Getting to Know Captain Marvel: The Ms. Marvel Era

The Heroic Legacy of Captain Marvel/Ms. Marvel Part 1

Introduction

Early next year the world at large will meet Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, in her own movie and the to-be-named Avengers 4.  I personally have high hopes for the movie and for Brie Larson, who will be playing her in both movies.  But the fact remains that most people do not know who Captain Marvel is, and the convoluted history of the name probably does not help much.

I am writing this as a guide for the books people can read to learn more about this interesting character.  The main focus will be on looking at the stories that have come out since 2012, which is when Carol took the Captain Marvel identity.  However, the character has a history going back to the 60s.  Even though we can view her adoption of the Captain Marvel name as a line-in-the-sand restart for the character, we still need to know where she comes from.

I will warn you in advance, there are good reasons why her story got functionally rebooted in 2012.  Her history is filled with questionable narrative choices and general darkness.  There is light at the end of the tunnel, but to get there we have to plow through one of the worst stories Marvel has ever told.  Not just for Carol, but in general.  That’s not hyperbole.  Even though some of this happened in the 70s and 80s they are still dragged out as arguments against Marvel, and for good reason.

On Names

Before we can even talk about Carol we have to talk a bit about names.  The name “Captain Marvel” itself has a rather convoluted history and will be the subject of its own article at some point.  For the purposes of this specific article “Captain Marvel” will refer to the Kree soldier Mar-Vell who first championed the name.  Carol will be referred to either by her name or as “Ms. Marvel”, which was her original codename.

This is ignoring massive complications and baggage that come with both names, and I’m just using them for the sake of simplicity.  For reference: there have been seven Captain Marvels at Marvel and one at DC, four Ms. Marvels, and Carol herself has had four codenames.  Trust me, I’m doing you a favor by not jumping into it all here.

In the Beginning

In December 1939 DC Comics introduced the character of Billy Batson, a young boy who would become the superhero Captain Marvel.  By 1967 Stan Lee, the lead writer at the still young Marvel comics, decided that if there would be a “Captain Marvel” then he should exist at Marvel comics (note: I am massively oversimplifying this and this whole situation could be an article unto itself).  In Marvel Super Heroes #12 he introduced us to Mar-Vell of the alien Kree Empire who would be betrayed by his own commanding officer and become a hero of Earth.  In March 1968 the next issue of Marvel Super Heroes came out and introduced us to Carol Danvers, the no-nonsense head of security at a top-secret rocket testing site.

Ms. Marvel #1 (1977)In the late 60s and 70s Marvel was attempting to branch out with heroes for less represented communities.  Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, was introduced in 1969 and Luke Cage came along in 1972 to reach out to black readers.  Shang-Chi was an Asian character introduced in 1973.  Ms. Marvel was meant to be a feminist icon.  Her name alone indicated that by using the “Ms.” title, which was being pushed by the feminist movement.  She was also written as a strong, independent woman who was respected (mostly) by her male colleagues, and she was considered one of the best pilots the Air Force had.  She cleared her own path and fought tooth-and-nail to get where she was on her own merits.  In short, she was a character for women comic readers to admire… mostly.

There were missteps in her creation.  First, and most obvious, was that her costume featured an open diamond midriff with bikini bottoms.  Her costume was clearly designed without input from women.  Secondly was that for most of her early career she was defined as a character by her relationship to Mar-Vell, rather than on her own terms.  It was pointed out often and frequently that her powers were thanks to him, and most of their interactions turned her from independent woman into just-another-romantic-interest.  She also spent several issues completely unaware that she was Ms. Marvel at all, which was an odd plot point that got dropped quickly.

To be fair, these things don’t disqualify her as a feminist icon.  After all, Wonder Woman has borne the same burden of being both feminist and sexualized – and associated with bondage, at that – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t send a mixed message.  By the standards of the 70s Ms. Marvel was a step in the right direction, but ultimately held back by being a creation of men who didn’t truly understand the core ideas of feminism.

