Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #2:

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:

Closing the Book on Captain Marvel
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Marvel Spotlight 4 (January 1980)
Captain Marvel in
"Shadow Doom!"
Story by Archie Goodwin and Marv Wolfman
Art by Steve Ditko
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Steve Ditko

Denver scientist Lyman Shaw is killed by his own shadow before breaking “a big discovery” to a local reporter; the cause appears to be a coronary but Mar-Vell senses “the otherworldly” and visits his home, the former Harlow mansion, where he too is attacked by his shadow.  A photon burst saves his life, yet when the shadowy figure pulls him in the doorway, he becomes humanoid, and Marv finds himself not in Harlow House but in another dimension.  Hiding the Kree from a patrol of shadowy Screamers, Primus brings Mar-Vell to his people, who hail him as “avenger of the faith” for finding a champion to help them overthrow the Soul Masters, and is greeted by his wife, Stara, before finally giving an agreed-upon explanation.

After his father, the “last of the old warriors,” was killed by the living shadow, their dimension was “absorbed into that of the Soul Masters,” who draw power by draining souls and made them into “slave reserves.”  Just before the attack, Primus learned that Shaw, attempting interstellar contact, had also pierced the dimensional fabric with ultra-high frequencies, so the chief scientist bargained for his people’s lives and souls.  Since the Soul Masters—unable to leave their own dimension—can send Screamers and shadows to Earth via Shaw’s sonic waves, Primus agreed to strengthen and broaden the wave bands, with Harlow House as a base for their conquest, while secretly recruiting Marv…who, alas, can never return, his soul having been stolen in the process.

With his military training and secretly manufactured weapons, an attack force leaves Stara, “the most experienced monitor,” on duty, but the Screamers take her from the monitoring chamber to the citadel of the Soul Masters, whose mind scan extracts the plan.  Sans the element of surprise, the attackers are wiped out in stopping the Screamers, leaving only Mar-Vell and Primus to enter the citadel and find Stara dying, her soul stolen.  Battling the Soul Masters as Marv destroys the generators maintaining the dimensional link, Primus is mortally wounded, yet they prevented the enemy from stealing the souls of those who fell in battle; infusing his own into his ally, Primus enables Mar-Vell to return via the swiftly closing rift, thus regaining some measure of his honor.

Coincidentally, the antipodal prior credits of plotter Wolfman and writer Goodwin epitomize the strip’s dizzying highs and lows.  Marv and DC escapee Wayne Boring perpetrated its arguable pre-Starlin nadir in Captain Marvel #23-4, yet while Archie’s one-off in #16, which introduced this classic uniform, was overshadowed by #17’s seminal Thomas/Kane/Adkins revamp, he did (as I said in my coverage) “extricat[e] the character from the Drake/Friedrich mire...[He] does a superb job—inevitably awash with exposition—of not only weaving together their dangling plot threads but also putting an entirely new spin on Mar-Vell’s career since Day One [and] throws us an out-of-the-blue, game-changing cliffhanger” by first stranding our Kree in the Negative Zone.

Well, this is a gloomy little tale “Marchie” tells—true, Primus is redeemed, but the victory over the Soul Masters is Pyrrhic in the extreme, coming at the cost of both races’ apparent destruction.  Despite lip service to recent events (e.g., “my love Elysius,” “Could this be the alien threat which Eon warned me of?”), this is a quintessential one-and-done that leaves nary a ripple on the river of Mar-Vell’s existence, while blithely suggesting that all souls are interchangeable.  Yet it is uniquely suited to the former Kree warrior, who, “unlike most of the super heroes [sic] Primus might have secured for the task…adjusts swiftly to the alien setting and culture,” with Archie adeptly handling his spilt-milk attitude and able leadership (“Flexibility is the best battle plan”).

I won’t beat a dead horse by dwelling on my dislike of Bronze-Age Ditko, although ironically, this story’s otherworldly nature suggests that he, too, might have been singularly suitable.  Steve is certainly no stranger to shadowy dimensions, at which he excelled on Dr. Strange, yet these seem perfunctory; many of the panels have white backgrounds (e.g., the training scenes on page 10), pastel colors, or uninteresting geometric shapes.  The rubber-faced humanoid characters and largely featureless Soul Masters are similarly ill-defined, so the whole thing has an unfinished look to it, as though Ditko were simply phoning this in, even if the destruction of Harlow House in page 30, panel 1, just as Shadow-Marv emerges from the rift, admittedly has a little zing to it...

