Regular readers of this blog will have heard me say this before, but it bears repeating — sometimes, I just have no idea why my younger self chose to buy a particular comic book fifty years ago.
That’s certainly the case with the subject of today’s post. After passing Captain Marvel by on the stands for almost a year, in January, 1969 I decided to gamble twelve cents on the series’ twelfth issue. How come?
Was it the cover, by John Romita and Sal Buscema (or maybe George Tuska and Buscema — the usual reference sources differ)? I suppose it could be. It’s not a particularly distinguished composition (at least, not to my present-day, 61-year-old eyes), but it’s not what I’d call bad — and those bright, contrasting colors really do pop. So, maybe.
Perhaps it was the result of a long-simmering curiosity about the character that had been sparked by my reading of the “Captain Marvin” parody in the ninth issue of Marvel’s Not Brand Echh series, back in May of ’68. That piece, produced by the “real” Captain Marvel’s onetime writer and penciller (Roy Thomas and Gene Colan, respectively) had served as a sort of primer on the origin, powers, and modus operandi of “Marvel’s Space-Born Super-Hero!™” — though one read through a cracked glass, as it were. It had also been pretty funny to my then ten-year-old sensibilities, even if Thomas’ gags referencing the original Captain Marvel had gone right over my head. So, maybe I recalled this story when I saw Captain Marvel #12 on the spinner rack, and decided to give the “real thing” a try.
Or maybe it was just that I’d already bought everything else on the rack that looked even remotely interesting that day, and this book seemed the best choice among slim pickings. Who knows? It was a long time ago.
Regardless of what my reasons might have been, I did buy Captain Marvel #12 one day in the winter of ’69, and took it home, to make the better acquaintance of Captain Mar-Vell — erstwhile military officer of the alien Kree and accidental superhero of the planet Earth.
Many, if not most, of this blog’s readers are probably already familiar with the tale of how Marvel Comics’ Captain Marvel came to be, but I think it’s still worth our while to recount the basics here. That’s largely because the character has had such a long and tortuous history, to the extent that it’s actually rather amazing (at least for geezer fans like me) to contemplate the prospect of a $152 million dollar motion picture, scheduled to open in less than two months as of this writing, that’s based on the property. And the main reason for the property’s troubled history probably goes all the way back to how it first came into the world, in 1967. Because the creation of Captain Marvel was inspired by nothing more (and nothing less) than the financial motive.
Of course, there’s some financial motivation behind the development of most, if not all, new comics titles, and there always has been, especially in the years before the ascent of the underground and independent comics movements. Artists, writers, publishers, et al, all need to eat, after all. One might also note that such classic and enduring concepts as Batman and the Fantastic Four came into being largely in response to perceived market opportunities. But for Marvel’s “Captain Marvel”, the economic incentive was particularly direct, and specific: the hero was created solely to establish the publisher’s trademark on the name.
The aforementioned original Captain Marvel had first appeared back in 1939, in Fawcett Publications’ Whiz Comics #2. Soon afterwards, in 1941, he graduated to his own title, Captain Marvel Adventures — and if rival publisher Martin Goodman (whose Timely Comics had been publishing Marvel Mystery Comics since 1939) thought that Fawcett was encroaching on his turf with that title, he doesn’t appear to have taken any legal action in regards to the matter.*
And after 1953, he didn’t have to worry about it, anyway. Yet another comics publisher, DC (known then as National Periodical Publications) had sued Fawcett in 1941, claiming the “World’s Mightiest Mortal” infringed DC’s copyright on their flagship character, Superman. After over a decade of litigation, and determining that the expense of continuing to fight the lawsuit wasn’t worth it in the light of declining sales, Fawcett settled with DC in 1953, and then shuttered their whole comics operation. Captain Marvel, along with auxiliary characters Captain Marvel, Jr., and Mary Marvel, bowed out with the 89th issue of The Marvel Family, cover-dated January, 1954. They wouldn’t appear again until 1972.**
But well before that, in 1966, an enterprising publisher named Myron Fass, aware that no one else was using the name “Captain Marvel” and (perhaps) thinking that it was fair game, brought out his own version, under the imprint of M. F. Enterprises. (He also introduced a new version of another classic Golden Age hero, Plastic Man, in the title’s first issue; more about that here.) This time, Goodman wasn’t having any of it. After all, he had recently rebranded his comics company (which, after he abandoned the “Timely” name, had been known for a while as Atlas) as the Marvel Comics Group; if anyone was going to publish a comic book about a new superhero with “Marvel” in his name, it was going to be him. And so, he directed his editor-in-chief and primary writer, Stan Lee, to come up with a new character by that name. Lee, though apparently without enthusiasm, did as he was bid. He proceeded to bring in Gene Colan as his artistic collaborator, and together they produced “The Coming of Captain Marvel!”, which was duly published in Marvel Super-Heroes #12 (Dec., 1967).
