Longtime comic fans will remember that Marvel capitalized on DC’s lawsuit against Fawcett, which eventually forced them to stop publication of their “Captain Marvel” family of comic books. Since no one was using the name by the late 1960s, Marvel created their own “Captain Marvel” character and trademarked it. The Marvel version was initially more of a space-opera than a superhero book, with the series centering on Mar-Vell, a soldier from an alien race called the Kree sent to infiltrate human society to determine its readiness for space travel, with an eventual eye toward planetary conquest.
Mar-Vell soon developed a fondness for Earth and its inhabitants, and took to defending it from alien incursions, both from his own people, the Kree, their mortal enemies, the shape-changing Skrulls, and numerous other offworld conquerors and invaders. Mar-Vell was later given a more “super-hero” style costume, giving up his Kree military uniform, and was forced for some time to share his existence on Earth with perennial Marvel sidekick Rick Jones, in a deliberate echoing of the Billy Batson/Captain Marvel relationship from the original Fawcett CAPTAIN MARVEL comics.
Jones would slam together ancient alien bracelets known as the “Nega-bands,” and would instantaneously switch places with Mar-Vell, who was trapped in the Negative Zone, a kind of interdimensional limbo, until summoned by Jones. Eventually, a way out was found for Mar-Vell, and he and Rick Jones were able to co-exist together on Earth. Mar-Vell was eventually named “Protector of the Universe” by the cosmic entity Eon, who granted the Kree expatriate “cosmic awareness,” a sort of all-purpose ESP that would warn him of events and people that would be of importance to him in his mission.
Mar-Vell and Jones had many adventures together, by themselves and alongside the Avengers, including such famous storylines as the Kree/Skrull War and the struggles with the cosmic death-worshipper Thanos.
However, Mar-Vell was always mired deep in the ranks of Marvel’s second-stringers, and in 1979, after 62 issues, the plug was pulled and CAPTAIN MARVEL was cancelled, with the character relegated to guest appearances.
That is, until 1982, when Marvel decided to inaugurate their new “Marvel Graphic Novel” line of tabloid-sized, longer-form one-shots with THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, by the writer/artist most associated with the character throughout its 11-year history, Jim Starlin.
Although these books weren’t really what you’d call “novels,” weighing in at about 65 pages or so (It was either Howard Chaykin or Dave Sim who said that any book you can read on the toilet isn’t a novel…), they did represent a big step forward in how Marvel was willing to look at its output, as not merely disposable entertainment. Sold only in bookstores and the then-brand-new direct-market comic shops, the “Marvel Graphic Novel” series boasted higher-quality reproduction and paper quality, and occasionally a maturity in subject matter that the company might have felt a little uneasy presenting in its monthly periodicals. While in later releases this would be reflected in slightly racier portrayals of sex and somewhat heightened violent imagery, here it was the very subject matter that was new for Marvel, in a sobering, somewhat realistic look (or at least as realistic as you can get in the Marvel Universe) at the inevitability of death itself.
The book opens with a contemplative Mar-Vell recording his memoirs, providing a bit of history for new readers unfamiliar with the Captain. Soon, Mar-Vell and his friends Mentor and Eros of Titan (a community of superhumans living on one of Saturn’s moons) embark on a journey to recover the petrified corpse of Thanos, Mentor’s demented son who had quested for years to destroy the solar system, and was only stopped thanks to the combined efforts of the Avengers, the Thing, Spider-Man and Mar-Vell.
After a skirmish with a band of Thanos’ worshippers, Mar-Vell collapses in a coughing fit, alarming Mentor and Eros. After a medical exam, the Mentor tells Mar-Vell what he already knows, thanks to his cosmic awareness: it’s cancer, and it’s terminal, with only about three months left.
Mar-Vell provides the backstory: a few years back, Mar-Vell had been fighting a supervillain named Nitro who had stolen a canister of nerve gas from an army base. In the battle the canister broke open, and Mar-Vell was forced to re-seal the tank with his bare hands. The effects of the carcinogenic nerve gas were fought off by the energy in Mar-Vell’s Nega-bands for years, but no longer.
Accepting his fate, Mar-Vell goes about informing those closest to him, foremost his lover, Elysius of Titan. Starlin deftly sidesteps what could almost be a clichéd moment of melodrama by telling the story in images alone:
Next to be told is Mar-Vell’s former sidekick, Rick Jones, as Mar-Vell is afraid their time sharing the Nega-bands may have spread the cancer to Jones as well. However, Rick takes the news less well than Elysius or Mentor, accusing Mar-Vell of giving up.
