Friday, 14 September 2012

Essential Ms. Marvel volume 1

Marvel seems to have spent quite a bit of time searching for "the next Spider-Man" in the 1970s. They probably didn't spot Wolverine for a while. One such series launched at the start of 1977 with the cover proclaiming "A bold new super-heroine in the senses-stunning tradition of Spider-Man!" The character's debut was heavily entrenched in Spidey's world, working for J. Jonah Jameson, and the debut cover was replete with characters from the Spider-Man comics. But over time Ms. Marvel would go her own way, moving out of what was not yet called "the Spider-Man family" of titles.

Essential Ms. Marvel volume 1 contains Ms. Marvel #1-23, stories from Marvel Super-Heroes #10-11 and Avengers Annual #10. Marvel Super-Heroes was an early 1990s quarterly title that generally ran left-over stories from inventory, and here carried material that would have appeared in issues #24 & #25 of Ms. Marvel, albeit with some changes and updates to reflect subsequent events. Issue #24 was largely complete when the plug was pulled; however I'm uncertain as to how much of what is printed here would have actually gone out as issue #25 back in 1979. Following the cancellation of her own series, Ms. Marvel went on to become a member of the Avengers but was written out in a rather controversial way. Annual #10 was an attempt to undo the damage. In addition there are Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Deathbird, Captain Marvel, the Kree and Rogue.

The first couple of issues are written by Gerry Conway, who also plotted the third which was scripted by Chris Claremont who writes all the remaining issues in the volume, though Marvel Super-Heroes #11 has a co-credit for latter day additions by Simon Furman. The art is by variously John Buscema, Jim Mooney, Keith Pollard, Sal Buscema, Carmine Infantino, Dave Cockrum and Mike Vosburg, with Mike Gustovich working on the additions in Marvel Super-Heroes #11 and Michael Golden handling the Avengers annual. The writing credits are generally encouraging, though most of the giants of comics have had their off days and the original writer leaving after just a couple of issues can be a sign of early turbulence. However, the art credits are more unstable. With a lot of creators, a separate post has been created to carry the labels for them.

I have to admit that growing up in the 1980s, the whole "Ms" thing passed me by until rather later. None of my female teachers, of whom there were many, used it (at least at school). It wasn't taught to me at the same time I was learning about other honorifics. Nor did I ever encounter it in relation to the mothers of any of my contemporaries, or by any woman I can recall in the media (but then some of the more strident "Ms"es may not had made an impact, plus a growing informality was bypassing the title debate altogether). And that's even before we get to the backlash against radical feminism that means there are women who really dislike "Ms" and take offence to being called it. The only female I can recall from that era for whom it was used in my hearing was "Ms. Lion", the dog in Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, but I, like many others, heard the name as "Miss Lion" and never realised it was anything else. So by the time I did learn about "Ms" I was sufficiently set in my ways that it felt unusual, made more so by hardly ever actually hearing it in practice since then (although again usage of "Mrs" and "Miss" has noticeably declined and this issue is not exactly a standard point of conversation) and then there's the whole issue of how to pronounce it (a few characters have their rendition written as "Miz" – is this meant to indicate a non-standard pronunciation or conversely an attempt to help readers learn how to pronounce it?). So does that mean the name "Ms. Marvel" instinctively puts me off her? I can't say for sure as by the time I first encountered her she was now "Binary" and my first regular reading of her was as "Warbird". So the "Ms. Marvel" name has dated for me, even if she has since used it again.

