Friday, 14 February 2014

Essential Captain Marvel volume 1

Essential Captain Marvel volume 1 contains the Captain Marvel strips from Marvel Super-Heroes #12-13 then Captain Marvel #1-21 and a bonus story from the comedy series Not Brand Echh #9. Marvel Super-Heroes was an anthology series, previously entitled Fantasy Masterpieces, which variously combined try-out new material with reprints from the Golden Age; later it would carry reprints of more recent material including a long run reprinting the Incredible Hulk. Stan Lee writes the first Marvel Super-Heroes and is then followed by Roy Thomas who writes up until issue #4 of the titled series and again from #17 and also the Not Brand Echh story. Arnold Drake and Gary Friedrich write most of the intervening issues, with one other by Archie Goodwin. Gene Colan draws as far as issue #4 and also the Not Brand Echh story, then the others are drawn by Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Frank Springer, Tom Sutton, Gil Kane and John Buscema.

Captain Marvel was not only one of the last Marvel Silver Age superhero features to get an Essential volume, but was also the last one to be created in that era. After the initial burst of creativity that produced everyone from the Fantastic Four to Daredevil, there was then a period in which the emphasis was on consolidation rather than expansion, giving pre-existing characters their own strips, and the debuts seemed to be done with. Then in 1967 came this new feature. Was he the product of a late surge of creativity that led to Stan Lee and his artists to come up with just one more character? Or did he serve some ulterior purpose?

Even without consulting wider comic histories it seems clear it was the ulterior purpose and it shows. Captain Marvel appears to be the first in a long line of Marvel characters created for the purpose of securing intellectual property rights. Often such characters get rushed into print before the idea has been thoroughly thought through, resulting in some rather confusing early years as the premise, powers and/or backstory get revised in order to work better, and eventually the character is given up with the codename transferred to a new hero, often one with no connection at all to the original. Unfortunately this pattern is all too clear with Captain Marvel. Over the course of this single volume we get a series that starts off as a tale of an alien military spy yet by the end he's become a cosmic powered hero fused with a human being. The series got its first cancellation during the course of this volume yet it was revived barely six months later as a bimonthly. The last regular issue in the volume ends with a note explaining this has been a try-out and "Now, his fate is in your hands -- you, the reader! We'll be waiting for your verdict!" But these two issues were just a try-out and the series did not continue for another two years. It's hard to disguise that the series had not been terribly successful and yet Marvel kept on trying to keep the name "Captain Marvel" on the newsstands.

The real purpose was clearly down to the "use it or lose it" requirements of trademark law that mean a company can't simply hold onto a name to prevent competitors from using it; they must regularly actively exploit the trademark. Exactly how frequently can vary, as can the precise means by which the mark is used, but one consequence is a particular code name can appear on the shelves repeatedly and for multiple characters simply because of the risk of otherwise losing it. This is why names like "Spider-Woman" have been used so many times and also why some of the various "Captain Marvel"s have no connection to each other whatsoever. The name "Captain Marvel" had been used before; first for a highly successful character published by Fawcett Comics in the 1940s & 1950s until DC brought a copyright suit, and then the name had been briefly used by M. F. Enterprises for a short-lived hero. Clearly the risk of rivals being able to publish comics with "Marvel" in the title was too great and so Marvel were clearly moving to tie up the trademark before yet another company printed a comic called "Captain Marvel". Indeed when the Marvel series was revived again in 1972 from issue #22, it came just a few months before DC revived the Fawcett Captain Marvel (since DC could hardly breach its own copyright). Had Marvel foreseen its rival's move and rushed to reinforce its mark? It just served to reinforce the pattern as a whole succession of Captain Marvels would be wheeled out over the years. (DC revived the Fawcett character but because Marvel had already got to the trademark, DC have been unable to sell their version under the logo of "Captain Marvel" - although this doesn't affect what the character is called inside the strip - leading to the use of alternatives such as "Shazam".) But in the process Marvel forget to create a particular exciting scenario and series, and eventually had to change just about everything other than the lead character's name.

The series starts by tapping into the contemporary fads of spies and space science fiction. We see Mar-Vell, a captain in the Kree armed forces, sent on a mission to Earth, though the precise details of his mission vary between revenge for earlier defeats and spying upon the world to determine the threat level. The original given mission is ridiculous for one man, even one as skilled as Mar-Vell, so it's no surprise that it gets changed early on under a different writer. However the new mission becomes equally silly because a Kree scout ship is hiding in orbit and observing Mar-Vell all the time - so why not just cut out the middle man and do the spying from orbit without the risk of arousing suspicions on Earth? A lot of the problem is that the real reason for sending Mar-Vell onto the planet is the jealousy of his superior, Colonel Yon-Rogg, for Mar-Vell's relationship with medic Una. Yon-Rogg belongs to a line of suitors who believe that simply disposing of a rival without even concealing their involvement or hatred will result in a woman falling into their arms. I don't have the real life statistics to hand to check just how many men have succeeded with this method of courting, but I suspect it's very few if that.