Before and after Mar-Vell’s final appearance therein, the short-lived Spotlight revival remained a showcase for characters without their own books, starting with Marv and Steve’s creation in #5 of Dragon Lord, whose handful of appearances would span decades.  Next was a double-header by erstwhile Kree chronicler Doug Moench and artist Tom Sutton featuring Marvel’s most peripatetic hero, future Hollywood cash cow Star-Lord.  Rounding out the run, Bill Mantlo spun off his Micronauts champion Captain Universe in #9-11, all drawn by Ditko (as were both of his Micronauts Annuals); the twist here is that the Uni-Power possesses different hosts in each issue, starting with Steve Coffin after inducing a luckily non-fatal heart attack in his aging father, Ray.

Marvel Spotlight 8 (September 1980)
Captain Marvel in
"Planet Where Time Stood Still!"
Story by Dick Riley and Mike W. Barr
Art by Frank Miller and Bruce D. Patterson
Colors and Letters by Bruce D. Patterson
Cover by Frank Miller and Terry Austin

Nearing a strangely silent planet, Mar-Vell recalls how a tour of an observatory became “a busman’s holiday” when the latest shift of Operation: Starlight, a search for new stars, failed to emerge from its top-secret camera-telescope.  Tearing off a three-foot-thick, tempered vanadium steel door, he found the scientists gone, leaving a purple glow in the sky; no sooner had Dr. Wilcox noted that the photographic plates were broken—except one showing a star-like streak that was headed to Earth and, if guided by intelligence, might return—than she and Dr. Carson also vanished.  Marv followed the glow there, and as he spots a Skrull, his instinctive hatred makes him attack, but an unseen force hurls him from the unmoving figure.

A humanoid, Vindar, welcomes him to Norsec, explaining that all his “guests” are paralyzed yet conscious, cruelly punished by Those-Who-See; sensing that a “blank wall” is not what it seems, Mar-Vell finds the scientists being prepared for punishment, and demands an audience.  Their power source a violet gem, TWS are the supreme council, who transferred their intellects into a sphinx-like vessel after a dike (whose inspection was Vindar’s job) broke, drowning the entire population.  Marv must defeat their sentry, an energy-construct in the form of Cerberus, before he can destroy the gem—leaving TWS helpless, and restoring those punished for “merely trying to gain knowledge” to their own worlds—while threatening to return if this lesson is not learned.

DC vet Mike W. Barr scripted this farrago of unanswered questions (and I’m not even including “Will we ever learn what Eon was on about?”), which deservedly appears to be co-plotter Dick Riley’s sole credit; the marquee player here is, natch, penciler Miller, now firmly in writer-artist mode on Daredevil, whose okay cover is embellished by Austin.  Unfortunately, one-man band Patterson—serving as interior inker, letterer, and colorist—drowns Lanky Frank’s style so much that we seem to be back in the bad old days of Marv’s dying mag, blonde bouffant and all.  That said, this is the visual antithesis of #4, with ornate planetscapes and a background figure in page 15, panel 2 that looks like a two-armed Thark, echoing Miller’s masterly job on John Carter #18.

I find it a curious choice to put Marv in an observatory setting, again evoking the Broderick era, but then make it a different one from his erstwhile Colorado hangout—wouldn’t a meeting with, and perhaps a rescue of, Jacqueline Carr have given this more resonance?  Yet the plotting is so haphazard that such logic is perhaps superfluous, and the script oddly repetitive:  he “need not be cosmically aware to realize,” “one need not be one with the universe to perceive...” Vindar inexplicably looks like nothing so much as Victor Buono’s King Tut, befitting an Egyptian motif that makes as little sense as anything else, and overall, lame-duck Mar-Vell’s final appearance toplining a regular four-color issue is, if you’ll pardon a mixed avian metaphor, a sad swan song.