What the two creators came up with was, if not as inspired as most of the superhero concepts Lee had developed with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in Marvel’s earlier years, still pretty interesting. The new feature’s premise took off from a two-part story that Lee and Kirby had done for Fantastic Four #64 and #65 about half a year before, in which they’d introduced the Kree — a highly advanced, humanoid alien race which had visited Earth many centuries ago and had left a super-powerful robot, the Sentry-459, behind in an inactive, monitoring state. The FF accidentally awakened the Sentry and, when it proved hostile, defeated both it and an emissary from the Kree, Ronan the Accuser, who’d been dispatched to investigate. The first “Captain Marvel” story picks up soon afterwards, when the Kree have responded by sending a small expeditionary force to conduct surveillance on the Earth, to determine if it represents a serious threat to their galactic empire.***
Mar-Vell, the series’ protagonist, is a member of this force — a Kree spy, whose assignment is to investigate the humans working at the “the Cape” (Cape Canaveral, basically) — a U.S. military base to which the inert remains of the Sentry robot have been transported. His mission is complicated by the fact that his commander, Colonel Yon-Rogg, hates him — mostly due to jealousy over Mar-Vell’s relationship with their starship crew’s medic, Una — and is actively looking for ways to kill his rival and make it look like an in-the-line-of-duty accident. Besides which, Mar-Vell is essentially a good guy, who doesn’t really bear any ill will to the people of Earth, and in fact is inclined to come to their aid when the Sentry wakes up and begins to run amuck — as happens in the series’ second installment. By the end of this chapter (written by Roy Thomas, to whom Lee had relinquished the writing duties after only a single issue), Mar-Vell has assumed a “secret identity” — rather conveniently, that of Dr. Walter Lawson, a scientist en route to the Cape who was “accidentally” killed by Yon Rogg via a laser blast actually meant for Mar-Vell — and by the conclusion of the next episode (published in the first issue of his own brand-new title), he’s also taken on yet another, unexpected role — that of the superhero “Captain Marvel”, as he’s been abruptly christened by a base soldier who misheard him when Mar-Vell identified himself while fighting the Sentry. And he’s met Carol Danvers, the Cape’s security chief, who is immediately suspicious of the mysterious Dr. Lawson, while being simultaneously intrigued by the equally enigmatic Captain Marvel — a situation which intimates the likely emergence of a romantic triangle involving Mar-Vell, Una, and Miss Danvers.
It was a unique setup for a superhero comic book series, especially for its era — centered on a character who, as an official representative of a hostile alien race, would normally be cast in a “bad guy” role; but who is compelled by circumstances to become a hero — a protector of the very people who are ostensibly his enemies. And it would have been interesting to see where the team of Lee and Colan — or Thomas and Colan — or, really, any solid creative team that would have stayed on the book for more than a handful of issues — would have gone with the concept. That’s not how things played out, unfortunately — but before we get into all that, let’s not forget about Myron Fass, and that little matter of the trademark on the “Captain Marvel” name.
Martin Goodman had apparently anticipated that Fass would make a fuss; according to an article that appeared in the Nov. 11, 1967 issue of The Wall Street Journal (!), before sending Mar-Vell’s first adventure to press, he offered Fass $6,000 for the latter’s alleged “rights” to Captain Marvel. When Fass rebuffed the offer, Goodman went ahead regardless, and Fass sued. Ultimately, however, Fass ended up settling for $4,500; according to Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, the pragmatic publisher thought it was still a good deal, despite the money being less than Goodman had originally offered: “He was selling lousy, anyway.”****
And, indeed, M.F. Enterprises’ Captain Marvel had already departed from the stands, having made his last appearance in Captain Marvel Presents the Terrible 5 #5, cover-dated Sept., 1967. Meanwhile, Marvel Comics continued bringing out their own Captain Marvel, month after month, through 1968 and into 1969.