There's an attempt to make this a science-fiction romantic story with the regular complications of Yon-Rogg trying to get Mar-Vell either killed on his mission or executed as a traitor, but it rapidly becomes tiresome, even when an additional angle is added to the triangle in the form of human Carol Danvers (later Ms. Marvel then Binary then Warbird then Ms. Marvel again then yet another Captain Marvel - have I missed any out?). It's trying to give a sense of purpose and tragedy to the story but we don't see a great deal of Una and what we do see just doesn't make her a compelling character but instead a weeping wet blanket. It's hard to grasp just what Mar-Vell and Yon-Rogg see in her to the point that the Colonel is prepared to destroy one of his best officers in pursuit of her. The result is that the core motivation for the hatred between Mar-Vell and Yon-Rogg just doesn't convince and so we're left with an endless succession of adventures as Mar-Vell settles on Earth, assuming the guise of the dead Dr Walter Lawson, and finds himself torn between his orders and his realisation of the value of the planet. As a result he comes to the protection of humans multiple times, under the "Americanized" form of his name, Captain Marvel, and equally regularly has to justify his conduct as Yon-Rogg tries to get him prosecuted.

The idea of the noble enemy who comes to a society with orders to destroy it yet rebels when they discovers what the inhabitants are like had been done before with the Silver Surfer and no doubt with many earlier ones, but often it isn't too obvious just what they see in the society or how it is they always seem to meet the best examples. Here Mar-Vell spends most of his time around a missile base in Florida or at a nearby motel with a suspicious night clerk, interacting with a limited number of base personnel and townsfolk, and getting caught up in protecting humans from various alien incursions. At the base the main characters are the base commander General Bridges and the security chief Carol Danvers. Carol is presented as a clear potential romantic interest from the outset and we soon get the all too familiar scenario whereby she falls for the hero but is hostile to his secret identity. Eventually she and Mar-Vell share a kiss, to the delight of the watching Yon-Rogg and the horror of Una, but nothing really comes of it and Carol disappears when the series overhauls itself.

Mar-Vell battles a number of menaces ranging from a Kree sentry to the Super Skrull. The latter is, I think, the first time a Kree and a Skrull had faced off in a Marvel comic though we learn they've been enemies for centuries. Other existing Marvel foes include Quasimodo the living computer. There are new threats such as the Metazoid, a mutated being created by the Communists, or Solam, a solar energy creature drawn to Earth by accident, the Aakons, another alien race, the Organization, a criminal outfit, the Cybrex, a robot built by the real Walter Lawson, the Man-Slayer, a robot created by Communists and the Puppet Master (in a crossover with the Avengers and th Sub-Mariner, however only the Captain Marvel issue is included here). There are also the inevitable clashes with other heroes such as Namor the Sub-Mariner, Iron Man and, later on, the Hulk, though the Captain America depicted on the volume's cover (reused from issue #17) is in fact an illusion generated by Mar-Vell to draw Rick Jones in.

From issue #11 onwards the series starts to transform itself into something different and steadily ditches a lot of the baggage. Una is casually killed off by a stray shot in battle with the Aakons, and Mar-Vell boards a rocket which gets thrown into deep space where he meets an all-powerful being who gives him enhanced powers, including flight, casting illusions and teleportation. Subsequently we learn that Mar-Vell has long been manipulate by the Kree ministers Ronan the Accuser and Zarek as part of a planned coup against the Supreme Intelligence. Zarek is motivated by concerns about the Kree racial stock but fortunately for a black and white reprint this is about the only moment that touches upon the racial tensions within the Kree Empire whereby blue-skinned Kree have come to see themselves as the original pure stock and are hostile towards pink-skinned Kree such as Mar-Vell, seeing them as the result of mixing with lesser races. As a reward the Supreme Intelligence gives Mar-Vell yet further powers and a new costume, his most familiar one, but the hero is now cut off from the Kree. He is soon trapped in the Negative Zone and the only escape, however temporary, is through bonding with another being and regularly trading places with them. And so Rick Jones is lured into a cave in the desert.

When introduced in issue #17, Rick Jones seems several years younger than he's normally portrayed, looking almost like a child. Was this just an error by Gil Kane or was it a deliberate homage to Billy Batson, the original Fawcett Captain Marvel? There are other elements to his introduction that feel like a retread of how Billy was introduced to Shazam, and indeed in the pre-Crisis Fawcett & DC stories Captain Marvel and Billy were treated as separate personalities. But whatever the motivation, the result is that Captain Marvel now shares his existence with a mortal. After a final tidy-up with a showdown in which Yon-Rogg is killed and Carol saved, the series now embarks fully in its new direction.

However the last few issues are just strange. In one Rick finds himself caught up in a strange sociological experiment run by a scientist who uses a luxury block of flats as a giant laboratory. Then in the revived try-out Mar-Vell clashes with both the Hulk and the Rat Pack, a bunch of hi-tech looters. By the end of the series everything has changed beyond recognition and it's no longer clear at all just what it's all about.

Captain Marvel is a series that's quite well drawn and the individual issues flow quickly without any obvious stinkers. But the overall direction of the series is a total mess and the result is a rather meandering flow. The Not Brand Echh story included here plays on the fact that "Captain Marvin" can't remember what his mission is. Whether by accident or design it winds up parodying the series in more ways than one as it really doesn't know what its purpose is for. This was one of the earliest series whose sole reason for existing was legal rather than creative and its artificialness is all too easy to see.

1 comment:

  1. probably the easiest way to read the magus saga
    a saga i have been trying to pick together for a while now

    ( stumbeling on mile high comics on ebay will probably get me the most of that series together hell i got almost all epic comics akira's from them )

    on a different note i got back in to reading spiderman after buying marvel tales 4 from them first published in 1966
    and it will most likely be the oldest comic i will own at 48 years all for the priceley sum of 6 dollars

    and from marvel tales 4 i went on to other marvel tales which are a wonderfull way to get key spiderman issues in color with out emptying your wallet

    i also left you a somewhat lengthy reply on the solar pool about marvels general state of being in 87-96

    ReplyDelete

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