Right now the next of Marvel’s superhero films, with Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel, is a few weeks away. This being a film about Carol Danvers is important, because in her fifty years of existence (forty of them as a superhero) she’s only been called Captain Marvel since 2012. Before that there were at least eight different superheroes, some completely unrelated to each other, who called themselves Captain Marvel.
I find this whole mess fascinating. To me, the Marvel Universe is one ridiculously sprawling soap-opera, and the narrative of how the comics were written is just as fascinating as what’s on the printed page. As I’ve read a smattering of both Captain Marvel and Carol Danvers comics in different eras – and I can use the Marvel wiki to fill in the gaps – I want to take a crack at rendering all of this history coherent. So let’s look at all the Captain Marvels there’ve been (as far as I know), as well as checking in on Carol Danvers and what she got up to in her pre-Captain Marvel career. Because there’s a lot of it, and it includes one of the worst comics Marvel has ever published.
The first Captain Marvel: Billy Batson (1940)
When superhero comics first took off a lot of comics publishers created their own Superman knock-offs with names like Wonder Man and Master Man. DC Comics* took a few of these publishers to court over copyright infringement, and one of these was Fawcett Publications because of Captain Marvel. The Captain Marvel case dragged on for more than a decade before the judge ruled in DC’s favor in 1953 and Fawcett had to stop publishing Captain Marvel. A couple of decades later DC began licensing use of Fawcett’s characters, including Captain Marvel, and in 1991 purchased him outright and added him to the DC universe.
Now you might be familiar with this Captain Marvel, because in a couple of months he’s starring in his own big-budget superhero film: Shazam. Yes, the boy Billy Batson, who turns into a big muscly superhero when he says the word, “Shazam!” has the codename Captain Marvel. Except, as we’ll soon see, Marvel Comics owns the trademark to any comic titled ‘Captain Marvel’**, which meant that when DC started publishing comics about Billy Batson in the 1970s, the comics had to be called things like “Shazam!” and “The Power of Shazam!” Finally in the 2011 New 52 reboot Billy Batson’s superhero alter-ego was officially renamed Shazam to avoid this problem.
If you want to know more about the character, I recommend this old Comics 101 article on him (updated here, but I prefer the older version for newcomers). I haven’t read much of the Big Red Cheese’s comics, but I like the fact that he’s friends with a suit-wearing tiger named Mr. Tawny and his arch-nemesis is a telepathic worm with big cartoony eyes.
*Technically they were called National Comics Publications back then. But you’re more likely to know what DC is, so I’ll call it DC. And yes, I know DC stands for Detective Comics, so ‘DC Comics’ is redundant, but I’d prefer to establish the context so you aren’t tempted to misread this as Washington trying to assert rights over Superman.
**I gather the legalese is more complicated than this, but I’ll just refer to later comics with the ‘Captain Marvel’ title as a trademark renewal for simplicity’s sake.
While this was going on Carol Danvers was…
…doing nothing, since she hadn’t been invented yet.
The second Captain Marvel: Roger Winkle (1966)
Okay, I knew nothing about this guy until I started looking at Mar-Vell’s origins (see below). I’d always thought that in 1968 Marvel Comics noticed that Fawcett’s trademark on a comic named “Captain Marvel” had lapsed, and figured that if anyone should have a superhero called “Captain Marvel”, it was Marvel Comics.
But that’s not quite true. A publisher named M.F. Enterprises first noticed that the Captain Marvel name was up for grabs, and created their own character. This Captain Marvel was an android who, along with flight and superhuman strength and the usual stock superpowers, could make his limbs fly off and come back to him. He fought expies of other companies’ superheroes and villains, including Prof. Doom, Plastic Man and the Bat (who provoked DC to threaten to sue for plagiarism). I’ve never read any of these, but the grab-bag of powers (the wiki entry says he “could alter his internal mechanisms to do anything from breathe underwater to travel through time”) and thievery of established characters makes me morbidly curious. I hope it’ll have the same atmosphere as something like 3 Dev Adam, the Turkish film where the wrestler Santo teams up with Captain America to fight the villainous Spider-Man (all completely unauthorized by Marvel, of course). But it probably won’t.
While this was going on Carol Danvers was….
…still doing nothing. Well, in her backstory she’d be an air force pilot right now. But she hasn’t appeared in any comics yet, though that’s going to change in a couple of years.
The third Captain Marvel: Mar-Vell (1967)
In 1967 Marvel Comics persuaded M.F. Enterprises to stop publishing Captain Marvel, and once they had the rights they created a new Captain Marvel for themselves. This chap was the alien Kree with the name Mar-Vell, who decided to defect from the Kree military and take up residence on Earth. He was fairly dull, if I recall, being little more than a strong guy with a special laser gun. Later on he was given Rick Jones as a sidekick* and nega-bands on his wrists. Every time he clashed the bands together he’d trade places with Rick Jones, mimicking Billy Batson’s transformation into the adult Captain Marvel.
