Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Marvel Entertainment announced a new Captain Marvel at WonderCon March 17, a character with a lot of strikes against her. But most fans are cheering.
The major problem is that the character can be confusing. To most folks, “Captain Marvel” means an entirely different character from a different company: Billy Batson, the boy who shouts “SHAZAM!” to become a light-hearted adult superhero in a red costume. He was really big in the 1940s, rivaling Superman in sales.
Which was his doom. National (now DC) Comics, publishers of Superman, sued Fawcett Publications, publisher of Captain Marvel, for copyright infringement in 1940. It appeared to be a weak case to us non-lawyers, based on both characters having similar powers (although Captain Marvel’s were magical, and based on ancient gods and heroes) and similar civilian identities (Clark Kent was an adult reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper; Batson was a boy reporter for radio station WHIZ-AM). Neverthless, the case dragged on until 1953, when Fawcett settled out of court and got out of the comics business.
With the original Captain Marvel kaput, the name was up for grabs. MF Enterprises used the name for an android superhero in 1966, whose power was to split his head, legs, arms and fingers off his body, to fly off independently and fight bad guys. That’s a really stupid super-power – how do disembodied limbs fly, anyway? – but also really creepy, and that Cap only lasted four issues.
Also in 1966, Marvel Comics decided to appropriate the name for a new superhero from outer space – a captain in the alien Kree military, whose real name was Mar-Vell. That character died in 1981 (and, amazingly, remains dead), but the name was used again at Marvel for his son Genis-Vell (now dead), his daughter Phyla-Vell (also now dead), an unrelated light-based superheroine named Monica Rambeau (now code-named Pulsar), another Kree named Noh-Varr (now code-named Protector) and a Kree historian named Medi-E-Vell. OK, I’m kidding about that last one, but you can see the name gets around.
Before most of that, DC had obtained the rights to the original Captain “Shazam” Marvel, and began publishing his adventures in 1971. Ironically, they were unable to name their Captain Marvel comic book “Captain Marvel,” because Marvel held the trademark. So, while DC could still use the name “Captain Marvel” for the character, they had to use something else for the title of his books – usually “Shazam!” or a variant thereof. Recently, mirroring the actions of Fawcett almost 60 years ago, DC has simply given up on the Captain Marvel name and just renamed the character “Shazam.”
Meanwhile, a supporting character in the original Marvel Captain Marvel series (I told you it’s confusing), got super-powers and her own book in 1977, Ms. Marvel. This character, named Carol Danvers, had previously been an Air Force captain, an espionage agent and Mar-Vell’s girlfriend. When Ms. Marvel got canceled, she got new powers and called herself Binary, then lost those powers and became Warbird, then shifted back to Ms. Marvel for a recently canceled series. And it is THAT character that will once again be Marvel’s Captain Marvel in July.
Another strike against Captain Marvel is that titles starring females traditionally have a hard time in the male-dominated comics landscape. Currently Marvel has no solo titles – zero – starring women.
There aren’t a lot of female writers in comics, either, but the new Captain Marvel has one: Kelly Sue DeConnick, best known for manga translations. On Marvel.com, she described the character this way:
“My pitch [to Marvel] was called ‘Pilot’ and the take can pretty much be summed up with ‘Carol Danvers as Chuck Yeager. Carol's the virtual definition of a Type A personality. She's a competitor and a control freak. … She'll have to figure out how to be both Captain Marvel [ital] and [end ital] Chuck Yeager – to marry the responsibility of that legacy with the sheer joy being nearly invulnerable and flying really [expletive] fast.”
And the pluses for Captain Marvel? First, the more non-whiny, unapologetically strong women in comics, the better -- as a role model for girls, and an education for boys. Also, Marvel needs an iconic female standard bearer like DC’s Wonder Woman, and what could be better than one with “Marvel” right in the name? Also, the old “Ms. Marvel” handle always seemed a little archaic to me – a throwback to the ‘70s that makes her sound like a spinoff.
Finally, Carol Danvers is just a great character. Like other fans, my reaction to her solo book is “It’s about time!”
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Cover for July's "Captain Marvel" #1, by Ed McGuinness. Courtesy Marvel Entertainment.
2. Cover for July's "Captain Marvel" #2, by Ed McGuinness. Courtesy Marvel Entertainment.
3. Cover to 1940's "Whiz Comics" #2, the first appearance of the original Captain Marvel. Courtesy DC Entertainment.
4. Interior art for "Captain Marvel" #1. Courtesy Marvel Entertainment.