BHOC: MS MARVEL #4

MS MARVEL was another title that I sampled out of the Big Bin of Somewhat Older Comic Books at my local drug store, and for the same reason: the need to hit a total of 5 purchases so as to be able to get them for a dollar, as opposed to risking the whims of the cashier of the day, as happened to me once or twice. I’m not sure exactly why MS MARVEL made the cut, apart from the fact that it was clearly a super hero title rather than a monster or western or war book–honestly, that may have been all there was to it.

Ms Marvel was a bit of an odd creation, clearly the end product of editorial fiat rather than individual inspiration. It was the mid-1970s, Women’s Liberation was a big talking point in the news, and Marvel was looking to cash in on it, as they would any pop culture trend. “Ms” was the new empowerment term for a single woman, taking the place of the more demure Miss, so the character clearly began as a name dreamed up by Stan Lee: Ms Marvel. But why it was decided to make her a female version of Captain Mar-Vell is a bit baffling, especially given that CAPTAIN MARVEL was hardly a top-selling series, and often had difficulty staying afloat itself. That did allow first series writer Gerry Conway to make Ms Marvel Carol Danvers, but he did so by effectively jettisoning almost everything we knew about Carol Danvers up to this point and transforming her from the head of base security in CAPTAIN MARVEL to a writer and editor of a woman’s magazine here. The connection to Mar-Vell was forged, but she practically was a completely new character despite that. The wisdom of making your new symbol of feminine empowerment a spin-off of a male character was lost of everybody involved, it appears.

On top of this, Conway initially made Carol amnesiac about her own alter-ego. having been empowered accidentally by the Kree Psyche-Magnitron in an old story, she would now transform into Ms Marvel when jeopardy threatened, but had no awareness of her other identity. An interesting but strange choice, one which kept the two halves of Carol’s life separated somewhat artificially. And we can’t really go any further without touching on Ms Marvel’s original costume. It’s effectively a feminized version of Mar-Vell’s attire, but with a strange cut-out section at the stomach for no good reason (other than to show off some more female flesh) and a weird scarf-cape. Combines with her Farrah Fawcett-inspired hairdo, Ms Marvel was almost painfully 1970s. This look wouldn’t last for long, but it also wouldn’t change all at once, and that means that it lasted far longer than it had any right to. She was also intended to fit a man’s conception of what Women’s Liberation was all about–hence the stunning cover copy tag line, “This Female Fights Back!”

The person who turned everything around for Carol Danvers, if anybody can have been said to have done that, was incoming writer Chris Claremont. Claremont was still young at this point, a new voice in the Marvel lexicon, but he had an interest in writing female characters as complex individuals–a skill that he would hone to great acclaim on X-MEN. On MS MARVEL, he began retooling almost immediately, giving Carol an awareness of her powers and dual identity and thus some agency in her adventures. He lobbied to close up the gaps in her costume, eventually successfully, and to eventually change the outfit completely. The replacement costume is itself dated in other ways, but at least it was all Carol’s rather than a dude’s hand-me-downs. Artwork on the book was being handled by Jim Mooney, an artist who’d been in the business since the Golden Age (and who is best remembered perhaps for drawing the Supergirl strip for DC–who had been Linda Danvers, coincidentally.) The inking was delivered by Joe Sinnott, probably the slickest and most polished craftsman in the business.

In this particular issue, the first one that Claremont got to plot himself (he scripted #3 over Conway’s plot) Ms Marvel is in combat with the Doomsday Man, a robotic superweapon developed by the military as a final resort in the face of overwhelming attack. It had once battled the Silver Surfer and seemed to be destroyed, but now A.I.M. has rebuilt it. Ms Marvel, meanwhile, has followed the clues as to her identity and origin back to the Mangitron, and eliminated the mental block that had been keeping her costumed identity walled off from her civilian one. There’s also another player, scientist Kerwin Korman, running around in the super-villain guise of the Destructor, also seeking the power source buried in this old Kree weapons depot. But the immediate problem for Ms M is that the Doomsday Man has shifted its attention to her, and is set on obliterating her.

That means that most of this issue is–you guessed it–an extended fight sequence, with Ms Marvel holding her own against the far more powerful Doomsday Man. It’s a pretty good action sequence, though–and the real attraction is the manner in which Claremont immediately begins to refine Carol’s voice. The Marvel books of this period weren’t shy about featuring a running play-by-play in the form of thought balloons, and here Claremont uses them to great effect in giving Carol a bit more of an individual personality. He’d only get better at this as time went on. Anyway, Carol is able to pull the Doomsday Man’s failsafe unit out of its head after cracking it open, then activate the thing with a thrown rock. Fight over–but the Destructor is still lurking in the shadows, and Ms Marvel is on her last legs.

The Destructor, though, isn’t all that interested in Ms Marvel. He’s come here seeking weapons, and he thinks he’s hit the jackpot when he locates the power source for the Psyche-Magnitron. Unfortunately for him, he opens the thing up, and the energies inside burn out his brain, frying his five senses and driving him mad. I get the sense that Conway may have been setting the Destructor up to be a recurring foe for Ms Marvel, but it appears that Claremont wasn’t interested in going in that direction. But that’s the ballgame, save for some end-of-issue subplot set-up. Conway had put Carol to work within J. Jonah Jameson’s publishing empire, which gave him a ready made cast of familiar Spider-Man characters to draw upon. Again, well-intentioned, but this was another bit of hand-me-down activity towards the character. If MS MARVEL was to succeed (and, ultimately, it didn’t), Carol was going to need to find her own life and her own cast. Claremont would get to work on that over the following couple of issues.

4 thoughts on “BHOC: MS MARVEL #4

  1. I never really thought about how the “5 for a dollar” deal exposed me to various characters and titles that I would have not normally picked up. Some of my favorite memories of individual issues come from that section of comics.

    Sandman #1 (Kirby), Marvel Premiere #35 (1st 3d man), What-if #9, and so many more. I was born into the bronze age, but that was my golden age.

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  2. I almost never did the five for a buck thing; my horror at possibly getting a comic I didn’t want outweighed the cheapness.
    It’s been pointed out multiple times that making Carol Danvers the female version of an alien superhero made her an analog to Linda “Supergirl” Danvers. And she had veteran Supergirl artist Jim Mooney working on the book, too.
    I don’t have much trouble with her switching to writing as a career. Lots of career military people move on to other things when they’re discharged. But that said, it’s true the connections to her former life were tenuous.

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    1. It was really only when Claremont got Carol back in the pages of X-Men that we saw her military past featured in detail. There was some stuff about her asshole father that tied into it in her book but Carol’s past with Logan pre-Wolverine allowed more detail and importance to that part of the character. I don’t think the current emphasis on her military background going back to when she took on the title Captain Marvel would have happened without that. I loved Ms Marvel but she was a pretty generic super-hero in her first volume.

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      1. I think there’s been a cultural shift in the way comics treat veterans. Back in the Silver Age, Reed, Ben and Hal Jordan were all vets but it wasn’t a major part of their character. These days, if a character’s ex-military it usually defines them.
        I suspect it’s because in the 1960s, the draft meant a much wider range of people had done at least a brief hitch in the service so it wasn’t as distinctive to have been in uniform.

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