Tuesday, September 18, 2012

In Final (And I Mean Final) Battle

Marvel's 1982 graphic novel, The Death of Captain Marvel, was as great a send-off of a comic book character as you could wish for. Written and drawn by Jim Starlin, who helmed Mar-vell's reinvention from warrior to protector, the story tells of Mar-vell's discovery that he's dying of cancer, which developed when he came into contact with nerve gas during his battle with Nitro.

Captain Marvel has been one of those rare exceptions in Marvel Comics where a character who has been killed off has actually stayed dead--at least technically. He's certainly reappeared often enough--either in spirit, or in name--or, as might be expected, in offspring. Or, incredulously enough, as a Skrull. You'd almost get the impression that Marvel wants this character back among the living. Yet after reading The Death of Captain Marvel, you might well groan at the thought of a reappearance tainting the stature of this story.

Most such characters who have met their end--even, to an extent, Jean Grey, whose death we experienced twice, even if only one was the real deal--have died in battle, either spectacularly (e.g., Hawkeye, during the "Avengers Disassembled" storyline) or otherwise. It's a rare day when we have a main character resigned to their death and counting the clock down to the end. In The Death of Captain Marvel, death is almost a character in itself, as much as it hovers over practically every page. Even from the beginning, where Mar-vell is conducting an audio retrospective while travelling with Mentor and Eros to Thanos's abandoned ark to reclaim the villain's body, the mood is dark and almost resigned. Of course, given the book's title, we know something is up--but when we learn Mar-vell is dying of cancer, it adds a twist that is both intriguing and, frankly, unexpected.

The story goes through several stages--not the stages of Mar-vell's cancer, but stages of Mar-vell and others coming to terms with his illness. There's Mar-vell himself, of course, who has no wish to die, but faces his death realistically--as is fitting, given the transformation that Starlin himself took him through in his confrontation with the entity Eon. If Mar-vell were still the pre-Starlin reactive Kree warrior, I doubt that he would have faced this terminal illness--an enemy with which he cannot grapple and overcome on equal ground--with such stoicism. Yet even Mar-vell, when he begins reeling under the pain of an intractable illness, proves he's as mortal and vulnerable as anyone faced with cancer:

Then there's Rick Jones, Mar-vell's spiritual opposite, in a way--whose rage at Mar-vell's resignation serves as a vehicle for Starlin to insert us into the story. To explore all the options and ask all the questions we'd be asking if we had Rick's resources. Rick, of course, approaches the finest scientific minds he's associated with, to help Mar-vell. And though the answers aren't satisfactory, Starlin manages to satisfy at least us if not Rick. Though perhaps in our case, "placate" might be a better word:

Finally, there's the death watch--and the incredible array of people who have travelled to his side to say their goodbyes. Take a look at this excellent exchange between Mar-vell and Drax the Destroyer, which lends a needed light touch to things after Rick has rejoined Mar-vell in anguish:

And just look at this full-page spread of Starlin's, showing all the heroes who have come to Titan to pay their respects. Remember, it's 1982--can you spot the glaring mistake here?

Though I really think it's Starlin just saying "Ah, to heck with it." :)
(But see Silver Surfer #14 for the answer!)

I won't spoil this book's ending for you. I'll just say that, though Mar-vell is resigned to meeting his death, Death--and Thanos--know him at this point better than he knows himself, and Mar-vell meets both head-on. For the others who are at his bedside vigil, Mar-vell's passing is solemn and noble. But Starlin sees to it that Mar-vell experiences that nobility on his own terms--as he, and we, would wish it.


Four Color Cult said...

Is that Etrigan in the lower left corner?

Comicsfan said...

That's actually Isaac Christians, "the Gargoyle," who was featured in the latter issues of The Defenders.

maw maw said...

The Silver Surfer was still supposed to be confined to earth. Maybe Galactus gave him compassionate leave to be at Mar-Vell's death?

Unknown said...

Mar-vell kämpfte Seite an Seite mit den Avengers,Hulk,Spiderman und Fantastic Four.
Aber ist Er jemals Ghost Rider und den X-Men begegnet ( ausser Beast )?