Captain Marvel #17 (October, 1969)

In the letters column of the comic that’s our main topic today, reader Normand LaBelle of Sherbrooke, Quebec expressed his great displeasure with the Captain Marvel series’ recent turn of direction, finding fault especially with the drastic changes to the titular hero’s powers and mission that had come about in issue #11.  In responding to Mr. LaBelle, the anonymous editorial staffer — probably Marvel Comics associate editor (and, as of this very issue, returning Captain Marvel writer) Roy Thomas — essentially agreed with him: 

I don’t recall what my twelve-year-old self made of this response when I first read it, back in July, 1969 — but I figure that I must have been at least a little skeptical, even after perusing the twenty-page story by Thomas and his newfound collaborator, artist Gil Kane, that preceded the lettercol — a story which, presumably, had brought Mar-Vell, Captain of the alien Kree, closer to “the kind of character we [i.e., Marvel Comics] thought he should be” than the recent run of stories had done.  Because, after all, I had begun reading Captain Marvel with issue #12 — the first issue following the inception of the changes that had so dismayed Normand LaBelle.  And based on the fact that I’d bought every issue since that one, I apparently had liked what I’d read.

However — and as I’ve tried to convey before now, in my two previous Captain Marvel posts (on issues #12 and #14, respectively) — I’m honestly at something of a loss as to how to explain just what it was about the series that I found so compelling, fifty years ago.  Today, I look at these five issues, #12 through #16, and by my current critical standards, they’re mediocre, at best.  And it’s not like I was trying to be a Marvel completist at the time, or anything like that — when I first began buying Captain Marvel, I had yet to sample even one issue of Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, or Sub-Mariner.  So what was it?

I think that, at least in part, it had something to do with the fact that the storyline in issues #12 through #14 featured into a “stealth crossover” with Avengers, one of my favorite comics at the time.  Another factor was that I was coming in at the beginning of a new direction for the series, as Mar-Vell pledged fealty to a mysterious cosmic entity, the great and powerful Zo, for the sake of a significant power upgrade which would, he believed, allow him to take vengeance on his former superior officer, Colonel Yon-Rogg — the man whose machinations had caused him to be unjustly branded a traitor to his people, and, more tragically, had also resulted in the death of Mar-Vell’s beloved, the Kree starship’s Medic Una.  It was a good “jumping on” point, as we say these days.  If I’d been around from the beginning of the series in Marvel Super-Heroes #12, I might have been as unhappy with the changes from the previous status quo as Normand LaBelle obviously was — but, since pretty much all I knew about the series’ original premise was what I’d managed to glean from the “Captain Marvin” parody in Not Brand Echh #9, I didn’t really have a point of comparison.

In any case, by the time issue #14 concluded with Mar-Vell being called on the carpet by Zo for just dicking around through the last three issues (in Zo’s omniscient opinion, anyway) — and with the cosmic entity also calling in his marker, preparing to send the disgraced Kree officer back to his homeworld to fulfill his end of their bargain through some mysterious mission — I was fully on board.

And so, I might not have even been fazed when issue #15 came along with yet another change in both penciller and inker — the third for each since I’d begun buying the book.

In case you missed my earlier CM posts (or just if your memory could use some refreshing), here’s a quick recap:  My first issue, #12, had been drawn by Dick Ayers and embellished by Syd Shores; then, Frank Springer and Vince Coletta had picked up those respective chores with #13, and continued with them through #14.  Issue #15, then, featured the debut of a whole new artistic team, Tom Sutton (on pencils) and Dan Adkins (on inks), who together joined continuing writer Gary Friedrich (who himself had begun work on the title only with #13, following Arnold Drake, whose last issue was my first, #12).  Friedrich also figured into the art team change, as the splash page credited him with breakdowns, as well as with the story’s script.  Got all that?

