Friday, May 9, 2014

Captain Marvel Masterworks Vol.1 review

There are some characters that just seem to haunt the fringes of your interest in comics until you finally decide to explore them in depth. While I’m not too keen on DC/Fawcett’s big red cheese, and I don’t find MF Enterprise’s “SPLIT!” version to be the campy masterpiece some praise it as, I’ve always seen Marvel’s ‘Space-Born Super-Hero” as the Captain Marvel, even though, as everyone points out, Marvel created him to secure copyright to the name. Granted, my fondness could stem from my first continuous exposure to the character being Jim Starlin’s acclaimed run and the good captain playing big roles in ‘important’ stories like the RoyThomasBrainFart Kree-Skrull War, or maybe it’s because, courtesy of a flea market, I ended up owning his first two appearances in Marvel Superheroes #12-13, as well as issue #4 of his own title where he fights Namor. Now, I fully admit I picked those books up because of the Golden Age reprints and because I go crazy for Gene Colan art and even crazier for Namor, but I always liked them because of the series’ gimmick, even though there were things in those stories that even as a teen I couldn’t suspend my disbelief about.
  Captain Marvel was about Mar-Vell; a member of an alien race called the Kree who came to Earth, took on a secret identity as a scientist and wound up becoming a superhero. On paper, it’s not too different a concept from lots of other alien heroes, going all the way back to Superman himself, and Cap’s costume wasn’t too markedly different from that of other spacemen like Adam Strange except for being in secondary colors.
  No, what made Mar-Vell unique was why he acted as a superhero. It wasn’t that he was raised by humans, or was an intergalactic policeman who decided to study our methods, or who fought crime since he was stuck here and believed evil should be eradicated no matter where it was, or because he was struck by the beauty of human life. Nothing like that. Mar-Vell was a soldier on a reconnaissance mission whose entire goal was to spy on us, and if need be, blow us all to kingdom come if we ever came anywhere close to developing weapons that could challenge the Kree empire.
 He only came off as a hero because his asshole superior officer, Colonel Yon Rogg, wanted to bang his girlfriend Una, so Yon-Rogg kept trying to force Mar-Vell into situations where he would be killed or forced to abort his mission (an offense punishable by death in Kree law), such as activating big homicidal robots to kill people who Mar-Vell was merely supposed to study, or tricking enemy alien races into attacking him. Mar-Vell would then fight these various menaces (mainly out of self-preservation and because he believed in sticking to the original plans to simply spy on Earth’s people, not kill them) and, to the unknowing populace of Earth, Mar-Vell would appear to be a benevolent superhero defending them.
 This could have been turned into a comedy series where the evil alien always ends up doing good by accident, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style horror; where the people of Earth have no idea that their champion is an alien spy. But the thing was, Mar-Vell was torn up inside because of this. He knew that, other than to Una, he was just another grunt to the Kree, while to the people of Earth who he was supposed to view as the enemy, he was appreciated and acclaimed as a hero, and noble soldier that he was, he couldn’t live with betraying trust, since he was a firm believer in showing honor even to his worst enemies. Even worse, he knew that eventually, he was either going to have to destroy us, or Yon-Rogg would find some way to make him look bad in the eyes of the Kree higher-ups and he’d have nowhere to go (if the Kree council didn’t kill him first).
 The final panel of #4, where Mar-Vell speeds off after battling Namor, the true hero of the story, and considers the tragic irony of his situation, always stuck with me for some reason.
 Many years later, I got a hold of the first Marvel Masterworks volume of CM, read up to the fourth issue (which I was already familiar with), and then, due to a bunch of factors, didn’t get a chance to finish reading and sort of forgot about it.
 That, however, has been rectified.
 And you know what? For a character created just to secure copyright, these stories are pretty damn good!
 Oh sure, there are plenty of ludicrous coincidences that even as a kid I found hard to swallow, namely, Mar-Vell conveniently happening across a dead rocket scientist named Walter Lawson who looks exactly like him and who he then impersonates to get access to Cape Canaveral.
 At the same time though, there are also some nicely realistic touches like a hotel clerk who becomes suspicious of Cap being a spy after noticing that ‘Lawson’ has no idea how to properly register, often uses false names and doesn’t handle money well (an interesting subplot that sadly gets hand waved a bit too easily), or people at the cape falling for the ruse, but admitting they detect something subtly “off” about ‘Lawson’, from the way he doesn’t understand various social norms or seems too forced in his slang, while others just write off his weirdness as harmless eccentricity, like a cab driver named Chester whom he befriends. There are also some nice moments of humor, such as Mar-Vell coming to appreciate mankind’s greatest achievement: The Coffee Break.

