Friday, 7 November 2014

Essential Captain Marvel volume 2

Essential Captain Marvel volume 1 contains issues #22-46 of the original Captain Marvel series plus Iron Man #55 and Marvel Feature #12. Issue #36 is a reprint with a framing sequence that is included here. The Iron Man issue is a prologue to a storyline in the main series whilst the Marvel Feature issue ties in with that and is also part of the try-out for Marvel Two-in-One. Bonus material includes a map of Titan from issue #27 plus the covers, pin-ups and extra pages from the reprint series The Life of Captain Marvel. The writing on the main series is primarily by Mike Friedrich, Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart either solo or in various combinations with Al Milgrom co-plotting some issues and a few by Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman and Chris Claremont. The art is mainly by Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom and Wayne Boring with an individual issue by Alfredo Alcala. Friedrich and Starlin also co-produce both the Iron Man and Marvel Feature issues.

Although the numbering begun in 1968 is continued, this volume represents the third attempt to launch an ongoing Captain Marvel title in less than five years. Once again this perseverance is almost certainly down to a desire to maintain the trademark at a time when DC had obtained the licence for the Fawcett Captain Marvel and would soon relaunch him on the world in his own title. US trademark law is big on the "use it or lose it" principle so Marvel Comics couldn't just rely on a registration but had to actively use the mark "Captain Marvel" in order to prevent others using it. This shows in the first few issues as we get a fairly generic superhero series with the only real twist being Rick Jones increasingly resenting sharing his physical space with Mar-Vell and resisting transformation no matter how dire the situation. The villains consist of Megaton the Nuclear Man and Dr Mynde, both men affected by radiation. Megaton has mutated into a solid form but is set to explode whilst Mynde is an ambitious scientist whose body succumbed to radiation poisoned so he transplanted his head onto a robotic body. Neither foe is terribly exciting and both die at the end of their first encounter. There's yet another change to Captain Marvel's set-up as his powers are altered so he is now reliant on solar energy for his powers and is noticeably weaker at night. A supporting cast is grown in the form of musician Lou-Anne Savannah and her uncle scientist Benjamin but all in all this is a series still searching for a purpose beyond trademark protection.

On first encounter Iron Man #55 seems an odd choice for inclusion as it doesn't feature Captain Marvel or any of the characters from his series. Instead we get the introduction of a new villain and his opponent. But that villain is Thanos and the opponent Drax the Destroyer, with the issue serving as a prologue to the best known storyline in this volume. Over no less than nine issues, with bimonthly publication making it last eighteen months, we get an extended tale of Captain Marvel's battle with Thanos, establish the Titan as one of the mega-villains of the Marvel universe. The epic spread beyond the pages of Captain Marvel itself, with Iron Man teaming up with the Thing to battle Thanos's minions the Blood Brothers in Marvel Feature #12, Moondragon being aided by Daredevil and the Black Widow in their own series and the Avengers taking on Thanos's armed forces in their series. Only the Marvel Feature issue is included but it isn't very critical to the ongoing plot and doesn't justify its presence here whilst other tie-in issues are ignored. I suspect the reason is that this inclusion/exclusion pattern appears to have been followed by all the reprints of the storyline going right back to the mid 1980s series The Life of Captain Marvel.

This storyline presents with a truly cosmic epic with a well developed backstory and characters. Over the course of these issues Captain Marvel battles first with Thanos's recruits such as the Super Skrull and the Controller, before eventually taking on the Titan himself. We get a broad scope reminiscent of Greek epics as we learn the history of the civilisation on Titan from its founding by A'Lars, brother of Zeus, under the name of Mentor, through to Thanos's rise, recruitment of an army and conquest of the moon and then sweeping outwards. We learn of how steps have been taken to stop them but they are not enough. And we see the effects as Thanos turns his attention to Earth in pursuit of the Cosmic Cube to further his ends. The Cube offers immense power but its ramifications aren't explored too much beyond a notable 35 panel page in which Drax is subjected to a reality warping experience. Captain Marvel steadily steps up to the point where his heroism allows him to triumph.

We get many new characters who have gone on to perform significant roles through the Marvel Universe and beyond into the films. There's Thanos himself, his brother Eros (later to use the alias "Starfox"), their father Mentor, Isaac the super-computer and Drax the Destroyer. Each is carefully sketched out as a distinctive being who advances the story in their own way. And there are the more cosmic entities. The mighty Kronos is introduced though like Eros he bears limited resemblance to the character from Greek mythology. From afar he has created Drax the Destroyer out of Moondragon's dead father. Even more mysterious is Eon, a blob that appears to be a hybrid of two separate entities and which summons Mar-Vell to transform him from soldier to cosmic protector. And then there's Death, a silent skeletal female figure in a robe who appears at Thanos's side. There are some status quo changes as well, with Benjamin Savannah killed off at the start but more substantial is Mar-Vell's transformation under the guidance of Eon. Now an even more powerful cosmic being with "cosmic awareness" of what is happening in the universe he bursts forward with a new light stream tail of photon energy. Unfortunately the other main visual change is his hair turning from silver to blond, a change that is impossible to notice in a black and white reprint. And it's my main irritation with an otherwise fantastic storyline that we get yet another change in the main character's powers. It seems it may be impossible for any intellectual property protection to resist constant tinkering.

