Super-Blog Team-Up returns with a Doctor Strange-driven look at magic in comics! Now, Halloween was last week, so I’m a couple days late for Dracula, but with his movie out this week, I’m right on time for Doctor Strange … and it’s always time for Bronze Age Marvel here at Longbox Graveyard. So let’s jump right in as Doctor Strange battles Dracula, Lord of Vampires!
This two-part crossover began in Tomb of Dracula #44, smack-dab in the middle of the classic run by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan, and Tom Palmer. I’ve sung the praises of Tomb of Dracula here at Longbox Graveyard before (twice!) — it really might have been the finest Marvel comic of its age. And one of the reasons the book worked so well was that writer and editor Marv Wolfman largely kept Dracula and his tales sequestered from the rest of the Marvel Universe. While Drac would encounter Spider-Man and Thor in other titles, Marv jealously guarded the door of Dracula’s own book, ceding to editorial pressure to more closely connect Tomb of Dracula with the Marvel Universe only through crossovers with otherworldly and supernatural characters like Silver Surfer, Brother Voodoo, and (in our case) Doctor Strange!
The first part of the tale, written by Marv Wolfman, opened with Strange mourning the death of his faithful manservant, Wong, beneath the flashing fangs of a vampire!
Just look at Gene Colan’s smokey pencils, beautifully illuminated by Tom Palmer’s perfect inks! There’s never been a better team for supernatural comics storytelling!
But this wasn’t just any vampire — this was Dracula, the Lord of Vampires, as Strange discovered when his sorcery allowed him to experience Wong’s final moments.
Harnessing the fathomless powers of the All-Seeing Eye of Agamotto (which then, as now, could do about anything the writer needed it to do), Doctor Strange tracked the “life-patterns” of Dracula from the scene of the crime to Dracula’s lair in Boston.
I love how Colan’s “camera” pushes in on Dracula, starting with his open coffin, then Dracula in repose, and then Dracula alert to Strange’s intrusion. Looking at this sequence, did you “see” Dracula’s eyes snap open between the last two panels? That’s the magic of comics, boys and girls — like Scott McCloud noted, comics are as much about what you don’t see between the panels as what you see in the panels themselves.
After that? Well, it’s on!
But this battle between Dracula and Strange wasn’t the usual Marvel Comics Fist City beat-down, and it wasn’t even a garden-variety Doctor Strange ectoplasmic duel of ghosts.
No, to battle Dracula, Strange invoked the “Images of Ikonn” to delve into Dracula’s “passions and fears,” taking Dracula back to the moment his mortal self fell on the battlefield in a cavalry duel with Turkish invaders.
It’s kind of dirty pool, to be honest.
For a couple panels, there, we could almost sympathize with Dracula, and this was intentional. Marv Wolfman considered Dracula the “protagonist” of Tomb of Dracula, rather than the hero, but as readers we still needed to get on board with Dracula, and moments like this served to humanize him. We see Dracula as a mortal terrified of his pending (un)death, we see his noble sacrifice in defense of his homeland, and can kind of feel bad for him … but it doesn’t take much for Dracula to revert to form, showing the dark side of his noble nature with his incredulity that this conflict originated with the death of “… a mere hireling … a cretinous menial … a whimpering domestic.”
(Don’t take a job with Dracula, folks).
Taken aback by Dracula’s sudden recovery — and reluctant to use his “more potent magics” for fear of rendering Dracula incapable of restoring Wong to life — Doctor Strange was quickly mesmerized by Dracula.
Mesmerized … and slain!
How’s that for a vintage Marvel shock ending? Doctor Strange is dead? Say it isn’t so!
Fortunately, we needn’t wait even one week to see how this one turns out … the tale continued in Doctor Strange #14!
While this issue was written by Steve Englehart (who firmly put his stamp on the story, as we shall see), the book was illustrated by the self-same team of Colan and Palmer, and also edited by Marv Wolfman, resulting in an unusually coherent crossover, at least by Marvel standards.
The issue opened with Dracula gloating over his fallen foe, casting Strange’s body into a dungeon, where he might rot until rising, three days later, as Dracula’s undead slave.
But in his arrogance, Dracula didn’t reckon that Doctor Strange might be “no stranger to death,” as we learn that Strange escaped death by leaving his body instants before Dracula killed him at the end of last issue. But now, Strange was trapped outside his body, in astral form, with only three days to concoct a solution to his dilemma.
So what did Strange do?
Why, he thought, of course!
But all the thinking in the world didn’t solve Doc’s trouble. After trying to distract Dracula with visions and spells — and nearly catching Dracula out in the daylight — Strange was still a helpless, disembodied spectator when Dracula returned three days later. But Dracula was taking no chances, and in an odd reversal of roles, he sought to put a final end to the undead Doctor Strange with a stake through the heart!