Which is where I came in.
As I’ve already mentioned, I knew the basics of the series’ premise, including its supporting cast, thanks to that Not Brand Echh story — which had introduced me to “Colonel Egg-Nogg” and “Medic Uno-Who” in addition to “Mar-Vinn”. But obviously, a lot had happened in the issues before this one to change what I’d understood to be the status quo. Had the hero’s nemesis actually murdered his love interest? And who the heck was “Zo”?
For that matter, who were all these people credited with having produced this story? Because outside of editor Stan Lee (whose name came first, as always) and inker Syd Shores (whose work I’d seen at least a time or two), the creators were unknown quantities to my eleven-year-old self, at least in regards to Marvel Comics. Heck, even the name of the letterer was unfamiliar (though I’d eventually come to learn that Jean Izzo was the daughter of one of Marvel’s two main letterers, Artie Simek, with whom I was of course quite familiar — Izzo being Jean’s married surname).
I’ve used the qualifying phrase “in regards to Marvel Comics” in the paragraph above advisedly, due to the fact that I had previously read the work of the book’s writer, Arnold Drake, and it’s possible that I even recognized his name when I saw it here — although it had been roughly a year since I’d last seen his name listed in a story’s credits, and that had occurred in a very different kind of comic book from the one currently under review — namely, Stanley and His Monster #109. (Indeed, not only had that comic credited Drake as the scripter of the comic’s lead feature, but its text page had even featured a mini-autobiography of the author.) The truth was, I’d been a semi-regular reader of Drake’s work on the “Stanley” strip (which he’d co-created with Winslow Mortimer in 1965) since before the kid and his pet monster displaced Fauntleroy Fox and Crawford Crow as the titular stars of what had previously been the latter duo’s comic book. But even if my eleven-year-old self managed to make the connection between the “Arnold Drake” credited on Captain Marvel #12’s splash page and the writer of those humor stories for DC, I’m not sure what I would have made of it. I only knew him as a humor writer — and I may have wondered about Marvel’s wisdom in putting him on a book like this. Sure, maybe he could write “Captain Marvin”, but “Captain Marvel”?*****
(And before you ask — no, I didn’t know Arnold Drake’s writing from his best known work at DC in the Sixties, the Doom Patrol feature that he co-created [with fellow writer Bob Haney and artist Bruno Premiani] in 1963 I’m not certain, but I think that “The World’s Strangest Heroes”, as DC billed them, may have seemed a little too strange for my younger self’s rather conservative tastes, when I first began reading comics in 1965; the closest I ever came to sampling them was their team-up with the Flash in Brave and the Bold #65, and that story was written by Haney. [I know, I know. My loss.] I also missed out on his writing for his other famous co-creation,”Deadman” [this one developed with artist Carmine Infantino, in 1967], as Drake left after the first story and I didn’t sample the strip in Strange Adventures until several issues later.)
As for the story’s penciller, Dick Ayers — he had of course been a Marvel mainstay for many years, and had pencilled as well as inked a ton of superhero material in the early years of the “Marvel Age of Comics”. But in the year or so that I’d been reading Marvel, almost all of his work had appeared in the publisher’s war comics, e.g. Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos — and since I avoided war comics, I hadn’t seen it (at least, not outside of the occasional house ad, or cover glimpsed on a spinner rack). I probably knew Ayers’ name from the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins pages and whatnot, but that would have been about it.
Nevertheless, I was prepared to let these storytellers do their thing, and deliver the answers to my burning questions — i.e., who the heck was Zo, and had Colonel Yon-Rogg really killed Mar-Vell’s beloved Medic Una?
