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.