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Star Lord!

Longbox Graveyard #86

Obscure heroes have been my stock-in-trade here at Longbox Graveyard, and I’ve enthused about quite a few of them, whether it was pleading for respect for Captain Marvel, remembering the still-unrealized potential of Deathlok, or lamenting the unfinished saga of Killraven and his War of the Worlds.

But among my favorite heroes, more obscure by far would be Star Lord. At least, he was obscure until this guy came along.

Chris Pratt | Star Lord | Guardians of the Galaxy

That is Chris Pratt, and until yesterday, I didn’t know who he was. Maybe you didn’t, either.

But now he’s fast-tracked to join a holy trinity of Marvel leading men named Chris (along with Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth) because Mr. Pratt will shortly share center stage with this motley crew:

Guardians of the Galaxy

That is concept art for Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s superhero/science fiction movie coming in 2014, and that guy in the center with the two guns and the funky face mask is Star Lord (sort of … as we shall see). It is shocking enough that we live in a world where there is a Guardians of the Galaxy movie in the first place, but we are really through the geek looking glass when Star Lord is a part of it (though I suppose with Rocket Raccoon also coming to the screen that anything is possible). Still, even with Marvel’s developing reputation for using every part of the buffalo, it has to rate among the least likely of unlikely twists and turns that they’ve opened up their intellectual property vault and dusted off Star Lord for the big screen.

Who is Star Lord? (Besides Chris Pratt).

He’s was one of my favorite characters, and one lost to the ages — or he was until plucked from the purgatory of Marvel’s dead file to begin his transition into the Marvel Universe in the pages of Timothy Zahn’s quasi-canonical Star-Lord #2 in 1997, followed by his eventual integration with the Guardians of the Galaxy (and even the Guardians aren’t my Guardians, but that is another column!)

The NEW Guardians of the Galaxy

Of course, this is Longbox Graveyard, the comics blog where it is always 1978, so that 1997 comic story isn’t of real interest to me. I have read a bit of the rebooted Guardians of the Galaxy, and enjoyed both that team and the new Star Lord who leads it, but he isn’t really the Star Lord (or Star-Lord!) that I remember.

This is my guy:

Marvel Preview #4

My Star Lord debuted in the black-and-white magazine pages of Marvel Preview #4 in 1976, and he is a distant echo — or maybe the distant progenitor — of the Star Lord now fast-tracked for cinematic stardom. My Star-Lord practiced astrology (for an issue, at least), was loved by his sentient ship, had a pistol that fired blasts of the four elements, and he had a hyphen! A hyphen, do you hear? He was Star-Lord back in the day, none of this Star Lord business!

He was also a bit of a jerk. And definitely NOT a part of the Marvel Universe.

The old Marvel black-and-white magazines were often a place of experimentation. Sold for a buck and not covered by the Comics Code Authority, Marvel’s mags sometimes touched on more adult content than their color comic book line. Dozens (hundreds?) of them came and went over the ages, but aside from Savage Sword of Conan, few of them got much traction in the market. Marvel Preview, in particular, was all over the place, with a rotating cast of editors that all seemed intent on taking the magazine in a different direction. It’s a new character try-out book! It’s a showcase for edgy takes on costumed heroes! It’s a standard-bearer for the legitimacy of graphic fiction! It has tits so it can compete with Heavy Metal!

In its day, Marvel Preview was all of those things, but of interest today is that Marvel Preview was the birthplace of Star-Lord.

Star-Lord, by Bernie Wrightson

Bernie Wrightson‘s Star-Lord frontispiece for Marvel Preview #4

Developed by Steve Englehart under the editorial direction of Marv Wolfman, Star-Lord told the tale of Peter Quill, a young man who saw his mother killed by space aliens, and made it his life’s mission to avenge her death. Star-Lord’s origin story in Marvel Preview #4 is fast-paced and action-packed, during which we learn the astrological configuration of the sky at Peter’s birth approximated that of the birth of Christ; that the young man had a psychopathic father who wanted to kill his son at birth; that Peter’s mother got whacked by space lizards; and that Peter was a brilliant astronaut but not so nice a guy.