Wherever Mar-Vell now found himself, it appeared to be a long, long way from Earth. As I’d ultimately discover when I read this issue’s predecessors in reprint editions, many years later, the dastardly Yon-Rogg — having thus far failed in every attempt to assassinate his rival, up to and including his execution by a Kree firing squad — had managed to send a U.S. rocket ship that Mar-Vell had commandeered hurtling at faster-than-light speed into the void of deep space; a journey which the conniving commander assumed would go on forever, or at least long enough for the ship to become his enemy’s tomb. But after a mere 112 days (!), Mar-Vell’s odyssey came to an end, when his craft was brought safely to land on a mysterious planet — a world ruled by an entity named Zo,.
Zo claimed that his own machinations had been responsible for the events that had brought Mar-Vell to this juncture; and that in exchange for Mar-Vell’s vow to serve him, he would give the Kree captain the power needed to destroy his arch-eenmy, Yon-Rogg — whom Mar-Vell held responsible for the death of Una, as well as for his other travails. And that’s where things stood at the beginning of issue #12.
This issue didn’t offer any details rearding Una’s death, which had occurred in the previous one, and was technically an accident; the medic had been caught in the crossfire in a skirmish between the Kree and their longtime enemies, the Aakon, which had begun when the latter interrupted Mar-Vell’s execution. Since Yon-Rogg’s manipulations were the ultimate source of both Mar-Vell’s death sentence and the Aakon’s hostility, Mar-Vell understandably held the colonel to account — though, in retrospect, it’s hard to see why he was willing to give Zo a full pass for what amounts to the same thing.
I’m not sure if the death of Una was the first instance of a headlining superhero’s romantic partner meeting a violent death within a comic’s pages, but it was the first that my younger self had ever encountered. Compared to the death of Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man some four years later, Medic Una’s demise seems to have received relatively little attention at the time; that’s probably due mainly to Marvel’s flagship hero’s much higher profile, but it may also have something to do with the rather undramatic way that Drake and his collaborators on issue #11 (Ayers on pencils, Vince Colletta on inks) presented the tragedy; though Una was wounded on page 4, she managed to hold on to life until page 8, where she expired off-panel. It was a sad moment, but one ultimately overshadowed by the advent of Zo, later in the issue.
After paying his respects to his dearly departed love (and yeah, leaving her mortal remains exposed on an asteroid is kinda creepy, airless vacuum of space notwithstanding), Mar-Vell continues on towards Earth. He pauses at Yon-Rogg’s Kree starship (which has apparently just been idly orbiting the Earth for the last 112 days), and briefly ponders taking his enemy out then and there. Ultimately, though, he decides against it, declaring: “Swift destruction is far too sweet a fate for you, Colonel!” (Brrrr.) Even so, Mar-Vell lingers in the area long enough for his discarnate presence to give Yon-Rogg a serious fright:
Captain Marvel tries to teleport directly to the Cape, but misses his intended destination by a bit less than a hundred miles, and ends up in Cuba — allowing for a fairly superfluous scene filled with the kind of dialogue that comics writers typically gave Hispanic characters in this era (i.e., written in English, but with a generous dollop of Spanish words and phrases), which is unfortunately cringe-inducing when read today:
Before things get out of hand, our hero gives this teleportation thing another go, which proves to be a considerable strain (here, Drake and Ayers are trying to let us know that just because Captain Marvel has incredible new powers, that doesn’t mean everything will be a cakewalk for him going forward) — but at least this time he ends up where he wants to be, more or less: the hotel room of his assumed identity, Dr. Walter Lawson.
One might reasonably ask why Mar-Vell is even bothering with the Lawson ruse anymore, since he’s no longer on a mission for the Kree, and it’s hard to see how hanging around at the Cape will help him (as he put it just a little earlier, on page 4) “devise a superb end” to Yon-Rogg’s “life of perfidy“. But, of course, if he doesn’t, then we won’t have a story; so…
I’m not sure why Gene Colan and/or Stan Lee originally gave Mar-Vell snow-white hair, but as originally drawn by Colan, the guy didn’t really look any older than the majority of Marvel’s other superheroes — somewhere around his early 30s, let’s say. As rendered by Ayers and Shores, however, our hero looks to be in his 50s. A reader who went straight from this issue to one in the middle of Jim Starlin’s run — say, #30 (Jan., 1974) — might reasonably conclude that the cosmic entity Eon (not to be confused with the cosmic entity Zo) had given Mar-Vell a facelift somewhere along the way, along with his brand new “cosmic awareness” and blond hair dye job.
