Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Death of Captain Marvel

The Death of Captain Marvel (1982)
Written and illustrated by Jim Starlin

Karen: I'm reviewing this legendary story from my original graphic novel copy. I'm almost afraid to scan images from it, as it has become very worn and fragile from the many readings I've made of it. I guess it's time to buy a new one. But it would be worth it, as this is a story worthy of being read again and again. [Note: thankfully, Doug had a digital copy of this and so all images were provided by him, thus saving my poor old copy from any further damage!]
Doug: Digital copy? Did I just get thrown under the bootleg bus? Yikes! Hey, true confession time -- Karen's asked me to assist in making this one of our award-winning "partner reviews". I'm going to tell you right here and now that I am totally riding her coattails today. I had not read this story before last Friday! I know, I know... I never got around to buying this, and although I've been eyeballing the Marvel Premiere Classic hardcover (which contains the original story where Mar-Vell defeats Nitro and is exposed to the carcinogens) I've yet to pull the trigger.

Karen: In The Life and Art of Jim Starlin, Starlin says that he struggled with the plot
for this book for some time, initially having Mar-Vell die in a stereotypically heroic fashion. However, Starlin's father had died of cancer about six months earlier, and that fact made its way into the story. He embraced the idea and delivered the plot to Marvel, and Jim Shooter loved it. So Starlin went ahead and got the book together. Interesting note: he broke a finger right as he was to begin inking the book. He wound up having to tape a pen in his hand in order to do the inking -and even so, he could only manage short strokes! The art does have a bit of a rough edge to it, but overall it's still spectacular.

Doug: This may seem like a weird comment, but I thought the art in this story exuded "'80's" art -- it sort of had a Giffen/LaRocque/Leonardi feel to it. None of those artists are bad, mind you, and at times this book was simply beautiful -- just an observation.

Karen: The story opens with Mar-Vell recording his autobiography, in hopes that his adventures may prove useful to others. It's a nice way to recap his past. Eros (better known as Starfox now) walks in on the Captain's recording session and remarks that he's a bit young to be writing a memoir. "Perhaps, but you never know..." Mar-Vell remarks.
Doug: As a relative novice to all-things-Starlin, I really felt welcomed by the ease of this story. It was certainly a heavy subject to deal with, but there were no barriers to my accessibility. This also was quite touching from the very start.

Karen: Mar-Vell, Eros, and Mentor, father of Eros and Thanos, have taken a spaceship out past Pluto where Thanos' space ark floats, lifeless.
Mentor and Eros plan to return Thanos' petrified body to Titan. As the trio gaze upon his form, Mar-Vell realizes that the platform the mad titan stands upon was not there before. His cosmic senses alert him to the presence of others, aliens who attack the men. I was a bit amused how Mar-Vell spends a couple of pages during the fight laying out one attacker after another, all the while carrying on a philosophical monologue in his head. At the end of the fight, they discover that the aliens are the last remnants of Thanos' army -and they worship him, awaiting his resurrection. Mentor goes off on them, stating that his son was a psychopath who didn't give a damn about any of them. As they are scooted off the ship, Mar-Vell begins coughing violently. Mentor says he'd like to run a medical exam on him, but Mar-Vell ominously says that he believes it will only confirm was his cosmic awareness has already told him.

Doug: I appreciated the flashbacks throughout this story. The two-part epic that ran through Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2 was a mind-blowing story at the time and really my only deep brush with Starlin's cosmic opera.
The scene where Mar-Vell so matter-of-factly tells Mentor what is wrong with him, and that's it's terminal was such an example of courage and heroism. Here was a guy who'd faced down the reaper countless times, yet could so rationally discuss his impending doom.
Karen: Back on Titan, Mentor's devices confirm the truth that Mar-Vell has known for a few weeks: he has cancer. It's the result of a battle he had with a maniac called Nitro (back in Captain Marvel #34), when he had to seal a canister of nerve gas with his bare hands. The gas acted as a carcinogen. It's only due to his nega bands and their photonic energy that Mar-Vell didn't die sooner. The Titans have no cure for the disease. Mar-Vell seems to accept the situation, but Mentor is frustrated by it, particularly given that Mar-Vell and Elysiuis, who had once been his enemy, are now lovers. In a wordless segment, Mar-Vell tells Elysius of his condition. Starlin does a very nice job with expressing their emotions simply through their expressions and body language.

