It is not a stretch to say that we are indeed living in the age of Captain Marvel. But as awesome as Carol Danvers is, the legacy of Captain Marvel did not began with her. Well, the legacy of Captain Marvel doesn’t begin with Marvel either, but that’s way too drawn out to get into here. Needless to say, Carol wasn’t the first Marvel character to hold the Captain Marvel title, that would be a Kree warrior named Mar-Vell.
And it is with this Captain our story begins. So before you enjoy Captain Marvel on the big screen, strap on your Nega-bands and join us as we present the rich history of Captain Mar-Vell, the hero that paved the way for Carol Danvers…
What’s in a Name?
Captain Mar-Vell was created by Stan Lee and Gene Colan and first appeared in Marvel Super-Heroes #12 (1967) and it all started with a name. So, let’s talk everything Kree. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the Kree in Fantastic Four #65 (1967). Just a few months later, Lee continued the story of the Kree in the aforementioned Marvel Super-Heroes #12. In this issue, the world meets the Kree Captain Mar-Vell. A white skinned Kree (the Kree can either be white or greenish/blue skinned) who is sent to Earth to spy on its inhabitants. Mar-Vell takes the human identity of Walter Lawson and oft times dons his (awful) green-and-white Kree uniform to protect the people he is supposed to be spying on. Originally, Mar-Vell was a Flash Gordon type who used laser guns and other space tech to defend the Earth. There was a wonderful Stan Lee irony to Mar-Vell as he was always torn between protecting the humans he admired and his duty to the Kree. It was a quality set up, but it just didn’t have the gravitas of other Marvel characters of the era.
It seemed like Mar-Vell’s origins were cobbled together so Marvel Comics could have a place holder for the Captain Marvel name. While some vital Kree concepts like the Supreme Intelligence, Ronan the Accuser, and the Sentry robots were either created or explored in Captain Mar-Vell’s stories, sales sagged and the book just didn’t have the same energy as Lee’s other creations.
That didn’t stop Marvel from ditching the character from the Marvel Super-Heroes anthology and giving him his own book. There were some vital Marvel concepts and characters introduced in Cap’s solo title, the most important of which was a certain Air Force captain who would go on to great things in the decades to come. Captain Carol Danvers makes her debut in Marvel Super-Heroes #13 (1968). She is the security chief of the base where Walter Lawson does his thing. Lawson and Danvers become friends and in Captain Marvel #1 (1968), she gets caught in an explosion of A Kree device and suffers some serious injuries. Turns out, the device grants Danvers Kree like abilities and when she resurfaces years later as Ms. Marvel, her and Mar-Vell’s stories take a parallel course.
Clothes Make the Man
In Captain Marvel #16 (1969) by Archie Goodwin and Don Heck, Mar-Vell begins his journey to become a Marvel legend. The past few issues, the new creative teams spent time ridding the Captain Marvel title of its supporting characters (except for a certain Ms. Danvers, of course). These issues also introduced the Supreme Intelligence, a green floating head potato made up of the combined intellect of the best members of the Kree race. In a power play, Ronan the Accuser (ya’ll remember him) and Mar-Vell’s arch nemesis Yon-Rogg team up to kill the Supreme Intelligence (how do you kill an intelligence? A Fox News marathon? I’M KIDDING…not really). Mar-Vell saves the Supreme Intelligence and is rewarded with new powers and a snazzy new Gil Kane designed costume (Kane would take over the art chores in the next ish of Captain Marvel).
Mar-Vell now went from a Buck Rogers style space jockey to a nigh omnipotent alien superman. He could crush any substance, transport himself across any distance, fly at the speed of light, and mentally project illusions. The newly designed Cap leaped off the page and he was ready for bold new adventures. But there were more changes ahead and one of them was a pure homage to the Golden Age.
The Nega Bands
I think you all know that the original Shazam version of Captain Marvel gains his powers when Billy Batson says the magic word of “Shazam!” That transformative aspect of the character would be homaged in the pages of Marvel’s Captain Marvel when Cap is blasted by radiation which traps the Kree hero in the Negative Zone. The Supreme Intelligence, helpful verdant potato that he is, mentally connects Mar-Vell to one Rick Jones. For those not in the know, Rick Jones had been a supporting character in Hulk, Avengers, Captain America, and had become something of a Marvel journeyman. Well, now Jones was in Captain Marvel.
Mar-Vell telepathically leads Jones to a cosmic weapon known as the Nega-bands. When Jones is compelled to knock the wrist bands together, he and Captain Mar-Vell switch places. Captain Marvel writer Roy Thomas was a lifelong Shazam fan and did his level best to gift Marvel Comics with its very own cosmic version of the character. From there, Jones became an indispensable part of the Captain Mar-Vell legend. It seemed like Rick, the constant sidekick to Marvel’s greatest heroes, was the missing ingredient to Captain Marvel as the title and lead characters were off to explore the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe.