Issue #34 is probably the best known single issue in this volume, featuring Captain Marvel taking on new villain Nitro to stop him stealing an experimental nerve gas with consequences that would be returned to in later years. Nitro is a villain with an interesting power, that of being able to blow himself up and then reconstitute himself. I suspect that in the 1970s it was possible to present a living bomb as a character without the wider connotations of suicide bombers (and it still was over a decade later when one of the last of the original Masters of the Universe toys was Blast-Attak, with very much the same character basis) but nowadays it would be much more daring to create such a being.

Also a sign of the times is the drug use on the music scene. Rick's new singing partner Rachel "Dandy" Dandridge gives him a capsule that she jokingly claims contains "Vitamin C". When Rick takes it in the Negative Zone, it causes him to hallucinate and through the mind link it also affects Captain Marvel. However this affects a process whereby their minds have been converging. Rick has previously discovered the ability to control Mar-Vell's body when the latter is unconscious and the two are finding themselves ever more drawn together with the implication they may be merging. The drug taking seems to have the effect of empowering them to ultimately separate and merge at their own choosing. Again it's highly doubtful such a cause would be used today. Equally brushed over more than would be the case today is a scene where, in a brief guest appearance, the Wasp tampers with the Living Laser's equipment resulting in his weaponry killing him. Some of these ideas were clearly slipping past during one of Marvel editorial's most turbulent periods.

However out of that turbulence comes another epic as Captain Marvel battles elements of the Kree across multiple worlds, culminating in a showdown on the Kree homeworld with the Supreme Intelligence who has been manipulating things all along. During the course of the epic Mar-Vell and Rick briefly go their separate ways but reunite after Rick discovers his music act is out of touch with modern audience expectations. Both men find their powers developing thanks to the Nega bands with each learning from the other about how to use the powers in new and imaginative ways. The two are finally separated but able to reunite when needs be, allowing them to more easily travel through space and enhance their fighting skills. Towards the end their minds are on the brink of merger, resulting in a showdown to re-establish their separate egos. Against this personal conflict comes an array of adventures, ranging from confrontations on Earth with agents of the "Lunatic Legion" such as Nitro and the Living Laser to a showdown on the Moon with the Legion revealed as blue Kree racists led by old foe Zarek in search of purity. There's a trip to the Watcher's homeworld, battles with Annihilus in the Negative Zone and a more personalised conflict with a creature possessing the body of Una, Mar-Vell's former romantic interest. A more whimsical tale takes Mar-Vell and Rick to a plant very like the American Old West where they have a showdown with the Stranger - but all is not what it seems. There's a return appearance by an angry Destroyer, now angry that his purpose in life has been destroyed by Captain Marvel. Then there's a world with a war between cyborgs and giant Kree robots called Null-trons, before the climax with the Supreme Intelligence. The later parts see first Rick and then Mar-Vell aided by a mysterious woman known only as Fawn, a manifestation of Rick's mental powers. This is a story with a big vision and scope, providing one of the earliest intergalactic Marvel epics, but it's also a quite personal tale about the relationship between Mar-Vell and Rick, showing how intertwined the two are and how each benefits the other.

Overall this volume shows some of the telltale signs of the character's origin as a trademark protection, with continuing changes to the powers and status quo, but by the second half of the volume it feels like actual character development rather than an endless search to find something that will work to keep the trademark in use. But beyond that there's finally a clear long-term idea as to what this series is about and it survives a change of writer. Rather than an alien operating amongst humans or a detached observer of humanity we get a strong series on a cosmic scale, with a mixture of menaces that threaten the whole universe and those that focus upon Marvel himself. The Thanos epic is the peak of the volume, even with the needless inclusion of the Marvel Feature issue, and shows a self-confidence that had been lacking for years. After that there are some questionable moments where the series shows its age with accidental killing of villains without consequences, drug taking and suicide bombers all being elements that would be unlikely to appear today. Whilst the second epic may ramble a little overall it still has breadth and imagination, putting the characters through a critical personal journey. The result is a series finally on the up and more than justifying its existence to its readers rather than just intellectual property lawyers. This volume is definitely the series at its highest so far.

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