Doug: I could feel Starlin's thoughtfulness throughout the entire story. It really is more like a movie than a book. Camera angles and pacing, cuts from one scene to another, everything has a purpose.

Karen: Mar-Vell seeks out Rick Jones on Earth, fearing that their former symbiotic relationship might have allowed Rick to develop cancer too. Mar-Vell's acceptance of his eventual death angers Rick, who vows to find a way to stop it. Rick gathers a group of Avengers (Thor, Iron Man, Black Panther, Beast, Wonder Man, Vision, and Yellowjacket) and asks them to find a cure for his cancer. They all try to explain how difficult such a task would be, but Rick perceives this as a cop-out and storms off, saying that maybe they just don't want to face anything that they might not be able to beat. It leaves the men to ponder if they've used their abilities wisely.

Doug: I don't know how old Rick was supposed to be by this time, but he's played somewhat as the headstrong youth we've known since his days on the gamma test field. But it still seemed very much realistic -- perhaps because Rick was so in-character. Not everyone's reaction to such terrible news is low-key. Some people act out in anger. I thought this scene showed Starlin's real power as a storyteller. As you mentioned above, the scene between Mar-Vell and Elysius was done without words; this scene was filled with words. Each scene was comparatively emotional but at totally different levels. By the way, did you find it odd that Thor was along for the scientist-hall-of-fame ride? Are we to assume that he retained all of Dr. Don Blake's skill and knowledge while in his immortal form?
Karen: The contrast between those two scenes is wonderful. As for Thor, he did sometimes exhibit medical know-how, although it does seem odd that he would retain that. Back on Titan, Mar-Vell has begun to show signs of his illness; there are circles around his eyes and a certain gauntness to his face. Although he says he has grown thin, he still looks pretty muscular as Starlin has drawn him. He's traded in his red and blue fighting togs for a life support vest. In a touching scene with Eros, Mar-Vell tells him that he's always known that Eros has cared for Elysius, and hopes he will be a friend to her after he is gone, because she's going to need it. As Mar-Vell walks away, an atypically quiet Eros fights back tears.

Doug: I agree with you as to Mar-Vell's appearance here (and to the end) -- if there was one complaint it's that Starlin left him a bit too hero-looking as we were told he was failing.

Karen: Mar-Vell has begun recording his memoirs in earnest. When he begins to discuss Elysius, a number of emotions wash over him; regret, sadness, and finally anger at the thought that they would have so little time together. Despite all of his triumphs, he's come to recognize that this is a battle he'll lose, and it's a hard thing for such a warrior to accept.

Karen: Meanwhile all of his super-hero friends, including the Avengers and Reed Richards and Dr. Strange, have continued to search for some cure. Unfortunately they are rebuffed at every turn by his nega bands. It seems that the photonic energy which has kept him alive throughout his illness is also somehow preventing his treatment. I thought this was a bit weak but of course there had to be a reason the greatest minds on Earth could not help him.

Doug: Again, a small criticism: I thought the nega-band thing was a bit of a cop-out and served to lead the reader to believe that if these Marvel eggheads hadn't had that as a road block, then they could have whipped Mar-Vell's cancer. Something about this just didn't sit right with me.

Karen: As the Captain grows weaker and becomes bed-ridden, the heroes of Earth -and beyond -all come to Titan to play tribute. There's a full page shot of a ton of heroes coming down stairs and just about anyone you can think of is there -Avengers, FF, X-Men, Defenders, Inhumans -heck, even Iron Fist and Power Man!
The one glaring exception I thought was Ms. Marvel. Where was she? Or, was this at the time when she was without powers or her memory? That might have been the case.

