Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Why Won't This Work?: Captain Marvel
After reading Tom Spurgeon's brief but to the point item on why Giant-Man should be a more successful comic hero (I mean, except for the wife-beating...obviously) and talking with some buds over e-mail about characters primed for a possible second life the other day, I got to thinking about Captain Marvel.
For those of you out there who are having this post read to you rather than looking at the large image above, I mean the Rick Jones/Nega Bands/Mar-Vell version published by Marvel Comics. Although really the specifics of character name/secret identity don't matter here. What got me engaged with the Captain Marvel idea was the core concept and how it's one of many ideas in comics that I'm more than a little bewildered hasn't ever really become a breakout success.
And I should probably state here that this idea doesn't come from a nostalgic memory of dressing up as the character as a misanthropic 11-year-old (I'll save that particular piece of pop psychologizing for a Moon Knight post, thank you very much). In fact, I think the only "classic" issue of Captain Marvel I've ever read is this one, which I bought at a con for a dollar after I realized it was written by my pal and former writing teacher Scott Edelman. I didn't even read the historically epic Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel until I had to as part of a Wizard assignment.
No, my interest in Captain Marvel stems entirely from time spent thinking too much about superhero concepts while riding the El around Chicago without a decent iPod. But even with all that proven research at my beck and call, I still think I've got a strong case for why Marvel's own Captain should be a bigger hit than he's been and maybe even a few reasons why he's whiffed in the past. And the best way to get this ball rolling is by showing why the good Captain is better (on paper at least) than his Distinguished Competitor.
Think about it: the Marvel Captain Marvel is the same as the DC Captain Marvel in basic concept, and that concept is one hell of an example of what STC would call "the inner 8-year-old" hook: you're an average kid who's all of the sudden turned into a magical bad ass with awesome powers that let you fight anyone who sucks. Wish Fulfillment 101, right? Except the Marvel version is cooler in all the ways that people say Marvel is cooler than DC. To wit:
* Rather than being a dopey little kid reporter who says "Holy Moley" you're a teenage army brat who rides around on a motorcycle. Seriously, if you don't think Rick Jones fits the "teenage rebel" poster boy archetype that advertisers use on preteen boys every day perfectly, consider this: he was once voice in a cartoon by Luke Fucking Perry. 'Nuff Said.
* The hero you turn into is a cosmic Spartan warrior with a laser gun instead of lumbering man child with no eyes and cape that looks like a towel with a rope sewn on it. And if you prefer the later, non-Kree warrior take on the Marvel Captain's look, you've still got a pretty killer costume design that highlights the whole "Brad Pitt from 'Troy' but from space" thing. Cosmic powers are rad!
* Digging deeper, Mar-Vell is a hard core warrior of a lost space dynasty or something...right? I guess I don't know much about the Kree world, but I'm assuming that Mar-Vell has to be some kind of disgraced soldier who can't get back to the love of a good woman or something. In any event, I've always got the impression that he was kind of an asshole when compared to free-wheelin', "don't tell me what to do, dad" Rick Jones. And people loves assholes.
* No stupid wizard tells you what to do.
So, we've got a core empowerment fantasy wrapped in some cool imagery and a healthy dose of teen/adult drama, and to top it all off, the character's name contains the name of the company. This has got to work somehow, right? Yet for some reason, the character hasn't been able to really carry his own ongoing without fear of cancelation since sometime around 1974.
There's a group of dudes out there on the internet who are organized and believe with all their hearts that the reason no character has made a go of it as Captain Marvel in the Marvel U since back then is because there is only "one true Captain Marvel" and that dude is named Mar-Vell. At least one of their number is a frequent question asker on CBR's Cup O' Joe message board thread, and I honestly think it's great that they support something they're into with a lot of passion and fervor. But they're also mostly wrong.
Unlike Peter Parker or Reed Richards or Ben Grimm, there is no real definitive character behind Mar-Vell. Not to say that some good stories haven't been told with the character (I know Edelman spoke fondly of Steve Englehart's work on the series), but it's not like there's some compelling piece of personal backstory that means ONLY Mar-Vell can be linked to a snot-nosed earth teen via whatever magic the Nega Bands contain. And hell, even Rick Jones isn't THAT vital to the equation. Guy is such a cipher that he's been the sidekick for like 14 different heroes (give or take).
I DO think that since the original Death of Captain Marvel story, no one has been able to take that core concept and make it work for characters in a way that's compelling enough on its own merits. Part that is the way the Marvel Universe works and what it needs, but I think even more of it is a result of comics scene and how it rarely supports a solid concept done well based on its own merits.
The last time there was any kind of fleeting success with Captain Marvel was Peter David's early '00s run that saw Mar-Vell's kid get linked to a 20-something Rick Jones for a few years. While I'm waiting for someone to show up in the comments and tell me that this series invalidates my whole "not able to carry an ongoing since '74" argument, my memory of that book involves it always being on the bring of cancelation (U Decide!!!!) and of it being more of a humor book who's in-jokiness wasn't quite at Dan Slott She-Hulk levels but was a bit past Mark Waid Impulse ones. In any event, that book always felt like it was built way more for the comics market than it should have been to succeed, so I'm still left waiting for that mythical "they nailed it" take on Captain Marvel.
So what concept do you think should work more often?