Steve Gan & Steve Englehart, Marvel Preview #4

whacked by space lizards (bummer)

In subsequent interviews, Englehart said he intended Peter Quill to be a bit of a dick — right down to giving him a prickly name — and that over a series of stories he intended to chart Peter’s gradual march toward enlightenment or at least being a mellow dude.
Englehart would leave Marvel before penning another chapter in his magnum opus, so what we have is this brisk and sometimes harsh origin story that doesn’t try to redeem our hero in any way.

The story sees Peter aboard a space station when an alien presence promises to turn someone into a superhero. Peter is instantly disqualified by his NASA bosses … then adopts a novel approach to fulfill his destiny. I believe it is singular in that Peter more-or-less steals a Star-Lord identity intended for a more worthy character. It would be like some mentally-unstable schmo laid something heavy across the back of Hal Jordan‘s head and took for his own that Green Lantern power ring proffered by Abin Sur.

Peter was so driven to get into space to avenge his mother’s death that he resorted to mass murder — I mean, how else are we to interpret this particular scene …

Steve Gan & Steve Englehart, Marvel Preview #4

… and I’m not sure we can excuse his behavior just because it leads to him becoming the Star-Lord, whatever the “Master of the Sun” might suggest.

Steve Gan & Steve Englehart, Marvel Preview #4

Still, it is an original superhero origin, this idea of stealing powers and identity that were supposed to go to some other character. It reminds me a bit of the story of one of my own Irish ancestors, who knocked out his brother and stole his ticket to America. Maybe that’s why this tale spoke to me, as a lad — or maybe it was because Peter and I were born in the same year of 1962, and if he was destined for some cosmic transfiguration, then maybe I was, too.

Whatever the reason, I liked Star-Lord, I liked that he was a bit of a prick, I liked his uniform and I liked that he flew around in space with a water pistol (excuse me, “element gun”). I wanted more Star-Lord, and (years) later, I got my wish, when the character received his “second launch” in Marvel Preview #11.

Star-Lord, by John Byrne & Terry Austin

This was a different Star-Lord. Englehart was gone, and with him all that astrology hooey. In it’s place was a two-fisted space opera tale, by the first-time-together superstar team of Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Terry Austin, and Tom Orzechowski. While not exactly a reboot, this was a new take on the character, picking up his adventures sufficient years into the future that our hero can be expected to have evolved past his difficult origins and become a kind of seeker and protector of the galaxy.

Citing Robert Heinlein’s “juveniles” as his primary inspiration, Claremont’s vision for Star-Lord was one of unapologetic space opera, and so we have an adventure centering on intrigue inside a stellar empire, with nobles wearing capes on the bridges of their starships, and a nifty bit of meta story-telling where we’re asked to reflect on the anachronism of men fighting for the destiny of stars by dueling with swords …

John Byrne & Chris Claremont, Marvel Preview #11

There is imagination to burn in this story, told at a breathless pace with exciting elements absorbed on the fly. Peter Quill is afraid of his own powers and potential! Peter has a secret heritage! Our hero helms a sentient, shape-changing starship that appears to be in love with him! There’s a sprawling interstellar empire out there brimming with intrigue and adventure!

If this tale had the good fortune to come out after Star Wars, instead of a few months before, Star-Lord might have become an instant superstar. Instead, John Byrne and Terry Austin moved over to X-Men with Chris Claremont to change the face of superhero comics, and Star-Lord’s next outings — in Marvel Preview #14 and #15 — failed to build on that dynamite tale from #11. Chris Claremont returned to script, but Carmine Infantino was at best serviceable on pencils. These issues were also smaller in scope and spirit of adventure than the previous tale, as Claremont abandoned the fast-paced space opera derring-do of his previous tale, opting for a planet-of-the-week kind of story that centered on Peter’s relationship with “Ship.” Having “Ship” take on humanoid female form was an interesting step (and it provided Infantino an opportunity to draw “Ship’s” female avatar in various states of undress, hubba-hubba), but the development of Peter and “Ship’s” relationship felt forced and rushed. Rather than teasing out details of “Ship’s” true nature on-the-fly as Claremont had done in issue #11, much of the character’s mystery is explained away by the end of issue #15, and the character was less intriguing for being better understood.