Doug: If Galactus had been paying attention, this would have been a great time to try to feast on the Earth. Who was minding the store back on terra firma? Stories like this become time capsules, too, don't they? Check out the roll call, the costumes, etc. Etrigan the Demon, Kitty Pryde in her school uniform, Power Man and Iron First you mentioned...

Karen: Everyone wants to say good-bye and pay their respects. Mar-Vell keeps asking for Rick but he hasn't come. I felt the scene with The Thing and Spider-Man at Mar-Vell's bedside was especially well done. Ben is reminiscing about a fight with Mar-Vell when Spidey just becomes overwhelmed and has to leave. As Spidey flees the room, the Beast catches up with him and they have a talk. Who should arrive at that moment but Rick.
When he sees Mar-Vell in bed he breaks down, sobbing at his side. Ben and the Torch clear out of the room and close the doors, telling everyone, "They're going to want to be alone for awhile."

Doug: The Spider-Man vignette further humanized this story.

Karen: Eventually things settle down and Mar-Vell receieves another set of visitors: Drax the Destroyer and Moondragon. Drax, who has died before (he was a rarity in comics back then) tells Mar-Vell that death really isn't all that bad, but the Kree warrior says he's in no hurry to find out. Drax then ushers in someone to see Mar-Vell: a hulking Skrull soldier named General Zedrao. In a strangely touching scene, the Skrull soldier explains that Mar-Vell has been the Empire's greatest enemy.
"You are quite possibly the greatest warrior who ever walked the stars," he says, before presenting the ailing Kree-man with the Royal Skrull Medal of Valor. The general salutes and leaves, leaving everyone a bit stunned, except for Rick. The boy is furious that Mar-Vell's greatest enemies saw fit to honor him on his deathbed, but his own people have ignored him. Mar-Vell, ever the voice of reason, reminds Rick that he turned on his own people. But regardless, he doesn't care about medals, it's the friends he has with him now that matter. Shortly after this, the captain falls into a coma.

Doug: So at first I thought that maybe the Hulk was the one guy they had to get special clearance for when everyone landed on Titan; should I now assume that it was the Skrull general? I did enjoy this scene -- I thought it was one of the best tributes.

Karen: As the heroes gather around his bedside, pondering how unfair it all seems, down deep in the bowels of Titan, someone stirs. It is Thanos. Some part of him has returned, to face Mar-Vell one last time. Whether this occurs on some higher level of existence, or in Mar-Vell's unconscious mind, who can say? The mad Titan looms over Mar-Vell's bed, lamenting how weak he has become. He yanks off the sheets and demands that he rise. Suddenly, Mar-Vell is back in his red and blue suit, full of vigor. He tells Mar-Vell he has returned for one last great battle, at the heart of Mar-Vell's universe -which is depicted as a giant heart. The two go at it in a topsy-turvy world reminiscent of a Ditko Dr. Strange landscape. Old foes return to harass Mar-Vell, who punches them into pieces. All the while, Thanos rails on about forcing Mar-Vell to accept reality, to accept death. Life is finite, he tells the Captain. Finally, a purple-robed woman - Death - appears.

Doug: That we are left uncertain as to the reality of this scene was a triumphant poetry on Starlin's part.

Karen: Mar-Vell seems to accept that even he cannot escape death. Thanos tells him not to fear her. He replies that he doesn't, and he no longer needs her to be cloaked in illusion. With this he passes his hand over her face, revealing a skull. Mar-Vell and Death embrace as Thanos watches. Suddenly the huge beating heart stops. The threesome hold hands and turn to walk off towards a brilliant white light. On Titan, Mentor pulls a sheet over Mar-Vell's body and say, "He's gone."
Doug: This was as moving a comic book death as there has ever been. Gwen Stacy, Jean Grey, and Kara Zor-el come to mind as others that were done quite well. That Mar-Vell has stayed dead is a tribute to this story.