Right on cue, Strange rose as a vampire, and we finally got some fist-and-fang action, as Dracula battled with a thing that was not-quite-Strange: Doctor Strange’s body, given in to dark vampiric impulses, while Strange’s conscience was helpless to intervene.
And it didn’t take long for Dracula to gain the upper hand against a Doctor Strange reduced to bestial impulses.
I love it when Drac calls someone a “clod.” If your boss calls you a clod — or “cretin,” another favorite — then he’s probably a super-villian
It’s when Dracula had Doctor Strange on the ropes that something intriguing and even a little profound occurred. When Dracula asserted himself as “Lord” while strangling the life from Strange, from the depths of his possessed soul, Doctor Strange called on the power of the Christian god to save his life!
It’s a bold turn of events, and something Steve Englehart didn’t shy away from — he once featured God Himself in a Doctor Strange story, then authored a bogus fan letter to deflect scrutiny — but what’s most interesting to me about this moment is what it asks about Doctor Strange’s own spirituality.
Does Doctor Strange believe in the Christian god, or is He just another deity in the Rolodex, to be invoked like Cyttorak or Vishanti? In his moment of greatest extremis, it is the Christian god that Strange turns to for salvation. Is Strange a man of faith, or is he just happy to use the best tool at hand?
Either way, that cross-like burst of light sure did the job …
Strange’s body and soul become one again even as Dracula is sent down to defeat, but Englehart implies that the will and even the cruelty required to overcome Dracula’s evil doesn’t come entirely from the divine force Strange invoked — that the “… true Dr. Strange would find no pleasure in his (Dracula’s) pain … that his tormentor (Strange) has been touched with Dracula’s own evil …” This conclusion points to an (ahem) strange duality, with the power of God getting Strange back on his feet, but Dracula’s own dark power of evil being the special sauce that let Strange finish the deed and kill Dracula for all time.
(Or at least until the next issue of Tomb of Dracula!)
And with Strange’s (and Wong’s) souls miraculously restored through Dracula’s death (could Drac have died for their sins? Nah …), that brings this tale to a close, and with it this installment of Longbox Graveyard!
It’s been awhile since I posted here, and it feels good! I hope to make this a more regular occurrence — please let me know what you think of this story and Steve Englehart’s Strange cosmology in the comments section below!
But, before you go — it took the awesome power of Super-Blog Team-Up to wake Longbox Graveyard from its Odinsleep … assuming you view this as a welcome development, please pay your thanks forward by visiting these other Super-Blog Team-Up articles, all looking at some form of “Strange” Magic!
- Between The Pages: The Wondrous Worlds of Doctor Strange
- Chris Is On Infinite Earths: Batman Visits The Sanctum Sanctorum
- Crapbox of Cthulhu: The Makings of a Sorcerer Supreme — Optimism And Sacrifice
- Coffee And Comics: Doctor Strange — Journey To The East
- DC In The 80s: The Immortal Doctor Fate
- The Unspoken Decade: Nighttime Sunburn — The Rise of the Midnight Sons
- Retroist: The Other Doctor Strange Movie
- Superhero Satellite: Strange Magic
Welcome back to The Dollar Box, a where I look at comics with an original cover price of a dollar or less. This month I break format to review not one but three comics … and these aren’t exactly classic comics. But these are still fun comics — if for all the wrong reasons — with superior art, an A-list villain, and the first appearance of a mid-major Marvel character … who might not be so “mid” anymore, following news that Sam Wilson — the Falcon — is the new Captain America!
So without further apology, I present Captain America #117-119 — “The Coming of … The Falcon!”
There’s a whole goofy backstory to this particular tale, but have no fear, True Believer — it’s all summed up on the splash page to Captain America #117, which is nakedly expository even by Stan Lee standards.
OK, so the Red Skull has used the power of the Cosmic Cube to swap bodies with Captain America, and has teleported our hero to the “Isle of the Exiles,” which is inhabited by foes of the Red Skull, who will take a dim view of “Cap Skull” appearing in their midst. Got it? Good! Because if that goes down hard, break out the bourbon! There’s a lot more to swallow …
… starting with the Exiles, the aforementioned villains of this issue. Among Jack Kirby’s lesser creations, the Exiles were introduced in Tales of Suspense #41. They’re a group of would-be world conquerors and former allies of the Red Skull, and boy, do these guys like to carry a grudge. They have names, and powers after a fashion, but I won’t burden you with them. Suffice to say that their leader is a guy in a wheelchair who gets pushed around on a beach (which must really make everyone cranky).