Kree Skrull War
Any discussion on Mar-Vell would be incomplete without looking at Avengers #89-97 (1971-1972) by Roy Thomas, John Buscema, Neal Adams, and Sal Buscema. In these classic issues, the Kree-Skrull War begins, and Mar-Vell is one of the main catalysts. This was next level cosmic comic storytelling that set the tone and standard for just about every Marvel space tale moving forward, and our good Captain was right in the middle of it.
The Jim Starlin Years
In Captain Marvel #24 (1973), writer Marv Wolfman welcomed a new artist aboard, a young man named Jim Starlin. Starlin would go on to become the most important creator in Mar-Vell history. At first with co-writer Mike Friedrich, and later, flying the space winds solo as both writer and penciller, Starlin took Mar-Vell to new heights. During Starlin’s epic run, the writer took the cosmic grandeur established by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in such stories as The Galactus Trilogy and continued by Roy Thomas in The Kree-Skrull War, wrapped it all up in a button of peyote and downed it with a jug of bathtub moonshine to create one of the watershed moments of the Bronze Age.
In his short run on Iron Man, Starlin introduced two new characters to the Marvel Universe, Drax the Destroyer and some space villain guy named Thanos. You may have heard of him. While Starlin’s Iron Man run was short lived, the writer shunted his new creations over to Captain Marvel setting the stage for one of the greatest cosmic epics of all time. During his run on Mar-Vell, Starlin introduced the character Eon, a fungus-like entity of immense cosmic might who became a mentor to Mar-Vell. Eon names Mar-Vell Protector of the Universe and separates Rick Jones and Mar-Vell, leaving him free to fly the cosmos on his own. And boy, does he.
Eon gifts Mar-Vell with cosmic awareness, the ability to be aware off all corners of space and time at once. So basically, he is constantly tripping balls. Mar-Vell soon becomes mixed up with Drax and Thanos as the former becomes obsessed with killing the Mad Titan as Thanos quests to find the realty altering Cosmic Cube. Yes, Thanos goes on a quest to find a way to alter reality to honor his love, the Mistress Death. Sound familiar? This is the same power lust that inspires Thanos to quest for the Infinity Gems (in comics they are gems, damn it!), and we all know how that turns out. Indeed, Starlin is the writer who continued the saga of Thanos in the pages of Adam Warlock’s comic and into the immortal saga of The Infinity Gauntlet. Hey, Infinity Gauntlet was adapted into a film. You may have seen it.
In those pages, Starlin showed the world what a multi-faceted threat Thanos could be but he also finally defined Mar-Vell as its cosmic protector. Starlin’s ideas were like a blacklight poster come to life, and while he only had one more Captain Marvel story in him, and it would be the most tragic tale of all.
The Death of Captain Marvel
In Starlin’s final issue of Captain Marvel, issue #34 (1974) to be exact, Mar-Vell encounters the villainous Nitro. It might seem like a fun but typical punch up, but Starlin later reveals that during the conflict, Marv is exposed to Compound 13 nerve gas. The highly radioactive substance infects Mar-Vell with incurable cancer. Mar-Vell’s final days are recounted in The Death of Captain Marvel (1982). There is no magic wand, no cosmic cure, and no divine intervention; instead, Starlin presents the noble last days of a hero.
As Mar-Vell awaits his death on the moon of Titan, Earth’s heroes race to find a cure. Meanwhile, Mar-Vell’s friends and foes arrive one by one to honor the soon to be fallen hero, the Skrulls award their Kree adversary their highest military honor for his persistence in battle, and Mar-Vell dies quietly, bravely. Then, the specter of Thanos arrives (the Titan was also dead at the time) to guide Captain Mar-Vell to the afterlife.
It is not an insult when I write that the greatest thing Captain Mar-Vell did was die. His final story is unforgettable, chilling, and poignant. The death story was so powerful that it would be impossible for Marvel Comics to undo it. It would somehow cheapen the moment and minimize the suffering of real warriors who battled cancer. So because of Starlin’s final Mar-Vell tale, the good Captain was no more. Yes, there would be some journeys to the afterlife where heroes would meet Mar-Vell again and there was even a teased return during the Secret Invasion event of the mid-2000s, but that turned out to be a Skrull in disguise. Mar-Vell is still dead.
But his legacy would live on stronger than ever. After the tragic death, the hero Monica Rambeau took up the Captain Marvel name. Captain Mar-Vell’s son Genis would take up his father’s mantle as well. While Rambeau and Genis are fantastic characters in their own right (Rambeau would become Photon and Genis Legacy), it was not until Carol Danvers took up the legacy of her friend Mar-Vell that Marvel Comics found lasting success with the Captain Marvel name. But as we enter the next phase of the Captain Marvel story, let us never forget the life and death of Marvel’s first hero that took the name that has inspired so many.