Thursday, October 23, 2014

Captain Marvel




I have been reading a lot of Captain Marvel comic books lately.

Whenever you say that to a comic book geek, you typically need to clarify just which character you mean. DC Comics has a Captain Marvel known colloquially even if erroneously as "Shazam." Marvel Comics has several characters with said name. Me? Well, there's only one in my eyes.

It was 1977 and I was in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Spent the summer there as my Dad was at an academic conference. That was where I saw Star Wars for the first time. It was also where I had my first Slurpee at a 7-11. At the time, such frozen concoctions were being sold in superhero collector cups. The cup I selected was one featuring a comic book hero that I had actually never seen before. He was clad in red and blue, which seems to be a standard superhero color scheme, had a frock of blond hair, and was flying through space. Clearly, this Captain Marvel was a science fiction superhero.

And he looked really cool.

In time I would learn his history. His real identity was Mar-Vell, a military officer of the alien Kree Empire. Loyal ESE readers who suffered through my long dissection of the Kree-Skrull War know this already and no doubt it comes with a pang of misery. Think it was rough for you to read? Imagine blogging it. But I digress...

Mar-Vell came to Earth as part of a Kree detachment. His task was to infiltrate human society and evaluate whether or not Earth is a threat to the Kree Empire. What better place to do this than Cape Kennedy? As he carries out his mission, however, Mar-Vell begins to admire humanity (for reasons that pass understanding) and he gradually comes to believe that it is the Kree who are in the wrong. This earns him the branding of "traitor" and lifelong animosity from his own people. So Captain Marvel makes the best of it on Earth. He wears his original green and white, 1950s-style "space cadet" outfit and uses his enhanced strength and endurance as well as sophisticated technology to defend all of humanity from supervillainous threats.

He eventually gets the costume pictured above and I actually think that's an improvement. The issues I've been going through have him teaming up with Drax the Destroyer (name should ring a bell if you saw Guardians of the Galaxy this past summer) and fighting Kree sentries and super criminals such as The Living Laser. It was one particular battle though that made Captain Marvel rather unique in all of comic books.

In taking on a super criminal named Nitro, Captain Marvel needed to disarm a bomb before it went off and dispersed a nerve gas called "Compound 13" across a populated area. He is successful in doing so but in the process comes into contact with Compound 13. An antidote is administered and Marvel suffers only exiguous effects.

Or so he thinks.

Captain Marvel eventually learns that the Compound 13 gave him cancer. Even for a superhero, there would be no stopping the disease. You see, Marvel wears bracelets called "nega-bands" which are a source of his power. They slow the cancer from spreading but they also cause him to resist all treatments. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. Even the advanced technology on Saturn's moon of Titan is of no help. Therefore, across the span of a year or so of comic book time, Captain Marvel slowly faces death the same way as any mortal would and finally succumbs to it. All this is brilliantly depicted by Jim Starlin in The Death of Captain Marvel.

Perhaps this is Captain Marvel's ultimate appeal for me. Despite his heroic nature and the fact that yes, he looked cool and could do cool things, he was just as vulnerable as the rest of us. How often have you heard, "What did that superhero die from? Oh, lost a long, drawn-out battle with cancer. So sad." And so real. There's more than a touch of humanity to Captain Marvel and that's saying something given that he's a Kree. In the end none of his powers mattered. He still faced the same sort of death that the rest of us do.

Face it he did. With grace, with calm, and with dignity.


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