The Exiles fight with fearsome weapons, like a really nasty scarf.
I kid you not.
The Red Skull is particularly amused to see his Cap-self waltz around with these tools, but then makes a mistake they covered on the first day of class in Supervillain 101, tuning out on Cap’s struggles before his opponent’s inevitable demise.
Yep, that’s right up there with leaving Batman alone in a death trap, or leaving the self-destruct lever to your secret base in the “up” position right next to the coat hook. I might charitably allow that the limitless power afforded by the Cosmic Cube has made the Red Skull careless, but it’s probably more accurate to say that writing this story in fifteen minutes or less made Stan Lee careless.
But maybe we can forgive the Red Skull his indulgence. This is a man with a plan!
Hitting the streets of Manhattan in the body of Captain America, the Skull laughs behind-hand at the unreserved affection afforded Captain America.
(Or maybe this is the way Cap really feels about his fans. Wouldn’t THAT make for a story!)
Yes, the Red Skull is on the loose in Captain America’s body, performing unspeakable acts of evil, like stiffing a cabbie on his fare!
Is there no bottom to the Red Skull’s villainy??
After checking into a hotel under Cap’s name, we leave the skull to run up a big room service tab — which I’m sure the scoundrel has no intention of paying — and return to Exile Island, where Cap/Skull has been rescued from scarf welts on his bum by the timely intercession of a mysterious falcon.
And this, my friends, is the first handshake between Steve Rogers and his soon-to-be-partner, Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon. You can be forgiven for not recognizing our heroes, given that Cap is in the body of the Red Skull, and that he’s removed his Red Skull mask and given himself a disguise with mud “just like he used to do in World War II.”
I swear to you, friends, I am not making this up.
Not missing a beat, Cap does what any brain-swapped superhero would do when meeting a big city brother and his pet bird on a remote island — he tells Sam that he needs to don a costume, call himself the Falcon, and fight crime! (“Don’t knock it, fella! It’s been known to work!”)
It all seems rather sudden, and Stan and Gene must have realized as much, because they’ve reached the end of the issue without actually introducing the character promised on the cover! To redress the oversight, the final panel of issue #117 is a kind of suit-up montage, giving us a look at the Falcon and warning us not to miss the next issue!
The month between issues does nothing to dissuade Cap from his crazy plan, and so confident is the body-swapped Sentinel of Liberty that Sam decides to go along with it.
“Stranger things have happened, Sam!”
(No, they haven’t).
If it’s training time, then there’s only one solution — montage! In the space of a page or two, Sam Wilson is … The Falcon!
Yes, it’s a cheesy origin, and the first African-American superhero in comics deserved better than meeting his date with destiny after answering a want ad for a falconer on a remote tropical island (which happens all the time, of course). In the scheme of things, though, maybe we should have been satisfied … Steve Englehart would later reveal that Sam was a mobbed-up pimp who had his memories manipulated by the Cosmic Cube. Later still, the Falcon would become a mutant (during those halcyon days when Marvel made everyone into mutants) before going back to … I dunno.
I really can’t tell you what the Falcon’s origin is supposed to be.
Let’s never speak of this again.
With his training montage complete, the Falcon and Cap/Skull win their return engagement with the still hopelessly-lame Exiles. Stan channels his Sgt. Fury days by busting out an “Ach Du Lieber!” so you know it is ON!
With issue #119, our fortunes improve — a little — as the Red Skull tires of this body-swapping nonsense. Resuming his true form, the Skull constructs a Bavarian stronghold through the power of the Cosmic Cube, then summons Cap/Skull and the Falcon to meet their final doom.
And the Skull is not messing around this time. Even Redwing — the Falcon’s “accursed bird” — isn’t safe from the Red Skull’s vengeance!
Thus begins a rather silly fight between the Skull, Falcon, and Cap, which sees the Red Skull restore Cap to his correct form (just because he wants to), before using the unlimited power of converting wishes-into-reality to trap poor Redwing in a birdcage.
Still, the addition of an A-list villain like the Red Skull can’t help but raise the rent of this wobbly tale.
Unfortunately, no sooner does the story start to groove along to fist city with our colorfully costumed characters than it is over, and right out of left field. A subplot running through these issues is finally resolved, as Modok — entirely off-stage, mind you — creates a MacGuffin that nullifies the Cosmic Cube, which he just happens to activate when the Skull was about to blast our heroes into atoms.
