Monday, September 26, 2016

Review: Marvel Masterworks Ms. Marvel (Vol. 1)

Volume 1 of the late-70’s era Ms. Marvel is an odd choice for a Marvel Masterworks hardcover collection.  On the one hand, it’s obvious because Marvel is putting out a Captain Marvel movie sometime in 2018, starring Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, the current Captain Marvel.  Danvers got her superhero start as Ms. Marvel, a kind of accidental protégé of the original Captain Marvel, Captain Mar-Vell of the Kree imperial military.  Publishing some kind of collection of Danvers’s old adventures therefore seems a logical step in the Marvel/Disney hype process, but unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.  Reality is that most of Ms. Marvel’s old-school adventures represent some of the worst, most sexist execution of an otherwise good idea in modern comics’ history.  Considering where comics were as recently as five or ten years ago, that is really saying something.
Marvel Masterworks: Ms. Marvel (Vol 1)
Legendary comic writer Gerry Conway runs the issue down at length in the book’s introduction.  The Women’s Liberation movement became a pop-culture mainstay in the mid- to late-1970s, and like a lot of companies, Marvel wanted to both get with the times and take advantage of the opportunities that society’s social nascent changes were creating.  Marvel editorial knew that the company needed to create “a bold new super heroine,” a feminist icon to go alongside Spider-Man and Captain America as a way of representing new, would be female (feminist) readers.  Ms. Marvel was their solution, with the obvious caveat that none of the white men writing comics at the time had any real clue what actual women would want from their superheroine.  The result has been reprinted as a Marvel Masterwork, and if it’s not actually “masterly,” it is at least a very honest representation of what was going on in comics at the time, with art that is captivating—for both better and worse.
Though Carol Danvers is a relatively new character, she has really been through a Hell of a lot.  She started as the Head of Security for Cape Canaveral Space Center, where she met the Kree soldier Mar-Vell, got involved in a lot of crazy alien intrigue, and eventually gained superpowers via the radioactive explosion of the infamous psyche-magnetron device.  Mar-Vell’s DNA fused with Danvers’s own, making her—essentially—half-Kree.  As a result of the ensuing fiasco, though, Danvers lost her job as Canaveral’s Head of Security, bouncing around a bit until finally settling as a freelance writer/journalist working for J. Jonah Jameson in New York City.  Perhaps my favorite part of this entire volume is that Jameson, like Marvel itself, realizes that he needs to do something to capitalize on Women’s Lib, but unlike Marvel, Jameson knows full well that he doesn’t have the first clue how to go about doing it.  He therefore creates “Woman Magazine,” and if we get some sense that he realizes that the magazine itself might be a stupid idea, Jameson at least hires a competent woman editor to head the project.  This is a lot more than Jameson’s creators at Marvel can say on this same issue.  The meta-commentary is ironically obvious, for all that Conway himself defended Marvel’s decision to hire exclusively male creators at the time these stories were actually being put together.
Danvers is herself a wreck.  Professionally speaking, she’s managed to recover from disaster at Cape Canaveral, but her personal life is in shambles, and she’s having periodic blackouts coupled with amnesia.  As the book opens, Danvers is just barely holding herself together, and as we soon learn, she has no idea that she’s become Ms. Marvel.  It’s unclear at first whether this is some kind of multiple personality disorder or if the issue is the result of the way that she changes into Ms. Marvel, but the story itself is fascinating.  Conway kind of apologizes in the collection’s introduction for not making Danvers a stronger character, but I think she’s plenty strong.  She’s also dealing with significant physical, psychic, and emotional trauma that she is in no position to understand.  Moreover, this issue of dual personalities mirrors the experience of her character-basis, the original Captain Marvel, who himself shared a body at times with various human hosts.  In fact, the idea of dual personalities is such a core component of the various Captain Marvel characters that I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if we see it come up in the new movie.
This costume shows up in issue #9 (minus the boots) & sticks around.
They reused it a few years ago in Dark Avengers
and again in the cartoon Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
Danvers’s powers have changed significantly over the years, but as of Ms. Marvel #1, she has super-strength, limited invulnerability, flight, and a “seventh sense” that alerts her to danger.  Coming from the more recent, more “cosmic” versions of the character, this struck me as more than a little strange.  In fact, the first issue’s cover compares Ms. Marvel to Spider-Man, which struck me as ridiculous until I actually started reading the book.  This earliest version of Ms. Marvel is a lot like Spider-Man, however, right down to her “seventh sense,” which functions very much like spider sense.  Danvers also works for the Daily Bugle, knows Mary Jane Watson, and fights the Scorpion, a classic Spider-Man villain.  These days, Captain Marvel’s power set puts her on very much the same level as the Hulk or Thor—one could even argue that she has become Marvel’s version of Superman—but in the late 1970s, she was basically just a high-end “street level” superhero.  Basically, she was Luke Cage, but she could fly.  That makes her a match for A.I.M. and the Scorpion, but she’d be in real trouble against somebody like the Enchantress, the Abomination, or even Dr. Doom.
The iconically worst female costume in
the history of comics.  
The main issue with Ms. Marvel is and always has been her costume.  Guys like Conway and Chris Claremont can write her tough, but they always seem to want to dress her in something that looks like a bra and space-panties.  Most of the art here is otherwise outstanding, but in Ms. Marvel #1, our would be feminist superheroine has been drawn wearing a midriff-baring cutout space-sweater, complete with gloves, an inexplicable scarf, and navy hot pants.  This looks so weird that it actually made me a little self-conscious carrying the book around on the train.  By issue #9, the artists have thankfully covered up the cutouts, and that helps, but it still leaves poor Carol running around in—at best—a gymnastics leotard.  Granted, this was the ‘70s, and there was a lot of weird costuming back then, but still…  I’m not sure how many actual feminists were wearing hot pants, even back in the ‘70s.
I asked 13-year-old Hannah what she thought of the second costume and got the following reply.
Hannah: Why can’t she just wear pants?
Me: Do you think this is worse than Superman’s costume, where he wears his underwear outside his pants?
Hannah: But with Superman, he kind of has to.  Otherwise, you’d see his underwear line through his tights.
The current Captain Marvel, as written
by Kelly Sue DeConnick.
Fair enough.  I should probably point out, though, that Ms. Marvel’s costume is no worse than Robin’s after issue #9, and she’s wearing considerably more than Namor, the Submariner.  Still, more recent volumes of Captain Marvel do a much better job of making her look like a legitimate feminist superheroine.  It doesn’t hurt that Marvel has also hired female writers to work on the book, though I refuse to believe that only women can write women, and only men can write men.
Thankfully, this first volume of Ms. Marvel’s adventures doesn’t get too far into the rest of her occasionally miserable story.  Given the psychological nature of some of her plot points, it is perhaps no surprise that over the years Marvel has also shown Danvers struggling with substance abuse, mental breakdowns, all manner of ill-conceived romantic relationships, including with her psychiatrist, and pretty much every other horrible self-inflicted mistake that a woman can make for herself.  Thankfully, we mostly stay to the hero-business in Volume 1 while occasionally keeping an eye on Danvers’ professional life and—of course—her tragic backstory.  This first collection sees Ms. Marvel fighting A.I.M., M.O.D.O.K, Deathbird, and various other bad guys in increasingly space-oriented cosmic adventures.  I liked it well enough, but once Claremont comes aboard in issue #3, he ramps the melodrama up to eleven.  Conway’s approach suited the book a little better, I thought, especially when he was dealing with the idea that a successful woman can have serious psychological problems that she must spend significant personal energy hiding from her friends and professional peers.  Claremont comes in and starts wrapping the psychological plotline up immediately, even though I thought it was the book’s most compelling angle.

