Oh, hey! I didn’t see you there, I traveled across the nation to get married and officially launch this site. Thanks for being patient!
Last time, I ended with the ‘C’ word…
Not that one, the other one.
In 1982, Marvel had, apparently, opted to discontinue publishing the character of Captain Marvel (the ‘Mar-Vell’ Captain Marvel not the British ‘Marvelman’ or the former Fawcett, at that point DC ‘Shazam’ Captain Marvels, of course) by releasing ‘The Death of Captain Marvel’ in the first of the Marvel Graphic Novels series of publications. In the story, written by Jim Starlin (whose work on Captain Marvel had developed the character far beyond the initial concept), Mar-Vell discovers that he has developed cancer due to having been exposed to a deadly nerve agent during a battle with one of his reoccurring foes, years prior.
The story is notable for several reasons.
Primarily, it was the first time a title character died in a major way. Certainly, there had been death, in comics, but it was generally followed up by the astounding return of the formerly deceased character when the story called for a return. This, however, was a character that was, essentially, the Superman of the Marvel Universe. Mar-Vell, despite the fact that the comics had never been best sellers, was seen as something of a messianic hero by the other characters of the MCU. He was an alien who had come to Earth as part of a force to conquer the planet, but had been an outcast from his people because of the color of his skin. He eventually turned on his own people in order to save the Earth because he had come to respect them. He protected the world from cosmic threats, despite the fact that he had know persecution due to his publicly alien nature.
Having overcome so much and proven to be a truly noble hero, Mar-Vell had been raised on a pedestal by heroes such as the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the Defenders.
So, his death had the affect on the Marvel Universe that Superman’s death would on the DCU, only years prior. The only real difference between the stories is that Mar-Vell never came back. There was no ‘Return of Captain Mar-Vell’ story arc with multiple versions of the Captain who claimed to be the original.
No, this was not the 1990s, this was 1982 and Marvel’s Captain Marvel would die from cancer, honored by his allies and his foes, ignored by his own people, and led down the path of oblivion by his arch-nemesis.
There’s not a lot of information as to what, if any, was the business decision that led to The Death of Captain Marvel. While much has been documented about the actual graphic novel, it’s not easy to locate specifics about the events that surrounded Marvel’s choice to discontinue a comic book series that had, at the very least, some minor level of following. Marvel had managed to maintain, through canny publishing maneuvers, the name of ‘Captain Marvel,’ so why kill the character off when this was cemented?
Meanwhile, DC had been licensing Fawcett’s Captain Marvel for a decade, publishing the character in a comic book called ‘Shazam!,’ as I noted prior. They had, initially, hoped to publish the book with the subtitle ‘The Original Captain Marvel,’ but they received a cease-and-desist from Marvel and chose to subtitle the book, ‘The World’s Mightiest Mortal’ (a much less petty and far more dignified subtitle, to be certain). They also produced a short-lived television series that was popular enough to ensure that the public would come to call the character named ‘Captain Marvel’ by the magical term he would use to change identities, ‘Shazam.’
The irony of this is that, were it the case that Billy Batson’s alternate identity was named ‘Shazam,’ every time he said his own name he would transform into the 12-year-old kid. This would, in all likelihood, result in a pre-teen boy being pounded into paste by an ancient Egyptian king, a giant robot, or a mind-controlled mob.
Despite having had C.C. Beck as the initial artist, Shazam! fared poorly. After a few years of bi-monthly publishing, the title was removed from the shelves and the character became a backup for Batman and Superman in ‘World’s Finest Comics’ and eventually a slew of characters, including reprints of ‘The Legion of Super-Heroes’ in ‘Adventure Comics’ until that title was cancelled in 1983.
Disinterest in the character that had transformed a tiny publisher into a viable threat for the largest and most powerful comic book publisher of all time caused a long-awaited revival to slowly degenerate into a handful of pages following reprints and, eventually, into limbo.
At Marvel, the Kree Mar-Vell was slain in January of 1982. In August of that same year, a new Captain Marvel appeared. Although, the look was a little different…
Up till now, any character called ‘Captain Marvel’ had a few things in common. Primarily, this was skin color and what the character was packing in those tights. The Fawcett Cap had black hair, the Marvel once had blonde hair, and the British one started with black hair and then switched to blonde when his name changed to Marvelman.
Marvel Comics, in this case, opted to go in a radically different direction by creating Monica Rambeau, a black woman from New Orleans, and introducing her in the Annual special of their best-selling title, Amazing Spider-Man. Having been exposed to some form of extradimensional energy, Rambeau gained the ability to transform her body into various forms of energy. She sought out the Avengers to help her stabilize her powers and ended up getting punched in the face by Spider-Man before having Iron Man siphon off her energy and then getting the offer to join the Avengers as the new Captain Marvel; the name of an ally who had died by wasting away from cancer only a few months prior (given the sliding time scale; the reason that Spidey was 15 years old in 1963 and, as of 2015, hasn’t been collecting Social Security for five years; this might even be a few WEEKS prior).
This is all true.