The next page brings not one, but two female characters on stage, for the first time in this story. First up is the Cape’s security chief, Carol Danvers — who, now that Medic Una has shuffled off this mortal coil, is the only female in the series’ supporting cast:
The second woman is, of course, Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow — “the glamorous agent for SHIELD from The Avengers!“, as the footnote in the next-to-last panel puts it. This was the first story I’d yet read where the Widow played an active role, my previous exposure to her having been only in brief memory flashbacks and similar imaginings in the mind of her beau, Hawkeye, during some of the slower moments of Avengers issues.
Yep, that’s the barbed-wire fence surrounding the Cape missile base that the mysterious Man-Slayer is scaling, there. Meanwhile, “Doctor Walter Lawson” is arriving at the base as well; unfortunately for “Walt”, he’s unaware of all the dirt that Carol Danvers has dug up about the real (and very dead) Lawson while he’s been gallivanting about as Captain Marvel:
Needing to create a diversion so that he can slip away and become Captain Marvel, our hero calls upon his new Zo-given powers to create illusions, and conjures up… a group of protest marchers.
I’m not sure if the slogans on the “nutties”‘ signs were Drake’s work, or Ayers’, but either away the attempt at humor falls pretty flat, from a contemporary perspective. (My eleven-year-old self, on the other hand, may well have thought them funny.) At the risk of coming down too hard on what’s basically just a throwaway bit, the sequence reminds me a bit too much of the clueless condescension with which Drake’s old employer DC used to approach youth culture in the mid-Sixties.
But while Mar-Vell is using his distraction to elude the M.P.s and change into his fighting togs, the Man-Slayer continues his rampage across the base:
For reasons I’m not quite clear on, Marvel really went all-in on robots/androids as antagonists for their heroes in this era — a trend that, admittedly, gave us Ultron, but also engendered a slew of such forgettable bad guys as Zorr and, yes, the Man-Slayer. The latter’s faceless design is all too appropriate.
That’s great bravado from Natasha — who, unfortunately, is so swiftly overwhelmed by her assailants that it happens between panels:
Re-reading this sequence today, all I can think is that the overhaul which the Black Widow would receive roughly a year later (courtesy of Stan Lee and John Romita) couldn’t have come soon enough for the character.
Finally, just as Man-Slayer — “the first perfect living plastoid!“, as he calls himself — is preparing to hurl a destructive punch at the moon rocket, Captain Marvel finally shows up to save the day, or at least to try to.
As originally conceived by Lee and Colan, Mar-Vell’s super powers were pretty straightforward, and even rather modest. As the hero himself had explained upon his initial arrival on our planet, back in Marvel Super-Heroes #12″, since the pull of gravity is far stronger in the Kree Galaxy than it is on Earth — my freedom of movement — and sheer physical power — will be many times greater than any ordinary Earthling on this light gravity world!” The Captain flew via use of a “air-jet belt“, and his capabilities were further enhanced by his wielding of a “universal beam blaster” (that’s “raygun” to you) — a wrist-worn version of which he began using in his second appearance (which made for a better visual than his flying around waving a gun did, I suppose). Pretty basic stuff — though it was enough to allow the hero to hold his own against such heavy hitters as the Super Skrull in Captain Marvel #2 and #3, and the Sub-Mariner in #4.
As we’ve seen in the opening pages of issue #12, however, Mar-Vell’s powers have now been greatly enhanced, thanks to Zo. Not only can he instantaneously teleport himself across interstellar space, and project lifelike illusions, but he also supposedly now possesses “the strength of ten thousand men”. You’d expect such an enhancement to make a difference when the hero goes into action — but save for an ineffectual attempt to use his illusion power on the plastoid (which goes awry, Mar-Vell surmises, due to the thing having no eyes, and seeing instead “through some biological radar as do Earth bats in the dark!”), the new capabilities don’t seem to make much difference either in how Captain Marvel handles himself in a fight, or how effective he is in doing so:
You’d think that the strength of 10,000 men would at least put a dent in the thing. Just how powerful is this robot, er, plastoid, anyway?