The first issue is a curious mixture of introductions and mysteries. We are introduced to both Carol Danvers, the newly hired editor of "Woman" magazine (based, not entirely coincidentally, on the real world magazine "Ms." though without the more strident political side), and the mysterious hero who is soon dubbed "Ms. Marvel" but she herself suffers from amnesia and has no clear knowledge about who she is or how she acquired her powers. Carol suffers from periodic migraines and disappears at times when she passes out, making the connection all too clear, but neither ego is aware of the other. It could be a sign of a bold step to allow the reader to discover things such as the origin at the same time as the character, or equally it could be a sign of a character rushed onto the stands before she was fully thought through, due to a need to protect the company's intellectual property. Spider-Woman debuted the following month with much the same problem, but had the different solution of rushing out a rather poorly thought through origin and then once her own series was launched the origin was routinely revised and built on, to the point where it became almost impossible to follow. It's questionable as to which approach is better in such a messy situation. However, the practical result is that issue #1 finishes without giving the reader a decent understanding of the character of Ms. Marvel and why she does what she does, nor for that matter what the full extent of her powers is. This is not an encouraging sign. And the derivative nature of the character is all too clear. A blonde female with the surname "Danvers" who is a spin-off of a powerful alien hero, and both of them have enhanced strength, invulnerability and can fly? Now where have we heard that one before? Oh hello Supergirl. But from what I've seen of Supergirl's adventures from the time, Ms. Marvel's are cut from a very different cloth. Comparisons with the "Marvel Family" of Fawcett/DC are pretty much non-existent bar an in-joke when the Beast asks if Ms. Marvel is Captain Marvel's sister. (That's the wrong Captain Marvel, Hank!)

Gerry Conway is credited on the first issue as not just the writer/editor (a joint post common at Marvel at the time but later phased out) but also as having conceived the series, with help from his then wife Carla. I wonder if this help had much influence on the series but as Gerry Conway left the series and Marvel altogether with issue #3 it's hard to tell. By the time he leaves we have at least learnt the origin of Ms. Marvel, though Carol herself has not, as we discover she absorbed radiation when caught up in a fight between Captain Marvel and an enemy. Carol herself discovers her alter ego in the next few issues but the exact psychological relationship between the two is left unaddressed for some time – are they the result of a split personality or is Ms. Marvel a pre-existing Kree who is now sharing Carol's body, similar to Captain Marvel and Rick Jones? In general, Chris Claremont's changes to the character are gradual and work as an ongoing narrative, such as altering the source of her powers from her costume to her body as the result of a second exposure to radiation. This works much better than the "everything you knew is false" approach some writers take of introducing retcons and deceptions that simply wipe out a previous writer's additions to the mythology. Issue #13 finally answers the question about the two identities and establishes that Ms. Marvel is a split in Carol's personality due to her mind being unable to cope when her body was transformed into a Kree warrior. This is not entirely consistent with Ms. Marvel occasionally spouting Kree words such as "Hala" and "Great Pama" or having memories that suggest she was born Kree (though it wasn't clear if those memories were somehow transplanted from Captain Marvel) but the result is that we finally get an integrated whole character. But it's not until issue #19 that we get it fully established that the initial exposure to radiation and Captain Marvel's Nega-Bands resulted in Carol being genetically reconstituted as part-human, part-Kree as part of an overall scheme by the Kree Supreme Intelligence. It says a lot that it takes nearly twenty issues to fully flesh out the character's origin. Issue #19 also sees the first appearance of Captain Marvel, outside of flashbacks, and he and Carol end the issue agreeing to be friends but she also talks about how she's ended up as a female copy of him but wants to fully establish herself properly.

If readers picked the book up expecting a diatribe of second wave feminism then they would have been severely disappointed. However, that expectation may well have been critical in putting other potential readers off. But apart from a few individual scenes, inevitably in confrontations with overbearing male figures such as her father, Jonah or Iron Man, there aren't really that many moments of explicit feminist confrontation. Instead, we have a strong, self-confident independent woman who gets on with her life and gives her best in the situations she encounters. That's a much better approach than presenting a preaching, man-hating, castrating, bra-burning stereotypical crusader who would have dated rapidly. Speaking of clothing there's a minor change to the costume from issue #9 onwards which sees Ms. Marvel's midriff is filled in. Later on issue #20 shows signs of the warning sirens screaming on the title, with the telltale signs of the frequency dropping to bi-monthly, a new logo, "New" being prominently used on the cover and a new costume. It makes sense that Ms. Marvel would wish to move beyond being a derivative of Captain Marvel and ditching the Kree uniform is a natural way to go, but this isn't explicitly stated in the strip itself.