Carmine Infantino & Chris Claremont, Marvel Preview #14

hubba hubba

Doug Moench took the reins of Star-Lord for his final black & white adventure in Marvel Preview #18, then shepherded the character into his color era in Marvel Super-Special #10 and Marvel Spotlight #6 and #7. Moench retained Claremont’s planet-of-the-week structure but also saw Star-Lord as a vehicle for morality plays, putting the character in situations that tested his avowed and emerging pacifism. The Marvel Spotlight books were also the first Star-Lord stories published in conventional comics format, and under a Comics Code Authority stamp, which had little effect on the story, save to make Star-Lord seem that much more like any other Marvel book — indeed, looking back at it, I can see seeds being planted for Star-Lord’s eventual transition to the Marvel Universe.

Marvel Spotlight #6

The books themselves, ably illustrated by Tom Sutton, aren’t especially memorable. All of issue #6 is spent recapping and subtly cleaning up Star-Lord’s origin; issue #7 puzzlingly recaps the recap, before offering a talky and vaguely preachy parable where Peter gets involved in a karmic conflict on a planet called Heaven (which makes the preachy part inevitable, I suppose). Star-Lord seemingly becomes more homogenous by the page, but at least Moench and Sutton pull off the most convincing (and maybe the first) demonstration of the value of Star-Lord’s element gun to date.

Tom Sutton & Doug Moench, Marvel Spotlight #7

Star-Lord continued his nomadic publication ways, next appearing in Marvel Premiere #61, a Moench tale where all the gears were on the outside. “Planet Story” was a (you guessed it) planet-of-the-week story crossed with a (ta-da!) morality play. Using a bifurcated narrative to tell the same story twice, Star-Lord first encounters what from his point of view is a sentient planet along the lines of Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, where every rock and vine is out to kill him. Then we see the same tale from the living planet’s point of view, where all it wants is … love (sniff).

Marvel Premiere #61, Tom Sutton

This is all well and good, but Star-Lord has completely jumped the rails by this point. The promise of that warts-and-all-origin story and that spectacular, swashbuckling sophomore outing have given way to weak-sauce, second-tier Green Lantern-style stories. Marvel must have felt the character had come adrift, as well, as Star-Lord’s next appearance was in 1982’s Star-Lord Special Edition #1, which reprinted that great Star-Lord tale from Marvel Preview #11 (this time in color), and added a few pages of story wrapper that saw Peter reconciled with his actual and mysterious birth father, and rocketing off to new adventures with “Ship” and his old man.

Star Lord, now in color!

Star-Lord seemed to know who he was, even if his creators didn’t

And that was the end of Star-Lord. The name would next be used for a successor character, in Timothy Zahn’s 1990s-era series, before the character formally entered the Marvel Universe in 2004’s Thanos #8-12. By this point, the character was practically unrecognizable from his origins, with Peter blinged out with cybernetic inputs, “Ship” long gone, and a new uniform replacing those elegant 1970s threads of yore.

As an original vintage loyalist and curmudgeon of the first order, I came into this blog locked and loaded to blast this new character as not really being “my” Star-Lord (or Star Lord, as he is known in this brave, new, hyphen-less future) … but you know what? I can’t do it.

I can’t do it for two reasons.

Starlord re-design

First, the new Star Lord is an entertaining character. I hate the costume — he looks like a bellhop — but as Han Solo writ small and tasked with holding together the quarrelsome and bizarre new Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Lord is more readable than at any time since his inaugural appearances. His connection to that original character is one of name only but Star Lord works well in an ensemble format (who knew?).

Second, re-reading these Star-Lord books after so many years, I see there was no “there” there with the Star-Lord of my acquaintance. I thought I was a Star-Lord fan, but I see now that all I really had were memories of a promising origin story and a dynamite Claremont/Byrne/Austin space opera. Everything else published under the Star-Lord name was pretty dire — a rattling box of disparate concepts that didn’t fit together at all.

And so I consign Star-Lord back to the airless tomb of the Longbox Graveyard with a poor overall letter grade and the recommendation that you read my in-depth review of Marvel Preview #11 over at StashMyComics.com, and then drop the best two bucks you will ever spend on a color copy of that story’s reprint in Star-Lord Special Edition #1. My own issues likely won’t see the light of day again unless they improbably skyrocket in value when Star Lord leads his Guardians of the Galaxy into cinematic battle in 2014 … but maybe I shouldn’t bet against it, given the odds this peculiar character has overcome to make it this far. I suspect the best part of Star-Lord’s story is still to come.

