03.18.2010

Captain Marvel, The Last Good Dead Superhero

Dead Superheroes - Bucky, Flash, Robin, and Captain MarvelWhen I was growing up, there was a golden rule generally accepted by comic book readers.  The rule was that Jean Grey could come back to life as often as Marvel wanted, but there were four characters that should forever remain dead.  They were: Bucky Barnes, Flash (Barry Allen), Robin (Jason Todd), and Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell).  Each died in a dramatic way that had a lasting impact on comic readers.  Well… here we are in 2010 reading comics about Captain America (Bucky Barnes), Flash (Barry Allen), and Red Hood (Jason Todd).  The only one that has remained deceased is Mar-Vell.  For those thinking he came back during Civil War/Secret Invasion, that turned out to be a very convincing Skrull.  So let’s all give a tip of the hat and a heartfelt THANK YOU to Captain Marvel for staying dead.  Thanks, Mar-Vell!

Mar-Vell’s death in 1982 was written by Jim Starlin and appeared in the very first “graphic novel” Marvel published, The Death of Captain Marvel.  As this was slightly before I was reading comics regularly, I missed out on all of Captain Marvel’s adventures.  I’ve read the occasional back issue that featured appearances by Mar-Vell, such as Marvel Team-up, but never read a comic with him in the lead role.  Therefore I didn’t really have any understanding of the character.  I knew he was revered by many fans, but I always wondered if that was simply because he died or because his comics were great.

I also followed Mar-Vell’s son, Genis-Vell, in Avengers Forever, the early issues of Peter David’s Captain Marvel run, and the New Thunderbolts.  I really liked the character and thought it was an interesting take on a legacy hero (no pun intended).  I hope to go back and get the rest of David’s run someday.  Reading about Mar-Vell’s son also contributed to my curiosity about Mar-Vell himself.

Enough wondering already!  I recently decided to find out for myself what Mar-Vell was all about.  Why was he so loved?  What was his personality?  Why did he switch from the green & white costume to the blue & red costume?  I picked up the Essential Captain Marvel volume I which reprints his first appearance in Marvel Super-Heroes #12-13 (1967-68), as well as Captain Marvel #1-21 (1968-70).  This 512 page tome contains stories by comic legends such as: Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, Gene Colan, Dick Ayers, Don Heck, Gil Kane, John Buscema, and more!

Essential Captain Marvel volume I

I’m not going to recap each individual issue for you here, you can surf the net for that.  Instead I’ll provide some of my thoughts and musings on these comics.  Probably the most noteworthy thing about this collection is the ADHD nature of them.  It seems every few issues the direction of the series changed completely and without warning.

  • Issues 1-10 were pretty consistent.  Mar-Vell was an undercover Kree agent on Earth.   While the general public believed him to be a superhero, his secret mission was actually to determine if the human race posed a potential threat to the Kree supremacy.  Mar-Vell found himself developing a kinship with the humans, while at the same time coping with a vindictive Kree superior officer and his estranged lady-love. Stan Lee and Roy Thomas set the tone for Captain Marvel by handling the writing chores for the first few issues.  These early issues are great examples of Silver Age classics!  Bombastic, angsty, and just plain wonderful!  Mar-Vell was pitted against foes such as the Super Skrull, a Kree Sentry robot, Quasimodo, Namor and more.  These issues also introduced us to the character of Carol Danvers, who would later go on to become Ms. Marvel.  She’s present throughout nearly all these issues in one capacity or another.

