Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

November 6, 2013

TMoRP Day 13 – Captain Marvel

There are a lot of Captain Marvels out there. Over the past eighty-ish years of superhero comics, it’s a name that gets trotted out with fairly routine regularity.

DC Comics have the Big Red Cheese version, the Captain Marvel who’s really a ten-year-old newsboy named Billy Batson who speaks a magic word given to him by an ancient wizard whose name is an acronym of six old gods who bestow their legendary virtues on a suitably heroic champion. Yeah, and he sometimes fights a super-genius bookworm who speaks through an old-fashioned wooden radio he wears around his body like an invertebrate Flavor Flav. That Captain Marvel – whose name recently got changed to Shazam, which is what everyone always calls the character anyway but seems like kind of a stupid name for him to call himself since that’s his secret word that he uses to transform between invulnerable superhero and slightly polio-afflicted juvenile, and I’m sure there’s a perfectly sound explanation for all that but I’ll never know because I’m fucked if I’m going to read more widely in the execrable DC New 52 universe – is dumb. Dumb costume, dumb Superman knockoff, dumb roster of villains.

I’m not talking about that Captain Marvel.

Nor am I talking about the first version of the character from Marvel Comics, the Kree space captain named Mar-Vell. His main claim to fame (at least to me, who came to comics in the late seventies and early eighties, after his heyday) was his death from cancer. It was the first major character death in the Marvel universe, and almost the only significant one (apart from maybe Gwen Stacey) that has actually stuck. Mar-Vell’s never come back, but his legacy – as a guy who flies around in a red and blue costume with yellow highlights, blasting this with his hand-beams, saving people from stuff – lives on the Marvel continuity.

There have been a few other Captains Marvel between then and now. Go skim the wikipedia entry, because honestly most of these characters, with the exception of Monica Rambeau (who took the name but otherwise doesn’t have much to do with the alien Kree) and Noh-Varr (who is a Kree exile and is currently starring in the Young Avengers, about which I will probably rave before too long), aren’t really that important or good.

The Captain Marvel I like – the current Captain Marvel – is Carol Danvers. Also known for most of her time as Ms Marvel but also as Binary, Warbird and probably half a dozen other names I don’t know about. Each eclectic identity came with a different implausible and borderline-porny costume, with the only unifying feature being her trademarked hip scarf (a distinct if impractical accoutrement for any superhero outfit).

Danvers, an Air Force officer who picked up her powers back in the 60’s in an encounter with the original Mar-Vell and some Kree bad guys, has about the most convoluted and horrible back story in comics. Over time she has lost her powers to the mutant Rogue, been experimented on by the Alien-knockoff aliens the Brood, been kidnapped and impregnated by an interdimensional sociopath (then later that somehow never happened), and she’s been an an Avenger and an agent of SHIELD and sometimes a Guardian of the Galaxy and –

oh, look, forget all that. It’s the usual comics bullshit. Some of her backstory is great, some is unbelievably awful, and much of it is banal and forgettable.

Carol Danvers is among my favourite Marvel characters, but I’ve only come to that conclusion relatively recently. She’s been on the periphery of my awareness, mainly as Ms Marvel – but c’mon, that’s a pretty terrible name, right? Anyway, I don’t think she really started clicking for me until I began reading Brian Bendis’ vast run on The Avengers. Danvers, as Ms Marvel, is a constant presence in that book – still off to one side and in the shadow of the bigger players like Iron Man and Captain America. And in fact it’s the Civil War event that brought her to the foreground in my mind. While I have very mixed feelings about the Civil War storyline’s ham-fisted, authoritarian triumphalism, it was at least interesting to the Marvel roster of characters decide which side they were on. As a a SHIELD-adjacent serving military officer, she unsurprisingly picked Iron Man’s government-registration side and was immediately put in charge of hunting down everyone who refused to sign on.

(I’ve just realised that I’m going on a bit. Hard habit to break when talking about comics. You always feel like you need to explain the context, which means delving into backstory. No. No no. That’s a rabbit hole, deep and full of poisoned baits! Long story short, she eventually learned to be a leader as well as an arse-kicker).

Anyway, finally after nearly four decades of playing second-row to a dead character, Carol Danvers is now Captain Marvel, with her own title courtesy of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Dexter Soy. The first two collected volumes are available now, and I recommend them unreservedly. While the first volume combines a time-travelling, alien-bashing romp with serious themes about women in the military and relationships between women of different generations, the series really hits its stride with the second volume.

“Down” features Monica Rambeau, the first woman to take the name of Captain Marvel (though she also frequently abandons it for other generic superhero labels like Photon). I love their sassy, sarcastic interplay and the fact that their bantery rivalry does not paper over the fact that they are friends who will call each other on their shit. It’s a refreshing breath of fresh air from the trope of catty, spiteful female friendships that have plagued comics for a long time.

Check out Captain Marvel. She flies planes even though she can fly under her own power. She has a more messed up personal history than almost anyone in comics. She punches dinosaurs because they’re there to be punched.

And while her costume is now more practical and less swimsuity than ever before, they kept the sash. Because, hell yes.

 

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