (and was re-reading and enjoying those stories just a couple weeks ago). I also love the Marvel “Cosmics,” and along with Warlock and the Silver Surfer, Captain Marvel is the torch-bearer for that particular superhero comics subgenre.
Nah, I’m just hooked on this hopeless character. I don’t even get the satisfaction of seeing him get a movie (that’s going to be the other Captain Marvel — and that’s fine, I like Carol, too). It’s not convenient, it’s not easy to explain, it doesn’t make sense, and I’m sticking with it. Captain Marvel is my man. May he rest in peace.
Tell me your “C” stories, in the comments section below!
Read more about Captain Marvel at Longbox Graveyard:
- The Death of Captain Marvel
- Captain Marvel Gallery
- Captain Not-So-Marvelous
- Out Of The Holocaust — A Hero!
- Blown Away!
Check out the complete Longbox Graveyard Comics A-To-Z HERE!
Welcome to the latest (and last!) installment of Super-Blog Team-Up, where I and a dozen other intrepid comics bloggers all take on the same subject. This time, we are looking at death, both for pop culture characters and for the Super-Blog Team-Up itself, which meets its demise with this installment!
I’ve selected the Death of Captain Marvel for my topic — Jim Starlin’s 1982 send-off to the throw-away character he had made relevant a decade before. This was a sixty-six page stand-alone volume, the first in a series of original graphic novels published by Marvel, and while this is a talky and sentimental book (just this side of maudlin), it is still a good read, and particularly meaningful to me, Captain Marvel fan that I was.
No one got Captain Marvel’s life better than Jim Starlin, and I can’t imagine anyone doing better with his death. Starlin is all-in, here, kicking things off with a Captain-Marvel-as-Pietà beneath a title that leaves no doubt how this story will end up.
But how do you build tension in a tale where the outcome is known from the start? By setting out the emotional stakes, of course. Just as in any other superhero book, where we know the good guy will triumph over the big bad (but don’t know if they will get the date with their best girl), here we know that Marvel will die, but we don’t know how it will happen. Most importantly, we can’t anticipate how the Captain will face his own death, though we might have guessed.
It turns out that Captain Marvel died as he lived — with grace and uncommon understanding.
First, though, we go back to the beginning, as Starlin opens with a cogent summary of Captain Marvel’s career, framed as a recording Marv himself is making for posterity. It’s sad to realize that many readers might have been coming to Captain Marvel for the first time here, expressly to witness his death, but I guess that’s what you get when bumping off a low-sales C-lister. Even for fans of the character, though, Starlin’s summary is strong reading, nicely condensing the character’s origin and hitting the high points in his unique career — telling how Captain Marvel turned against his Kree overlords and went native on Earth; how he received Cosmic Awareness and became earth’s protector, and how Marvel and company triumphed over Thanos in final battle (for the time, at least).
Ol’ Marv sure had his share of colorful foes!
Then there’s a bit of action — because this is a comic book, after all, and Starlin always made sure even the most cosmic threats could be undone by a punch in the mouth. This time it is cultists worshipping Thanos’ turned-to-stone body. Marv makes short work of them, and even this action sequence crams in talking in this very talky book … in this case Marvel’s thoughts as he battles, nicely illuminating what makes him different, that he uses his cosmic powers to anticipate his enemies and to defeat them with a minimum of violence, and certainly no loss of life. It is Captain Marvel at the height of his powers, and his most self-aware.
It is also his final fight in this earthly realm.
It is in the aftermath of that battle that death begins to claim Captain Marvel. You know how it is in old movies — that no one has a cold, unless it signals the onset of a fatal disease?
And a page later, the fatal diagnosis.
A bit more backstory reveals Marvel was inflicted with his disease from exposure to Compound-13 while battling the villain Nitro, in a tale that marked the end of Jim Starlin’s run on Captain Marvel, and in which Starlin left the Captain for dead. Well, it only took a decade, but Starlin got his way!
With his death all but certain, Marvel goes on his farewell tour, breaking the news to his lover, Elysius, and then to his old partner, Rick Jones, who does not take the news well.
Those characters do join in the attempt to devise a cure, but the medical race-against-time is a subplot doomed to fail, and not just because Starlin gave away the conclusion of this tale with the title. In short order it is discovered that Captain Marvel’s photonic Nega-Bands are all that is keeping him from dying on the spot, but that those same bands inhibit any treatment the heroes might devise. The clock is ticking down with no real hope of a cure.
