Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 by Various
In 1976, Marvel Comics felt the time was right for another try at a overtly feminist superhero to appear in a solo book. (Their first stab was 1973’s The Cat, who became Tigra.) Someone, probably Gerry Conway, who would be the first writer on the series, remembered the existence of Carol Danvers, a supporting character in the Captain Marvel series who early on had had an experience that could be retconned into a superhero origin. The name was deliberately chosen to reference feminism, and the first issue had a cover date of January 1977.
Ms. Marvel’s backstory came out in bits and pieces over the course of the series, so I am going to reassemble it in in-story chronological order. Carol Danvers was a Boston, Massachusetts teenager who loved science fiction and wanted to become an astronaut and/or a writer. She was very athletic and whip-smart. Unfortunately, her father was a male chauvinist pig who felt that the most important thing for a young woman to do was marry a good man and have kids. (In his partial defense, this would have been in the Fifties.) He told Carol that he would not be paying for her to go to college, as the limited funds would be needed for her (not as bright but his dad’s favorite) brother’s education.
Carol pretended to have given up, and after graduating high school with honors, continued a part time job until her eighteenth birthday. At that point, without telling her family, she enlisted in the United States Air Force. Her father never forgave her for this defiance. Somehow Carol got into flight school and became an officer and one of the Air Force’s top jet pilots. Then she transferred into intelligence and became a top operative, partnering with her mentor/love interest Michael Rossi and rising to the rank of major. (At some point, her brother died in Vietnam.)
NASA recruited Major Danvers out of the Air Force to become their security chief at Cape Canaveral. While there, she became entangled in events surrounding Mar-Vell, the Kree warrior who became known to Earthlings as Captain Marvel. Carol was attracted to the mysterious hero, but that went nowhere as he already had a girlfriend. During a battle with his turncoat superior, Colonel Yon-Rogg, Mar-Vell saved Carol from exploding Kree supertechnology. At the time, no one noticed that the Psyche-Magnitron’s radiation had affected Ms. Danvers.
While the Mar-Vell mess wasn’t really Carol’s fault, she hadn’t covered herself in glory either, and her security career floundered. Between the time we last saw her in the Captain Marvel series and her own series, Carol had decided to try her other childhood dream and wrote a book about her experiences at NASA. (Apparently it was a bit of a “tell-all” as some at the agency are angry about it when they appear in this series.) She also began experiencing crippling headaches and lost time, and consulted psychiatrist Michael Barnett. Dr. Barnett was at a loss for a diagnosis but began falling in love with his client.
Which brings us to Ms. Marvel #1. An amnesiac woman in a “sexy” version of Captain Marvel’s costume (plus a long scarf that was a frequent combat weakness) suddenly appears in New York City to fight crime. She soon acquires the moniker of Ms. Marvel. At the same time, Carol Danvers has been tapped by J. Jonah Jameson to become the editor of Woman magazine, a supplement to his Daily Bugle newspaper. JJJ is depicted as being rather more sexist than in his Spider-Man appearances to better clash with Ms. Danvers over the direction the magazine should be taking.
Mary Jane Watson befriends the new woman in town (her friend Peter Parker appears briefly, but Spider-Man never does in this series.) But their bonding is cut short by another of Carol’s blackouts. Across town, the Scorpion, who has a long standing grudge against Jameson, has captured the publisher and is about to kill him when Ms. Marvel appears to save the day.
Eventually, it is discovered that Carol Danvers and Ms. Marvel are the same person, but having different personalities due to Ms. Danvers being fused with Kree genes and having Kree military training implanted in her brain. Thanks to this, she has superhuman strength and durability, and a costume that appears “magically” and allows her to fly (until she absorbs that power herself.) From her human potential, Ms. Marvel has developed a “seventh sense” that gives her precognitive visions. Unfortunately, they’re not controllable and often make her vulnerable at critical moments.
Much later, the personalities are integrated as Carol learns to accept all of her possibilities. Ms. Marvel fights an assortment of villains, both borrowed from other series (even Dracula makes a cameo!) and new ones of her own, especially once Chris Claremont starts writing her. The most important is the mysterious shape-shifter Raven Darkhölme, who considers Carol Danvers her arch-enemy, even though they have never met. Carol doesn’t even have Raven on her radar!
In issue #19, Ms. Marvel finally meets up again with Mar-Vell for the first time since her transformation, her origin is finalized, and they part as friends. The next issue has Carol change her costume to one that looks much less like Mar-Vell’s. but is still pretty fanservice oriented (like a swimsuit with a sash, basically.) It’s considered her iconic look. Shortly thereafter, Carol is fired from Woman (she missed a lot of work) and Dr. Barnett starts getting pushy about advancing their romantic relationship.