Despite the attempts to establish its own identity, one curious sign is that villains from other series are far more prominent than new villains. That's not to say there aren't any new villains, with the series also introducing the likes of Kerwin Korman the Destructor, Deathbird, Hecate, Sapper, Mystique and finally the Lizard People (who, contrary to expectations, are not engaged in umpteen conspiracy theories) but this seems to be their only appearance. But yes, the Deathbird and Mystique on that list are the famous X-Men ones and they are the main contenders to be Ms. Marvel's arch nemesis. But in general it's villains from other series who predominate. The first issue kicks off with the Scorpion, adding to the title's links to the Spider-Man "family", then the following issues then sees the appearance of AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics – they're the high tech guys in silly radiation suits) and their one-time leader MODOK ("Mobile Organism Designed Only for Killing" – which isn't an accurate description) from multiple Marvel series such as Iron Man and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Then we get the Doomsday Man (from the original Silver Surfer series), Grotesk (from X-Men), the Elementals Hellfire, Hydron and Magnum (from Supernatural Thrillers), Steeplejack (from Power Man), Tiger Shark (from Namor the Sub-Mariner), Ronan the Accuser and the Kree Supreme Intelligence (both originally from Fantastic Four but they have each appeared in many other titles), the Faceless One (from Astonishing Tales) and, in the inventoried issue #24, Sabretooth (from the X-Men). Both the "reconstructed" issue #25 and Avengers Annual #10 feature the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, made up here of Mystique, Destiny, Pyro, Avalanche, the Blob and Rogue. If the story printed in Marvel Super-Heroes #11 is pretty accurate to what would have gone out in 1979 then that issue would have been the first appearance of all bar Mystique and the Blob. However I am a bit sceptical this would actually have been the case and so Destiny, Pyro and Avalanche made their first appearances in X-Men in the "Days of Future Past" story (and the Blob had also debuted in X-Men, albeit many years earlier) whilst the Avengers annual is the first appearance of Rogue.

The initial supporting cast is primarily drawn from the Spider-Man titles, most notable J. Jonah Jameson and Mary Jane Watson, but there are also occasional appearances by other Daily Bugle staffers such as Peter Parker and Robbie Robertson. Mary Jane Watson is quite prominent in the first few issues as she befriends Carol who she is in awe of, but she is rapidly ditched once Claremont takes over from Conway, and not mentioned thereafter. Jonah lasts for longer and there are occasional clashes between him and Carol over the direction of "Woman" which eventually result in him firing her – and in typical Jonah style he does it by letter! The series's original cast is mixed between characters who make a couple of appearances and a few more regular ones. Of the latter we get Mike Barnett, Carol's psychiatrist who discovers her secret even before she does, and who falls for her and hopes to marry her, but before this can advance he is killed off in what would have been issue #24. Another potential beau is Frank Gianelli, a photojournalist who make a mark in the Bugle building when he got so angry with Jonah he punched him. Sadly this incident occurred before his first appearance and is only talked about. At one point he and Carol share a kiss but that's as far as it goes. The other most frequent supporting cast member is Tracy Burke, a veteran top photojournalist who Carol recruits as her associate editor and who later succeeds her. There's also Arabella Jones, Carol's landlord in her later issues whom she befriends, though she isn't developed significantly in the time remaining. Otherwise the supporting cast tend to appear very briefly for individual stories or make only a couple of brief appearances across issues. Carol's parents, Joe and Marie, appear in both a storyline in the middle of the run and later in a flashback, and we see how Carol grew up in a family with highly traditionalist expectations summed up in her father's comment "Besides, you don't need college to find a good husband," which led her to sign up with the Air Force as a route to afford her way through college and then make her own way in life.

