By the early 1980's, comic books had regained a lot of the creative diversity that had been lost since the establishment of the Comics Code in the 1950's and were exploring new territories of creativity and publishing formats. Independent comics companies were publishing stories with creator-owned characters that included content that would not have passed the Comics Code. Writer/artists like Will Eisner and Gil Kane were creating stories in formats that came to be called "graphic novels." Marvel Comics decided to get in on this trend.
For several years, Marvel had been producing Epic Illustrated, a slightly toned-down version of the adult sci-fi/fantasy magazine Heavy Metal (itself an American version of the French Metal Hurlant). Now they decided to launch a new line of comics with creator-owned properties under that same "Epic" imprint. At the same time, they decided to launch a line of "graphic novels," which would basically be large, premium format, self-contained, novel-length comic books.The first of these would be The Death of Captain Marvel.
Jim Starlin, who had made a name for himself, and Mar-Vell, with his Thanos War, agreed to take the job, provided Marvel would publish his creation, a character and comic series named Dreadstar, in their new Epic Comics line (This was the latest of a continuing epic that had been preceded by an ongoing series in Epic Illustrated called Metamorphosis Odyssey and a graphic novel called The Price). Starlin had been the one who had given Mar-Vell his cosmic awareness in the Thanos War, and was the writer-artist most strongly identified with the hero.
Starlin used the job the help him deal with the recent death of his father by cancer. In the story, Mar-Vell succumbed to a cancer he had contracted, ret-conned into an incident in which he had sealed a poison gas canister with his hands. The graphic novel is very highly regarded, often making it into top-ten lists.
So Marvel Comics had this trademark, but no living character to cover it. It was noted that the name was no-gender-specific, and there were not many black female superheroes around, so it was decided to make the new Captain Marvel a black woman.
First appearing in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (1982), Monica Rambeau was a New Orleans harbor patrol officer facing the "glass ceiling" (for her gender, not race, as was apparent because her boss was black). In the course of investigating suspicious doings on an off-shore rig, an explosion bathed her in extra-dimensional radiation that gave her the power to become electromagnetic energy (visible light, x-rays, gamma rays, ultra violet, etc.). A Mexican guard had overheard a friend calling her "Mon Capitain" and, slipping into unconsciousness after witnessing the explosion, mumbled "El Capitan es un maravilla..."
The next day the newspapers read "Who is Captain Marvel?" and the name stuck. She was invited to join the Avengers as a "probationary" member, but proved herself quickly enough. She studied all the records of their foes and was able to direct the battles against them. Eventually Captain America selected her to replace him as leader of the Avengers.
In my personal opinion, she made a better feminist role model than Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel. She was strong and independent without being socially aggressive. She dealt with her uncertainties (should she be a superhero? Should she lead the Avengers?), maturely, seeking opinions from those she trusted, making up her mind, and not losing sight of her objectives. She also did not have that whole "Schizophrenia" thing that Carol Danvers had in her early days as Ms. Marvel. Or any of Danvers' soap opera drama, for that matter.
In time, however, the decision-makers at Marvel wanted to bring back Captain America as the leader of the Avengers. This bothered Roger Stern, whiter of the book and co-crater of the character. He did not feel it would look good to get rid of a black, female superhero from the lead position of Marvel's premiere superhero team. Stern quit the book, and a story was concocted about how a character named Dr. Druid used mind powers to manipulate events to get himself elected leader. As part of that storyline, Monica lost her powers and nearly died battling a sea-creature, and was a wasted husk of herself afterwards.
She eventually recovered and regained a slightly altered version of her powers...but that is a story for another time.
NEXT: The Crisis of 1986!
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