Sorry, Cap, it wasn’t “fate” that punched the Red Skull’s ticket, but rather the most heavy-handed of story conceits, a genuine deus ex machina. (Modok Ex Machina?) Either way, it’s an unsatisfying end to an uneven tale. Maybe Stan wrote himself into a corner and didn’t know how to conclude his story, or maybe he was just exhausted after three issues of body-swapping silliness. I know I’m exhausted just from reading it!
Which seems like as good a reason as any to bring this month’s Dollar Box to a close. I’ve probably been a little too hard on Captain America #117-119. Goofy as it is, the first appearance of the Falcon drives the price of #117 — despite that .15 cover price — up past the $20.00 mark, and the later two issues will set you back five or ten dollars, as well. After all, these issues feature fine Gene Colan art, and some good scenery-chewing from the Red Skull. You also get the Cosmic Cube and a cameo from Modok. It’s probably not that much sillier than the usual Silver Age story … but even so, I doubt even Ed Brubaker could make this tale seem reasonable in a modern context.
And maybe that’s OK. Maybe it’s kind of a wonderful thing that the Falcon traces his origin to answering an ad for a falconer wanted on a remote island inhabited by costumed Nazi war criminals, and that he received his superhero training from a body-swapped Captain America inhabiting the disguised body of an unmasked Red Skull.
Yeah, sure it is …
(This article originally appeared at Stash My Comics).
NEXT WEEK: #133 Longbox Soapbox (Summer 2014)
FOOM #13 was all about Daredevil!
That Gene Colan cover is the coolest bit about this issue, but there are a few nuggets, if you look for them.
For example, there are several character reference sheets for Daredevil and his supporting cast from the immortal Wally Wood:
There was also this quote from Marv Wolfman, offering insight on what distinguished ol’ Hornhead from his Marvel brethren, circa 1976:
(Daredevil) is — as far as I can tell — Marvel’s only crime-fighter. All the other characters have other shticks that they do: Spider-Man isn’t so much a crime-fighter; he fights super villains. Half-the-time I’m not even quite sure why, or what the super villain has done. For instance, there’s a three-part story running now with Dr. Octopus and Hammerhead, but so far as I can tell, no one’s committed any crime. It’s just that they’re super villains, that a good enough reason to stage the issues. Thor fights the Asgardian characters and everything else. The FF fight space monsters or creatures or earth-shaking menaces. Most of our super-heroes tend not to actually fight crime. They fight other things connected with it.
So, Daredevil, being, in a sense, Marvel’s only crime-fighter, you can do slightly different-type storylines; in fact you almost have to … Secondly, Matt Murdoch is one of the few, I think, intelligent adults in the Marvel universe, who actually has to work for a living. Peter Parker is only a part-time worker because he’s basically a student … Tony Stark is a multi-millionaire. Most of our characters don’t have to work to support themselves. Matt, on the other hand, would be in serious trouble if he weren’t being paid for the legal work he does. So, Matt is of interest.
Marv goes on to comment about how the book originated as a shadow of Spider-Man, but had neither the supporting cast nor the villains of that book. It is an interesting look at a character during a time that no one could recognize as being the end of an era for Daredevil. The last issue listed in this magazine’s then-up-to-date Daredevil index is #134 … three issues after the first appearance of Bullseye, and twenty-four issues before Frank Miller would join the book with issue #158, and finally propel Daredevil to the ranks of Marvel’s A-list books.
See you back here next week for another FOOM Friday!
… and there’s a feature film on the way in 2014, set to feature my old pal Star-Lord.
And here is the FULL movie trailer!
You are forgiven for wondering how the heck this is happening. DC Comics still can’t get a Justice League movie on track and Marvel is bringing a B-team to the big screen? Actually, calling them a B-team is giving them all the best of it. The Guardians of the Galaxy are a tertiary property (on their best day), and I really can’t explain how they’ve been fast-tracked for stardom. I’ve enjoyed their recent comics series but this seems a gigantic risk.
But while I can’t explain the inner workings of Hollywood, I can write about something close to home — namely the Guardians of the Galaxy themselves!
No, I don’t mean these guys …
I mean these guys!
These are the original Guardians, circa 1969, as imagined by writer Arnold Drake and artist Gene Colan for the cover of Marvel Super-Heroes #18. From left-to-right we have Major Vance Astro (cryogenically-preserved spaceman of the 1980s), Charlie-27 (Jovian militiaman), Martinex (genetically-engineered inhabitant of Pluto), and the weapons-master Yondu, last survivor of Alpha Centauri IV!
Yes, the Guardians had been kicking around the Marvel Universe for decades before the Guardians of the Galaxy trademark was resurrected for the post-Annihilation series of the same name in 2008. The original Guardians were nomads of the spaceways, perpetual guest-stars and try-out book headliners that took decades to (sort of) break through and earn a book of their own.