In general the stories flow quite fast, putting Ms. Marvel through a quite varied set of situations ranging from fighting a civil war within AIM, risking her life in a deep-sea mission to rescue Namorita or rescuing people from the Lizard People and finding a way for the race to exist in safety. All in all these twenty-three issues offer a pretty solid run and once again it's a pity that such a good book didn't catch on for whatever reason of sales. However there are a few problems. There's a long-running subplot involving the mysterious Mystique (now I wonder how her name was come up with) and her plans against both Carol and Ms. Marvel. But unfortunately the series ended before it could be fully developed. Considering how early it was begun this is not an accident of cancellation but an early example of how Claremont could let sub-plots run on and on without a clear sign of resolution. Marvel Super-Heroes #10 printed the story that had already been prepared for issue #24 and does take the sub-plot a little way forward with the murder of Mike Barnett (an event that could be held up as a sign of "Men in Refrigerators" or just that it's the curse of being a supporting cast member regardless of gender that results in unpleasant things happening to them, particularly when writing them out). But then it gets fuzzy. As noted above, Marvel Super-Heroes #11 contains more of a sort of "reconstruction" of what was planned for Ms. Marvel #25 but with two writers involved it's clear that a number of elements were added not only to bring Carol's story up to date but also to reconcile continuity. Whilst Mystique had been trying to kill Carol and Ms. Marvel for quite a number of issues, I am sceptical that Destiny, Pyro and Avalanche were going to have made their debuts in issue #25, though it seems that Rogue would indeed have done so. What we get is a mixture of Carol trying to trace her boyfriend's murder and getting side-tracked into taking down an arms smuggling ring, combined with an attack on her by the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. It's all a bit confusing and some points aren't properly resolved within this volume, such as whether the murder is ever fully solved. The issue ends with prolonged scenes that show Ms. Marvel's battle with Rogue that took place off-panel before the start of the Avengers annual…

The volume is 512 pages long, one of the shorter of the Essentials, so what additional material could have been included in this volume had it needed to be longer? Appearances in team-up books are common and Ms. Marvel appeared in Marvel Team-Up #62 (which came out between issues #10 & #11 of her own series) and was one of several characters to appear in Marvel Two-in-One #51, the month after her own series ended. The Team-Up issue is, however, the conclusion of a two-part story and doesn't feature Ms. Marvel that significantly. It also doesn't touch at all upon the overlaps in Peter Parker and Carol Danvers's civilian lives. With the Two-in-One issue having Ms. Marvel as part of a crowd of Avengers it's probably for best that neither of these issues was included. But the biggest absentee of note is Avengers #200. Ms. Marvel started regularly appearing with the Avengers from issue #171 onwards, though didn't formally join until issue #183 (which came out a month after her own series suddenly ended). Issue #200 saw her written out very controversially, to put it mildly. The title of Carol Strickland's essay "The Rape of Ms. Marvel" says it all. Perhaps it's fortunate that it isn't included here. Avengers Annual #10 sought to make amends for some of the mess, allowing Carol (and Chris Claremont) to confront the Avengers (and their writers) about their complete failure to realise what had actually happened to her and that it wasn't consensual at all. The story otherwise introduces a new villain in the form of Rogue, a mutant with the ability to absorb other people's memories and powers through physical contact. However her contact with Ms. Marvel sees something go wrong and she permanently absorbs both. Carol is left depowered and with her memories only slowly recovering thanks to help from Professor Xavier. It's possible that Chris Claremont had planned the encounter with Rogue all along as a way to end the series, but the axe fell sooner than expected and Ms. Marvel's storyline wasn't carried forward in the pages of the Avengers. But whether the intention or not it's still a poor way to write out a character, having such fundamentals of her life stolen by another, leaving her broken and having to rebuild her life slowly. Because the volume is, unusually, not laid out in exact order of publication the two Marvel Super-Heroes issues come before the Avengers annual. As a result the volume ends on a downbeat note, rather than with 1992 additions that summarised Carol's story up until she became Binary. Curiously there's no Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entry for Carol included here that could have served that purpose.

In spite of the problems with the ending, overall this volume is quite good and reveals another hidden gem from the Bronze Age of comics. Ms. Marvel may have been a spin-off of one pre-existing character, she may have been initially embedded in the world of another and she may have been created to ride a trend in the wider world, but she steadily proves her own worth in both her identities and gradually sheds the baggage from both other characters though not in such a way that it feels forced (and certainly not in the jarring manner that her contemporary, Spider-Woman, was subjected to with almost every new writer). Sure there are some narrative problems with lengthy underdeveloped sub-plots, an origin that takes many issues to fully flesh out and an early problem of the identity of Ms. Marvel and Carol, but by and large the series manages to propel itself forward in such a way that the problems don't show, and bit by bit almost every one is eventually resolved. Even better the series didn't descend into crude stereotyping but instead offered a strong character who got on with things. Overall this series is much underrated.

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