Rambeau, as Captain Marvel, was brought in with the thinnest of veils that she was created to achieve some level of social awareness. There wasn’t even a villain in her introduction story (short of the scientist with the extradimensional energy emitter and Spidey’s impulsiveness)! To be fair, I haven’t read the issue as I’ve never been able to locate it, so I won’t pass judgement on what the motivation was, but the evidence is kind of damning.
Still, one could say Marvel’s heart was in the right place, if the execution was somewhat lacking, and Captain Marvel/Rambeau went on to be one of the greatest Avengers of the 1980s. In all fairness, most of the best Avengers of that decade were women: She-Hulk, Wasp, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Mockingbird, Tigra; all of which had memorable stories and developed in interesting (if not always good) directions.
Having a black woman as a member of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes meant that Marvel could claim diversity, but it also meant that Marvel could hold the copyright on the name. In 1989, Rambeau starred in her own one-shot, meaning that Marvel Comics managed to publish a comic by the name of ‘Captain Marvel’ within the time frame needed to protect their rights to the name. She would have a second issue of this ‘series’ in 1994 but, by then, she had been written out of the comics, for the most part.
During all this, Marvelman had entered into a revival that was taking tropes that Marvel and DC’s Captain Marvel’s had taken for granted and turning them on their ears. However, the British publisher had, for whatever reason, stopped printing the anthology series Warrior, leaving the character’s insane storyline and future up in the air.
American publisher, Eclipse Comics, began reprinting the Warrior stories in color, changing the Marvelman name to Miracleman, but largely keeping the dark and twisted tone that had been presented by Alan Moore in the U.K. anthology, as that writer worked on the American title, as well. Eventually, Neil Gaiman took over the title, continuing to escalate the series towards a massive finale. Unfortunately, Gaiman never reached this conclusion as Eclipse folded and the rights to the character entered into litigation, once more. Marvelman/Miracleman would leap from author to publisher to artist until, only recently, falling into the hands of Marvel Comics as part of a deal made by Gaiman to ensure that Todd McFarlane did not get rights to the character.
DC, having aligned their multiverses with the Crisis on Infinite Earths, reintroduced Captain Marvel in 1987 with the miniseries, ‘Shazam: The New Beginning.’ The series rebooted Batson’s origin and reintroduced Black Adam and evil scientist, Doctor Sivana as antagonists. Soon after, having been insterted into the largely tongue-in-cheek Justice League series of the late 1980s, the World’s Mightiest Mortal gained a level of coolness back as a foil to the wacky antics of characters like Booster Gold and Guy Gardner. Despite this, the character’s altered back story was poorly received.
In 1991, DC finally purchased full rights for the character from those who held the rights to Fawcett characters and retconned the character into a new origin in the painted prestige format comic book, ‘The Power of Shazam.’ Soon followed with an ongoing title of the same name, TPoS became the best-selling title the character had had in many, many years. Reintroducing the Marvel Family and many characters that had been missing from the prior reboot, Captain Marvel seemed to gain a small level of his former glory.
However, the title was cancelled due to poor sales and revivals became fewer and further between. Modern audiences simply could not take to the character who had once been called the Big Red Cheese.
Marvel, ultimately, was having a level on indecision with their Captain Marvel. Introducing Genis-Vell, the unknown son of Mar-Vell in a series of annuals whose only goal was, in each one, to introduce a new, hip 90s-style character (nearly all of whom sucked SO much), this character called himself ‘Legacy,’ for a short amount of time, before taking on the title of Captain Marvel, himself.
In a move that was either brilliant or idiotic, Rambeau and Genis had an argument when she realized that he had stolen her name. She eventually chose a new identity and moved on (side note: this actually happened AGAIN, as Genis took her second name, Photon, and she made fun of him for having helped choose that identity!). Genis, as Captain Marvel, would end up having a pretty great comic book series, written by Peter David, which would take the character to a number of strange and unusual places, for a superhero; including stories that were reminiscent of the Miracleman series. However, the character would, eventually, change his name when he no longer felt worthy of the title (his sister, Phyla-Vell… I know, I know; would become the new Captain Marvel, for a minute) and then he died.
It should be noted that Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, once a supporting character of Captain Mar-Vell’s, had gone through a massive number of changes, as well. When her series was cancelled, she had her powers taken away by a character that would soon become a member of the X-Men.
Interestingly, this was a bit of a lark as the X-Men were slowly eating away at the sales of all the more traditional superhero titles. Having Rogue absorb the powers of one of these characters and then join the team of mutants seems oddly fitting on a meta level, in retrospect.
Danvers would gain much greater, cosmic-level power and would join the alien team called the Starjammers; a group of beings from a variety of worlds who formed an intergalactic rock band and traveled around the universe solving mysteries.
They were actually space pirates… or freedom fighters… or rebels. Whatever, Cyclops’ dad was their leader.
With the 20th Century having ended, it seemed characters holding the title of ‘Captain Marvel’ had gone the way of the pet rock and common decency.
But this wouldn’t actually be the case.