A couple of other things to note in regards to this full-page splash. One is that Dick Ayers, for all of his virtues, was rather out of his element in attempting to replicate the dynamics of Jack Kirby’s superhero work. The other is that Arnold Drake’s “voice” for Captain Marvel is so bombastically over-the-top that it edges into self-parody. As scripted by Lee and Thomas, Mar-Vell had spoken rather formally, rarely even using contractions save when playing his Walt Lawson role. But he wasn’t generally prone to such turns of phrase as “the searing, unending emotion of revenge!”
As the battle continues, the Man-Slayer gains the clear upper hand:
“Why?” indeed? As we’ll see on the very next page, the answer to Mar-Vell’s question is also the answer for anyone wondering why the Black Widow was brought into this story in the first place:
The Widow falls unconscious to the floor, as the mysterious mastermind assures his plastoid minions that she’ll be more valuable “as live bait than she would as a lifeless conquest!”
Meanwhile, back at the Cape…
Despite the animus Carol Danvers demonstrates for both of Mar-Vell’s identities, here, I think it’s a safe bet that the creators intended her to become the hero’s lead romantic interest going forward, and that Una’s excision from the storyline was intended to serve that end.
Even as Captain Marvel made his dramatic exit in the final panels of issue #12, so too were most of his comic book’s creative personnel taking their leave. “The Moment of — the Man-Slayer!” was the final story that would be produced by inker Syd Shores (who’d actually only worked on this one issue), penciller Dick Ayers (who’d drawn this issue and the one before), and, last but not least, writer Arnold Drake (who’d scripted every issue since #5 — more than any other writer up to this point).
As I noted early on in this post, the original premise of Captain Marvel — an alien spy who finds himself thrust into the role of an Earth superhero — was an unusual and intriguing one. But, in some ways, it never seemed to get off the ground. Issue after issue, Mar-Vell seemed to spend all his time fighting off one super-villainous attack on the Cape after other, while dodging Yon-Rogg’s attempts to assassinate or otherwise sabotage him, and trying not to get caught out while impersonating a dead man. Meanwhile, in the book’s letters pages, fans wondered when the Kree agent would get around to confronting the Fantastic Four (whose defeats of the Sentry and Ronan were, after all, the impetus for his mission), or go into deep space.
The churning of the book’s creative personnel didn’t help matters. Whether it was due to the mercenary motivations behind the series’ inception in 1967, the growing pains of Marvel as they added a number of new titles in 1968 (and then strained to line up the writers and artists necessary to produce them), or some combination of the two, Captain Marvel seemed to undergo an unusual amount of creator changes, at least by comparison with most other Marvel series of its era. Following Stan Lee’s one-off, Roy Thomas had scripted five issues before handing the book over to Arnold Drake. Meanwhile, on the artistic end of things, the always-more-than-capable Gene Colan drew a half-dozen installments before being succeeded by Don Heck, who pencilled the next six. Like Dick Ayers, Heck struggled to bring Kirby-style dynamics into his superhero work, and the inkers he worked with here — Vince Colletta and John Tartaglione — did little to enhance his efforts.
Arnold Drake, with eight issues under his belt when he left the title, had the greatest longevity of any of the creators who worked on Captain Marvel in the series’ early years. The writer’s arrival at Marvel in mid-1968 had coincided with the loss of his regular assignments at DC (where he’d worked regularly for the last twelve years) as part of the notorious “DC writers purge of 1968” — in which a number of DC freelance writers (and one staff editor) were cut loose by the publisher after they pressed for better pay and benefits. Drake may actually have seen the handwriting on the wall ahead of time, as he seems to have started lining up other work even before the axe fell; indeed, two months’ worth of his Marvel material (including two issues each of Captain Marvel and X-Men) had come out by the time his last Doom Patrol issue (the final one of the series) hit the stands.