“That Zo Might Live… a Galaxy Must Die!” opens with Zo demonstrating his omnipotence for Mar-Vell one more time, showing him a whole history of Earth, past and future, from its fiery birth to its mushroom cloud-punctuated death (bummer!), before giving him a vision of his own Zo-ordained future:

Quite understandably, Mar-Vell balks at the idea that he’s going to set off an incredibly destructive bomb on his own home planet, so Zo underscores his claim to be the being whose power “controls the universe!” — i.e., God — by sending our protagonist on a wild cosmic jaunt that seems likely to have been inspired by either the film 2001: A Space Odyssey or by LSD, or perhaps by both.  During his journey, Mar-Vell is granted visions of both Heaven and Hell, and Tom Sutton — who was just beginning to build a reputation as a horror artist through his work for Warren Publishing at this time — goes to town filling the book’s pages with phantasmagorical imagery.  Ultimately, a cowed Captain Marvel acquiesces to Zo’s will, and the entity proceeds to instruct him on the details of his mission — the goal of which will be to destroy the planet Kree-Lar, capital of the Kree galactic empire:

“…it could eventually pull every existing planet out of orbit…”  Really?  Every planet?  In the entire universe?  Unfortunately, this is one of those stories that leaves you feeling pretty sure the authors have no clue how immense the cosmos actually is (kind of like the Fantastic Four Skrull Galaxy-set storyline we discussed here a week or so ago).

Mar-Vell asks if it’s possible to destroy the source of the dangerous magnetic power without destroying Kree-Lar itself.  Nope, replies Zo — the planet is the source of the magnetism.  Reluctantly, Mar-Vell teleports to his homeworld, still hoping against hope that he’ll be able to find some way to end the menace of Tam-Bor without sacrificing the planet.  (He also wonders briefly why, if Zo is so omnipotent, he needs a lowly mortal like himself to get this job done, but decides to keep these musings to himself.)

Unfortunately, Mar-Vell is now a wanted man throughout the Kree Galaxy, and his arrival is almost immediately detected by the local constabulary, the Accuser Corps.  A bit shagged out by the stress of interstellar teleportation, the Captain is unable to evade capture by an Accuser patrol ship — but he quickly rallies and overcomes his assailants, taking control of the ship and flying it directly to the idol of Tam-Bor.

That’s where issue #15 ends — and with it, the three-issue tenure of Gary Friedrich as the book’s writer, as well as the one-issue stint of the Friedrich/Sutton/Atkins art team.  Issue #16 would bring yet another overhaul of the Captain Marvel creative team, as Archie Goodwin came on board as scripter, to be joined by returning penciller Don Heck (who’d previously drawn issues #5 through #10) and inker Syd Shores (who, as noted earlier, had worked on #12).  Together, these three took on the challenge of wrapping up the “Zo” plotline in a story whose title couldn’t help but telegraph its climactic twist — “Behind the Mask of Zo!”

As the story opens, Mar-Vell has just been taken prisoner by the cultists of Tam-Bor — who almost immediately release him, so that the idol’s own magnetic power can pull him forward to dash him against its metal surface.  However, Mar-Vell manages to aim himself towards an entrance at Tam-Bor’s base, so that he ultimately smashes through a door, rather than into a solid wall:

With the appearance of Accuser No.1, aka Ronan, the plot definitely thickens.  Ronan had made his debut in the 1967 Stan Lee-Jack Kirby Fantastic Four two-issue storyline that introduced the Kree (and eventually served as the conceptual springboard for the Captain Marvel series).  He’d shown up in CM several times previously, generally as an ominously threatening, yet remote figure.  His sudden arrival on the scene here isn’t exactly unexpected, but it’s hardly clear what his purpose is in attacking Mar-Vell while ignoring the threat of Tam-Bor.

Captain Marvel continues to try to destroy the doomsday machine while evading the energy blasts of Ronan’s Universal Weapon.  Ultimately, he hits upon the stratagem of taking off his helmet, activating its built-in self-destruct mechanism, and tossing it into Tam-Bor’s “generator chamber”.  (As you’ve probably already figured out by now, the notion that the whole planet of Zenn-Lar must be sacrificed to avert universal disaster doesn’t seem to have survived the transition in creative teams between #15 and #16.)

Here our story briefly jumps back to Earth to check in with Carol Danvers — the security chief of the military base where Mar-Vell used to pose as “Dr. Walter Lawson” — who was injured during the Captain’s battle with a mind-controlled Iron Man in issue #14.

Carol manages to get out of the hospital, sidestepping F.B.I. agents as she does so — but then she’s accosted by members of the press.  Fleeing them on foot, she’s unexpectedly offered a ride by someone who’s a stranger to her, though not to us readers:

Yeah, that’s definitely going to be a problem for Mar-Vell in the near future — assuming he ever manages to get off Kree-Lar alive…

Marvel’s original Sentry had debuted in FF #64, and thus pre-dated Ronan himself by one issue; but this was the first time Marvel’s readers had seen the Super-Sentry — and while the Accuser might not have been impressed by this “mere mechanical monstrosity”, in 1969 my younger self definitely was.

