Saturday, March 22, 2008

Everything You Know is Wrong #1: Roy Thomas's Captain Marvel

The first installment in a new series wherein I tell you that EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG. Basically, I'll be explaining why some piece of accepted comic book-related wisdom is, actually, wrong.

Accepted Comic Book Wisdom Says, "Captain Marvel was a mediocre series until Roy Thomas and Gil Kane reimagined it by adding Rick Jones, Nega Bands, and a fancy new concept to match the fancy new costume."


Originally appearing in Marvel Super-Heroes #12 (December 1967), the Kree Captain Mar-Vell, in his original Green and White space costume may have been Stan Lee's attempt at making sure nobody else used the "Marvel" name on a superhero title, but it was a pretty strong concept from the start. Lee may not have had his heart in it, but he, and later writers, including Roy Thomas (who worked on the green and white incarnation of the character before revamping him years after) created a strong series that perhaps lacked only in a strong villainous presence. The Captain Marvel concept worked great. Mar-Vell was a Kree who had to infiltrate human society in order to gather information for his superiors. Meanwhile, his superior officer, Yon-Rogg, was macking on his girlfriend. There was a lot of "macking" going on in those late days of the Silver Age. So pretty much every early story was about Captain Marvel trying to reconcile his duty to his people with his admiration for humanity while he was getting stabbed in the back by one of his Kree brothers. Stan Lee inner conflict at its finest, with some pretty sweet Gene Colan and Don Heck art.

The series amped up the conflict with new potential love interest Carol Danvers (note: the first time Danvers meets Iron Man, he beats her up. He was under the control of the Puppet Master, but still, it makes you wonder why Ms. Marvel trusts Tony Stark so implicitly these days. If someone beat me up the first time I met them, I might not always trust that person so much) and then with writers Arnold Drake (of the Doom Patrol!!!) and Gary Friedrich, it became really odd, climaxing in a strange, Tom Sutton-drawn issue involving the cosmic "Zo" and designed as an acid trip. It was apparently inspired by Stan Lee's then-current obsession with what Steranko was doing in his innovative work.

These Captain Marvel stories from the green and white space-suit days were good fun, contrary to conventional wisdom, which tends to ignore their existence in favor of...

Roy Thomas and Gil Kane's revamped Captain Marvel. Premiering in issue #17, this is the Captain Marvel most of comicdom is familiar with. Even those of us who never read a Captain Marvel comic as a kid knew about the guy with white hair and the blue and red costume and the golden bracelets. He's still the Captain Marvel that we understand. Not that guy with the fin on his head and the hip holster. But the thing is, these Roy Thomas/Gil Kane stories are pretty terrible. Sure, the Gil Kane art is as good as you'd expect, and it has a dynamism lacking from the Heck or Sutton issues, but Roy Thomas may have written some of his worst comics on these Captain Marvel issues, and if you read his introduction to the Masterworks volumes, he seems inordinately proud of these atrocities.

Thomas takes everything that worked about the Mar-Vell character--the inner turmoil and Kree guilt, the space context, the blend of space opera and domestic struggle--and tosses it out in favor of some weird amalgamation of Denny O'Neil's Green Lantern/Green Arrow and CC Beck's Golden Age Captain Marvel. All of a sudden, Thomas throws perennial Hulk and Captain America sidekick Rick Jones into the mix, contriving some way to replicate the "Shazam" effect by having Jones and Mar-Vell switch places by clanking their bracelets. It's not so bad in theory--although the addition of Rick Jones comes out of NOWHERE and feels absolutely forced--but the stories he and Kane tell are the worst kind of "socially relevant" stories of the early 1970s. Instead of fighting giant robot Kree alien monsters, newly revamped Captain Marvel fights against a dude who runs corrupt low-income housing. Seriously.

It's just not good. And don't get me started on Rick Jones's rock and roll career.

Roy Thomas and Gil Kane may have given Captain Marvel new life and their legacy may live on today, but their stories in these issues kinda suck. The conventional wisdom is wrong.


Chad Nevett said...

I thought conventional wisdom was that Captain Marvel sucked until Jim Starlin took over.