The Captain’s final hours are spent receiving visitors, and here is where the book really starts to tug on your heartstrings. There’s good characterization here, such as when The Thing fills the leaden air with old war stories, while Spidey can’t stay in the room …
… but more than any individual interaction, I loved this part of the book because it let Starlin fit Captain Marvel into context, to show how he was a special and important force in the lives of everyone in the Marvel Universe. He drove home the emotional void that Marvel would leave in his passing, and made that so much more important than all the goofy super villain fights and team-ups that comprised the Captain’s career.
Seemingly every hero in the Marvel Universe made the pilgrimage to bid the Captain goodbye.
One-by-one, the heroes parade by Marvel’s bed — even a Skull general, who gives Marv a Medal of Valor for being such a great adversary! — but in the end, despite Rick Jones’ continual railing against unkind fate, only one outcome awaits …
And with Captain Marvel on death’s door, it is inevitable who would visit him last!
In the theater of his mind, Thanks restores Marvel to health, and sets up one last battle.
The fight only runs a page or two — and it’s no time-mind synch-warp — but it does let Marvel go out on his feet, battling back against Thanos and his phantoms, and allows Marvel to accept that he is finite, and that even the best of the good fights must one day come to an end.
With that, he is gone, putting a bookend on what I’ve previously argued is an accidental masterpiece, a superheroic career with a genuine beginning, middle, and end. Marvel’s death was touching, and it elevated everything that came before. May he remain dead! With other characters carrying on his trademark-sensitive name, there’s every reason to believe the Captain can remain at his well-earned rest.
Plus, this Kree Captain Marvel doesn’t have to be alive to remain a fictional force in our lives. His life (and death!) live on through stories that are made more poignant by his eventual demise.
Re-reading these stories, in particular, has been an illuminating experience for me. A prime mission of Longbox Graveyard has been for me to revisit the pleasures of my youth, to try to fit everything into some kind of nostalgic higher purpose. Captain Marvel’s stories haven’t always fared well on re-examination, but the point, really, isn’t to determine if something was good or bad, or worthwhile to have read and obsessed over.
Re-reading these old tales is its own reward. Not because (as I once read somewhere) the stories have changed any since we read them last, but because we readers have changed. The twenty-year-old me who first read this tale in 1982 is a distant shadow to the fifty-five-year-old-me typing these worlds, but I can remember feeling sorrow for the Captain’s death, as well as an insider kind of cool for being an original fan of the character, who didn’t need a summary of his adventures.
And I can well remember thinking that death was a far-off thing that I would somehow, impossibly, never have to face, just like the good Captain himself.
At this time in my life, death is real. The best friend of my youth that I read these stories with was claimed by cancer just a couple years ago. I am (I think) in good health, with many years yet to live, but as a male in his fifties still working full-time to support his family I am well aware that I walk in “sniper alley,” with heart attacks and strokes and yes cancer too watching me through the crosshairs. I take comfort in knowing I’ve lived a good life and my passing would be mourned by many (maybe not including Spider-Man, but you can’t have everything).
Still I value my life more now than I did in my twenties, and would more greatly regret giving it up, not being able to see what became of my sons, or what children and art they might bring into this world. A fatal bolt from out of the blue would free me from the agony of U.S. politics, and Kim Jon-un’s sparkly new ICBM, and also relieve me of the duty of figuring how to bring Longbox Graveyard to a close … but aside from that, I’m not seeing a lot of upside.
So I wish myself long life, and long life to all my Longbox Graveyard readers, and when our end comes, may we greet it with the spirit of Captain Marvel, the peaceful Kree man of war.
And that end is here in truth for Super-Blog Team-Up, which announces its death with this entry. Please drop around the many other fine blogs in this project to pay your respects:
- Comic Reviews by Walt : Death Of The Mutanimals
- Between The Pages: I Have Been And Always Shall Be Your Friend
- Chris On infinite Earths: Death Of Supergirl
- Crapbox Son Of Chthulu: Death Of My Love For Marvel Comics
- Comics and Coffee: Superman: The Man Who Murdered The World
- Superhero Satellite: Death of a Collectors Passion — A redemption story
- Retroist: These Pirates Of The Caribbean Models Are To Die For!
- In My Not So Humble Opinion: The Death Of Galactus
As for whether this marks the end of Longbox Graveyard … well, you have to admit, it is the perfect opportunity, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll be back next month.
Or maybe not.
Regardless, thank you for reading, and for your many thoughtful comments through the years. Be well!
NEXT MONTH … maybe there ISN’T a next month!