Regardless of Ronan’s disdain, the Super-Sentry is impervious to the former’s power — as he proves when a blast from the Accuser’s Universal Weapon simply rebounds off his metallic chest and dispatches Ronan to places unknown (for the moment).  The Super-Sentry then collects Mar-Vell within an energy field and zooms off with him, departing Kree-Lar  — which, you’ll remember, was described as the Kree “capital” in issue #15 — for a planet probably better known to most modern Marvel Comics readers:  “Hala — headquarters planet of the galaxy-spanning Kree!”  (The difference between a “capital” and a “headquarters” planet?  Beats me.)

Like Ronan, the Supreme Intelligence had first appeared in Fantastic Four #65.  Unlike Ronan, he hadn’t shown up in Captain Marvel prior to now, or even (I believe) been mentioned; and thus, as far as I knew in 1969, this could have been his first appearance.  (In fact, I’m pretty sure that I believed this was the Supremor’s debut outing for at least a year or two.  Though it may seem, in retrospect, that it should have been obvious to me that this character was much more likely to have been conceived in the imagination of Jack Kirby than that of Don Heck, the truth is that I just wasn’t that smart at age 12.)

What?!  The great and powerful Zo is a… a humbug?  Who’d have thought it?  (OK, besides everyone who’d bothered to spell his name backwards — a grouping which apparently did not include my younger self, as this revelation took me completely by surprise.)

Unlike Ronan, the Supreme Intelligence, and the (original) Sentry, Imperial Minister Zarek (rhymes with Sarek, I assume) hadn’t been introduced in the Lee and Kirby FF tale that first brought us the Kree — but his pedigree was almost as distinguished, as he’d first shown up at the tail end of the very first Captain Marvel story (by Lee and artist Gene Colan) in Marvel Super-Heroes #12 (see left).  On the other hand, he hadn’t been given so much as a proper name in that story, nor in his one other appearance (another single-panel cameo, though a non-speaking one this time, and shared with Ronan, besides) in the Roy Thomas-scripted Captain Marvel #1.  So his emergence here in issue #16 as one of the two masterminds behind all the machinations that have been giving Mar-Vell hell since before the series even began seems to come out of nowhere — though, clearly, somebody had to be behind the mask of Zo (to borrow a phrase), and perhaps Ronan was a little too obvious a candidate.

But what, pray tell, was the purpose of this fiendish plan — and what was its ultimate goal?  Believe me, Mar-Vell wants to know every bit as much as we readers do:

Page 15’s “voluminous words” pack in a whole lot of new information for readers to digest.  Much of it — in particular, the part detailing the animus of some blue-skinned Kree towards other, less racially “pure” citizens of their empire — has real thematic resonance; so much so, in fact, that it’s gone on to inform many, if not most, of the better stories about the Kree that Marvel has produced in the years since.  But some of the exposition — especially the business about Zarek needing a “fall guy” for his own creation of Tam-Bor — raises as many questions as it answers, and bears all the hallmarks of having been cobbled together by the present writer (Archie Goodwin) as the best (or only) means he could come up with for resolving all the story problems set up by his predecessors (Arnold Drake, as well as Gary Friedrich).

There is, in fact, so much information crammed in on page 15 that one suspects that the story might originally have been supposed to run at least one more issue, but that Goodwin and Heck were at some point told they had to wrap everything up by the end of #16.  That’s an especially attractive hypothesis when you take into account that, according to Roy Thomas, a whole new direction for Captain Marvel was conceived, approved, and set to begin in #17 while this issue was still in production.

As Thomas recounts in his 2007 introduction to Marvel Masterworks – Captain Marvel, Vol. 2:

One morning on a day when both Stan [Lee] and I were both writing at home instead of coming into the office, I was sitting in bed thinking, for some reason, of the recent sales doldrums of Captain Marvel. Its very name made me muse on the original Captain Marvel, published by Fawcett, of the 1940s and early ’50s — the young boy who shouted out the magic word “Shazam!” and was transformed into the World’s Mightiest Mortal.