 The characterization of the supporting players is also quite good, and the situations created for them are handled uniquely. Carol Danvers, later to become a super heroine called Ms. Marvel (among several identities) is introduced here, and she’s as different from your typical female supporting character of the time as it’s possible to get. She’s a full-time working woman employed as the cape’s head of security, and although she needs to be rescued now and then, so does pretty much everyone else. Mar-Vell is the only one who knows how to stop the various alien threats that pop up, so having any human character defeat them on their own would come off as a stretch. And best of all, there is no romantic subplot….at first, but again, how it’s handled is quite unique. She doesn’t come to fall for ‘Lawson’, as she suspects him immediately and thinks he’s a spy (which he is, just not for the Russians), and there’s no attempt to portray her as secretly having feelings for him. In fact, next to Yon-Rogg, she becomes the biggest thorn in his side, with each time she appears building up tension. Using a female character in such an antagonistic light without making her a villain or a Lois Lane-type isn’t something you saw much in this era.
 However, Carol does end up falling for Captain Marvel. Again, this is handled in a far from typical manner. She’s just as suspicious of him initially as she is of ‘Lawson’, but because he saves her life several times, demonstrates his noble qualities and displays the grudging respect he has for her that he couldn’t show as Lawson, she gradually ends up falling for him over the course of many issues, without it ever coming off as forced.
 But here’s the thing; Mar-Vell does not at any time reciprocate her feelings or show any sign of falling for her (As Walter Lawson, he does occasionally make flirtatious remarks, but he’s clearly trying to keep her away from him by making her think he’s a sexist pig). He remains loyal to Una, and his attempts to protect Carol in particular are simply a combination of respect and because he’s afraid she might stumble onto something if he’s not around. However, Una sees them together and starts to worry that she might seduce him. Una could easily have been portrayed as jealous or unreasonable, possibly even ending up trying to kill Carol or betray Mar-Vell (remember all those times Lady Dorma would betray Namor or try to kill Sue Storm?), but instead, she’s portrayed with nothing other than sympathy. Her fears of losing Mar-Vell seem completely reasonable based on what she has to go on, and when she sees Cap kissing Carol (she forced herself on him and he immediately tries to pull away), it’s a legitimately heartbreaking moment.
 Una is also far from the typical weepy love interest (aside from a few lines about her feeling a ‘woman’s weakness”). She’s portrayed as a brilliant scientist and Mar-Vell’s go-to-gal for technology, and uses her expertise to get him out of several jams. She also gets one awesome moment where she knocks Yon-Rogg and his entire crew out with gas to buy Mar-Vell more time. It’s also made clear that she’s fully aware of Yon-Rogg’s lecherous designs on her, and even at her most paranoid about losing Mar-Vell, she’s smart enough to never trust Yon-Rogg or confide in him. In other Marvel series, she would probably end up falling for him in a fit of grief, or at least pretending to in order to make Cap jealous. Not here. There’s a lame subplot about how she and Mar-Vell are the only members of the Kree race that can feel emotion, but thankfully that isn’t dwelled upon much.
Yon-Rogg himself is easily the most despicable villain in late 60’s Marvel. He has no depth other than being a jealous, glory-hungry bastard, but you end up truly hating him on a level you don’t for say, Doctor Doom, because his evil is a real world, every day evil, and all of the drama in the stories come about from the emotional tension he creates, not because of his powers or latest super weapon. The way he mockingly tries to convince Una that Mar-Vell is cheating on her, or orders Cap to wipe out a city with a virus to prove his loyalty, or tries to get Cap in trouble with the Kree council really, really makes you despise him. A common reaction I’ve seen from people reading Silver Age Marvel is that the fights with supervillains often seem like distractions from the real drama that takes place out of costume, and that you often want to see supporting characters or ‘employers” like J. Jonah Jameson, Senator Byrd or General Ross pummeled more than the actual villains. Since Yon-Rogg is both villain and supporting character/employer, he comes off as far more compelling.