The Dark Times

The Infamous Avengers #200

In early 1979 Carol’s solo comic, Ms. Marvel, came to an end after 23 issues.  Just before the comic ended Carol asked Janet Van Dyne, the Wasp, to design her a new outfit.  This ended up being a one-piece black bathing suit with a yellow lightning bolt across the front and thigh-high boots.  Carol added a red sash around the waist as a token from her original costume.  This would become Carol’s definitive look for the next forty or so years.

Around the time her book ended Carol joined the Avengers, and just in time for their 200th issue.  This, as it would turn out, would be a decision that she (and Marvel) would regret for decades.  In issue 199 the Avengers returned from a fight to find Carol waiting for them.  Although seen only a few issues previously in perfectly normal condition, Carol was now in the final term of a pregnancy.  To make it even better, she could not recall how she got pregnant in the first place.  Despite these circumstances and Carol’s obvious dismay at the situation, the Avengers were thrilled that Carol would be having a child.  No one questioned how a woman could go from normal to full-term pregnant in a matter of days with no idea of how.  Good job, Avengers.

Avengers #200 opened with Carol giving birth to a healthy young boy, whom she immediately wanted nothing to do with since she was pretty sure his conception must have come from a dark place.  The other Avengers apparently disagreed and took to raising the child right away.  Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, did mope a bit about how she couldn’t have kids because she married a robot, and that little innocent plot thread would lead to yet another dark story in later years.  I won’t go into it here, but it involves Wanda creating babies using magic, which is always a great idea.

The baby grew up over the matter of a few hours and was extremely well spoken.  He revealed that he is Marcus, the son of Immortus, an old Avengers and Fantastic Four villain.  He had been trapped in Limbo (not to be confused with the Limbo that the X-Man Magik would later rule over) and wanted out.  He needed a strong woman to do this and had picked Carol.  Using his time travelling powers he plucked her from the time stream, seduced her with the aid of a machine to lower her inhibitions, impregnated her and then dropped her back in time a second after he had taken her.  He also wiped her memories so she wouldn’t know he had done this.  When she gave birth, it was actually an aspect of himself and now he was free from Limbo.

Marcus Describes His Seduction of Carol in Avengers #200He told this all matter-of-factly and didn’t try to hide what he had done at all.  The Avengers, upon hearing this, rushed to defend their friend and beat the snot out of young Marcus.  Oh, wait… no, they took him at his word and saw nothing wrong with what he had done at all.  They did accidentally destroy the device that he needed to stay on that plane of existence, so he needed to return to Limbo.  Only this time Carol offered to go with him, which the Avengers thought was fine and dandy.  No one mentioned that she was probably still brainwashed.

So, to recap, Carol was abducted from time, brainwashed into loving a man she just met, got impregnated with an aspect of himself and then had her mind wiped.  She was raped by her own son so that she could in turn give birth to him.  And no one on the Avengers editorial or creative teams thought this was a bad idea.  Even accounting for the fact that this was the early 80s does not put this in any better light.  This story fundamentally damaged Carol as a character for decades.

A Quick Patch Job

Avengers Annual #10The public reaction was mixed.  Most men didn’t really have any problem with the story and took it at face value.  Some letters sent into the Marvel office even praised Marvel for finally “giving Carol a good man”.  On the other hand, feminists were, understandably, upset.  In January 1980 comics historian Carol A. Strickland penned a rebuttal of the comic titled “The Rape of Ms. Marvel”.  She has since posted the article online along with some additional commentary about how she feels about it now, which you can read here.

There was at least one man in the Marvel bullpen who recognized the story for what it was: Chris Claremeont.  The famed X-Men writer was already a ten-year veteran in the comics industry and had written most of the Ms. Marvel solo comic.  He was outraged at what had been done to Carol and set about to fix it as best he could. In August 1981, almost a year after the events of Avengers #200, Avengers Annual #10 came out.

