Monday, April 8, 2019

The Part-Time Captain Marvel


In the fall of 1969, the creative team of Roy Thomas, Gil Kane, and Dan Adkins* was piped aboard the flagging series Captain Marvel to presumably inject its title character with new life--though in hindsight, it could be argued that too much emphasis was perhaps placed on revitalizing Mar-vell without giving much thought to how to structure the series itself from this point on. If true, what happened afterward shouldn't have come as a surprise. The "new" Captain Marvel went on hiatus after just three issues, in what would be an absence of six months--after which, Thomas and his team returned to contribute an additional two (bi-monthly) issues which effectively nailed the coffin lid shut on the book for the near-future, relegating Mar-vell to the role of guest-star in other stories where he could hopefully benefit from the exposure he would receive from high-profile characters like the Avengers.

*Artist John Buscema was also brought in to pencil the final half of the team's second issue, which seemed to be an indication that this new direction for Mar-vell was rather abruptly thrown together.

It wasn't the first such attempt to tweak Mar-vell's makeup. Even after only ten issues of his regular title were published, the character was given "powers" that would bring him closer to being associated with Marvel's super-hero ranks (if not to take his place among them quite yet)--thanks to an elaborate deception initiated by Kree Imperial Minister Zarek and Ronan the Accuser, as part of a coup designed to seize power from the Supreme Intelligence. Mar-vell falls for the ruse hook, line and sinker, pledging himself to the service of an all-powerful being named "Zo" and consequently being granted impressive new abilities accordingly.




Despite the machinations of Zarek and Ronan, however, the coup fails--resulting in Mar-vell being recalled from Earth and honored for bravery for his efforts against their plot (which included their pawn and Mar-vell's enemy, Colonel Yon-rogg). That honor leads to Mar-vell receiving distinctive new garb, though it comes with a condition:



As we'll learn, Mar-vell's abilities would be further revised following his return to Earth.  Currently, however, he retains some of the powers granted by "Zo":  He doesn't "teleport" per se, though he can travel in the void of space at great speed... and the jury is out on whether he still has his illusion-casting ability.

As Mar-vell takes off for Earth once more to resume his pursuit of Yon-rogg, we see the first instance of the curious adversity he's saddled with regarding his virtual imprisonment within the nightmarish Negative Zone. To the reader, it appears that the Intelligence has suddenly and inexplicably changed his tune in his regard toward Mar-vell, though we would later discover that it seems geared toward aligning Mar-vell's life with that of Rick Jones, and vice versa.





As is evident, the Intelligence has already begun manipulating Mar-vell into acting in accordance with the Intelligence's wishes for him--which Mar-vell, still loyal to the Intelligence, has no choice but to have faith are in his best interests and those of the Kree Empire.

But how to bring Rick's life into Mar-vell's orbit? The foundation for that was actually laid in an issue of Captain America, where Rick until recently had acted as Cap's crime-fighting partner suited up in the costume of Cap's former partner, Bucky. (No doubt a spare costume, which probably needs no elaboration on my part.) That story details the Red Skull's latest scheme against Cap, which involved the Skull switching bodies with Cap with the aid of the Cosmic Cube; and when Rick finally locates the missing "Cap," the exchange between them (scripted by Stan Lee) confirms Rick's fear that Cap had already considered their partnership at an end.



Yet Thomas revises and embellishes the scene--perhaps to better engage Mar-vell in this pivotal moment of Rick's life, while continuing to let us eavesdrop on the Intelligence's communication with Mar-vell.


Ohhh, Rick. There's been no Avenger lost this day, you deluded kid.


Thomas and Kane follow up the scene with a two-page spread of Rick's life to date--which will not only serve to bring up to speed the Captain Marvel reader who might not have heard of Rick Jones, but also to make up Mar-vell's mind that forming a bond with this person is something the Intelligence is adamant about. What isn't clear is whether Mar-vell realizes the restrictions that bond will place on his freedom to act... to decide... to live.




(No, I didn't spot the Wasp in that Avengers charge, either. Maybe Rick was elbowing himself in front of her.)

For an issue that has the important task of reintroducing--reselling--Captain Marvel, it wastes a considerable amount of its available page count providing little input from the title character; instead, Mar-vell is seen either taking his marching orders from the Intelligence, or being fixated on carrying out his vengeance against Yon-rogg, the very two things that we've already seen Mar-vell preoccupied with prior to this point, leaving us with the impression that only this man's uniform has changed. Rather, it's Rick who seems to be anchoring this book, Rick who is being "sold"--a character who perhaps is believed to be more relatable to the reader, and who is apparently being groomed to replace Carol Danvers as Mar-vell's link to Earth's culture and people. (An assumption which will be given form more symbolically later in the story.)