 

…I suddenly had this notion of doing a science fiction twist on the long-defunct (and doubtless never-to-return) 1940s character, by having Mar-Vell trade places with a young boy, so that each of them would be only half of a whole, and exist only part-time in our dimension, I even knew right away that the youthful part of the equation would be Rick Jones, kid sidekick to the stars, who had bounced around between The Incredible Hulk and Captain America.

 

The concept so excited me that I phoned Stan at home and told him I had an idea that might just save Captain Marvel — but that, to carry it out, I had to write the series again. I don’t know if I told Stan what my world-beating idea was — or if he even asked — but he agreed.

And so, Thomas called up Archie Goodwin and Don Heck, separately, to inform them of this mid-stream change in plans.  At this late date, it’s probably impossible to know exactly when those creators’ original story “stops” and the new, revised version “starts” — but it surely couldn’t have been any later than immediately after pages 16 and 17 (shown below), which first tidily wrap up the “Zo” plotline for once and all, and then take Captain Marvel right up to the brink of his latest transformation:

According to Thomas’ Marvel Masterworks intro, he began work on designing Captain Marvel’s new costume almost immediately after getting the go-ahead from Lee for his Fawcett-inspired revamp.  Like the Captain’s new modus operandi, his new costume was derived from a comic book hero that Thomas had enjoyed reading about as a kid — though this one was considerably more obscure than Fawcett’s Big Red Cheese:

I based the look on a little-known 1946 superhero called Atoman, who’d starred in a mere two issues of his own title (from a small company known as Spark Publications). Atoman’s red-and-yellow garb, complete with cape, sunburst symbol on his chest, and a face mask which left his hair exposed, had always grabbed me—and now, more than two decades later, I was grabbing it back!

At this point, the new Captain Marvel outfit had a different color scheme than Atoman’s, but retained the cape.  That state of affairs would  change, however, soon after Gil Kane — whose longtime relationship with DC Comics was growing less satisfying to the artist following the recent cancellation of Captain Action, a title which Kane had been scripting as well as drawing for that publisher — came strolling into the Marvel Comics offices to talk to Stan Lee about picking up some work, and to inquire specifically about the possibility of drawing Captain Marvel — a title he knew was in the doldrums.  Hearing this, Lee called Thomas into his meeting with kane, and it was quickly agreed that the artist and writer would collaborate on Captain Marvel, beginning with #17.

As Thomas tells the story, Don Heck had remained attached to CM as its regular artist up to this point, and even had Thomas’ written plot for the next issue in his possession:

So Don was quickly called and asked to return my plot for CM #17. He was given another assignment so he didn’t lose a day’s work (he hadn’t started drawing #17 yet) and Gil was given my synopsis. Meanwhile, Gil and I discussed the costume I’d designed, and I okayed some changes Gil wanted to make, including losing the cape.

Based on this chronology, either Heck hadn’t turned in his finished pencils for #16 yet, or Kane’s revisions to the new costume were worked in by Syd Shores at the inking stage (or, perhaps, through a last-minute retouching process at the Marvel offices before the book went to press) — for, as you can see from the last three pages of #16, shown below, “The Sensational New Captain Marvel”, as delineated for the first and only time by the art team of Heck and Shores, doesn’t wear a cape.

And with that, faithful reader, we’re ready at last to discuss the comic book you thought you were going to be reading about when you began your perusal of this post — namely, Captain Marvel #17, featuring “And a Child Shall Lead You!”, by the team of Roy Thomas, Gil Kane, and Dan Adkins:

As regular readers of the blog will know, my younger self had been following the saga of Rick Jones over in Captain America with great interest.  I had discovered Marvel too late to have experienced Rick’s adventures with the Hulk or the Avengers firsthand; but I had read Stan Lee and Jim Steranko’s tale in Captain America #110 in which Cap took Rick on as his new partner, and I’d been well-satisfied by what seemed to be the establishment of a new status quo for the Star-Spangled Avenger at the end of the Lee-Steranko run, three issues later.  I was fully on board with the Cap-and-Rick duo, in other words — and so, I’d been dismayed by the turn of events in CA #116, which found the Sentinel of Liberty trapped in the form of the Red Skull, while Rick Jones suffered rejection from a “Captain America” who was, in truth, the Skull in Cap’s body.  This turn of events bothered the bejeezus out of me as a young reader; I wanted Marvel to fix it, and they couldn’t do it fast enough, as far as I was concerned.