Captain Marvel #1

  • Then in issue #11 we got our first big transformation of the series.  After the death of Mar-Vell’s lady-love, he was on the verge of death himself.  Fate intervened and he was healed and biologically enhanced by an all-powerful being called “Zo”.  Mar-Vell agreed to serve Zo and attack the Kree.  The plotline of Mar-Vell versus the Kree continued through issue #15.  Even with appearances by Iron Man and Black Widow, these are probably the weakest issues of the collection.
  • Issue #16 wraps up the Mar-Vell versus Kree storyline.  For this climax they brought in writer Archie Goodwin to clean up the mess the series had become.  Once again Mar-Vell was transformed, this time by the Kree Supreme Intelligence.  Along with his new powers came his well-known blue and red costume.  This issue really served to close the book on the previous storyline and set-up the big changes in the next issue.
  • Issue #17 was another complete 180 degree turn for the series.  In addition to new powers and a new costume, Mar-Vell acquired himself a new partner – Rick Jones.  After being trapped in the Negative Zone for a while, Mar-Vell found himself sharing a body with Rick Jones.  Jones was able to trade places with Mar-Vell by slamming together a pair of bracelets called Nega-bands.  When they switched places, Captain Marvel would appear while Jones was transported into the Negative Zone.  They were able to maintain telepathic contact, so the characters could advise one another.  They would continue to switch places back and forth, primarily because Mar-Vell was only able to remain on Earth for three hours at a time before he had to return to the Negative Zone.   This general plot would continue from issue #17 right through the end of the collection.  These stories by writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane are probably the strongest in the book.  Reading these particular adventures, I can see why Captain Marvel became so beloved with comic fans.  Prior to these issues, I just wasn’t grasping the reasons for his popularity. Proof once again that Rick Jones makes everything better.

Captain Marvel and Rick Jones

Mar-Vell was an interesting guy.  His background was different from many other Silver Age Marvel characters.  If you look at characters like Peter Parker, Steve Rogers, and Ben Grimm, they all came from humble beginnings; whereas Captain Marvel was an established war hero in the Kree military.  When we first met him, he was already a man of action and notoriety.  Like other Marvel characters, he experienced dramatic emotions, endured angst-ridden plots, and dealt with dysfunctional characters.  In the early issues, he was torn between his responsibilities to the Kree and his growing respect for the people of Earth.  In later issues he was more of the straightforward superhero.  His relationship with Rick Jones provided some nice interplay, almost like a “buddy movie”.  It’s interesting to note that in some ways the transformation between Rick Jones and Mar-Vell echoed the other Captain Marvel – transforming between Billy Batson and Captain Marvel (a.k.a. Shazam).  Y’know, maybe one of the reasons I liked the Mar-Vell/Rick Jones incarnation so much is the similarities to Firestorm.  Both characters were the fusion of two people, one of which was an angsty teenager, and they communicated telepathically.  Hmmm…

I’ve always had a gut feeling that Marvel Comics wanted Captain Marvel to be one of their top-tier characters.  Stay with me for a moment on this.  First, his name implies a deep connection to the Marvel universe.  If you run a company called Marvel Comics and you name a character Captain Marvel, I’d expect you to have big plans for him.  Second, in some ways he was Marvel’s version of Superman.  He was an alien from another world with fantastic powers helping the people of Earth.  While Superman was an orphan, Mar-Vell stood alone in his opposition to the Kree plans for Earth.  If his series had been more successful, I wonder if he would have became one of Marvel’s icons.

Overall this is not a fantastic collection, however, the first six and final five issues make it worth your time and money.  By the end of this run the character is settled into his Mar-Vell/Rick Jones incarnation.  I’d be very interested in reading an Essential Captain Marvel volume II just to follow the adventures of this incarnation.  There was a trade paperback printed a few years ago entitled, The Life And Death Of Captain Marvel, which included issues 25-34 and The Death of Captain Marvel story.  I may just track down a copy so I can read more on this version of the character.

In conclusion, thanks again to Mar-Vell for staying dead these past 28 years.  You’re the last great superhero to remain beyond this mortal coil.  Keep up the great work … or more precisely, the lack there of.

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11 Responses to “Captain Marvel, The Last Good Dead Superhero”

  1. Chocotaco Says:

    I definitely think that Ben Parker, Thomas Wayne, and Martha Wayne should be on the list of comic book characters that need to stay dead. :)

    I completely agree with your analysis that Marvel wanted Captain Marvel to be a top-tier character. For the same reasons, I think that Marvelman is going to get a big push from Marvel.

    I never really got into the Mar-Vell character. Like you, he was a bit before my time as a comic book reader, but I do remember Byrne-stealing The Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel back in the day and enjoying it once I got over my “who is this Captain Marvel guy, and why can’t Reed Richards just whip up a device to cure him” issues with the story.

  2. Shig Says:

    My freshman year roommate had a copy of The Death Of, and that was my first encounter with Captain Marvel. Looking back, I think it’s a good thing he was never a top-tier character, because if he had been, they could never have given him such a moving finish. It’s easier to take risks with a second stringer; if he’d been as major as Marvel probably intended, he’d have become the boring Superman clone people suspected him of being.

