Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Hero Who Wouldn't Die!

When "The Sensational NEW" Captain Marvel ended its five-issue run in late 1970 with issue #21, you can't say they didn't send him out with a bang:

Issue #17, which began the adventures of Mar-vell in his new costume, continued the title's publication schedule without missing a beat, which made it seem to the buyer that Captain Marvel was simply continuing the original series while taking the character in a new direction. But it would only take three more issues before it became apparent that the book was on life support. Its fourth issue, #20, was delayed for a whopping six months, with its cover doing its best to make lemonade out of a lemon:

Another two months would pass before the fifth and, as it turned out, final issue went on sale. Though to hear Marvel tell it, these five issues of Captain Marvel were never meant to be more than a limited run:

Oh, I'm guessing your readers had already rendered their verdict, gentlemen.

Yet, putting aside the spin, it's clear that the creative team of writer Roy Thomas, artists Gil Kane and Dan Adkins spared no effort to close this series with a decent issue, featuring a fine matchup between Mar-vell and the Hulk and showcasing each of them nicely. I don't know what kind of an audience its story found at this point, but in hindsight you have to wonder what was fundamentally missing in this character that such talents as Thomas, Kane, and Adkins couldn't pull him out of his nose dive and make the book a top seller. If the character of Captain Marvel was ever going to find his legs, it should have been here, and with these people holding the creative reins.

The story actually begins in the prior issue, where Rick Jones has sought out Bruce Banner at his hidden lab in the desert, in the hope that his old friend can free him of his dual existence with Mar-vell:

Naturally, the closing pages of that issue use a raging Hulk on the verge of attacking Rick to prod readers into picking up the next issue. Which probably gives you an idea of what's wrong with this title: can't Mar-vell close his own issue? Isn't he enough of a draw to sell the next issue of his own mag?

In fact, the Hulk is handled so well in the follow-up scene, you're almost wondering who's supposed to be carrying this story:

With the situation defused, the Hulk changes back, and Banner gets to work on finding access to the Negative Zone. Here, as in a later Avengers story, Thomas finds a reason not to seek assistance directly from Reed Richards, who can basically say "sure, no problem, glad to help" and have Mar-vell out of the Negative Zone before you can say "Annihilus," so we have to swallow that Banner can throw together something from scratch to access the Zone. At least the story provides a further complication, when a colleague that Banner wishes to consult with at a nearby university ("Desert State University"--what else?) is being besieged by student protests, which puts additional strain on an already strained Bruce Banner:

The Hulk, in his rage, lashes out and destroys all the lab equipment that Banner had finished up to that point, dooming the project. And when Rick changes to Mar-vell, who attempts to calm the Hulk--well, Mar-vell isn't going to rack up any sales that way, is he?

It doesn't take us long to find out that Mar-vell is outmatched here, though clearly it comes as a surprise to him. But half the fun is getting there, especially when the driver is Gil Kane:

With Mar-vell dispatched, the situation becomes desperate when the Hulk's focus turns to the students at Desert U., a group of people he misinterprets as a threat. And Mar-vell realizes he's the only one who can act to save them:

(A nice touch by letterer Artie Simek, who turns Mar-vell's departure from the lab into a race against time with a simple sound effect.)

The Hulk of course reaches his targets first, with Thomas again demonstrating his flair for writing the character vis-à-vis the Hulk's constant tug of war with Bruce Banner. Fortunately, Mar-vell arrives on the scene when it becomes apparent that Banner has lost this round with his alter-ego:

The next panels almost have a "better late than never" feel to them, with Mar-vell practically uttering his worth as a combatant to himself (and to the reader?) before tearing into the Hulk no-holds-barred. Unfortunately, it's a rush we're not allowed to savor for long, as we're reminded again that the hero of this book has limitations that feel like they chafe more at us than at him:

So it's left to Rick Jones--Rick Jones--to end an issue of Captain Marvel. If you're wondering who the hero is supposed to be in this book, have a look who ends up facing down the Hulk, and winning:

In the end, we have a really cool battle issue, but we're left a little frustrated by a title character no one seems to know what to do with. And thanks to this story, it looks like we don't even get three hours of Mar-vell anymore; instead, the hero we're supposed to be reading about is benched, just when things were getting good. Funny thing is, if Rick is getting a good deal of panel time and development, and Mar-vell hasn't been succeeding as a character, why not just give Rick the new Mar-vell costume and the nega-bands? It's the life the character always wanted, isn't it?

It would be another two years before Mar-vell would get another crack at it, with three deplorable issues hitting the racks (have a look, but you were warned!) before Jim Starlin would begin his memorable run on the title--though Marvel would tread more carefully this go-around with a bi-monthly schedule.  It finally looked like they had found a way to bring to life the hero who wouldn't die--that is, not quite yet.


Anonymous said...

It's no surprise why they threw the Hulk in there, what with the title circling the bowl. I'm surprised Spider-man didn't show up. And if Wolverine had been around, they would've chucked him in there too.
One interesting thing I noticed is how differently Gil Kane drew the Hulk's face and hair from the way he used to draw him, back in Tales of Outragessnous, or Journey into Bizarrness, I'm not sure. I've just got the reprints.
What I read somewhere was Stan Lee told Kane, something to the effect of, "you gotta stop drawing him as such an ugly Neanderthal-looking character. We're trying to make him a little more sympathetic. At least get rid of the bowl haircut. Long hair is in, man."
The idea of Rick Jones coming to Bruce Banner for help with his split-personality/dual identity problem strikes me as maybe not thought out too well, given Bruce's own track record in that area.
But this is another case of a title that was either dead or dying, when they gave it to some unproven, unknown, and brash young artist, who we all came to know as...

Fred W. Hill said...

An aspect I find a bit fascinating in perusing pre-Starlin Captain Mar-Vell is the evolution of the Kree Captain's hair, from old-style militaristic crew cut as drawn by Gene Colan in his initial stories, to still fairly military short when he switched costumes, but gradually getting longer, taking a style resembling that of Robert Kennedy circa 1967 -'68. It get ever longer still under Starlin and later artists, aside from also going from silver to golden in the famed Metamorphosis issue. Never quite as long as that of John Lennon circa 1969, but much longer than the Kree or certainly U.S. military would have approved of!