During the nomadic existence of those with cancelled strips, Marv was reunited by Mantlo with an old sparring partner and their mutual sometime sidekick, Rick Jones, in Incredible Hulk #245-248 (March-June 1980), a complex arc that I should probably cover in its own right elsewhere.  Ditto—albeit for different reasons—Marvel Two-in-One #69 (November 1980), in which I think Mar-Vell is limited to a one-panel cameo, while a tale planned for the never-published Spotlight #12 that, believe it or not, ties in with an old Dr. Strange storyline was apparently excavated in Marvel Super-Heroes Vol. 2 #3 (Fall 1990).  Aptly, Moench teamed him up with Reed Richards against some Skrulls in Fantastic Four Annual #15 (1980) before Starlin drew the final curtain…

The Death of Captain Marvel (April 1982)
A Marvel Graphic Novel
Story and Art by Jim Starlin
Colors by Steve Oliff
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Jim Starlin

En route to Thanos’s ark—towed past Pluto and abandoned by the Avengers—Mar-Vell begins recording a mini-autobiography that “may prove of some use to those I leave behind,” recalling how he switched his allegiance to Earth from his native Kree after the death of Medic Una (misidentified as a communications officer).  Eros and Mentor wish to return Thanos’s stone body to Titan’s royal crypt, but Mar-Vell sees that it is now on an altar-like platform, and anticipates an attack by intergalactic worshippers awaiting his resurrection.  Marv reluctantly joins in, calibrating his counterattack to avoid bloodshed, yet after Mentor orders the craft vacated, planning to destroy it, the Kree is overcome with a coughing fit.

Back on Titan, Isaac’s medi-scan confirms what he already suspected (“Cosmic awareness can be turned inward.  My body has no secrets I cannot unravel”).  Due to the carcinogenic effects of Compound Thirteen, the nerve gas to which he was exposed while battling Nitro in CM #34, he has cancer—called the “inner decay” on Titan, or the “blackend” by the Kree—and, with the photonic power of his Nega-Bands only slowing its progress, about three months to live.  Marv breaks the news to Elysius in the royal gardens, watched by Mentor in a poignant dialogue-free page, then resumes recording his fights with the Kree Supreme Intelligence, exile in the Negative Zone, enforced partnership with Rick Jones, revenge on Col. Yon-Rogg, friends, and many foes.

This prompts a visit to a 44th Street tenement roof, where Mar-Vell urges Rick to get a check-up in case “our symbiotic relationship would allow this disease to be passed on to you,” but the lad accuses him of giving up—Mentor’s radiation treatments aside—and storms off.  Reminded by Elysius that “all his life people have been leaving [the orphaned Rick] behind,” Marv contrasts himself with Adam Warlock, who “welcomed [Death] as a friend.”  At Avengers’ (sic) Mansion, Rick gathers a septet (Yellowjacket, the Black Panther, Vision, Wonder Man, Beast, Iron Man, Thor) whose expertise might save him; he again storms off when they point out that this is a little outside their line, not knowing they all had already agreed to go to Titan and work with Mentor.

Worlds across the galaxy receive the news with mixed feelings and provide all of the oncological data they possess (except the Kree, who consider Mar-Vell a traitor), enabling Isaac to design a life-support tunic that reduces the degeneration.  Knowing of his feelings, Marv asks Eros to be a friend to Elysius when he’s gone and recalls how, after a “honeymoon” touring Earth together, the enemies-turned-lovers decided to settle on Titan.  Rick’s Dream Team, joined by Dr. Strange and Mr. Fantastic, is stymied by an increased dependency on the Nega-Bands, to whose photonic energy the mutating cancer has gained an immunity, yet that energy blocks all attempted cures; per Dr. McCoy, “the one thing that’s keeping Marvel alive is also keeping us from curing him!”

Marv collapses, and the final vigil begins as “the family of super-man” gathers to say goodbye, a shaken Spidey observing, “We die from bullets and bombs…not from something like cancer.”  Visitors include an apologetic Rick; Drax, who is reconnecting with daughter Moondragon, and has experienced death; and General Zedrao, who has made “guarantees of proper conduct” and—in marked contrast to the Kree’s snub—presents him with the Royal Skrull Medal of Valor as  their greatest enemy.  Mar-Vell falls into a coma, yet amid the litany around his bedside that it’s “so unfair,” a curious thing begins to happen:  in his sub-basement tomb, the stone figure that is Thanos “hears the call and must answer,” coming to life and ascending to the royal bed chamber.