The main reason this character is remembered is thanks to Jim Starlin. Starlin, frequently both writing and drawing, gave a memorable cosmic scale to the stories, especially with the epic war where Thanos debuted. Starlin only stayed on the book for a couple of years, but in 1982 he returned for the first in Marvel’s new line of graphic novels. To sell the importance of these books, the story was The Death of Captain Marvel. Not in a climactic fight with the fate of the universe at stake, but from cancer that he’d contracted from nerve gas he’d been exposed to during a fight with a minor villain. It was a strong ending for the character, but commercially it opened up a problem: if Marvel didn’t produce a new Captain Marvel, the company might lose the trademark, and DC (which had started running Billy Batson comics by this point) would be eager to claim it. Someone else would have to take up the mantle of Captain Marvel.
*Rick Jones is a perennial sidekick who’s bounced around the Marvel universe. He was the boy Bruce Banner rescued from the atomic blast that turned him into the Hulk. For a couple of issues he wore Bucky’s uniform and fought as Captain America’s sidekick. And he and his radio club were responsible for summoning the superheroes in Avengers #1, where they so enjoyed working together that they decided to form a permanent team. Yes, in the comics there was no Nick Fury inciting disparate heroes to band together to form the Avengers, it was just some kid HAM radio enthusiasts.
While this was going on Carol Danvers was…
…busy! She debuted in Captain Marvel #1 as the head of security for the NASA facility that Mar-Vell worked for (he’d stolen the identity of a scientist killed in an early adventure). In one story Mar-Vell’s nemesis Yon-Rogg kidnapped her and, in the ensuing fight, she was exposed to an exploding machine that gave her superpowers. Possibly. A recent miniseries, The Life and Times of Captain Marvel, has established that Carol’s mother was secretly Kree, and has therefore retconned the exploding machine into merely activating latent powers. (Retcon: retroactive continuity, i.e. a new revelation that changes facts about the past.) It’ll be interesting to see whether the film incorporates these changes.
More practically, these powers first appeared in Ms. Marvel #1, when creators Gerry Conway and John Buscema turned the supporting character into a superhero, and used the exploding machine as a handy excuse. At first she had a gimmick that she didn’t know she was a superhero – that when danger struck she’d black out and a Kree warrior persona would do the fighting – but this was quickly dropped. In her first issue she also left the head of security position and, after publishing a searing exposé on NASA, was hired by J. Jonah Jameson to edit a new magazine simply called ‘Woman Magazine’. Over the course of the series Carol built up a healthy supporting cast of contributors to the magazine, and it’s a shame this part of her backstory isn’t referred to much.
The comics are…okay. Chris Claremont took over from Gerry Conway after two issues, but he didn’t know this was going to be a long-term situation, meaning there are several issues with minimal running subplots to make it easier for a new writer to take over (which none did). And this is a problem, because one of Claremont’s biggest strengths in this era is long-term planning. Since I’m a fan of Claremont’s X-Men work in this era, I enjoyed seeing more stories by him, but it’s a harder sell to anyone who’s not already used to the style of 1970s Marvel comics. In fact, the character’s creation behind the scenes might be more interesting than the actual comics: it was 1972, Marvel wanted a feminist superhero to capitalize on the times, but none of the contributors (mostly young-to-middle-aged men) agreed on what kind of character that would be. There are various pitches floating around on the internet, ranging from the protagonist being “tiny” (i.e. non-statuesque) to a divorcee with two kids.
Anyway, shortly after Ms. Marvel was canceled, Carol joined the Avengers in 1979. She had a good couple of years there; the end of the first Jim Shooter run and the start of the David Micheline run are decent Avengers comics, though I don’t remember Carol doing anything central. And then it all came crashing down in the run-up to Avengers #200, where Carol reveals she’s three months’ pregnant. Before I summarize, let me be clear that this issue was a complete mess behind the scenes. David Micheline had a different explanation for the pregnancy which editor Jim Shooter changed, and by the end of it George Perez (the penciller) and frequent Micheline collaborator Bob Layton are also listed as scripters for the issue. Nevertheless. Here’s what was published.
Carol Danvers’ inexplicable pregnancy grows to full term in a few days. (Sidenote: I’ve seen the ‘unexplained accelerated pregnancy’ plot several times in fiction. Has it ever led to a good story?) She gives birth to a baby boy who grows into a man in less than a day, while outside the Avengers Mansion time distortions provide the requisite superhero fighting for the issue. This newly-grown man is Marcus Immortus, and he explains that he plucked Carol from the timestream, seduced her “with, admittedly, a subtle boost from Immortus’ machines” and impregnated her. Now that he’s caused his own existence, he must leave to stop the time distortions from wrecking our reality, and as Carol has lingering feelings of both parental and romantic love for him, she leaves with him.
This is just as consensual as I’m making it sound. And the fact that the rest of the Avengers go along with it (or in Beast’s case, make neverending jokes about how much fun he’s going to have raising the kid) make it a pretty unpleasant read.
On the other hand, it makes Carol’s next appearance highly cathartic. Because in Avengers Annual #10 she absolutely excoriates the Avengers for their treatment of her. She gets a three page rant telling them how terrible they all are, and it’s not hard to see Chris Claremont (who wrote the issue) metafictionally ranting at the creators of Avengers #200.