Timothy Callahan said...

That too. Conventional wisdom is a complex thing, my friend.

But everyone seems to think the book became a lot better when he got the new costume and new concept and then became GREAT when Starlin took over.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, ditto. That was always my thought as well. That Mar-Vell was just an uninteresting cypher until Starlin did interesting stuff with him, and that even after that he was only really interesting when he was a vehicle for Starlin's ideas, but not much of a character going on there.

Now, though, you've made me want to read the fin-head days!

Johnny Bacardi said...

As someone who was buying many of these off the spinner rack, including that first Marvel Super-Heroes issue, I always thought the Accepted Comic Book Wisdom was that it started out pretty good with Lee and Colan, started going downhill when Heck came on board, got really bad by the time Arnold Drake and Gary Friedrich came along (you knew a book was dead in the water when guys like that took over), and the Thomas/Kane revamp was regarded as a step up, mostly because of Kane's typically dynamic art. Then, as things will do, that one wound down as well until Starlin came along (by this time, Marvel was in a place where they'd give a neophyte like Starlin a shot rather than trot out a has-been like Drake again) and made it something special.

I thought those first few Lee/Colan issues of CM were pretty good, but when they lost interest and moved on to other things, it really suffered. I'm sorry, but I will never see Steranko when I look at Tom Sutton (who I like, actually) or Frank Springer.

Timothy Callahan said...

When you tell Sutton to draw like Steranko, you certainly don't get anything like Steranko! But you get something pretty interesting. The series actually gets good under Drake and Friedrich, though. That's the thing. Everyone seems to think that's the worst part of the series, but the Roy Thomas issues with Rick Jones are by far the worst stories. By far.

Marc Caputo said...

Yeah, count me in as one of those whose life AND consciousness were twisted beyond repair by Starlin's Captain Marvel and Warlock epics of the 1970s. I've never seen the need to go earlier or later than those two runs (with the exception of The Death of Captain Marvel). I'm holding off comment on this Captain Marvel running around now, but not holding my breath.

Chad Nevett said...

Marc, also worth checking out involving Starlin doing cosmic at Marvel:

--The Thanos Quest
--The Infinity Gauntlet
--Infinity Abyss
--Marvel: The End
--Thanos: Epiphany

And maybe The Infinity War if you like some Magus action.

Marc Caputo said...

I remember liking the Thanos Quest and the Infinity Gauntlet (that was the first one, right?) a lot. It was one of the first things I read when I came back to comics in 1991 (don't ask...)

I still like Starlin's work (although I swear he uses the same seven poses). Did anyone here ever read his Metamorphosis Odyssey/The Price/Dreadstar (up until about 20)?

That was a high point of 1980s direct market/mature readers stuff (EPIC comics, remember?)

Chad Nevett said...

I've read a little since my dad had those comics--and I've been meaning to hunt down Starlin's complete Dreadstar work (seeing that as the logical next step after looking at all of his Marvel work). (And I agree that Starlin isn't that... accomplished, I suppose, as an artist, but I enjoy his work nonetheless. I do love how similar visuals keep popping up over and over again, though.)

And I loved flipping through my dad's copies of Epic Illustrated, where The Metamorphosis Odyssey was serialised. Some weird Heavy Metal-like stuff going down in that magazine.

Anonymous said...

Fin-head Cappy is good. Roy was Roy (so thankfully Gil was Gil). And Starlin had his undeniable virtues on Cap, followed up by his awesomely trippy Warlock. However, all the latter-day Starlin Thanos stuff makes my brain itch: annoying and bloated.

Glad to see you mention "The Price", though! I think it's the best of Starlin's 80s efforts. And Dreadstar, which I re-read not long ago, may not be the greatest thing in the whole world, but is it readable! Starlin's not generally known for his storytelling economy, but Dreadstar is pretty darn crisp stuff -- as far as Star Wars rip-offs go, it's easily my favourite, and that's down to Starlin's impressive command of comics' visual grammar.

Anonymous said...

By which I mean: it's absolutely worth a re-read. Like it or hate it -- and I liked it -- it's the work of a true professional going full-out to do things right.

Zingy stuff.