And then the series was cancelled. Ms. Marvel was still appearing as a member of the Avengers team, but that was about to change as well.
In the now notorious Avengers #200 (not reprinted in this volume), Carol Danvers is suddenly pregnant despite not having been in a relationship in some time. The pregnancy is hyperfast, and the baby is delivered within 24 hours. The child, Marcus, rapidly ages to young adulthood and explains that he is the son of time traveler Immortus, who’s been stuck in the Limbo dimension all his life. In order to escape, he had brought Ms. Marvel to Limbo, and seduced her with the aid of “machines” so that he could implant his “essence” inside her. He then erased her memories of these events and sent her back to Earth so that Marcus could be born within the timestream.
Marcus’ presence is causing a timestorm, and a device he is building only seems to make the storm worse, so Hawkeye destroys it. Sadly, it turns out the device was meant to “fix” Marcus so that he would not be detected as an anomaly, and without it, Marcus must return to Limbo. Ms. Marvel volunteers to go back with him, because she is now in love with the man and wants to stay with him forever. None of the other Avengers find this the least bit suspicious, and it’s treated as a happy ending for the character.
But come Avengers Annual #10, which is in this volume, Chris Claremont got the chance to respond to that. Raven Darkhölme had since been revealed as Mystique, leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants One of the Brotherhood, Rogue, ambushes Carol Danvers in San Francisco, where Ms. Danvers has been living incognito. Rogue is a power parasite, able to steal the abilities and memories of her prey. Still clumsy with her powers, Rogue steals Ms. Marvel’s powers and memories permanently; attempting to hide the results, she dumps the victim off a bridge.
Spider-Woman just happens to be nearby and rescues the amnesiac Carol. The arachnid hero then calls in Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men to assist in figuring out what happened. Professor X is able to restore many of Carol’s memories from her subconscious, but not all of the emotional connections.
Meanwhile, the Avengers battle the Brotherhood, which is trying to break some of its members out of prison. Once that’s settled, they go to meet Carol. She explains that Marcus made a fatal mistake in his calculations. By being born on Earth, he’d not made himself native to the timestream, but he had made himself out of synch with Limbo. Thus the rapid aging he’d used to make himself an adult on Earth couldn’t be turned off, and he was dead within a week. This freed Carol from the brainwashing, and she was able to figure out just enough of the time travel tech to get home. And then Carol rips into the Avengers for not even suspecting there was something wrong. Once freed of the brainwashing, she recognized the rape for what it was and didn’t want anything to do with those who had condoned it. Chastened, the Avengers leave.
(One bizarre bit is that Carol Danvers is established as being 29. Nope. Sorry, not even if she got promoted first time every time in her military career. She’d be a minimum of 32 by the time she made major, was in that rank for at least a few years, and then there’s her next two careers.)
The volume also contains the Ms. Marvel stories from Marvel Super-Heroes Magazine #10-11, which have the plotlines originally intended for issues #24 & 25 of the series. Here we learn that Mystique’s grudge against Ms. Marvel was caused by a self-fulfilling prophecy that Rogue meeting Carol Danvers would cost Rogue her soul/life. As Mystique had adopted Rogue as a daughter, she felt that the best way to protect the power parasite was to kill Ms. Marvel in advance. The last few pages are obviously drastically rewritten to have Carol vanish from the timestream (and thus invisible to precognition) for a while before returning and the plot of Annual #10 kicking in.
After the issues published in this volume, Carol Danvers went through several different name and power set changes, before becoming the current Captain Marvel. She’s scheduled for a movie in the relatively near future.
Good bits: Lots of exciting action sequences, and some decent art by Marvel notables like John Buscema and Dave Cockrum. (Have to say though that Michael Golden’s art looks much less good without color.) Despite some clumsiness at the beginning, Claremont does a good job with Carol’s characterization, peaking with her interactions with the mutated lizards known as The People.
Less good bits: Carol’s costumes are clearly designed with the male audience in mind, rather than any kind of practicality. Many male characters seem to feel obliged to use words like “dame” and “broad” much more than they came up in conversation even back in the Seventies. Male (and male-ish) villains seem to default to trying to mind-control Ms. Marvel into serving them–this is one reason why Marcus succeeding at it jars so badly. And Dr. Barnett suddenly getting so pushy about the relationship and his plans to convince Carol to give up being Ms. Marvel seems off-and we would never have found out why as he was scheduled to be murdered in the next issue.
Most recommended to fans of the current Captain Marvel series who want to see where the character came from; other Marvel Comics fans might want to check it out from the library.