  • Title: Star-Lord
  • Published By: Marvel Comics, 1976-1982
  • Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: Marvel Preview #4, 14, 15, 18; Marvel Super-Special #10; Marvel Spotlight #6-7, Marvel Premiere #61, Star-Lord Special Edition #1
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C-minus
  • Read The Reprint: MyComicShop.com

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #87 By Any Other Name: Darkseid

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John Carter, Warlord of Mars

Longbox Graveyard #38

John Carter comes to the movies this week, completing an odyssey stretching back one hundred years, beginning with publication of A Princess of Mars in 1912.

Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs — and vastly less successful than that author’s Tarzan of the Apes — the John Carter series has nonetheless fascinated geeks like me for a century, giving birth to the “sword and planet” genre, and having its bones mined by dozens of science fiction books and films to follow, most notably Return of the Jedi, where the whole first act owes more than a little to the airships and savage desert races of Burroughs’ Barsoom.

John Carter has remained in print these past hundred years, first as a serial, and later reprinted as a series of eleven novels. It was in the Science Fiction Book Club editions from the 1970s that I first encountered John Carter, and I still have those battered low rent hardbacks on my shelf today, mostly because of the classic Frank Frazetta covers …

… and some pretty special black & white interior art, too.

Those covers and (especially) those interior drawings set the look and feel of John Carter for me, the tale of an ex-Confederate adventurer from Virgina who is mysteriously transported to Mars, where he is caught up in a whirlwind of swords, radium pistols, flyers, princesses, wild beasts, and the savage Green Men roaming the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom. It’s not great fiction — unlike Robert E. Howard’s Conan series, I find little joy in Burroughs stiff, neo-Victorian approach to storytelling — but it is great world-building, right up there with the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert.

On the eve of the movie’s release, it’s fruitless to speculate on it’s success — the tale will be told at the box office this weekend. But it doesn’t look good. Tracking numbers are weak and the knives are out for the film and the studio that greenlit the $250 million dollar production. For my part, I expect to like the picture (and I did — sort of — see the end of this post for my brief movie review). I respect director Andrew Stanton — I thought Wall-E was brilliant — and the footage released onto the web by an increasingly nervous studio adequately satisfies my fanboy expectations.

The marketing has been tepid, with the studio distancing themselves from the term “Mars” for crazy reasons; likewise they have steered clear of the story’s post-Civil War period roots, probably spooked by the failure of last summer’s Cowboys & Aliens. John Carter seems doomed to be another Scott Pilgrim Versus The World — a genre film that audiences like, but for which the audience was too small to sustain a franchise, which is a real shame, because Burroughs’ Martian saga is broad and rich enough to sustain several feature films.

But I’ll take what I can get.

In 1977 the notion that I would some day get a John Carter movie — in a summer that will also bring me a Batman, Spider-Man, and Avengers movie — was more fantastic than John Carter slicing up a whole legion of the synthetic men of Mars. Three decades ago, the closest I could get to a John Carter movie was Marvel’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars comic series, and I bought every issue (and three annuals, too).

And boy oh boy did they stink!

I stayed with the book to the bitter end out of some misguided loyalty to the property but this run was terrible — terrible art, terrible storytelling, terrible design. Even the colors were terrible. And that the book was so poor despite the heartfelt efforts of some quite talented pros — like Marv Wolfman, Gil Kane, and Chris Claremont — points out how hard it is to get this story right (and simultaneously increases my respect for Frank Frazetta, even as it makes me that much more nervous for the movie).

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Marv Wolfman was one of the finest comic book writers of his day, and in the letter page editorial introducing the first issue, Wolfman says all the right things — how he’s loved the series since he was a boy, how he’s always wanted to do John Carter at Marvel, how Gil Kane was his perfect pick for penciller. He knew the books well enough to spot a multi-year gap buried between paragraphs at the end of A Princess of Mars in which to set his series, and he launched the book with an ambitious, twelve-part epic called “The Air Pirates of Mars” that showcased all the many weird races, landscapes, and creatures of Burroughs’ Mars.

