Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Marvel's First Marvel


History is undecided on what happened next. In Les Daniels' official history of the Marvel Universe, Stan Lee says that he looked around, decided that it would be only right for Marvel Comics to have a Captain Marvel, and engaged in complex legal negotiations to get the name. Roy Thomas, who was assigned writing duties for the character after Stan Lee's first story, states both in articles in Alter Ego magazine and the Marvel Masterworks edition reprinting the first Marvel Comics Captain Marvel stories that it was Martin Goodman's idea, that he had to “protect his investment in the name”...Marvel. One thing is for sure, it was a perfectly reasonable business decision to grab a hold of the name Captain Marvel when your company is called Marvel Comics. There is no end of stories of people assuming that Captain Marvel was a product of Marvel Comics simply by word association alone. In any event, in 1967, Stan the Man created a new Captain Marvel. This one was an alien from the intergalactic Kree empire. He was a Captain in the military and his name was Mar-Vell. He was assigned to spy on Earth and determine if the human race was a threat to the Kree, and thus should be wiped out.

He took the guise of a mild-mannered yet mysterious rocket scientist named Walter Lawson and infiltrated the Cape, a US military space exploration base (they never actually called it Cape Kennedy, which was the name of the US space base at the time, but some years later, in flashbacks, it was referred to as Cape Canaveral). There he earned the suspicions of Carol Danvers, the beautiful female head of security. As he worked with and observed the humans, he began to feel sympathy for them and resisted opportunities to kill them, even fighting to defend them from various threats such as robots and monsters from various sources that seemed to make a habit of attacking the base (using the superior strength of his alien physiology and the superior technology and weaponry of his Kree space suit). In the course of saving the base from these threats, his name, Captain Mar-Vell, came to be pronounced by humans as “Captain Marvel.”

There was also a complex romantic polyhedron going on. Mar-Vell was in love with a medic, Una, on board the Kree ship that was orbiting Earth. She loved him too, but Colonel Yon-Rogg had lustful designs on her, and had a seething hatred for Mar-Vell as a result. Meanwhile on Earth, Carol Danvers was falling for Captain Marvel, who was beginning to develop affection for her, while she was ever suspicious of Walter Lawson, who kept on disappearing at remarkably convenient moments and around whom strange, unexplainable things happened.

Put all this together, and you had a character who was in many ways, more like Superman than the original Captain Marvel. An alien from outer space with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men, who disguises himself as a mild-mannered person, then slips away to change into his heroic costume and save the world. He had a hyphenated name that ended with “el.” He even had a Lois Lane parallel in Carol Danvers, who incidentally has the same last name as Superman's cousin, Linda Danvers, Supergirl (Roy Thomas, who created her, insists was an accident).

Stan Lee likes to justifiably boast about the seemingly magical success about every one of his creations from the 1960's. However, in his autobiography, there is not a single mention of Captain Marvel. Whether he forgot, or was embarrassed, the fact is that his Captain Marvel did not sell as well as most everything else he created in the 1960's. Gene Colan, who designed the uniform and drew the first few issues, said it was the worst superhero costume ever.

Captain Mar-Vell first appeared in the pages of Marvel Comics' compendium book, Marvel Super-Heroes, and after two issues, he got his own book. However, after a year of repetitive stories, there began a series of plot devices and shark-jumping changes galore. Unfortunately, none of these changes really were able to grab a loyal audience.

Both his love-interest, Una, and rival, Yon-Rogg were killed, he was used as a pawn in Kree politics, got swept up in racial conflict within the Kree Empire, then ultimately was given new powers, a new costume, and then unceremoniously dumped into the Negative Zone. Then Rick Jones, Marvel Comics' official all-purpose sidekick (yes the kid who got Bruce Banner turned into the Hulk), found a pair of golden bracelets called “nega-bands,” and by banging them together, found he could trade places with Captain Mar-Vell in the Negative Zone. This was a new take on the Billy Batson/Captain Marvel transformation. This time, instead of it being a strict transformation, where the alter-ego was subsumed by the superhero and vice versa, the alter egos were actually able to communicate with each other, essentially living in each other's heads.

But the biggest change for Captain Mar-Vell was when, in 1973, Jim Starlin wrote and drew a storyline that had Mar-Vell being chosen by the cosmic entity Eon to be the Protector of the Universe and granted Cosmic Awareness (the ability to be aware of absolutely everything in the universe, past, present, and future. A handy ability, and one that can give great serenity to one who has the mental and emotional stability to handle it). This turned the alien warrior into a cosmic space hippie, very much a product of his times.

Despite this, and a very concerted effort by Marvel Comics to identify this Captain Marvel as one of the front-line heroes in its universe, the title was eventually canceled in 1979.

Next: Don't Miss the Ms.!

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