This issue of CAPTAIN MARVEL was another book that I got out of the drugstore’s Big Bin of Slightly Older Comics, though this purchase didn’t go quite so well. There was something about this comic that I didn’t like, that made me vaguely queasy, and I traded it away the first opportunity that I got. Some of it was the story, which was weird and disturbing, and the art style was somehow just that little bit off as well–feeling more akin to a horror comic than the clean lines of a super hero comic. As it turned out, my copy was also a misprint: it had double covers, one atop the other. And this fact freaked me out–so much so that I carefully, carefully, carefully pulled the outer cover off the staples, leaving the second under-cover on the book. No mutant comic books allowed in my collection! Of course, today collectors pay a premium price for a double cover copy of an old book, but as a kid, it just reinforced the notion that there was something profoundly wrong with this book.
This was the post-Jim Starlin era of CAPTAIN MARVEL, where Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom were the first team among many to try to find something of worth to so with Marvel’s star-born super hero. Nobody was ever really successful in this venture, and so ultimately the decision was made to have him die in the first MARVEL GRAPHIC NOVEL in a few years. Here, though, Englehart was channeling the spirit of the 1970s through his writing, as he’d done on so many other titles. As a kid, though, all of this cosmic mind-expanding stuff just made me feel unsettled. I couldn’t get a handle on who Captain Marvel was or what he did or why he did it. I wanted my super heroes to be, well, super heroes, and Mar-Vell at this point didn’t conform to the relatively narrow definitions that I was carrying around in my aesthetic, for all that he work a good-looking super hero costume.
Some of the problem, too, was that Englehart, like many of the 1970s writers, loved to write flowery captions, lots of them. As a kid starting out reading comics, I never read any of the captions–they seemed boring to me. I wanted to know what the characters were saying and thinking and doing, and the captions felt to my 6-year-old self like they just got in the way, slowed things down, for all that they often held critical information that I would need in order to understand the story. By 1978 I was 11 and had started reading the captions, but it was never my favorite thing–so pages like the one above irritated me. They kept me at a distance from both Mar-Vell and Rick, for all that they describe those characters’ experiences. And there was a lot of this kind of narration in this comic.
The issue opens with a woman being attacked by a huge Star-Slug, a creature which she rapidly consumes. This is the reanimated corpse of Mar-Vell’s old romantic interest Medic Una, and having been brought back to life, she soars towards Earth for a reckoning with Mar-Vell. Meanwhile, after a screwy adventure involving the Watchers, Mar-Vell and Rick Jones return to Earth and pick up the threads of their disparate lives. During that last adventure, Rick and Marv were finally separated from one another, and so they’ve got that thing they’ve been wanting for months now–and have to figure out what comes next for them. But trouble is brewing, as Zombie Una shows up at Cape Canaveral missile base, where Mar-Vell once worked in his earthly guise as Walter Newell.
Mar-Vell himself intends to head off into space and return to his home planet of Hala, but before he goes, he’s making the rounds and saying his goodbyes. So it is that he happens to be in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral. Zombie Una launches a bunch of the base’s missiles at him, and Marv is smashed up against the nose cone of one of them by the g-forces of takeoff. These panels where Marv’s features are pulled and distorted, almost comically, were among those images that unsettled me as a young reader.
Mar-Vell is able to escape in the most extreme fashion possible: by hurling one of his Nega-Bands at one of the other missiles, causing it to knock off course slightly and collide with yet another missile, causing them both to detonate and start a chain reaction that wipes out all of the missiles that have been launched, while somehow not consuming him at the same time. Hey, we’re told that he is the master soldier, so go with it. Returning to the base, Marv discovers that Carol Danvers has been beaten up, and that her assailant is his old girlfriend Una, now the receptacle for the Star-Slug, which feeds off of Una’s emotions, such as her jealousy over the relationship between Marv and Carol. Elsewhere, Rick Jones’ fortunes have turned lousy as well, as he’s laughed at and jeered as by the hip 70s crowd he tries to perform his latest rock number (still clad in his spacesuit for the flimsiest of reasons). His homecoming is no more welcoming than Mar-Vell’s.
Back at the base, Mar-Vell confronts Zombie Una , who wants to battle him to generate more of the pain that she now feeds on. But Marv isn’t up for that–until Una prods him and prods him, questioning his masculinity. And then Marv snaps, and proceeds to beat the holy hell out of Una, the woman he theoretically loved, in a very vicious and ugly way. I think it was this sequence more than any other which made me react so strongly to this comic–Marv doesn’t come across as a hero here, he feels more like an abuser–and the exaggerated Marvel fight scene-style blows that Milgrom depicts, coupled with his heavy inking style, make the whole thing feel a lot more brutal than maybe it was intended to be. Or maybe not–maybe my reaction is what Englehart and Milgrom were going for with this. Either way, the treatment of women throughout this issue is pretty appalling, and I think I knew that even at 11.
So then, yeah, Marv kills Zombie Una and cries about it, while prodigious amounts of prose tell us about all of his inner feelings. Englehart tries really hard to sell that this was a painful thing for Mar-Vell to do, but I wasn’t buying it, and I certainly wasn’t in the character’s corner any longer. Marv at this point has had enough of Earth and intends to head off to the stars. And then, suddenly, somehow, Rick Jones is there, having somehow instantly gotten from Manhattan to Florida, and he asks Mar-Vell to take him with him into space. So Marv and Rick are still joined at the hip as the issue ends. But I can’t say that I cared. CAPTAIN MARVEL was not a book for me.
Other people liked it, though–including future Marvel editor Ralph Macchio, who had a letter of comment see print on the letters page. This would have been written not long before Ralph was hired up at Marvel, the result of bumping into Don McGregor at a New York convention and McGregor recognizing Ralph’s name from his many erudite letters.
2 thoughts on “BHOC: CAPTAIN MARVEL #40”
Even Starlin’s run elevated Mar-Vell above Grade D hero and everyone who followed failed to solve whatever the problem was. I was a completist so bought the series but I never much liked it. He worked better as a guest star. The only thing to ever elevate the character was his death, a story told so well and so powerfully it oftentimes make us forget how painful nearly every story featuring the character was…
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Oh, I so totally agree with this. Several years ago, when Carol Danvers went from Ms. Marvel to Captain Marvel, and the trolls came out of the woodwork shouting “Bring back the real Captain Marvel” I was rolling my eyes. The “real” Captain Marvel was a character created solely because Martin Goodman wanted to trademark the name before another company could grab it. Numerous creative teams all struggled to find an interesting direction for the character, and nearly all of them were unsuccessful. The only reason why the majority of readers care about the original Captain Marvel was because Jim Starlin wrote & drew a short-but-stunning run on the series in the mid 1970s, and several years later returned to permanently kill him off in a deeply moving graphic novel.
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