They’re just the kind of obscure and loveable losers that I can’t resist here at Longbox Graveyard!
The team’s fast-paced origin story in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 doesn’t afford a chance to do much more than put names to faces. Earth and her colonies have come beneath the heel of the baleful Badoon, a race of remorseless, reptillian interstellar conquerers, and our four heroes are the last of their kind — genetically-engineered human colonists of the outer planets, indigenous aliens, or star-lost men from the past. When the story is complete, our heroes have come together and pledged to liberate a captive earth …
… and that might have been the end for this one-and-done science fiction superhero team, had not Tony Isabella and Steve Gerber conspired to resurrect them. A full five years passed before the Guardians next appeared, in Marvel Two-In-One #4 and #5. Written by Steve Gerber, these issues saw Captain America and the Thing transported into the future, where they met the Guardians and helped continue the fight to free the earth from the Badoon.
It was an action-packed and frankly bizarre tale (though not bizarre in the usual Steve Gerber way — that would come later). What was most strange was that these Guardians were given a second chance at all. This kind of intellectual property dumpster-diving was more Roy Thomas’ line of work, who delighted in unearthing Golden Age treasures for Silver Age audiences. Interested as he was in socially-relevant superhero stories, it’s hard to understand what Steve Gerber saw in these intergalactic freedom fighters — yet there they were, in all their generic Sal Buscema glory, clobbering bad guys along with Ben Grimm in the pages of his team-up book.
I bought that issue of Marvel Two-In-One off the rack in 1974 — I liked it at the time, and it even fared well in my recent re-read of the full run of Two-In-One. I think I responded to “Superheroes In Spaaaaaace!” and there was something cool about discovering these obscure characters. As a tender youth of twelve this was a mind-expanding moment for me, first-hand proof that the “Marvel Universe” consisted not just of Spider-Man swinging around Manhattan, but also a cosmos full of aliens and forgotten freedom fighters, with a future history our heroes may or may not be doomed to live out. I was also taken with the story of Major Vance Astro, who sacrificed his humanity to explore the stars, only to find out he’d been made obsolete before his voyage had scarcely begun.
Gerber so liked the team that he used them again in Defenders #26-29, more firmly cementing them into the Marvel Universe, and doing a bit of clean-up work on the Guardians’ origin and backstory. After crashing the Guardians’ time-lost ship on Earth in Giant-Size Defenders #5, Gerber teamed the Guardians with Doctor Strange, Nighthawk, Valkyrie, and the Hulk to mostly put paid to the Badoon occupation of Earth. Along the way, he indulged in some characteristic Steve Gerber weirdness (casting the Hulk in a kill-crazy reality television show!), but he also fleshed out the Guardians mythos by showing us peculiar details of Badoon culture, and constructing an elaborate future history for the series, which included ozone depletion, bionics, world war, and even a Martian invasion (resisted by a guy named Killraven).
That Defenders run is also notable for introducing Starhawk, a character I’m still trying to wrap my head around going on four decades later. Starhawk is an enigma, popping up unbidden, referring to himself as “The One Who Knows,” and winging off to his weirdly prosaic little house on the galactic prairie between adventures …
… which was all well and good, but the Guardians themselves were still a reasonably unknown quantity at this point, and there seemed plenty of stories to tell about the original cast without introducing a mysterious new character. Starhawk would be even more front-and-center (literally!) in the Guardians solo series that kicked off in Marvel Premiere #3.
It took seven years, but thanks to Steve Gerber’s efforts, the Guardians of the Galaxy had finally earned a series of their own! But now that the Guardians had the stage to themselves, this pack of perpetual second bananas seemed a little lost. First, there was the distracting presence of the enigmatic Starhawk, who seemed to suck the air out of every scene, gazing into the distance and promising that in time all will be revealed while the rest of the Guardians (and at least one reader) wished he’d just get to the point. Second, Gerber decided that the Guardians’ war against the Badoon had run its course, and wrapped up our heroes’ raison d’etre the the final defeat of the Badoon in the first issue of their solo run. Once again, Starhawk was on hand with moralistic advice about how the defeated Badoon should be treated, courtesy of one of Gerber’s signature typed-text pages.
Gerber’s vision was for the Guardians of the Galaxy to start living up to their name, and to guard not just Earth, but the Galaxy, and so our heroes were packed aboard a starship and sent off to confront a mysterious being at the center of space. All well and good, but it wouldn’t be long before the series took a turn for the silly, first when that mysterious being turned out to be a giant space frog …
… and then when — with all the universe to choose from — Steve Gerber had the Guardians land on an alien asylum planet that just happened to be a weird replica of New York’s Times Square.