Karen: I can't really do this book justice. Even today, I find it very affecting. Despite all of his travels, his power, his glory, Mar-Vell dies like so many of us: from an illness. I think it was a brilliant idea, even if I hated to see the character go. But if Marvel was insistent on killing him off, they couldn't have received a better story. Our mortality weighs heavily on us; as we struggle to get through our lives, to accomplish things, enjoy ourselves, and be with those we love, death is always just out of view, hanging on the edges of our vision. We all have to face it, often many times over, as we lose those we love, and even lose our own lives. Starlin's portrayal of Mar-Vell's struggle to fight for his life, and then his final acceptance of his death, was perhaps the best anyone has ever done on the subject in mainstream comics.


dbutler16 said...

I re-read this a couple of years ago for the first time in decades, and thought it held up wonderfully. What a beautiful book. It's especially powerful, as most of us can relate to it since most of us have known someone with cancer. Captan Marvel of course faces his death with a courage we could all hope to. Of course, if I recall my life at the end, it won't be nearly as interesting as Mar-Vell's!

david_b said...

Geez, where does one start..? I've been waiting patiently for this column for months.

Yes, the glorious art and reverberance of this story bleeds off each page. It is a striking and moving tribute, one of the lasting hallmarks of the early 'Jim Shooter era', before things got corporate and the creativity we all cherished in the Bronze Age said goodbye.

As with most of Starlin's magna opus works with Mar-Vell and the Avengers, this one deserved the 'graphic novel' approach. Still considered an oddity back at the start of the '80s, I could find no better home or format for this story. I too was upset to hear about the death, but what a fitting approach to let Starlin tell it his own grand, glorious, yet intimate way.

The art was perfectly rendered, befitting the somber mood of reflection and disappointment. As a dig, I did feel that Mar-Vell was 'overly supersized' even early on - Geez, with all his upper body muscles, he looked more bulked up than even Thor..?!? Yes, he should have been portrayed as thinner during his final days to add more visual starkness, but I'll give Mr. Starlin a pass on that.

Ah, Thanos. I found the final battle perfectly, lovingly executed. As a bitter enemy, much like the Skrull General awarding Mar-Vell, Thanos felt sympathy towards his old, faithful adversary, and as a final, sweeping gesture, lifted him out of his approaching death to wage one more battle as warriors, allowing his old comrade the glory of their struggle one final time, which in many ways, defined them both.

Thanos, too, said 'Goodbye' as only he could.

dbutler16 said...

Also, a little retcon of sorts to a minor part of this book. In the Silver Surfer 1987 series, it was revealed that the Surfer who appeared here was actually a skrull. Just in case anybody cares.

Inkstained Wretch said...

Yes, this is one of the all-time great comic book tales. It is all the more affecting because it is so simple: The hero gets ill, gets weaker, wraps up the lose ends of his life and passes on. Avoiding the grand heroic self-sacrificing death was a truly smart idea and gave this one great depth.

Oddly, it reminds me of the death of the Whizzer in the Vision and Scarlet Witch mini-series. He was killed off-panel in an almost off-hand manner with little fanfare in a story where he is trying to cure his son Nuklo and reconnect with Wanda (despite the fact that she then knew he wasn't her father and was just humoring an old man). It was a sad and tragic exit for a hero who had fought in WWII with the Invaders and was still helping the Avengers in the 70s, I thought. It was certainly not the usual hero death and a reminder that sometimes life just isn't very fair. I guess the Whizzer was a minor enough character that that could happen to him.

On another note, anybody know why the Powers That Be at Marvel wanted to kill off Captain Marvel in the first place? Was it just to make room for the second Captain Marvel? I mean, they could just as easily come up with another, more appropriate name, for that character.

dicecipher said...

This hit me in the gut. Mar-vell was a favorite character of mine. I have always enjoyed cosmic heroes. Jim Starlin has always done a good job with Spider-Man. The little panic monologue he did with him in Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2 was very good as well.

