In 1986, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore brought superheroes face down into the muck and frailty of our own world in Watchmen, and Frank Miller took an ageing Batman to the brink in The Dark Knight Returns. It was the birth of modern comics, so we’re told, ushering in a literate and sophisticated new era that came of age with Christopher Nolan and Batman Begins.
Four years earlier, just a few months after Moore began to dip his toes in superhero deconstruction with Marvelman in the pages of British anthology Warrior, Marvel’s star-spanning cosmic guardian Captain Marvel died.
Never the most accessible character, Mar-Vell was a Kree warrior with a back story that include red flag phrases like ‘Nega-Bands’, ‘solar projection’, ‘negative zone’ and ‘cosmic awareness’, and more often than not could be finding battling Thanos or other existential terrors. Basically maintained as a giant-sized fuck-you toward DC, who had hoovered up the Fawcett Comics’ earlier Captain Marvel, but missed out on the copyright, forcing them through the indignity of calling the book Shazam, he’d been crowbarred into all the major crossovers and team-ups of the Seventies just to keep the character’s profile in people’s minds and a high on the legal department’s agenda.
But no amount of Kree-Skrull War or Korvac Saga cameos had the impact of the character’s death, not fighting alien space gods on Titan, but of cancer.
Published as a bespoke graphic novel in November 1982, The Death Of Captain Marvel is a watershed moment for mainstream comics as this powerful cosmic crusader, his friends and loved ones, rail against and then accept his slow and inglorious passing. Written and drawn by Jim Stalin, who would reach a similar emotionally stark and affecting high with 1988/9’s Batman: A Death In The Family, superheroes are forced to confront a very grim and mundane reality – Rick Jones, Mar-Vell’s partner and occasional alter-ego (it’s complicated), demands of Reed Richards, Hank McCoy, Tony Stark and others an explanation for why in their lifetime of technological marvels and death-defying scientific miracles they never thought to conquer cancer. It’s gasp-aloud blunt and on-the-nose, perhaps even laughable by the standards of a modern audience, used to seeing Roy Harper cradle a dead cat or Doctor Light rape someone on the moon, and numbed to ‘real world’ problems within the escapist, larger-than-life panels of superhero comics.
Spider-Man, usually never without a riposte or wisecrack, is stunned speechless by a threat he can’t web-up and punch out – rushing from Mar-Vell’s bedside – and a cast of dozens, the Marvel universe’s great and good, pay their respects. As the lights dim, Mar-Vell finds himself locked in one final, titanic battle with his old enemy Thanos – a force of pure death – before he lowers his fists and the two walk into the light as brothers.
Starlin did something truly amazing with The Death Of Captain Marvel, not only in writing the first paradigm-shattering superhero deconstruction, the first true meeting of the real world and the comic-book one, but also by coupling it with a simultaneous superhero reconstruction – long before the small world/big world motif of Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come. Just as Mar-Vell the man dies, as any other, and those he knows grieve and rage, Mar-Vell the idea and the icon grows bigger and brighter.
No superhero death that followed, no matter how high profile – from Superman in 1992 to Captain America in 2008 – could match the raw impact and heartache of reading this slim volume for the first time. It’s hard not to see echoes of The Death Of Captain Marvel in not just the landmark graphic novels and story arcs that came later, but in the clumsy, self-congratulatory brushstrokes of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.
As Marvel movies reach out for his world with Thanos and Guardians Of The Galaxy, and the all-new Carol Danvers Captain Marvel series, by the terrific Kelly Sue Deconnick and Dexter Soy, proves itself a worthy successor, there’s no better time to rediscover the terrifying emotional power of The Death Of Captain Marvel.
Pick up The Death Of Captain Marvel for £9.59 from Amazon.co.uk.