By the time my twelve-year-old self bought and read Captain Marvel #17, it’s likely that I’d already read Captain America #118, which had hit stands a week earlier.  If so, I might have been a tad confused by this sequence, as, over in CA, I’d witnessed a scene of Cap leaving his hotel, immediately followed by a scene of Rick alone in his room, bidding a bitter farewell to his former mentor in absentia.  Based on the state in which Stan Lee and Gene Colan had left the poor guy in their story, I wouldn’t have expected Rick to go chasing after Cap here in CM; but if this seeming discrepancy bothered me at all, I figure I must have quickly sucked it up and resolved to move on.  There were, after all, more important matters at stake.

I can still remember how bummed out I was by this page in July, 1969 — and how it irritated me that it wasn’t entirely clear whether or not Rick had, in the end, packed his costume in his suitcase.  I certainly thought he’d earned it, even if Rick didn’t.  At this point, I don’t think I’d yet completely given up on the Cap-Rick partnership, in spite of how things were proceeding here.  I may even have assumed that Rick’s presence here in Captain Marvel was just a glorified “guest appearance” of some kind — a detour, if you will — and that eventually he’d be returning to the pages of Captain America.

For fans who’d been reading Marvel for a couple of years longer than I had, Gil Kane’s renderings of Captain America and the Hulk would have likely seemed familiar, as those were the two characters that he’d drawn during his earlier, brief stint working for the publisher, back in 1967.  But for my younger self, who only associated Kane with DC heroes like Green Lantern, the Atom, and Captain Action, seeing his take on these characters — not to mention original Avengers Thor, Iron Man, and Giant-Man — was an entirely novel experience.

Page 6 probably also provided my first clue that Rick Jones had actually hung out with the Avengers for an extended period way back when; when Rick had turned up in Captain America #110, it was clear that he was more than casually acquainted with Cap, but the story hadn’t bothered to explain how.

Where’s Rick headin’?  The middle of nowhere, apparently; at least, that’s where our boy asks the truck driver to drop him off, for reasons he can’t explain:

And here’s the first place where the Golden Age-savvy comics fan (which, in July, 1969, I most definitely wasn’t) would recognize the story’s first echo of the origin story of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, as first told by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck in the pages of Whiz Comics #2 (Feb., 1940):

Gee, does that kid’s red, blue, and yellow outfit put you in mind of anyone?  A former would-be partner of a Living Legend of World War II, maybe?

Needless to say, in 1969, my twelve-year-old self didn’t make the connection between Rick Jones and Billy Batson — mainly because I didn’t know who Billy Batson was.  What was probably on my mind instead of that was a growing suspicion that the appearance of Captain America on this comic’s cover was going to turn out to be just a tease — that we weren’t going to see the “real” Cap in action in the story at all (not counting page 6’s flashback scenes) — only the Cap-impersonating Red Skull, and whatever this silent, glowing apparition was going to turn out to be.

Rick pursues “Cap” over hill and dale for another couple of pages, never catching up but never falling behind, either — until, at last he chases the elusive figure into a cave.  (Whadja expect, a subway tunnel?)

“…statues of things that never walked this planet!”  Well, it’s not the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man, but I guess it’ll have to do.

But as Rick was just saying, we’re getting down to the real nitty-gritty now — so we might as well follow him and “Cap” on through that mysterious doorway…

This is a thrilling two-page sequence — even if, like my younger self of a half-century ago, you don’t have the corresponding scene from Whiz Comics #2 playing in counterpoint against it in the back of your mind:

But then, what would you expect from Gil Kane at what’s arguably the peak of his powers, especially given the highly sympathetic inking his pencils receive here from Dan Adkins?

As you may have noticed, Rick Jones exclaims “FAN-tastic!” twice in the span of three pages — and as you might guess, those would be far from the last times he’d utter that word.  In his Marvel Masterworks intro, Thomas describes the expression as his own equivalent of “Holy Moley!” (Billy Batson’s signature catchphrase), and that’s how it’s generally used — though on page 14, above, it’s obviously doing double duty, and standing in for “Shazam!” as well.

Oh, yeah, Yon-Rogg!  Almost forgot about him, didn’t we?  But here he is — representing what’s basically the single last plot thread still left dangling from the previous eighteen Captain Marvel stories.