Chuck Wells said...

Mar-Vell was one of my favorite heroes of the 70s, too (along with Adam Warlock, who also received an interesting denouement from Starlin.

I waited many years for an opportunity to see Jim Starlin at a show and in the last couple of years I've actually gotten to see him THREE separate times in person, plus this year I finally added an original inked Captain Marvel sketch by Starlin (done in Baltimore) to my collection.

I regret the decision to kill this character off, but agree that this book was an outstanding way to pull it off.

Ric said...

Wow, what a book! Is it any wonder I voted this as my favorite single-issue story?

Recalling the scene with Ben and Spidey at Mar-vell's bedside, I was struck with how close they seemed... which makes sense since both the Thing and Spiday hosted team-up magazines some years before, and had personal interaction with Mar-Vell there (we presume). Also, Ben's wisdom and maturity was well counter-balanced with Peter's youthfulness here.

I read this when it came out, and I was like 21 or 22... I'd had little personal experience with death, either in comics or in real life. (I missed Gwen Stacy by a year.. Warlock died... Thunderbird... that was about it). This was a terrific and heartfelt portrayal. It felt like I lost someone important to me!


Dougie said...

One very minor point: that isn't Etrigan - it's early-80s-Defender and senior citizen Isaac Christians, The Gargoyle.

(I can't help myself- I'm an English teacher)

Doug said...

Dougie --

Nope, that's not a minor point. Many apologies for that DC-confusion.

And it just goes to show my ignorance of the 1980's Defenders line-up.


david_b said...

Doug, not to steal the topic, but your mention of the Defenders makes me think we ought to do a column on their lineups and writing teams soon..

Just a thought.

Loved the early Gerber years, but only seriously collected the issues with Buscema's art, like the days of Hawkeye and Yellowjacket as members.

Back to Starlin's masterpiece here, I'm comforted that so many folks speak so fondly and eloquently on this event as I do.

Well worth the wait.

david_b said...

Oh, another off-subject post..:

As you see, I've changed my avatar back to my Famous Covers Yellowjacket custom.

Long Live Dr. Pym.

Fred W. Hill said...

Beautiful send-off for the good Captain. BTW, anyone take a look back at issue #34, particularly that cover introduction of, "Nitro, the Man Who Killed Captain Marvel"? And somewhere in the story, there was a crossed street sign that read, "This Is the End", and Marv didn't look too healthy in that last panel. Of course, Mar-Vell was revived and went on to confront the Lunatic Legion, among other foes. Ultimately, though, his battle with Nitro did kill him, just not right away. Like someone who survived the 9/11 attacks on the WTC only to die years later due to inhaling too much of that toxic dust. Almost seems as if Starlin purposely planted a seed for what would become The Death of Captain Marvel. Of course, at that time he couldn't know his father would die of cancer, providing the main inspiration for the graphic novel. Still, some strange portents. And alas that Starlin's tenure on the series ended with the Nitro yarn, but at least he went out with a bang!

William said...

As with the death of Blue Beetle (Ted Kord) over at DC, often the best story a B-list character appears in is the one where they are killed off.

Also, as with the Blue Beetle, these stories (though sometimes well written) always leave me cold. Captain Marvel was one of my favorite characters, (as was Blue Beetle) and when I bought this book, back when it was originally released, I thought it was going to be a typical comic-book character "death". I figured they would come up with some quasi-plausible way to bring Marv back at some future date. I was pretty shocked that they never did. (The stupid, recent Skrull version doesn't count).

And so, yeah, The Death of CM was a pretty well written and drawn, touching and moving story, but in the end, that's all it was. ONE STORY.One story that was done over 25 years ago and that's it. After that we never got another new story featuring that version of Captain Marvel ever again. Yippee! Sorry, but I personally don't think one good story is worth destroying a great character that still had a lot of future potential for other good stories.