At the time, it probably seemed to most observers that Drake and Marvel should be a good fit. As early as 1962, Drake and his friend Bob Haney had taken a meeting with DC’s executive vice-president, Irwin Donenfeld, in which they’d showed him a few Marvel comics and tried to impress on him that what the (then) much smaller publisher was doing represented the future — but to no avail. (Source: Reed Tucker, Slugfest: Inside the Epic Fifty-Year Battle between Marvel and DC.) Doom Patrol, which the two writers came up with together a year later (and which was thereafter scripted by Drake alone) was widely perceived as the most “Marvel-like” of DC’s titles; in fact, the similarities in concept between it and X-Men, which debuted only a few months later, were so strong that, over the decades, many have speculated that the former must have influenced the latter.******
So it’s easy to see why it would have seemed natural to bring Drake aboard at the expanding Marvel of 1968, and to give him a shot at several titles. X-Men was pretty close to a no-brainer, I’d imagine, as was Not Brand Echh, thanks to the writer’s humor work for DC titles like The Adventures of Bob Hope and The Adventures of Jerry Lewis, as well as Stanley and His Monster. As for Captain Marvel — well, Drake had written a slew of stories for a couple of DC’s early-’60s science fiction adventure heroes, “Space Ranger” and “Tommy Tomorrow”, who weren’t too far off the model of Marvel’s heroic alien soldier — and, anyway, somebody had to write the book, right?
Unfortunately, the majority of Arnold Drake’s efforts at Marvel would prove less than successful, either commercially or critically. There are probably a number of reasons why this is so, but I’m inclined to believe that it comes down mainly to the fundamentally different ways of working at DC and Marvel in the Sixties. At DC, Drake had crafted complete scripts for his artistic collaborators to illustrate; but at Marvel, he was asked to provide an artist with a plot first, and then add dialogue and captions to the finished art (the famous “Marvel Method”). As he put it himself, in a reminiscence published in Alter Ego #24 (May, 2003): “…working from images on paper could benefit the writer. But more often it robbed him of some creativity. Under the Method, artists dictated much of the storytelling. And my viewpoint wasn’t always theirs.” It probably also didn’t help matters much that the artists he was often paired with — Don Heck, Werner Roth, Dick Ayers — weren’t exactly in Marvel’s top tier, at least as far as Kirby-ish dynamic superhero storytelling went. (One notable exception to this was Jim Steranko, with whom Drake collaborated on a couple of X-Men issues; I’ve read, however, that Steranko was less than enthused about that particular assignment, and thus may not have brought his “A” game to those efforts.)
I’m also inclined to think that Drake may have been trying a little too hard to write in what he thought was a “Stan Lee” style. This was especially true when it came to scripting the dialogue of characters who seemed to call for a more formal sort of diction, where Drake seemed to have been influenced by the way Lee wrote heroes such as Thor and the Silver Surfer. In another part of his Alter Ego #24 piece, Drake discussed how Lee valued dialogue in a way that most of the former’s editors at DC had not:
…Stan loved it. He knew that dialogue was the second key to characterization: know a man by what he does — and what he says. So that gave me a chance to write some good talk and rumination. Captain Marvel was perfect for that: a man torn between two worlds and hunted by both. Who’s he going to talk to? Himself. Recently I re-read some of those stories and was startled to learn that I’d used a quasi-Shakespearean English. I was trying to represent an alien language of some sort. And I think it worked.
It’s fascinating to read Drake’s latter-day analysis of what he was trying to do with Captain Marvel’s dialogue. But then, I take another look at the speech he gives the hero in issue #11, as he’s leaving his beloved Una’s remains behind on the asteroid…
…and I have to ask — why, if Drake was attempting to “represent an alien language of some sort”, would he have Mar-Vell reference an Earth legend such as King Arthur’s Camelot? Frankly, that doesn’t sound so much like “a man torn between two worlds” as it does a man just trying to talk all flowery-like.
I don’t mean to imply, either by the preceding paragraph or by anything else I’ve written here, that Arnold Drake’s work on Captain Marvel was without merit. The truth is, after a few issues of wheel-spinning, Drake and his collaborators did seem at last to be moving the story forward in some interesting ways. The death of Una, even if not handled especially well on the page, promised to be a pivotal event not only in terms of Mar-Vell’s love life, but also in terms of the enmity between him and Colonel Yon-Rogg. And his pledge of unquestioning service to Zo — a being whose own motives and goals were at this point completely opaque — edged the character even further into the antiheroic territory where his secretly being an alien spy had tentatively positioned him ever since his introduction. What moral compromises might Zo have ultimately demanded of Mar-Vell, under Drake’s direction? Would Drake have taken the storyline in a significantly different direction than the writers who succeeded him?******* Alas, we’ll probably never know.