 Roy Thomas writes the first four issues and the second appearance, and he does a fine job. His purple prose is perfect for the space opera/soap opera going on, and he gets in several great lines which really capture Mar-Vell’s loneliness and inner conflict. He does however, have a tendency to reuse familiar characters as antagonists too much (something he admits to in the introduction). First we have the Sentry, The Super Skrull and Namor (all Fantastic Four-related characters). Things pick up when legendary DC oddball, Arnold Drake, takes the reins. He comes up with some interesting foes like a Soviet monster called the Metazoid, a living solar flare called Solam, alien pirates and a robot created by the real Walter Lawson (who it appears was far from saintly, or sane). Drake does reuse familiar Marvel villain Quasimodo the living computer, but gives him the bizarre gimmick of seeing himself as the ‘liberator’ of machines. Seeing him talk about the oppression of his “brethren” (drills, heaters and power tools) is just the kind of looniness you’d expect from Drake’s Metal Men and Doom Patrol, and makes him a lot more interesting than the rather vaguely defined villain from the Fantastic Four annuals.
  The Metazoid story is the one that most impresses. The Metazoid is portrayed as a tragic figure, an ordinary man arrested by the KGB and put on trial for speaking out against the USSR, then mutated into a monster and sent to abduct Lawson to prove his loyalty; if he fails, he will never be made human again. The Metazoid’s plight provides a fascinating counterpoint to Mar-Vell’s conflict with Yon-Rogg and his turmoil over whether to prove his loyalty to the Kree or to do the right thing. The fact that neither Cap or the Metazoid ever realizes the similar situation they are both in is a nicely mature little touch. It doesn’t end happily, and succeeds in creating a genuine feeling of ambivalence in the reader. It’s so good, you can easily forgive the Metazoid’s vaguely defined powers and appearance (is he made of rock, fur or tar?).
 The artwork is excellent throughout. Who knew Gene Colan “comic's prince of darkness” (as Wizbang called him) could be so good at space opera? Much maligned inkers Paul Reinman and Vince Colletta also do a fine job. This Masterworks edition features photocopies of Colan’s pencils before they were inked, and although they do look more impressive prior to inking, that was pretty much the case with every Colan inker. Reinman’s scratchy style gives things a rough-hewn, gritty mood, and although I’ve heard that Colan hated Colletta so much he sometimes went back and re-inked his own work, all I can say is that either he found time to do it for every issue here, or Colletta’s reputation for erasing is exaggerated. This stuff is fantastic.
 Don Heck takes over with the fifth issue (also the same issue where Drake arrives) and seems much more comfortable on this strip than with The Avengers, which is where most of Heck’s poor reception comes from. Heck was a fine artist, just admittedly not a superhero artist, more suited to science fiction and romance (You could always tell he enjoyed drawing Tony Stark more than Iron Man), so he’s at home here. Like I said before, some of his character designs are kind of odd, but then again, what is a ‘Metazoid” supposed to look like anyway? This is some of his best work.

 I really, really enjoyed this volume. Some people really hate this series, calling it a cynical copyright grab, or “a foray into sustained tedium”, often by pointing out the radical changes the premise would undergo (Mar-Vell eventually ended up becoming a space wanderer, an approximation of the old Billy Batson/Shazam concept, then a cosmic philosopher) as proof that he was a “nothing” character without a unifying concept. It may indeed be true that those abrupt changes destroyed the series (I haven’t read many of them and can’t comment), but I have to say, there’s nothing wrong with the original premise presented in these stories at all. It’s one of the most compelling (and grim) ideas for a ‘space hero’ series I’ve seen, and as long as it lasts, I think I’ll enjoy reading more of these collections before getting to the Starlin stuff. There’s nothing to be ashamed of here at all. 4/5.


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