In this run of Guardians of the Galaxy we found out the hard way that the cosmic wonder of the Marvel Universe matters only so much as it is connected to our mundane lives here on Earth. Galactus can eat all the planets he likes — but it’s just backstory until he confronts the Fantastic Four over the fate our our planet. Thanos can destroy half the universe with a snap of his fingers, but what we really care about is what happened to Mary Jane Watson. In a fictional construct as interconnected as the Marvel Universe, you strike out on your own at your peril, and by putting our men of action on the bridge of a starship and having them fly off on an abstract adventure with one-off characters in places we’d never seen before, Gerber unfortunately delivered stories that provided the worst of all worlds.
If the plotting was a drag, Gerber did wring some personality from our heroes. Yondu got to be a noble savage, and he did tricks with his bow (always the same damn trick, but it was better than nothing). Martinex became more brainy and alien. All of our characters came to feel like outcasts and freaks as the last of their kind. Vance started to behave erratically, living in a shipboard room reconstructed from his memories as a twelve-year-old …
Gerber added a female Guardian, too, but the team just never seemed to jell in their own series — absent outsized personalities like Ben Grimm or the Hulk or Doctor Strange to play off of, the Guardians were revealed as a B-team of generic comic heroes without a cause.
The series went into rapid decline as the big energy frog storyline wrapped up. A Silver Surfer reprint was awkwardly shoe-horned into issue #8, and then Steve Gerber would transition off the book in favor of Roger Stern, who finally revealed Starhawk’s origin — a messy mash-up of alien prophecies and a vaguely incestuous body-sharing relationship between step-siblings that somehow involved a giant Hawkman robot.
It was a mess, and so was the book by this point, so it was a bit of a relief when the series met its inevitable demise after issue #12.
I will admit to being a bit disappointed revisiting the Guardians after all these years. But the improbable tale of the Guardians of the Galaxy was far from over. They would next appear in Thor Annual #6 to kick off of one of the biggest Avengers events of the decade … but that is a tale for another time!
(And for those of you who soldiered to the end of this article looking for relevant information about the new Guardians of the Galaxy, check out this excellent scorecard at Comic Book Resources).
- Title: Guardians of the Galaxy
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1969-1977
- Issues Reviewed By The Longbox Graveyard: Marvel Super-Heroes #18, Marvel Two-In-One #4-5, Defenders #26-29, Marvel Presents #3-12
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C-minus
- Own The Reprints: Earth Shall Overcome and The Power of Starhawk
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #94 Flame On!
I’ve been on a Captain Marvel kick. Earlier this month, I wrote about Jim Starlin‘s swan song in Captain Marvel #34 for my Dollar Box column at StashMyComics.com, and one of my first articles here at Longbox Graveyard was on Starlin’s full Captain Marvel run in the 1970s. But what has most interested me recently is the original Marvel Comics take on Mar-Vell … the stranger from Kree in the funky old white-and-green uniform who first came to earth in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes #12, in 1967.
I shouldn’t be nostalgic for this character. This isn’t “my” Captain Marvel, as I came to the character well after Marv had adopted his more-familiar red-and-blue cosmic space togs:
I really can’t defend my affection for the original Mar-Vell. I think his 1950s space aesthetic look is retro-cool (and Neal Adams agrees) …
… but by any measure this is a pretty hopeless character. Marvel’s Captain Marvel was published only to assert a trademark claim after rights to the original Captain Marvel, published by bankrupt Fawcett Comics, were coming up for renewal. Only the need to assert control over that name has kept the character around this past (near) half-century, through a series of cancellations and revolving creative teams. In fact, the character might be best known for his death!
But I come here not to bury Captain Marvel, but to praise him!
If you look at this character in the rear-view mirror AND you squint just the right way AND you exclude some of his less-inspiring adventures, you kinda-sorta arrive at one of the few genuinely complete character arcs in superhero comics. In a sum-of-the-parts equation — and completely by accident — Captain Marvel backs into being a mature and well-rounded fictional character, with a beginning, a middle, and an end; victories and defeats, loves and losses, significant transformation and a meaningful death. This unlikeliest of comic book characters — himself little more than a walking trademark case — has by strange twist of publication fate avoided the curse of the “eternal now” imposed on these ultimately-unchanging heroes of ours, some of whom have been in print as twenty-something-year-old crime fighters for seventy-five years or more.