Yon-Rogg boards his ship, where we catch a brief glimpse of what appears to be the unconscious form of Carol Danvers (whoops, almost forgot about her, too!), and then blasts off — too fast (and too high) for Mar-Vell to pursue on foot:

“…I now possess no powers — but those which the Nega-Bands bestow upon me!”  Yeah, after Archie Goodwin went to all that trouble on page 19 of the last issue to assure us that the new-costume version of Mar-Vell still retained the “Zo-given powers” which made the universe his province, and the very stars his stepping stones, Roy Thomas goes and makes the whole thing moot.  Oh, well.

And with one last “FAAAN-tastic!” (now with extra “A”s!) for the road, we’re done.  Sure, Mar-Vell still has to rescue Carol Danvers, and exact his final vengeance on Yon-Rogg — but one doesn’t imagine that that’s going to take more than an issue or two (Rick’s “rest of my life” exit line notwithstanding). That means that after over half a year’s worth of meandering plotlines and constantly churning creative teams, this series finally has a solid direction, and a fresh set of top-notch talents poised to take it to new heights of glory.  My younger self, having soldiered faithfully through the last five issues, must have been really stoked to see where Thomas, Kane, and Adkins would take Mar-Vell next.  Right?

Wrong, apparently.  Because I wouldn’t purchase another issue of Captain Marvel off the racks until issue #29, in 1973.

I don’t actually remember whether I saw issue #18 on the stands and decided to pass on it, or if, like may another comic of that era, it simply slipped past me.  I’d like to think that if I had seen it, and had also realized that the story behind its fairly generic (if well-drawn) cover featured both Carol Danvers’ rescue and the “death” of Yon-Rogg (he got better, of course, many years later), I’d have picked it up.  I generally liked to see things through to the end, after all.  And in later years, I’d have other reasons to covet this issue, as it would eventually prove to be highly significant in Marvel Universe continuity, due to its inclusion of the event — the explosion of a Kree device called the Psyche-Magnitron [sic] — which, until recently, would serve as the primary foundation of Ms. Danvers’ superheroic origin story.  (Incidentally, this year’s Captain Marvel movie includes a scene which nods to said origin event; though, I’m happy to say, the film does it a hundred times better, in terms of allowing Carol to be more than a completely passive [i.e., unconscious] participant in her own story.)

(No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you — the pencils for that triptych of panels above are by John Buscema, who stepped in to draw the the last eight pages of CM #18 when Gil Kane ran into an unanticipated deadline problem.)

But even if I missed seeing issue #18 when it came out, I don’t think I could have missed all the ones that followed it.  Granted, Marvel made it somewhat more difficult to follow Captain Marvel than it might have been — cancelling the series after #19, then bringing it back after six months with #20, then cancelling it again just one issue later, only to revive it one more time a full two years later.  Still, I must have had the opportunity to sample the Thomas/Kane/Atkins run again at some point (they remained on the book through issue #21), if I’d been so inclined.

Part of my evident disinterest in “The Sensational New Captain Marvel” might be due to a more general disaffection towards comics that grew steadily over the last half of 1969 and came to a head in the spring of 1970.  I’ve written about this period several times already on the blog (to the extent that regular readers may already be tired of reading about it), and how it seems to have stemmed in large part (though not wholly) from Marvel’s (thankfully temporary) move away from continued stories.  Still, I don’t think even that’s enough to account for my abandonment of Captain Marvel following issue #17.

So what was my problem?  After all, these days Captain Marvel #17 is widely regarded as the beginning of the best run the title had yet seen, or would see, prior to the advent of Jim Starlin.  And its significance is frequently seen to transcend this one title alone; in Comic Book Creator #11, Jon B. Cooke credits Thomas, Kane, and Adkins’ five issues of Captain Marvel with ushering in “the Bronze Age of Marvel… when a second wave of characters populated the House of Ideas line-up in the early ’70s.”  Looking back fifty years, it seems that my twelve-year-old self should have been delighted to be in on the ground floor of this exciting new direction — but I wasn’t.

I think the main reason goes back to what I was trying to say at the beginning of this post — which is that, for all its inconsistency and, okay, mediocrity, I had been enjoying the series’ old direction.  That’s especially true in regards to the material involving the Kree, Zo, and the like — the cosmic stuff, in other words.  It’s useful to remember that in the late Sixties, it was still a relatively rare thing for Marvel’s heroes to travel into deep space (with the notable exceptions of the Fantastic Four and the Mighty Thor — whose adventures were, of course, directed by Marvel’s number one imaginaut, Jack Kirby).  So this aspect of the pre-#17 issues of Captain Marvel — typified by the trans-galactic travel in #12 and #14, the head-tripping sequences in #15, and the scenes on Hala with the Supreme Intelligence in #16 — was giving readers something we weren’t seeing in most of Marvel’s other books.  For me, that was more interesting that reworking Mar-Vell into what seemed to be yet another Earth-based superhero — especially one whose new guiding concept was, at its heart, a loving tribute to a hero of yore — the original Captain Marvel — about whom I knew literally nothing, back in 1969.