For now, the next five pages are devoted to having Rick hitchhike to the middle of nowhere, only to start chasing an illusion of Captain America (courtesy of Mar-vell--gee, maybe he does still retain some of that illusion power, after all) which leads him to a cave that's full of bizarre statues and scientific machinery. But the illusion of Cap halts in front of one particular apparatus--and from here, Rick is virtually on auto-pilot as the story practically fast-forwards to where it needs to be. (After all, it has only a few pages left available to wrap things up.)



Normally, to better establish these characters who will be joined at the hip for the foreseeable future, you might have seen a few panels of interaction between them--but with the end of this story just around the corner, guess who shows up just seconds too late to claim what he was after?



Aside from being the means by which Mar-vell and Rick "switch atoms" between Earth and the Negative Zone, the nega-bands that Mar-vell now wears will be an important addition to his status as a super-powered being in his own right--particularly since we now learn that he has lost all of the powers that he gained from "Zo" and must rely on his own resources to be a viable force going forward. The first indication of how the nega-bands will be a crucial aid in that respect comes when he discovers they can provide him with the power of flight, so that he can give pursuit to Yon-rogg's craft--but the key to their use is something he'll learn shortly.

As for Yon-rogg, he plays a card that will provide a distraction and help him to escape--and perhaps gain him his own revenge in the process.




As villains go, there admittedly isn't much to recommend Yon-rogg as being either a sustainable arch-enemy to Mar-vell or a compelling character who can fit into this new direction that both Rick and Mar-vell are heading into. Those final panels, therefore, come as something of a disappointment, since it's a fair assumption that readers have likely had their fill of Yon-rogg by now--a character who has managed to drag down Mar-vell and the Captain Marvel book for long enough, but who is not only still tethered to Mar-vell but also now has Rick gunning for him. On a separate note, it also seems telling that Mar-vell, a character who hasn't been able to garner much of a following or (thus far) justify a series of his own, is now limited in appearing in his own mag, conveniently shut away in the Negative Zone until he's called forth to go into action and get his heroing done. Captain Marvel does not seem like a character who is now "unchained," as this story's cover proclaims; on the contrary, he appears to be more shackled than ever.

Captain Marvel #17

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: Gil Kane
Inks: Dan Adkins
Letterer: Artie Simek

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I can't help but think that Mar-vell's complicated relationship with Rick Jones wasn't inspired by, or at least a nod to, C.C. Beck's Captain Marvel, and his dual identity as Billy Batson.
We all know that character was in legal limbo (much like these guys found themselves stranded in the limbo of the Negative Zone) when Stan the Man snatched up the name for obvious reasons.
I'll always associate Marvel's, uh, Captain Marvel (this is hard to write) with Starlin, but Gil Kane was certainly the right artist to introduce the character. Reminds me of Green Lantern.
And the character, in a comic that was going nowhere and was on the verge of being cancelled, has survived.
Uh, Cap's a female now, apparently, but I'm a liberal guy and I don't have a problem with that!
I miss the old guy, though.

M.P.

Anonymous said...

I meant, "re-introduce the character"
Doggone it!

M.P.

Anonymous said...

M.P., its less confusing and easier just to call him Mar-Vell.

Yeah, my main association is with Starlin too, although that version is maybe best seen as a dry run for his more accomplished work on Warlock. But I have a fondness for the Gil/Roy era too (their Warlock was also better, funnily enough).
And you're right - its hard not to see the Rick/Mar-Vell thing as a Roy Thomas "homage" (lets be kind about it) to the DC/Fawcett Big Red Cheese.

I don't really get why anyone has a problem with the current Marvel uh, Captain Marvel (dammit - you've got me doing it now) either. Not least because the character has always changed. Largely because of never really being thought out properly in the first place.

Green-and-white, blue-and-red, Zo, Rick Jones, Eon and cosmic consciousness... has any superhero been rebooted more often? And that was before he died, became a black woman, his genetically engineered son also linked to Rick Jones (thats got to be weird, right?), or Ms. Marvel.

-sean

Comicsfan said...

"...has any superhero been rebooted more often?" Good lord, Sean--let me introduce you to this decade's line of Marvel comics! :D

dbutler16 said...

Well, if you want to talk about rebooted characters, look no further than the Distinguished Competition.

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