Plus, this book also did something else that I really, really, really can't stand when they do it. By having the reason for his death being a chemical he was exposed to way back in issue #34 of his original comic, it effectively ret-conned (and thus ruined) all other Captain Marvel comics that came after that issue.

So now, if you go back and try to read any issues of CM after #34, all you can think of is how he's actually terminally ill the whole time. So, it doesn't matter what kind of dangerous situation he gets himself out of, he's basically dead anyway!!! What fun!!!

This is why I freaking hate any kind of stinking ret-con whatsoever! Such as the later one that said the Silver Surfer that appeared in this story was a Skrull. What a load of bull! How often is Marvel going to go to that well? Jeez, enough with stupid Skrulls already. And people thought that Mephisto erasing Spider-Man's marriage was a cop-out. Why didn't they just make MJ a Skrull. (Oh wait, they already did that to undo the Human Torch's marriage to Alicia). BTW, is Johnny still "dead"? Maybe they can bring him back by saying he was really just a Skrull. Yeah, that works every time. Brilliant.

Rip Jagger said...

It is precisely because of how well done this story is told that to my mind, Mar-Vell is the one character who can never return (really) to the Marvel Universe. Sure, they'll do dodges to keep the trademark kicking, that's fine by me, but I'll be very sad indeed if they truly revive him.

Mar-Vell is my fanboy fave Marvel hero (aside from Hawkeye maybe) and I followed his adventure dutifully right to the grave. I prefer to think that he's earned his rest, and in peace should he remain.

Rip Off

Karen said...

One thing that I really enjoyed about Captain Marvel was that he actually grew and changed as a character. From staunch soldier to questioning warrior to almost a zen warrior monk -his experiences had an effect on him. He was always a man of action, but later in life that action was guided by an inner peace.

David B - we've been talking about more Defenders, so don't be surprised if that turns up on the docket soon.


Dougie said...

I can understand William's annoyance but in my opinion, Captain Mar-Vell didn't have much potential as a character. Exhibit A: The Kree undercover agent,the Arnold Drake Zo reboot, the Thomas/Kane Shazam homage, Moench rehashing tropes from Starlin, etc. etc. The history of a character in search of direction.

If we agree that Mar-Vell was at his best under Starlin, then even then, he's a derivative blend of at least two New Gods, Dr. Strange and Captain Atom. This graphic novel lends him grandeur and makes him memorable because he doesn't come back- almost like a mythological hero. But there's nothing he could do that couldn't be done equally well by the Surfer, Quasar, Nova or indeed Ms. Marvel; the latter trio also being more effective audience identification figures.

Edo Bosnar said...

Here's my belated kudos for a great review - posted now because I just read this last night. Can't add anything to all the praise posted here and elsewhere online: it's really that good.
And the art fascinated me; something I couldn't have noticed when I first read it (more like skimmed through a borrowed copy) back in 1982, is how at that point in career it seemed like Starlin was influenced by Mœbius to some extent. It's particularly apparent in the backgrounds.

Karen said...

Edo, I really love that you are going back to these older reviews and commenting on them! If I recall correctly, I believe Starlin has said that when he was working on this book, he injured his hand and so was having some difficulty with the art, which may be why it looks somewhat different than his usual work.

Edo Bosnar said...

Wow, that's pretty good work for a guy with an injured hand - when I said it looked like he was influenced by Mœbius, I didn't mean that as a bad thing.

Unknown said...

I'm 54 yrs old, been reading comics since 70-71, I bought this back in '82...cried then and still get kinda teary eyed now when I read it....not even ''The death of Gwen Stacy'' affected me as much and I had a crush on her lol....Spidey's reaction was priceless and the page where Mar-vell tells his girlfriend....the only page in comic history that didnt have a single word on it but it speaks volumes and the Skurll tribute was awesome......This book took us thru the full gambit of emotions..action,romance, friendship(poor Rick Jones..he desperately tried to save his friend)and ultimately loss........if any book should be made into a movie its this one
R.I.P. Mar-vell

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