A photo posted by Brie (@brielarson) on

Captain Marvel is Marvel/Disney’s first major female superhero film, which I hate in exactly the same way that I hate it when people describe the Army football team as a bunch of “great Americans”.  The team might BE great Americans, and I’ll agree that this is part of what makes the Army-Navy game an interesting rivalry.  However, if the game itself isn’t good, the fact that Army has “great Americans” on the field won’t make it any less of a disaster.  Ultimately, people watch Army football because they want to watch football.  If the team is not good, the rest is irrelevant.  Similarly, people want to see Captain Marvel because they like superhero movies, and they’ve come to trust Marvel’s storytelling.  The fact that Captain Marvel is a woman is only interesting within the context of the movie itself being interesting.  If the movie is terrible, its female lead won’t save it.
I almost forgot Danvers's stint as Nova,
Herald of Galactus, during the '80s.
Later, Danvers becomes Binary, part of the Starjammers, a collection
of space privateers led by Cyclops's (aka Scott Summers) father. 
The new Ms. Marvel is Kamala Khan
from Jersey City.  Her book is terrific.
That said, there is more than enough source material to create a good Captain Marvel movie.  There’s just plenty of dross, too.  One of the more interesting aspects of the movie’s anticipation is wondering what parts of the old source material they’ll keep and what parts they’ll rewrite wholesale.  There are definitely parts of Ms. Marvel (Volume 1) that I think could go into a movie, but I have my doubts about them showing up, especially since the newer material represents a much more modern and marketable version of the character.  This particular volume is most interesting because it shows where the character came from with an eye on the challenges of leading a superhero’s double-life.  Speaking personally, I really enjoy the storytelling style Marvel used in the late-1970s and early-80s, especially in its cosmic stuff, but I get that this is not the universal experience.
If you like old-school comics, I recommend Marvel Masterworks: Ms. Marvel (Volume 1) whole-heartedly.  However, if that 70s style drives you crazy, then this definitely will as well.  I doubt you’ll need to read any of this to “get ready” for the new movie, but it might be worthwhile if you want an appreciation for how hard the company has been trying to reach new and different audiences--and for how long.  They’ve been after women readers for almost forty years now.  It’s amazing that only in the last few have they actually begun to succeed.

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