Restoring the frail Mar-Vell with a wave of his hand, Thanos has “returned from the darkness for one last, magnificent battle,” showing Marv the literal heart of his universe and challenging him to prevent its destruction.  He faces and defeats his foes who have died over the years, yet in the end, he must accept the inevitable, and when Thanos’s beloved Death appears, Mar-Vell passes his hand over her face, which changes from beauty to a skull:  “It is not that I fear her.  It’s just that…I no longer need…the illusion.”  While the heart stops beating, Thanos announces, “She will lead us on our journey.  She will show us that this is not the end…only the beginning!”; as the trio walks hand-in-hand into the light, and the monitor flatlines, Mentor says, “He’s gone…”

At 62 unnumbered pages, Marvel’s debut graphic novel was 3.65 times the length, 10 times the price, and roughly 1.16 times the trim size of a then-standard issue.  Per Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, EIC Shooter suggested this landmark opus after seeing sales soar on X-Men #137, while Starlin agreed to write and draw it (with colors by Steve Oliff, whose name I now know from those Moon Knight backup stories in The Hulk!) “on the condition that he could do another graphic novel featuring Dreadstar, a character he owned.”  When it was published, two weeks after Elektra’s death in the bestselling Daredevil #181, “it quickly sold out of three printings, and Jim…made himself a tidy sum and bought himself a new Camaro Z28,” as Sean Howe recounts.

At this late date, I don’t recall when I acquired this (I don’t think it was immediate, probably due to distress over the concept, plus my “Marvel age” was waning by then) or how I reacted to it at the time; on a re-read, it affected me more than expected and, shocker, reduced me to tears.  Yet as much as I love the creator and characters, it seems a little too aware at times of its status as A Big Thing, and I found minor annoyances, e.g., since when does Wonder Man possess “special scientific or medical knowledge”—ditto Thor, even if Don Blake does—while the “Why didn’t we cure cancer before?” bit feels out of place.  But to be brutally frank, Mar-Vell had been in a slow downward spiral since Starlin left, so if euthanasia was called for, Jim should pull the plug.

The “autobio tapes” make this as much a recap of The Life of Captain Marvel—a five-issue 1985 special edition reprinting Starlin’s Thanos War—as an account of his death, and amid all of the inevitable handwringing (“Who would have thought that, in the end…it’d be my own body that would turn on me and do me in”), Jim treats us to some mighty fine tableaux.  These include, but are not limited to:  Marv surrounded by friends and foes (story page 21), a montage of Thanos and his “network of schemes” (page 22), the super-heroes assembled for the vigil (page 38), and Marv shattering his resurrected enemies (page 56).  These are, of course, balanced by the quieter moments, e.g., those with Elysius, and among his friends as they try to grapple with the situation.

I’m sorry to see from Wikipedia that—as with Thanos, Warlock, and so many others—poor Mar-Vell was not allowed to rest in peace, while to maintain its trademark, Marvel further cheapened the brand by churning out lesser characters bearing the “Captain Marvel” name, only the first of whom, Monica Rambeau, I endured.  These are among the reasons why I stopped buying new comics c. 1985 and have never looked back, leaving Marv’s Bronze-Age glory untarnished and this work a transitional milestone:  the “end” of the character who starred in my favorite arc ever, and the beginning of a new format that would prove very successful.  And, having chronicled his adventures since Day One in our regular curriculum, I’m honored to bring closure to them now...


  1. "...DC escapee Wayne Boring..." made me chortle, or at least chuckle, on our way to celebrating Mar-vel and mourning the end on an era. Prof. Matthew strikes again!

  2. So proud that you tackled your Kree whale, The Death of Captain Marvel. Who better? I totally understand the “A Big Thing” avoidance, but I couldn’t count off my Newsday newsboy earnings any faster when that graphic novel came out. And I never even cared about Captain Marvel or Warlock. So why did I buy it? It WAS a big thing! Spidey’s on the cover! Wheeeeee! Excellent post buddy. Magnifico!

  3. Humble thanks, beloved friend and colleague; so glad you enjoyed it.