Jones assembles the scientific and medical heavyweights of the Avengers, hoping they’ll be able to jump right in and cure their onetime comrade. When the Avengers try to tell Rick not to expect miracles, he once more accuses them of giving up, and storms out, before they can tell him that they had already agreed to go to Titan to try to work on the problem, while grappling with their guilt over not having tried to cure the deadly disease before it felled one of their own.
Unfortunately, they discover that all their eventual research is for naught: Mar-Vell’s Nega-bands, which had been retarding the growth of the cancer for years, were now blocking any attempts at treatment. However, the cancer had become so advanced that removing them for treatment would result in death within hours.
With death a certainty, ships soon begin arriving on Titan bearing well-wishers from Earth and around the galaxy, there to pay tribute to Mar-Vell. Practically Earth’s entire superhuman community has arrived to pay their last respects.
All but one, that is: Rick Jones, who still is unable to accept the inevitable. Finally, Rick is able to bring himself to make the trip to Titan:
Mar-Vell is visited by an even more unexpected guest, a general of the Skrull Empire, the Kree’s (and Mar-Vell’s) sworn enemy. However, unlike Mar-Vell’s own people, the Kree, who even refuse to provide medical assistance in curing him, the Skrull General has come to honor him and award him with the Royal Skrull Medal of Valor, stating, “We Skrulls are a martial race and have long respected your skills, deeds and courage even though you are our foe.”
Rick bitterly remarks on the unfairness of Mar-Vell’s own people turning their backs on him while his greatest enemies honor him, but Mar-Vell puts it all in perspective:
Finally, the end is near, and as Mar-Vell slips into a coma, he has what appears to be a final hallucination, or is it? In the vision, his departed enemy Thanos comes to life and restores Mar-Vell to vitality for “one last, magnificent battle.”
Soon other, departed foes of Mar-Vell have also risen and are on the attack, while Thanos preaches to Mar-Vell of the inevitability of death. At the last, Mar-Vell accepts what is to come, and accepts death’s embrace…
…and then he’s gone.
THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL is notable not for its storyline, which is pretty basic and linear, but for the remarkable job it does at setting a mood, in taking the familiar characters that we’ve all grown up with and putting them in an uncharacteristically mature and adult situation: the loss of a loved one. And not by throwing them off the Brooklyn Bridge or something over-the-top like that. It’s cancer. It just happens, and it’s unfair. Life is like that sometimes.
Jim Starlin does an excellent job at intertwining Mar-Vell’s reminiscences of friends and foes and days gone by with the slow degeneration of his body and spirit as his condition worsens. As for his art, while Starlin’s storytelling has always been a little too stiff and over-posed, here much of the work is characters in close-up, conveying emotion through their expressions. Again, not Starlin’s strongest suit as an artist, but he does surprisingly well with it. Starlin keenly accentuates the mood through his use of shadow in the book’s more emotional moments, conveying Mar-Vell’s sense of the world closing in on him as his days slip away.
It’s these small emotional beats that make the book work so well, and come as such a surprise to the reader. Here we see Mar-Vell lashing out in his declining days, railing at the unfairness of it.
Or in this moment from early in the book, when the first signs of Mar-Vell’s illness are seen by Mentor and Eros:
In a world like that of Marvel Comics, where sometimes it seems like coming back from the dead is as easy as catching a crosstown bus, it’s only fitting that Mar-Vell get some advice from someone who’s already died and come back, in this case his old running buddy Drax the Destroyer:
It’s also not just Rick Jones that’s having trouble coping; in a sad little moment we see the usually unflappable Spider-Man come a little unhinged at Mar-Vell’s bedside. Spidey talks it out with the Beast outside:
It’s an effective scene, as Spidey, with his “regular-guy’ persona, is so often used as the eyes of the reader in these big “cosmic-type” stories, that his difficulty in handling his emotions feels all the more real, and contributes to the overall sense of finality and genuine sadness that surrounds the book.
THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, while not an all-time classic, was nonetheless a signficant step in Marvel’s treatment of their characters in a mature, adult fashion. More important, it’s a good story, well told. Can’t ask for much more than that.