But sometimes the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Wolfman never really made Barsoom his own — the humorless, first-person narration Burroughs uses is tiresome in the original books, and when Wolfman brings that style to the comic page it is positively deadly, offering little insight to the stoic John Carter while encumbering each page with a wall of words.

So, too, do Gil Kane’s pencils fail to impress. I’m massively indifferent to Kane, but even his most ardent supporters will find little to like here, in page after page that seem a tangle of red bodies and snarling faces. A John Carter artist must be a designer as much as a storyteller, and Kane was either incapable or totally disinterested in developing the look of John Carter’s world — his panels are almost entirely bereft of memorable architecture, costume design, or technology. There’s practically nothing about these pages that tells us we’re on Barsoom aside from a few extra limbs on the fauna.

all the parts are here, but I’m not feeling it

I re-read the series for this review and was appalled at how bland, dull, and lifeless were Burroughs’ creatures and characters when transferred to the comics page. In being so faithful to Burroughs, the series did Edgar a disservice, who even in 1977 was in need of an updating, but instead of cutting to the heart of Burroughs’ Barsoom — and giving us stories of romance, friendship, and loyalty — we get a kind of joyless Burroughs pastiche that fails by leagues to compare with the images that the novels conjured in my imagination.

Wolfman departs after a dozen issues, and Chris Claremont does a bit better job as scripter. In Claremont’s first issue, John Carter is poisoned, and presumably killed, so Claremont dismisses the first-person narrative form, and the series is better for it … for all of half an issue, then Carter is back telling us nothing and the book is all grinding gears again. Like Wolfman’s tale, Claremont’s “Master Assassin of Mars” story arc is too long, and not helped at all by a second-rate effort from artist Rudy Nebres as the book runs out the string.

I scoured the series for pages worth scanning, but couldn’t find much, aside from the splash page of a Dave Cockrum single-issue story, when Deja Thoris finally looks at least a little bit “incomparable” …

… and a dynamic page from a young Frank Miller, just finding his way as an artist at Marvel.

You also can find a few more decent pages over at the always-cosmic Mars Will Send No More … it’s too bad Alex Nino didn’t score a full-time gig on this book!

But really, this series is better left forgotten. For lifeless scripting, uninspired pencils, anachronistic storytelling, and utterly failing to deliver on the promise of Burroughs’ rich Barsoomian mythos, Marvel’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars earns the first failing grade on the idiosyncratic Longbox Graveyard report card. I’ve loaded my copies aboard a barge, set it aflame, and floated it down the River Iss … and am crossing the fingers on all four hands of my Tars Tarkas action figure that the great John Carter fares better in his feature film debut!

UPDATE: I’ve seen the movie now (in IMAX 3D no less) and while John Carter gets more things right than wrong, the things it does wrong pretty much kill it. I am stunned that Andrew Stanton (director of Wall-E) would get the heart and sentimentality of this story wrong, and it is deadly. Instead of focusing on the warm emotional relationships between John Carter, Tars Tarkas, Sola, Woola, and Dejah Thoris, we get a complicated story where a Thern conspiracy and a well-intentioned but boring Edgar Rice Burroughs framing sequence crowds out screen time that would have been better devoted to core character development. The movie looks good, the Green Men are great, and I was fine with most of the casting (I thought the smart and resourceful Deja Thoris was an especially welcome revision). But the movie races along at a breakneck pace, too strident, too shrill, too eager to please, and ultimately a confused muddle of names and places and pointless details that just distance us from the heart of the story. The film looked like it needed another month in the editing bay (and maybe there will be a better cut on home video some day), but the damage is done. This film was doomed out of the gate by Disney’s catastrophic marketing campaign and with the movie underdelivering in it’s opening weekend (pending only some massive international box office), poor John Carter is going to be one-and-done. I’m disappointed and not a little depressed that this franchise has been smothered in the crib. It could have been great … but now it goes on the shelf with other promising misfires like Firefly, Rocketeer, and Scott Pilgrim. Pixar got the story wrong! Who’d a thunk it? So sad.

  • Title: John Carter, Warlord of Mars
  • Published By: Marvel Comics, 1977-1979
  • Issues EXILED From The Longbox Graveyard: #1-28, June 1977-October 1979
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: F
  • Read The Reprints: Amazon

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #39 Barsoomian Beat-Down!