    And speaking of Superman, I’d add Ma and Pa Kent to the list of characters who should have stayed dead. While his (adoptive) parents’ deaths weren’t as central to Supes’ character as Batman’s, that deathbed vow was always one of the most powerful moments in comics for me. It’s easier to accept Clark as a “good son” with his parents dead; with them alive, it just makes him smarmy.

    And of course, the fact that Uncle Ben must and will always remain dead is balanced by the fact that Aunt May will outlive the heat death of the universe, even if it requires the worst retcon in comics history. Yugh.

  3. Shag Says:

    Thanks for the comments! I’m totally on-board with Ben Parker and the Waynes staying dead. Definitely. However, I’m a big fan of the post-Crisis Ma and Pa Kent. I think they were an excellent addition and would rather they be alive.

    Shig’s Aunt May comment was brilliant! :)

  4. Kal Says:

    How do these alien spies and agents (like Captain Marvel and the Silver Surfer) just happened to become so enamored of us? They meet the exact people that give them hope and take away their desire to destroy us. I take ONE trip to the mall and I want to kill everybody.

    I liked the whole Rick Jones switcharoo stories because they appeal to the superhero fantasies in all of us. And clanking wristbands together is just a cool thing to do.

    The ‘Death of Captain Marvel’ graphic novel was the first any of us ever owned so it’s special in that way. And they did such a good job showing his connection to all the other heroes that you had to be sad for his dying.

    Personally I hate bringing the back from the dead. The only one that ever worked was to bring Bucky back as the Winter Soldier. That made sense to me.

  5. Frank Says:

    I’ll allow for Barry Allen, but I still haven’t forgiven the resurrections of Bucky and Robin II. I even tried to follow Brubaker’s Cap for a while, but the distaste never died amidst the overrated, derivative mediocrity of the run.

    Anyway, my uncle passed down a good number of comics to me at an early age, including Strange Tales, Dr. Strange, Captain Marvel and Warlock. By extension, he set me up as a Jim Starlin fan, and I still adore Dreadstar. My interest in Dr. Strange and Adam Warlock remain to this day, but even under Starlin, I could never get into Mar-Vell. I never liked the body switching, and the Captain himself was a stuffed shirt. The best thing Mar-Vell ever did was die and stay that way.

  6. rob! Says:

    Starlin’s graphic novel was so anti-everything superhero comics usually are, bringing him back from the dead would be especially tacky, possibly even downright offense: you don’t come back when you die in your bed from cancer. This isn’t the Joker falling in a river, only to have his body disappear.

    Not that that would stop someone at Marvel from doing if there was a buck to be made. Luckily for Cap he was never such a big draw that bringing him back would be that big a deal.

  7. Luke Says:

    Captain Marvel was way before my time, but I have read some of his stuff in retrospect, and all I have to say is, damn, when Jim Starlin is on, he is ON. The bit with Thanos twisting reality during the crossover with Avengers (when the word balloons themselves twist and contort), and we see Death laughing at the end (where she looks like the Cute Girl Death in the first panel, and it pans around and she is the skeletal Death at the end), that’s some amazing comics right there.

  8. Resisting the short sighted Says:

    In all due respect, this is perhaps the most ridiculous thing I have ever read, I don’t mean it personally.

    The Mar-Vell, is arguably and easily the most underrated hero in comics history, and was a character always meant for the big screen rather than the printed page.

    If someone truly loves a character, then why would they want them dead? First of all, the guy is “one with the universe” itself, so the whole thing of keeping him dead is just short sighted IMHO.

  9. Resisting the short sighted Says:

    I think after 30 years, it’s TACKY (wow that’s a word my uncle used to say lol) to keep him dead. It’s not any secret that he still has die hard fans which have proven themselves in comic sales over any of his many replacements.

  10. Resisting the short sighted Says:

    It’s not that hard to write a good story, especially when there’s many holes in the original death story. IMHO

    Sincerely, there is a whole new generation that wants him. Look at the sales post 2008.

  11. Resisting the short sighted Says:

    If ever there was a hero that was made for now and ahead of his time, it is the one true Marvel, Mar-Vell.

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