For X-Men fans Avengers Annual #10 was a particularly noteworthy issue, since it is the one where the character Rogue gained her powers that would define her for the next thirty years.  Those powers are the ones she stole from Carol Danvers, off-panel.  The issue opened with Carol being tossed off a bridge, and being saved by Jessica Drew, aka Spider-Woman.  Carol was powerless and had no memory of who she was.  Drew called in Professor Xavier to look after Carol, and the rest of the issue was dedicated to Rogue fighting the Avengers, and nearly winning.

With Xavier’s help Carol remembered most of her past by the end of the issue, but her powers don’t return.  She confronted the Avengers and gave them the tongue lashing they so thoroughly deserved for their actions in Avengers #200.  She filled in some holes, too, by informing them that Marcus forgot to turn off his “age really fast” powers and died of old age only a few days after arriving in Limbo.  With him dead the brainwashing wore off and Carol was confronted with all the things that happened to her, and also with the knowledge that not one of the Avengers helped her.  She ripped them apart for not realizing she had been raped and brainwashed, and headed out to stay with the X-Men for a while.

Carol is Not Happy in Avengers Annual #10It is also worth noting that in November 1981 the infamous Avengers #213 came out.  In that issue Hank Pym struck his wife, Janet Van Dyne, during an argument.  It would become another black mark that continues to haunt Marvel to this day.  They have done their best to retcon and explain it away, but “Hank Pym the wife-beater” is a moniker that still gets thrown around.  He is essentially an unusable character, and it’s why the Ant-Man movies feature Scott Lang instead of Pym in the title role.

Going Cosmic

Carol Becomes Binary in Uncanny X-Men #164Carol spent the next year with the X-Men as a semi-regular supporting character.  In December 1982 she was with them when they went off to investigate a new villainous threat known as the Brood.  As part of that mission she would create a link with a white hole and become the hero Binary.  That would become her superhero identity for the next couple decades, although she was only rarely seen.

Less than a year later in July 1983 the character Rogue arrived on the X-Men’s doorsteps asking for help.  The memories she had absorbed from Danvers were overwhelming her, and she wanted Xavier to do something about it.  Unfortunately, the newly powered up Danvers was still mad at Rogue, and the two duked it out until the rest of the X-Men stopped them.  Danvers decided that if the X-Men wanted to harbor Rogue then she wanted nothing to do with them and left.  Rogue would become a staple of the X-Men team.

For the next twenty or so years Danvers’ legacy was kept alive by brief appearances as Binary.  Most comic fans in the 90s only knew her as the person Rogue had gotten her powers from.  She was destined to become a footnote.  Her only appearance of note between 1983 and 1998 was during the “Operation Galactic Storm” crossover in 1993, in which she played a big role.  Most importantly this crossover returned her traditional powers to her, while retaining the energy absorption and projection powers she had earned as Binary.

Returning to the Avengers… Sort Of

In the late 90s Marvel attempted to reboot the majority of their superhero line under the “Heroes Reborn” banner.  The heroes, who had been seemingly killed by Onslaught in a massive crossover event, were re-imagined by some of the hottest artists in comics at the time in a brand-new universe with a brand-new continuity.  It was an unmitigated disaster, and within a year the Heroes were returned to the original timeline.

This second relaunch brought with it a brand-new Avengers title, which Carol became a part of in issue 4.  She adopted the codename Warbird, as a nod to her piloting days, and stuck to a modified version of her black swim suit.

Avengers (Re)AssembleHer reunion with the Avengers was short lived as her traumatic past caught up with her and she became an alcoholic.  She was kicked off the team by the end of issue 7.  She would make a brief appearance in the Ultron Unlimited event (which was the basis for the Avengers: Age of Ultron movie), but she would not return to active duty until issue 41 of the Avengers.  During that arc she teamed up with another time traveler, coincidentally also named Marcus, who made advances on her, but she rejected them.  She ended up accidentally killing one of the villains in that arc, for which she demanded a court martial and was eventually found innocent.

