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The Death of Captain Marvel

Longbox Graveyard #169

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?

Well …

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:

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!

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Thanos: Love & Death

Longbox Graveyard #131

Today, my esteemed Super-Blog Team-Up pals and I are looking at our favorite comic book villains, and when it came time to pick subjects for our co-blogging project, it took me about a second to call, “Thanos!”

Then I had to ask myself why I’d picked Thanos.

Thanos & Gamora, by Jim Starlin

and here, Thanos may be asking HIMSELF why he picked Gamora!

Thanos is certainly fashionable, having headlined a score of comics series, and making a memorable appearance in the post-credits scene of 2012’s Avengers … but here at Longbox Graveyard I am stuck in 1978, and my affection for the Mad Titan goes back well before Thanos’ recent stardom.

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You Might Also Like: Thanos & The Infinity Gauntlet

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The easy answer is that I was an alienated teenaged boy in the 1970s, and alienated teenaged boys have a natural affinity for death gods who kill lots of people and sit on a throne of bones in their awesome Palace of Death. So, there’s that. But my attachment to Thanos ran deeper than his heavy metal trappings — and besides, plenty of people besides me like Thanos, and they’re not all alienated teenaged boys!

Thanos, by Jim Starlin

So there has to be something deeper going on with old purple-puss. And I think what sets Thanos apart is his motivation. Comics are full of megalomaniacs motivated by revenge, ego, greed, or a warped sense of justice, or even by trivialities, like being enraged over losing their hair. I think what fascinates me about Thanos — and what makes him great — is that when Thanos goes off on one of his periodic rampages trying to kill everyone in the universe, he isn’t doing it out greed or madness or a lust for power.

He’s doing it for love!

Thanos & Death, by Jim Starlin

It wasn’t always thus. When Thanos made his first appearance, in the peculiar Iron Man #55, Thanos was just another outer space Hitler. Supremely confident, our villain introduced himself as Thanos the First, soon-to-be-emperor of Earth.

Thanos, Jim Starlin, Iron Man #55

Iron Man would have none of it, and in concert with Thanos’ arch-enemy, the Destroyer (also introduced this issue), Shellhead quickly put paid to Thanos’ plans. That single-issue space opera might have been forgotten, had not Jim Starlin brought Thanos back when Marvel tossed him the keys to Captain Marvel several months later.

Thanos by Jim Starlin

But there was one very important addition for Thanos in his sophomore appearance, in the pages of Captain Marvel #26 … that ominous hooded figure to Thanos’ right! Thanos has given himself a promotion, saying that he will now shortly be Emperor of the Universe (!), but more importantly, he says that he “recognizes death as (his) only comrade.” It sounded like a metaphor, but it was so much more. If all Thanos wanted to do was spill blood while grinding the universe beneath his heel, he likely would have been consigned to the dustbin of history long ago. No, what makes Thanos a classic villian are not the things he does so much as the reason he does them — love.

There’s that word again — love!

It is a literal love of death that drives Thanos.

Thanos & Death, Jim Starlin

This is important, because it makes Thanos — for all his cosmic scope and scale — a relatable and even human figure. Outside of the occasional game of Risk, few of us will ever try to conquer the world … but all of us know what it means to be in love. Thanos’ love is twisted, dark, and evil, but it is still recognizably love, and when people are in love … they do crazy things.

Thanos by Jim Starlin

That root of human motivation serves to further illuminate another reason by Thanos is endlessly fascinating. In many way, Thanos is — us! It’s all right there, in the page of Captain Marvel #29, where Mar-Vell attains enlightenment in a brisk twenty pages, guided by the space god Eon, who narrates Marv’s battle with his “inner demon” …

Captain Marvel's inner demon, by Jim Starlin

Thanos is our hero’s “… cancerous other self. He is your hostility, your battle lust, the side of you which loves destruction, perpetuates hate and seeks death! He is your personal Thanos!

Ah ha! The circle closes! No wonder Thanos feels so personal (and small wonder that Starlin recalls conceiving of the character during a college psychology course). The way Thanos loves is obsessive, twisted, and wrong, and is just one of the many obsessive, twisted, and wrong things that lurk in the hearts of even the best of us.

Thanos, by Jim Starlin and Ron Lim

Finally, Thanos’ unrequited love of Death affords him one more critical component that all classic characters must have — a weakness! To love is to expose yourself, to trust another person with your deepest secrets and longings. In courting death, Thanos has chosen … poorly.

Death and Thanos, by Jim Starlin

… and it is not just that Death refuses to return Thanos’ love, delighting instead in manipulating and tormenting him. Plenty of people are stuck in dysfunctional relationships — and this makes Thanos that much more relatable — but more important is that this mass murderer has a wounded heart. He is a slave to love. Again, this is something to which we can all relate … and is infinitely more interesting that a vulnerability to glowing space rocks, or the color yellow!

This most cosmic of villains has the most human failings of all. That’s the reason I so love Thanos — there’s a little Thanos in all of us!

Mr. & Mrs. Thanos, on holiday

Thanos & Death — holiday snapshot!

And while I could go on about Thanos all day, I’m going to hold myself to a thousand words, both so I do not further try your patience, and also so you’ll have time to explore some of the other villain-focused articles that are part of today’s Super-Villain Team-Up. Please mouse on over to any or all of the articles below — and tell them Longbox Graveyard sent you!

(And when you’ve explored all of Super-Blog Team-Up, please be sure to share your thoughts on Thanos in the comments section, below!)

IN TWO WEEKS: #132 The Coming Of … The Falcon!

Longbox Graveyard Podcast: Marvel Comics — A Space Odyssey

I’ve always had affection for Marvel’s “cosmic” heroes, and now Hollywood is catching up with me, thanks to the pending big-screen debut of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Cosmic Comic Heroes, Jim Starlin

 

Listen in as we journey out into the cosmos, Marvel heroes style!

Click here to listen!

Blown Away!

Longbox Graveyard #123

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 trademarkCaptain 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.

Sort of.

(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.

This article original appeared at StashMyComics.com.

IN TWO WEEKS: #124 Ret-Con: Roy Thomas And Earth-2

Welcome To The Wonderful World Of Cosmics

This week’s F.O.O.M. Friday rockets ahead to F.O.O.M. #9, with a Jim Starlin cover and a subject focus that blew my twelve-year-old mind back in 1974.

F.O.O.M. #9 cover by Jim Starlin

I liked Silver Surfer and (especially) Captain Marvel before receiving this issue of Marvel’s in-house fan magazine, but it was the first time I thought of these characters as belonging to a specific genre.

The mag even coined a term for this new comics genre with a clever bit of wordplay:

Welcome To The Wonderful World Of Cosmics

I loved thinking of these stories as “cosmics,” rather than “comics” — it made the stories seem so much bigger, and more consequential. This clever bit of branding helped bind me to Marvel’s cosmic heroes for decades to come … and it is an obsession that continues to this day, as one look at this list of the many “cosmic” subjects I’ve tackled here at Longbox Graveyard will attest!

The articles in this particular issue of F.O.O.M. weren’t especially memorable, but that cover is as fresh today as when I plucked it from my mailbox almost forty years ago. Yeesh! I’m getting as old as The Watcher!

See you back here next week for another F.O.O.M. Friday!

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