But Carol isn’t done on the trauma mill just yet. Annual #10 opens with Carol powerless and a partial amnesiac, having been attacked by the newest member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants: Rogue. And if that was the end of it, I’d probably spend just as long trashing this issue for further ruining Carol’s character. And yes, this probably counts as fridging* Carol Danvers, because Rogue gets the lion’s share of the character development following this; it’s what forces to her to accept she needs help to control her powers, making a heel face turn and joining the X-Men, and the Carol persona in Rogue’s head is a sporadically recurring plot thread for the rest of Claremont’s first X-Men run. But I’m reluctant to be too harsh because of what Claremont does to Carol next.
(Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered why Rogue had super-strength and flight in the first X-Men animated series and didn’t in the movies, this is why: they’re the powers she permanently stole from Carol.)
*Fridging: a character (often a love interest or supporting character) getting killed or badly harmed, and the story emphasis being primarily on how it affects the main character. Named for the Women in Refrigerators website, which started cataloguing such things after Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend was killed and stuffed into a fridge.
The fourth Captain Marvel: Monica Rambeau (1982)
Monica Rambeau shouldn’t have caught on. She never had her own book, and until recently most of her appearances were as a member of the Avengers in the early-to-mid Eighties. The thing is, she appeared in writer Roger Stern’s run on the Avengers, and I consider his run to be one of the best Avengers runs there’s ever been. Especially in terms of characterization and inter-character intricacies. It’s something I didn’t appreciate when I read excerpts from Stern’s run in isolation, but seeing it in context of other Avengers runs in the Seventies and Eighties, it really stands out.
Anyway, Monica Rambeau is a former police lieutenant from New Orleans who gained vague energy-based powers. She can turn herself into energy to move intangibly or fly at the speed of light, can fire energy blasts and absorb most kinds of raw energy attacks. Some people say she’s too powerful to be a member of the Avengers. I disagree. Exhibit A, Thor. Besides, these powers come with limitations. Yes, she can fly at lightspeed, but only in her energy form, so she can’t carry anyone or anything, and has to coalesce if she wants to do anything practical. In fact she fills a tactical role in Stern’s stories that no other Avenger really does: reconnaissance. When the Avengers get a call that something’s wrong, she can zip out there, survey the scene and let the others know what to expect while they’re flying there in the Quinjet. She’s a really useful member of the team. The writer just needs to structure stories with her in mind, so she can’t solve the threat on the first page.
Rambeau stayed on the Avengers, even becoming its leader, until Stern left and the editors decided Captain America should be leader instead. So suddenly her teammates didn’t trust her decisions anymore, she doubted her own abilities, and a few issues later she was injured and left the team. And yes, her last few issues really are as graceful as I’m making them sound. And that was it. She popped up every so often (including a one-shot comic titled ‘Captain Marvel’ in 1989, possibly to renew the trademark), and she had a fun appearance as a member of Nextwave, even if her character was mainly complaining about how she used to lead the Avengers and was reduced to this.
It’s only in the last few years that I think she’s lived up to her potential by joining the Ultimates, a team of ridiculously powerful heroes solving the biggest problems out there. There’s one point where she outlines her method for defeating Thanos single-handed. It’s a fun series, and I hope it encourages creators to include Monica more often.
While this was going on Carol Danvers was…
…recuperating from her power loss. At first she stayed with the X-Men, who at that time were residing on a weird Atlantis-type city that Magneto had raised to the surface a few issues prior. (And, thanks the podcast Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, I can’t resist calling the island Octopusheim.) So when the Brood, which are essentially expies of H.R. Giger’s Xenomorphs, kidnap the X-Men, they take Carol along too. And then they implant the whole team with brood embryos… And I’ve only just realized how similar this is to Carol’s previous trauma.
Anyway, the Brood notice that Carol has unique DNA and decide to tinker with it, because that’s what villains do. Instead they accidentally give her new superpowers. This transforms her into Binary, and lets her draw energy either from a binary star system or a white hole (depending on the issue). This allows her to break free and help save the day, and she decides to zoom around in space for a while before returning to Earth. However when she finally comes home she discovers that the X-Men have taken Rogue in for rehabilitation. When they refuse to turn her over, Carol essentially says, “Screw you!” to the whole planet, and spends the next decade or so in space, helping Lilandra and the Starjammers in their resistance movement to restore Lilandra to the Shi’ar throne.* So she’s really powerful and having a good time, but I don’t think she appears in many comics in this period.
*This may be confusing for anyone who’s seen the upcoming X-Men: Dark Phoenix film, which appears to feature a character called Lilandra in a very different context. Comics Lilandra is a humanoid with a sideways mohawk of feathers (I wonder if acknowledged comics fan J. Michael Straczynski borrowed this look for the Centauri in Babylon 5), and she and Xavier fall in love and are in some form of relationship from the 1980s to the early 2000s.
For part 2, with Captain Marvels five through nine as well as the fate of Carol Danvers, click here.