I believe that I resented Rick Jones’ role in this new direction, as well.  As I’ve said, I was very unhappy with the way Rick’s partnership with Captain America came to an end.  In the long run, that dissatisfaction was probably less about my wanting to see Rick go into action wearing his Bucky Barnes togs than it was my being dismayed by the notion that Rick believed he’d been rejected by Cap, when it had really been the Red Skull all along — and that he was moving into this new phase of his life with that misconception still uncorrected.  The fact that the real Cap, following his defeat of the Skull in Captain America #119, didn’t seem to be in any big hurry to track Rick down and set things right with him rankled me as well.

Some of you old-timers (and perhaps even a few not-so-old-timers who, nevertheless, have a commendable knowledge of vintage Marvel comic books) may be wondering, “But what about Avengers #72?”  That particular issue featured “Did You Hear the One About Scorpio?” by the team of Roy Thomas, Sal Buscema, and Sam Grainger — a story which was mostly a sequel to Jim Steranko’s “Scorpio” storyline from Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and which also resolved a plotline left hanging from S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s recent cancellation, in which Director Nick Fury had apparently been assassinated) but which also attempted to resolve the unfinished business between Captain America and Rick Jones — beginning with a scene at the front of the issue that had Cap and Rick literally bumping into each other on the roof of Avengers Mansion:

“Still there’s no time to go into that now!”  Or, I suppose, to explain why you never tried to look Rick up and ask him to come back as your partner, either, eh, Cap?  But maybe after this urgent Avengers business gets dealt with?  Say, on page 20?

“No, I guess you don’t!”  Sigh…

It’s true that Rick doesn’t give Cap much of a chance here — his assumption that Cap isn’t asking him to be his partner again is never confirmed, either by Cap or by the story’s omniscient narrator — and that he essentially makes his own choice to stick with Mar-Vell.  But even if Cap’s addressing Rick as “partner” here was intended seriously, it wouldn’t excuse his earlier indifference.  Plus, it’s not exactly like he was being overly effusive in his praise here.  “Maybe you’re handier to have around than I imagined” doesn’t say much for his prior opinion of Rick’s worthiness, even if it was meant facetiously.  Sorry, Cap — but it’s too little, too late.

For the record, I didn’t read this story until some years after it came out.  When it was first published, in November, 1969, I was already heading into my ’69-’70 comic-book ennui; the prior issue of Avengers, #71, would end up being the last I’d purchase for a year.  But even if I’d read this story when it was brand new, I doubt I would have found it completely satisfying as a resolution to the Cap-Rick business, for the same reasons as described above.

I did get over it, eventually.  When the Falcon became Captain America’s official partner a year later, I didn’t mind at all; the fact that I’d been around for at least part of Sam Wilson’s introductory storyline probably helped, but beyond that, I think that even then I realized that had Rick remained Cap’s partner, he would never have been more than “Bucky II”.  The Falcon was a more original character, and provided more of a contrast to the Star-Spangled Avenger — which was what the Captain America title needed.

And when I did run into Captain Marvel again, in 1971 — without his own series at that time, but with Rick Jones still in tow — in Avengers #89, at the beginning of what we’d come to call “the Kree-Skrull War”, I was happy to see the guy. Though not quite so happy that I started buying his book again when Marvel resurrected it for the second time — at least, not right away.  Captain Marvel relaunched with its 22nd issue in June, 1972, with Gerry Conway writing and Wayne Boring on art, and I opted to take a pass — until some five issues into the run of a new artist, one Jim Starlin, whose work on the “Thing” team-ups in Marvel Feature I’d enjoyed, and who appeared to be using some of the same crazy, Kirbyesque characters and concepts (e.g., a purple-faced Darkseid-type villain named Thanos) he’d featured there in Captain Marvel, which he also began scripting with the first new issue I bought, #29.