We’re not talking Moby Dick here. I’m making my case for Captain Marvel — like all the comics I review at Longbox Graveyard — against the backdrop of other superhero comics of the past century, not against the timeless classics of world literature. But here in our four-color subculture I do think this tertiary character of Captain Marvel deserves greater study and respect. He’ll never be a Batman or a Superman or a Spider-Man, and I doubt he’ll ever get screen time in a Marvel movie (though with Rocket Raccoon on the way, stranger things have happened), but I do think Mar-Vell is a more complex and worthy figure than we’ve given him credit for, and I’m going to tell you why.
Sorting out this character’s powers and history is above my pay grade, but I will try.
We first encounter our hero as part of a Kree response team tasked with finding out how one of their innumerable sentries had gotten whacked back in issue #64 of Fantastic Four. In this, the basic plot of Captain Marvel borrows from a classic science fiction trope — the tale of the super-advanced alien race keeping tabs on earth’s development, which we’ve seen in pictures as diverse as The Day The Earth Stood Still and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Kree are militaristic, imperialistic, paranoid, and (to judge by our hero’s murderous crew) eager to abuse their authority when far from the home office — early issues of Captain Marvel make much of the Captain’s superior, Colonel Yon-Rogg, trying to get Marvel killed so he can make time with Marv’s lover, the beautiful ship’s medic, Una.
with friends like these …
It’s worth saying something about our hero’s name. The book is called Captain Marvel, but the character is Mar-Vell, a Captain in the Kree military. Yeah, I know, it’s a real groaner, but it gets (a little) easier the more you say it. Aside from providing a convenient reason for our hero to have a trademarked name, Mar-Vell also conjures images of another strange visitor from another planet who becomes a defender of Earth — Kal-El, better known as Superman. Like Superman, Marvel enjoys enhanced strength and leaping abilities thanks to Earth’s reduced gravity. Confusingly, he also has a jet belt (but I thought he could leap tall buildings …?), and a “Kree battle suit” that helps him absorb damage. His signature weapon is the “Uni-Beam,” which is a laser, basically, though scripter Roy Thomas would later characterize it as a special “lens” that could channel all kinds of light effects, maybe groping towards something like the eponymous device from E.E. Doc Smith’s 1930s Lensman science fiction pulp series.
Mar-Vell is also weakened by exposure to Earth’s atmosphere, and he has to gobble down potions once every couple hours or he’ll suffocate like a fish out of water, and there are other wrinkles that are too tedious to mention, and also unimportant, because this character’s abilities and powers would prove ever-changing as subsequent creative teams re-built him on the fly. What is important about these early stories is what they establish about Mar-Vell — that he is a Kree war hero who loves his homeland but is also a man apart in that he does not blindly follow orders, and has compassion for the people of Earth. He has a keen tactical mind, and he’s a man of honor who respects the chain of command, even when his immediate commander is an incompetent dolt deliberately trying to get him killed.
Mar-Vell is also a bit of a fool when it comes to politics, letting himself get railroaded into a sham trial where he is judged guilty of treason against the Kree race, then becoming a pawn of Ronan the Accuser in his plot to overthrow the Kree Supreme Intelligence. The stories can be tough sledding to read today, but in retrospect they serve to explain why the loyal Kree Captain Marvel first turns against his home planet, then later comes to reject his militaristic ethos entirely when he achieves enlightenment during a mystical transformation in issue #29.
But that is getting ahead of ourselves, as Marv still has a series of lesser transformations to experience, including a new Gil Kane-designed costume, and blast of radiation that confines him to the Negative Zone, which he can escape only by clashing together the Nega-Bands on his wrists, and changing places with his Earth-born sidekick, Rick Jones (late of sidekicking it up with the likes of Captain America and The Hulk).
My defense of this character is starting to argue against itself, with sentences like that last, but these are comic books and external transformations like new costumes and powers are a big deal. The gimmick of linking Captain Marvel with Rick Jones also harkened to the relationship between the original Fawcett Captain Marvel and Billy Batson, while making Marvel a prisoner of the Negative Zone was a more actionable and dramatic weakness than the hoary old gotta-drink-my-atmosphere-potion liability. By fits and starts, Mar-Vell was transforming into a capable superhero who was no longer a captive of his heritage, his equipment, or his adopted home, and who was now able to roam the spaceways and chart his own destiny in life.
this never happened, but it is one of several cross-company superhero showdowns you can see at the blog of this Simpsons artist
Not all of Marv’s transformations are external. His interior life is also one of change. His romance with Una ends in her death, caught in the crossfire of Mar-Vell’s betrayal by his Kree masters, providing an early shadow of tragedy for a hero who will be characterized in many ways by the things he has lost. One-by-one, Mar-Vell’s identity is stripped away — his rank, his heritage, his homeland, his reputation are all lost.