Three years later the Avengers disbanded.  Obviously, they reformed almost immediately, but Carol was not a part of the new team.  Instead she struck off on her own.

Rise to Prominence

By 2006 Marvel had realized that they were suffering a bit of an image problem.  They had no major women characters in their roster, while DC at least fielded a few.  While they had characters like Wasp and Black Widow they had no one on par with Wonder Woman or Batgirl.  Marvel scoured their history books and settled on Carol Danvers to become the female face of their company.  She was given her own series again and a prominent role in the Marvel hierarchy.

Ms. Marvel #1 (2006)Only a few issues into her ongoing series the line-wide “Civil War” crossover occurred, and put Carol on the pro-registration side with Iron Man.  Although Marvel claims they tried to make both sides balanced, it was generally agreed upon by fans that the pro-registration side were the villains, and the characters associated with that faction didn’t come off well.

As part of Civil War Carol was tasked with capturing the young hero Arachne.  She did so, but in the process she brutally beat the girl and broke several bones.  In front of Arachne’s daughter.  Granted it was a fight Arachne started, and got in solid hits of her own, but Carol didn’t come off well from the fight.  Whether her position was justified or not Carol had beaten a hero more badly than she had most villains.  It is an event that Marvel quickly swept under the rug, and is rarely mentioned.

After Civil War the Marvel Universe continued to erode.  The Secret Invasion happened, which we expect will be large influence on Carol’s own upcoming movie.  Following that Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin, became the leader of the Avengers and filled the roster with villains.  Carol left the team and joined with a rebel faction.  During the Dark Reign arc Carol participated in a battle where she was seemingly killed.  Her name and solo comic passed to the villain Moonstone, however Carol returned only a few issues later to reclaim both.  Sadly, her comic came to an end only a few issues after that.

The next few years saw Carol play a major role in the Siege storyline, which marked the end of an era at Marvel.  For the next two years she would be a regular fixture in The New Avengers, but not much of note happened during that time.

That brings us to 2012, and the beginning of a new day for Carol Danvers.  She would get a new outfit, adopt the Captain Marvel codename, and be taken under wing by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, the first woman to write Carol in her own solo title.

But Don’t Take My Word for It…

Most of the stories I referenced above are readily available, so long as you don’t mind reading digitally.  The stories with the original Captain Marvel are part of both Essential Captain Marvel Volume 1 and Marvel Masterworks: Captain Marvel Volume 1 and Volume 2, all of which are out of print physically.  The two Masterworks titles are available digitally through Amazon Comixology.

Carol’s solo Ms. Marvel series and her infamous Avengers appearances are also collected in two Masterworks volumes, the second of which is still available in print.  Her solo series by itself is also published in the out-of-print Essential Ms. Marvel Volume 1 (there is no volume 2).

A new tradepaperback called Ms Marvel: This Woman, This Warrior will collect the first fourteen issues of her series in an affordable paperback copy (also available digitally).  Presumably there will be a second volume at some point, but it has not been announced yet.

For serious collectors a hardcover omnibus called Captain Marvel: Ms. Marvel – A Hero Is Born will also come out early next year.  It will collect the entire first Ms. Marvel run, her first appearance in Marvel Super Heroes, the issue of Captain Marvel where she gains her powers, Avengers #200 and Avengers Annual #10.  It will also have a few other appearances I haven’t mentioned in this article.  It will retail for $100.

Lastly, her second solo series which started in 2006 is being collected in a three-volume set.  The first two are out now and the third is due in February next year.  Between the three volumes all 50 issues of the series are collected, as well as a few specials and one-shots from the same time frame.

If you have a Marvel Unlimited subscription then every single issue I have mentioned here, except for Marvel Super Heroes #12 and #13, are available as part of your subscription.  They are also available individually on Amazon Comixology for purchase.