This Female Fights Back!

Longbox Graveyard #25

The 1970s were the decade when women’s rights entered American popular culture. Helen Reddy‘s “I Am Woman” hit #1 in 1972, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in an enormously-hyped tennis court battle of the sexes in 1973, and Archie Bunker’s battles with his liberated, live-in daughter (and every other ethnic and societal stereotype) were front-and-center in All In The Family, the top-rated television show from 1971-1976. The newsstand brought us Ms. Magazine, and a new version of Cosmopolitan aimed at young women. The state-by-state battle for ratification of the (ultimately doomed) Equal Rights Amendment was a premiere political story of the decade. Women’s Lib was happening, baby!

As a kid growing up in 1970s California I had a vague idea that women needed to be liberated from something, and I was pretty sure that being a “male chauvinist pig” was a bad thing. But being an adolescent comic book fan, I was mostly interested in women as sex objects. Throughout the late seventies and early eighties, Marvel Comics would appeal to my base yearnings with books like Red Sonja, Spider-Woman, She-Hulk, and Dazzler, but it was the first and the least provocative of the books introduced in that era that would best hold my attention — Ms. Marvel!

now you see her …

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You Might Also Like: Ms. Marvel Gallery

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When Ms. Marvel was introduced in late 1976, Marvel Comics was happy to co-opt the popular entertainment brand of feminism to promote the book. The mast-head told us that “THIS FEMALE FIGHTS BACK” (as opposed to the kind that doesn’t, I suppose), and the editorial filling in for the first issue’s letter column was an apologia by scripter Gerry Conway, who solemnly admitted that he was “… not totally liberated, (but) … know(s) enough to be aware that a problem exists, and to understand that we’re all susceptible to chauvinism at times,” before awkwardly explaining that Ms. Marvel wasn’t written by a woman because, “… at the moment there are no thoroughly trained and qualified women writers working in the super hero comics field.”

Because, as we all know, being a writer for Marvel comics required thorough training, like being a brain surgeon or an astronaut.

Which is to unjustly single-out Conway, because this sort of arm’s-length acknowledgement was kind of de rigueur for any sensitive issue at the time, and by addressing feminism as an issue at all, Marvel was actually being progressive.

Ms. Marvel wasn’t the only wonderful woman superhero of her time

I’ve no doubt Marvel hoped to court female readers with this title, and to close the gap with their “Distinguished Competition,” which had long outdistanced Marvel in the female superhero department, thanks to characters like Supergirl and Batgirl, to say nothing of Wonder Woman, who was enjoying television success at the time. But I’m even more certain Marvel hoped to get male readers onto this book, as all the female comics readers in the world (whatever their mythical numbers may have been) could not have been enough to sustain a Marvel book in the 1970s. The old salts in the bullpen may have had wonder stories to tell about the golden age of romance comics, but more relevant must have been the 18 million households that were watching Charlie’s Angels in the United States in 1977. The feminist movement had won women the right to go bra-less on network TV, and the merest hint of Farrah Fawcett’s nipple threatened to topple the Republic! This “women’s lib” stuff might make the book relevant, but jiggle TV was hot and in Ms. Marvel the House of Ideas had a property that could ride both waves.

With her blonde Kate Jackson swoopy-do and bare mid drift (that sometimes revealed a navel, take that, Barbara Eden!) Ms. Marvel might have been a pin-up heroine, but the stories never trended in that direction. By issue #3, Chris Claremont was aboard, bringing with him the imprimatur of writing strong female characters on Uncanny X-Men, and under his watch the book would never stoop to the wet t-shirt and butt shot antics of cheesecake books of later decades (and I say that with admiration, having scripted a dozen or so issue of Ex-Mutants, myself). Come issue #9, Ms. Marvel’s costume lost it’s bare front-and-back panels (largely to simplify coloring the character), and, more importantly, the no-nonsense alter ego of Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, had begun to assert herself.

