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!
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.
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.
You Might Also Like: Thanos & The Infinity Gauntlet
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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” …
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.
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.
… 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!
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!
- Bronze Age Babies — The Frightful Four (Are Brains Required for This Outfit?)
- Between The Pages — Two Villains Rule The World of Cakes: Darth Vader & Boba Fett
- Fantastiverse — Green Goblin: The Art of Villainy and Madness
- SuperHero Satellite — The Great Darkness Saga
- Chasing Amazing — Carnage: How I Helped Create This Monster
- Flodo’s Page — The Villainous Villainies of The Lamp-Lighter
- Retroist — Doom: Of Destiny & Denial
- Superior Spider-Talk — Peter Parker’s Parents
- Silver Age Sensations — The Voracious Villainy of The Crimson Dynamo!
- The Unspoken Decade — Godkillers: Doomsday and Bane
- The Daily Rios — JLA vs. The Beasts
(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!
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.
Listen in as we journey out into the cosmos, Marvel heroes style!