Coincidentally, the first issue of CM featuring Starlin’s art, issue #25, had been released in the same month — December, 1972 — that saw the publication of Shazam! #1 from DC Comics.  That comic book saw the return, after nineteen years in limbo, of the original Captain Marvel (a hero whom Roy Thomas had in 1969 figured was “doubtless never-to-return”, to use his own ironic phrasing) — an event which essentially rendered the whole “loving tribute” aspect of Mar-Vell’s 1969 revamp irrelevant.  So, it’s just as well Starlin came along when he did, if you ask me.

But do you know what’s even stranger than that?  My first issue of Jim Starlin’s Captain Marvel, #29, opened with a scene in which Mar-Vell confronts a supremely powerful cosmic entity that’s aiming to soup up his powers — just like my first overall Captain Marvel issue, #12, had.  Of course, this time the cosmic entity in question, Eon, was the real thing, and not a humbug at all — and Mar-Vell wouldn’t just be getting “cosmic awareness” out of the deal, but a nice blonde hair dye job to boot.  Still, could this possibly be a coincidence?

Zo only knows.

7 comments

  1. Don Goodrum · July 24

    Sheesh, so many comments, so little time. I’ll try to be brief. I think the confrontation between Cap and Rick in Avengers #72 is a good example of one of the main flaws of the Marvel style of storytelling; one which you’ve given us numerous examples of here. The problem being that the scripter outlines a scene (in this case the one between Cap and Rick), but the penciller, either because he doesn’t fully understand what’s supposed to be happening or because he doesn’t feel it’s important or because (ala Gene Colan) he didn’t read the whole treatment and gave too much room to other stuff, doesn’t give the writer enough room to flesh it out as happened here. Surely a writer of Thomas’ stature, who cared about Cap and Rick as much as he did, didn’t intentionally leave their relationship in such a shambles and wouldn’t have, if he’d had more room to tell it. I hadn’t really thought about it until you brought it up, but way too many early Marvel stories feel chopped up and rushed at the end, largely because of this practice.

    As for Captain Marvel, I came to Marvel Comics in either 70 or 71 at the urging of my new friend John Lassetter and by the time I became familiar with Mar-Vell, I was already well-versed in the story of Billy Batson and his Captain (not only through the DC revival, but also-I believe-Steranko’s excellent History of Comics 1&2) and whereas Thomas uses words like “tribute” and “homage,” I used words like “rip-off” and “plagarism,” and saw the Marvel’s Captain as a cheap and shoddy attempt at having a character that shared the same name as the company, but built on the back of an older, more cherished work that Thomas didn’t have the right to sully. Such youth. Such passion. As it was, I didn’t read a Captain Marvel book until Starlin’s arrival (and even then, I came in a couple of years late) and never read #17 until years later, an issue which I now recognize as what Thomas intended; two incredibly talented professionals, working at the top of their game, trying to save one rather weak and two-dimensional character and paying homage to a bit of comics history at the same time. I hate the fact that it ultimately cost the original Captain Marvel his name, but I no longer consider it a rip-off. In fact, I wish I’d seen it sooner, because Kane’s pencils (and he is one of my heroes) are phenomenal.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Alan Stewart · July 24

      Thanks for the detailed commentary, Don! That’s an interesting point about Thomas possibly having been squeezed for space to flesh out the Cap and Rick dialogue in Avengers #72. I hadn’t considered that, bit it certainly could have gone down that way, with he and Sal Buscema working “Marvel method”.

      Like

  2. Chris Lindhardt · July 24

    Instead of feelin’ sorry for himself, Rick shoulda taken the pooch home. That said, another great entry, dude. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Neill · July 25

    Hi, Alan–I CAN tell you why the sentiment was negative on CM in the first half of ’69, as I had been reading it almost from inception–after Thomas and Colan left, Arnold Drake (with help from mediocre Don Heck art, although mitigated somewhat by Coletta inking) absolute destroyed the series with rambling dialogue and illogical plotting. He was followed by several writers and artists, and the series seemed to have no direction. I remember reading that letter (like you, after having read the story) and was in full agreement. And I was utterly thrilled with the new direction, tne new Kan/Adkins team, in particular. For me, this was Gil Kane’s coming-out party in comics, and Roy Thomas was at the top of his scripting game in ’69 (see XMen). Great post, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. blackwings666 · July 29

    GREAT – THANKS FOR POSTING!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Avengers Annual #3 (September, 1969) | Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books

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