… and now you see less of her

In refusing to write about Ms. Marvel as a “feminist hero,” Chris Claremont kinda-sorta made her … a genuine feminist hero. Other characters react to Ms. Marvel’s femininity, of course, but Ms. Marvel herself resists the temptation to strike a pose, put her fists on her hips, and remind everyone that she’s a woman (a rare thing in an otherwise on-the-nose era of comic book writing). And the book spends plenty of pages on “secret identity” stuff, too. Beneath her mask, Ms. Marvel is Carol Danvers, an honest-to-gosh 1970s female role model — single, a successful professional, unattached (and with a hint of doomed romance in her past), educated, and starting a second career as a magazine editor after having previously been a security chief for NASA.

It is this character of Carol Danvers that makes Ms. Marvel a diamond in the rough.

Danvers had a hot temper (easily trading barbs with her editor, Spider-Man nemesis J. Jonah Jameson) …

… but she also used her head in battle, employing fuzzy science to defeat more powerful foes with frankly ridiculous traps that she cobbled together on the spur-of-the-moment …

… but that schtick did help to separate her from the average Marvel meathead, reinforcing Ms. Marvel’s brainpower (and Claremont wasn’t above calling for a montage when he wanted to drive that particular point home) …

… and I suppose it is a cheap way to show Ms. Marvel’s “feminine side,” but she was also unique in seeming more concerned with the collateral damage of her super-powered antics than the male heroes of her day.

When I picked up this book in 1977 I might have had some vague sense of making a feminist statement, but mostly I was looking for a good new superhero book, and Ms. Marvel delivered.

Sort of.

With powers and costume based on a then-more-familiar Captain Marvel, the book seemed to suffer an identity crisis from the get-go, with the creative team rummaging through the storybook toolbox to give the character her own unique spin (she’s amnesic! she has precognition! she has phantom memories! she curses like Captain Marvel! she crosses over with Spider-Man! she doesn’t need Spidey anymore, now she has her own supporting cast!). When Chris Claremont signs on in issue #3 things start to settle in, but the book would still suffer for pitting Ms. Marvel against second-rate villains like Tiger Shark. The closest thing Ms. Marvel gets to an A-List villain is M.O.D.O.K., but that confrontation was sullied by having Carol sexually threatened by the villain, in a slimy dream sequence stimulated by M.O.D.O.K.’s mind-ripper beam.

If this is M.O.D.O.K.’s game, you have to wonder why he didn’t mindscrew Captain America or Iron Man when he had the chance. I suppose it is reasonable that Ms. Marvel’s gender makes her more vulnerable to the jerks she battles, but I contend it isn’t necessary. Fortunately, Carol puts paid to M.O.D.O.K. a few issues later and this run of the book doesn’t tread back into this kind of territory.

The truth is this is a forgettable run of superhero stories. The art is never better than serviceable, and when Ms. Marvel spent her twentieth issue fighting dumbass dinosaur men, I guess I’d had enough (because that’s where my collection runs out).

All these years later, I wish I’d stayed with the book, even though it only had another three issues to run. Not because I expect the stories got any better, but because in my recent read-through, I found I’d grown quite attached to Carol Danvers, the woman behind the Ms. Marvel mask. It meant nothing to me when I was a teen, but as a creepy grown-up reading comics in my garage, I found Carol Danvers refreshingly mature, well-realized, intelligent, and strong in ways that few female comic characters can claim. Against all odds, and maybe despite themselves, Marvel really did create a strong, iconic female superhero in Ms. Marvel (but then they cancelled the book, and passed the character around between different series, then raped her, then un-raped her, and turned her into a crypto-fascist, and gave her a second series) … but in truth I don’t want to know about any of the other brand withdrawals Marvel made with this character in the past three decades.

I’d kind of like my last memory of Ms. Marvel to be about a woman who was secure enough to take girlish joy in her own costume change.

Ms. Marvel was at best an average comic, but Ms. Marvel herself was a good and potentially a great character. I’m sorry it took me thirty-five years to realize it, but it did make for a pleasant surprise when I unearthed this run from the Accumulation. Still, Ms. Marvel deserved better. She deserved better villains and better art. She deserved better loyalty from me, instead of abandoning the book before it was over. She deserved to get off to a faster start rather than floundering around for a year while her readership went away. She deserved better of Marvel’s editors after her book was cancelled.

And she certainly deserved better than that “This Female Fights Back!” motto on her very first issue! Sheesh!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #26 Longbox Soapbox (Special Six Month Anniversary Issue!)

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