A two-year period of cancellation of Captain Marvel between issues #21 and #22 saw Marv better integrated into the rest of the Marvel universe through guest appearances, most notably at the center of the Kree-Skrull war, one of the first great Marvel Comics cross-overs (and which I wrote about here). But it is when the character returns in his own book that he becomes something special, especially when Jim Starlin assumes full creative duties with issue #27.
I’ve already written about Starlin’s Captain Marvel, and while I was a bit dismissive of the stories, I didn’t mean to be dismissive of what they meant. The issues from this era are for the most part energetic and stylish superhero fist operas, characterized by Starlin’s emerging talents as a comic book storyteller, but they are also notable for the development of Thanos as an A-list Marvel villain, and for Mar-Vell’s transformation into a “cosmically aware” warrior in the cause of life and balance in the universe.
The “Cosmic Awareness” Mar-Vell gains in issue #29 of his book is an ill-defined concept, and not even Jim Starlin seems to know entirely what it means. As I noted in my review, Mar-Vell mostly demonstrates his enlightenment by admonishing other characters for their violent ways (right before he punches them in the mouth). Like most every other element of my argument that Captain Marvel is greater than the sum-of-his-parts, this part doesn’t hold up well to individual scrutiny. But what’s important here is not what happened in the books themselves so much as where the ideas would lead — by making Marv an enlightened guardian of the universe, Jim Starlin opted Captain Marvel out of the common superhero rat race and set him on an inevitable path toward martyrdom.
The path wasn’t inevitable at the time, of course — Captain Marvel still had thirty-odd issues of largely-forgettable superhero stories to endure before the book was cancelled in 1979. These issues are distinguished mostly by Marv firmly separating himself from the Kree and (near the end) meeting his second great love, Elysius, but it would be in death where Captain Marvel became immortal.
the Death of Captain Marvel, by Jim Starlin (after Michelangelo!)
With Captain Marvel cancelled, but a need to periodically refresh that trademark defense, Marvel brought Marv back one more time for Jim Starlin’s Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel in 1982. Following on from the events in the final issue of his Captain Marvel run that Starlin had created eight years before, The Death of Captain Marvel was an at-times maudlin and ruminating tale that followed Marv through his last days as he succumbed to cancer. It is a touching story, even after all these years, and it is made even more significant by the degree of admiration and respect shown to Captain Marvel by seemingly every other Marvel character, who appear in the story to pay their final respects.
Captain Marvel’s enlightenment is completed and his tale comes to an end in a memorable climax, where Captain Marvel and his greatest foe, Thanos, are at last in accord in their embrace of Death.
What makes Captain Marvel’s death so poignant is not only that it proved permanent (more-or-less) these past three decades, but that it marked the kind of resolution and final transformation rarely granted to characters in the continuous publication format of comic books. The trademark-enforcing title of “Captain Marvel” has been taken up by other characters since Mar-Vell’s death (at the present time it is held by Carol Danvers, the former Ms. Marvel, who is another character for which I have indefensible affection), but aside from a few cameo flashbacks or spirit appearances, the man who was Mar-Vell has remained dead, and his story can be appreciated as a completed whole.
Carol Danvers takes on the mantle in Captain Marvel #1
And what a whole it is … though you have to stand back from the tapestry to really appreciate it. As I’ve let on in this conspectus, most individual issues of Captain Marvel don’t bear close scrutiny. But taken as a whole, they are a Marvel Comics accidental masterpiece. Here we have a hero who is the product of an evil and corrupt military machine, who betrays the world of his birth to protect the people he was tasked to destroy. We see Mar-Vell as patriot, traitor, ex-patriot, and a citizen of the universe as his life evolves. He becomes a great and respected hero, and transcends the normal brotherhood of superpowered champions through his enlightenment, becoming a cosmic entity and protector of the universe, a nearly-omnipotent being who loses his last battle with a very human disease. He has great loves — and great losses — in his life, and about the only aspect of life Mar-Vell does not experience is raising children (though Marvel Comics would find ways to posthumously continue his line).
And so out of this holocaust of trademarks, changing costumes, new powers, and rotating creators emerges a hero. His faults are many (and really, I can’t recommend many issues of Captain Marvel itself), but his achievements are visible in the mosaic of his existence, the product of many hands and no definitive plan. Captain Marvel matters — maybe because nobody really tried to make him mean anything at all.
I miss him! And I like it that way. Returning Mar-Vell to life couldn’t help but diminish his legend. He is my favorite hero I hope to never see again … except in the yellowing old pages of the largely-forgotten comics I write about each week here at Longbox Graveyard. Thanks for reading, and please share your thoughts on Mar-Vell (or your own unlikely-yet-favorite heroes) in the comments section, below.