January, 1969 saw the publication of Arnold Drake’s last issue of X-Men, as well as his last Captain Marvel. The next few months saw the publication of his last Marvel scripts, in the war title Captain Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders; by July, he was gone. “I left Marvel because there wasn’t enough work for me,” Drake said in Alter Ego #24, and perhaps that’s true, at least in part. In any event, he soon landed at Gold Key Comics (aka Western Publishing) where, for the next decade and a half, he was a prolific contributor of scripts for titles such as Star Trek, Dark Shadows, and The Twilight Zone; and also had, in the words of comics writer and historian Mark Evanier, “a particularly long and delightful stint on Little Lulu.” He even eventually came back to DC in the mid-Seventies, where he wrote stories for anthologies like Weird War Tales as well as for continuing characters like Jonah Hex and the Phantom Stranger. In other words, things pretty much worked out OK in the end; Drake himself seemed to think so, anyway, judging by the interviews he gave in his later years that I’ve been able to read.
But, getting back to the winter of 1969 — Arnold Drake might be gone (as were Dick Ayers and Syd Shores), but Captain Marvel was marching on. How would Mar-Vell cope with being a wanted man in both of his Earth identities, as well as being hunted as a traitor by his fellow Kree? Would he ever manage to take his revenge on Yon-Rogg? And what fearsome task would the enigmatic Zo ultimately call on him to perform?
We’ll get around to answering these questions in a couple of months — but before we do, we’ll be addressing another one that was just as urgent for readers a half century ago — namely, what the heck was going to happen to poor, captive Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow? If you’d like an answer to that query, be sure and come back next month, for my post on Avengers #63.
(Yes, I said Avengers #63.)
*In his 2005 introduction to Marvel Masterworks – Captain Marvel, Vol. 1, Roy Thomas writes that, while working at Marvel during the 1960s, he heard a rumor that Fawcett and Goodman had reached some sort of agreement back in the day so that Fawcett could use the “Marvel” name; Thomas stresses, however, that this was only a rumor.
**When, in one of the greatest ironies of comic book history, DC Comics brought them all back into print. But that’s a story for another post, in another year (probably 2022).
***According to John Wells and Keith Dallas’ American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-69, Lee was reported in 1969 to have told a college audience that an animation studio that wanted to make a “Captain Marvel” TV series had asked Marvel to develop such a character, and had given them specific requirements for his origin, including his being an alien visitor. If true, this might have prompted Lee’s use of his and Kirby’s “Kree” material from FF.
****Adding even more irony to this episode, Fass’ Captain Marvel — who happened to be a red-suited android — had been created by Carl Burgos, a veteran comic book artist whose most famous creation had been another red-suited android — namely, the original Human Torch, who had first appeared in the first issue of Martin Goodman’s Marvel Mystery Comics (then just called Marvel Comics), back in 1939. Burgos had likely been more than happy to be involved in a project sure to irritate Goodman; he was, in fact, pursuing legal action to obtain copyright for his earlier and more successful android hero, on whom Marvel’s initial twenty-eight year copyright term was scheduled to expire in 1967. Unfortunately for the artist, however, his claim on the Human Torch — though certainly possessing more merit than Fass’ on Captain Marvel, at least from a moral standpoint — appears to have gone absolutely nowhere. (Source: Sean Howe, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.)
*****As a matter of fact, Drake was writing for Not Brand Echh by this time — but since I hadn’t read an issue since #9, I wasn’t aware of it.
******As late as 1966, Drake took another stab at converting Donenfeld via a six-page memo (most of which would be published decades later, in Alter Ego #17 [Sept., 2002]). In it, the writer credited Marvel’s success to it having brought “sophistication” (the quotes are his) to comic books, and to aiming at a more mature audience than DC (roughly age 16 to 20). Drake then pitched the idea that some (not all) of DC’s comics should be aimed at this market — including, naturally, his own Doom Patrol. What should set these books apart? “Adult concepts, adult language; a little cheesecake, a little idol-breaking, a little ‘think’ stuff now and then—plus the grotesqueries and the much-much-bigger-than-life villains, etc.”
*******Over the next five issues, Captain Marvel would have three different scripters, and four pencillers — making the series’ past run of issues seem as creatively stable as Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four by comparison.