Monday, 23 May 2016

A Game of Marvels: Part One - The Marvel Captain

What’s in a name?

My Dad turned 80 recently, and unlike many people advancing in age seems to broaden his mind with every passing year. He’s even happy to talk about superheroes and his favourite has always been Captain Marvel.
So he might be interested to hear that there is a Captain Marvel film slated for release in 2019, but the not-so-good news is this...

When he talks about Captain Marvel he means this Gentleman

When Marvel refer to their upcoming film they mean this Lady
And furthermore, when I first read
Captain Marvel he looked this
Oops, I mean this
(see you in court, Pixar)

And those are only the best-known three of many figures who have held the name Captain Marvel in comic book history.

How on earth in the litigious world of comics, where rival publishers sue at the merest hint of a similar costume detail, did a convoluted situation like this ever arise?

It all began in 1939 when comic publishers Fawcett attempted to launch ‘Flash’ comics featuring a super powered figure called Captain Thunder.

Both those names had already been used and so the character was relaunched in 1940 as my Dad’s favourite: Captain Marvel in Whiz comics.

Although the name was now cleared, we can’t help but draw similarities between that cover, and this one featuring the first appearance of a another caped superhuman from two years previously.

Captain Marvel's prototype and official first appearance.
Don't know who the guy on the right is...
The company now known as DC, publishers of Superman’s adventures, certainly noticed as well. As Captain Marvel’s popularity began to soar, out-selling every other title on the comic stands, including the Man of Steel’s, they decided to do something about it and took Fawcett to court.

Although one of the keys to Captain Marvel’s success was that his adventures appealed more to a younger demographic (his alter-ego is Billy Batson - a 12-year-old boy, and he was later joined by Mary Marvel - a Girl’s Own superheroine), DC made a case that the ‘big red cheese’ infringed too closely on the appearance and character of their ‘boy in blue’.

It didn’t go DC’s way at first, but Fawcett eventually settled out-of-court and in 1953 agreed to cease publication of Captain Marvel. The truth was that the character’s popularity had been in steady decline since his heyday in the war years (battling nemeses like ‘Captain Nazi) and continuing the fight was no longer worth it for Fawcett.

Enter Marvel comics - opportunists extraordinaire, but also probably justifiably anxious that a character bearing their company name had belonged to another publisher.

They bought the rights to the Captain Marvel name and in 1967 launched the first in a long line of characters to bear the title. In the Marvel Universe, the name Captain Marvel is more of a franchise than a single figure (enabling them to retain the trademark), and the current (7th!) incarnation: Carol Danvers, is admittedly a welcome female presence in a comic universe which features relatively few memorable superheroines.

Marvel's first go at their own Captain -
who's attempt to merge into one of our Earth
crowds undetected appears to be an epic fail.

Ironically, the first Marvel iteration of the Captain was even more like Superman than Fawcett’s - an alien called Mar-Vell sent to our Planet who adopts a secret identity and stays to become Earth’s champion. A member of the Kree race (currently name-checked vigorously in the Agent’s of Shield TV series), this Captain Marvel switches his allegiance to humanity, and in 1969 received a makeover which lead to my jumping-on point for the character.

This change of costume didn't do much for the characters anonymity,
But he could swap bodies with an ordinary human for a limited period.
(presumably by saying "Shazam"?)

But Marvel Comic’s success has always been due to them never being content to simply follow the conventions and in 1982, in arguably the first-ever graphic novel, Captain Marvel died (really died). Despite having become one of the most cosmically powerful figures in the Marvel universe the Captain falls victim to lung cancer (in a convoluted tale I’m certainly not going to go into here), giving rise to a succession of figures adopting his mantle.

The original Captain Marvel meets some of Marvel's Captains
Former ‘Ms Marvel’ Carol Danvers currently holds the title, and has built an impressive readership of her own. You go, Girl.

Ms Marvel (later to become Captain Marvel) flies into action,
apparently unconcerned that she appears to have left half her costume behind.
But the original Captain Marvel which Fawcett created wasn’t to remain absent for long. Lightning was to strike again, within the pages of the company who once banished him forever.

Next time
A Game of Marvels Part 2: SHAZAM!

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