Why you should care
Because: Thanos. That’s why.
“Oh, you were the kind that actually liked comic books.”
A nice, declarative statement, but when spoken by Halle Berry in the middle of an interview? At her house? Under the flicker of candlelight? A clear call to think very carefully about what you say next, even if Berry herself played both Storm in the X-Men series and Catwoman.
Yes. Could not lie. Was very precisely that kind, and whether it was watching the early televised cartoon struggles of Dr. David Bruce Banner as the Incredible Hulk, or Hercules, or any other of this pantheon of heroes making right this evil wrong, the hook got sunk deep and early. Something about justice in action, defending the downtrodden and looking fantastic in tights. Or something that started to change as comic books started to change coming out of the ’60s: the genesis of a death-focused narrative, every inch of which was probably a shadow of what had just been happening in Vietnam vis-à-vis the war.
Enter military man Captain Marvel. With a tortured provenance that saw similarities to Superman, making it sue-worthy and resulting in name changes — Shazam, most significantly — Marvel (or, as it was spelled back in 1967, Mar-Vell), an AWOL officer from an alien intelligence, was born. Though it wasn’t until artist Jim Starlin entered the fray in 1973, presumably to kill the character off, that he took hold of the hearts and minds of assorted comic fanatics. Starlin, a former military man and Vietnam vet himself, larded Marvel and the strip with recurring themes and obsessions having everything to do with death, love and even suicide.
Starlin’s Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel was the first thing called a graphic novel that was a hit, says Bob Calhoun, film critic and author of Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay, and Conflict on the Expo Floor. “That really revolutionized the industry profoundly, looking back at it.” Which is not nearly necessary, as we’re in a world aswirl with Marvel. His arch-nemesis Thanos, whose lover offering to Death was to be the universe, is scheduled to make an appearance in yet another Avengers blockbuster, and even Marvel himself has gone through wild and woolly iterations.
“What’s funny is now Disney/Marvel acts like it’s so forward-thinking for planning a movie with a female Mar-Vell, but they were way more radical in the Reagan years,” says Calhoun, giving a nod to what happened after Captain Marvel died, from cancer of all things. The new Captain Marvel was a Black New Orleans police detective named Monica Rambeau. That’s right. Patterned after Tarantino-muse-circa-Jackie Brown Pam Grier, Marvel, by virtue of her ability to channel cosmic power and the alien intelligence’s technology, kicked ass all over the place and eventually led the Avengers for a period of time.
But changing hands five more times, Marvel was back to being a man once more before finally ending up as Carol Danvers, with a 2019 movie planned and a starring role being heavily lobbied for by former UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. Marvel — whose most significant power outside of flight and, like, some power-ray stuff was, get this, cosmic awareness — was and is the proverbial shit.
“All of Marvel’s largely thankless defense of the Earth up against all the forces that would destroy it saw a similar struggle in what was going on with returning vets in the ’70s, which Starlin very much was,” says New York artist Abe Lincoln Jr. “It was not just bullshit muscles and tights, but a beautiful psychic psychodrama in ink.”