MARVEL COMICS MIGHT HAVE OWNED THE NAME CAPTAIN MARVEL, but I'm not entirely sure writer Stan Lee quite knew what to do with the character, after publisher Martin Goodman insisted the superhero be added to the company's lineup. After writing the first appearance himself, with the ever-capable Gene Colan on art, he handed the reins over to Roy Thomas, for me an indication that Stan didn't have a great deal of faith or interest in the project.
|The first appearance of Captain Marvel in Marvel Super-Heroes 12 was scripted by Stan Lee. With the second appearance, Roy Thomas took over as writer.|
For the origin and background of Captain Mar-Vell, Stan drew on the concepts of the Kree, an alien race first mentioned in Fantastic Four 64 (Jul 1967). And in setting up the background for Mar-Vell's story, he fell back on one of his favourite devices, the three-way romantic triangle - The Captain, his love interest Medic Una and the dastardly commanding officer Colonel Yon-Rogg.
|There's not a great deal of plot in the first Captain Marvel story ... what there is is pretty well outlined in the above two pages.|
The Captain's here to investigate the destruction of Kree Sentry 459 at the hands of the Fantastic Four, and if necessary, punish the guilty. But the Captain's presence inadvertently interferes with a missile test and within moments he has the US Army hunting him. He disguises himself as a human and registers at a nearby seedy motel under the name of "Marvel" ... and that's pretty much it. Make something of that, if you can, Roy Thomas.
|There's a lot more going on in Roy Thomas' take on Captain Marvel - Mar-Vell gets a secret identity, we meet Carol Danvers and witness the return of Sentry 459.|
And to be fair, Roy does a bit better than that. Though he has an expanded page count (increased to 20 from the previous issue's 15), he still manages to pack every page with action, plot advancement and menace ...
Colonel Yon-Rogg's enmity towards Mar-Vell accidentally becomes the means by which Captain Marvel acquires the human persona of Walter Lawson. Yon-Rogg tries to blast Mar-Vell with the Kree ship's laser cannon, only to destroy the light aircraft bringing Lawson to the US Army missile base to take up a post as head of research. Lawson is killed in the blast, allowing Mar-Vell to assume his identity. Entering the base as Lawson, Mar-Vell meets Carol Danvers, who will loom large in later iterations of the Captain Marvel saga. It's also revealed that the remains of Sentry 459 have been transported to the base from the Pacific island where it had its fatal encounter with The Fantastic Four.
The only thing I wasn't mad keen on was Paul Reinman's inking, ill-suited to Colan's punchy and atmospheric pencils and not a patch on Frank Giacoia's inks in the previous issue.
|If you bought Marvel Super-Heroes 14 for the next episode of Captain Marvel, then you were destined for disappointment. You got an inventory Spider-Man story from Ross Andru and Bill Everett instead.|
At the end of the instalment, there's the standard Next Issue blurb, telling us to expect more of the same in Marvel Super-Heroes 14 ... except that's not what we got. With the sudden and dramatic expansion of the Marvel line in the spring of 1968, Martin Goodman evidently felt that boosting Captain Marvel into his own title would further reinforce his claim to the character's name (and he was also looking to expand the comics line so he could get more money from the prospective new owner of Marvel, Marty Ackerman) ... so that's what happened. I've discussed the 1968 Marvel explosion elsewhere in this blog, so I won't go over the same ground again, but instead of putting the next Captain Marvel story in Marvel Super-Heroes, Goodman ordered Editor Stan Lee to prepare an additional title, Marvel's Space-Born Super-hero, Captain Marvel, which debuted on 8 Feb 1968, cover-dated May 1968, the same month that Iron Man and Sub-Mariner got their own titles.
|Despite having a full two months to prepare Captain Marvel 1 (May 1968) for publication, the whole affair feels very rushed, both storywise and artwise.|
Roy Thomas and Gene Colan continued the story started in Marvel Super-Heroes, though this time, Colan's pencils were inked by Vince Colletta, probably one of the least sympathetic inkers on Marvel's roster. But somehow, this time, there doesn't seem to be enough story the fill the 21 pages allocated to the last chapter of the story. Essentially, it mostly a battle against the Sentry, peppered with jump-the-shark lines like "He doesn't realise I modified my [jet] belt." and "I did indeed modify the uni-beam". There's also a quick scene back on the mother-ship where Medic Una tries and fails to escape her bonds, and in the latter half of the battle outside the missile base, Captain Mar-Vell once again meets Carol Danvers, the base's Head of Security.
|Despite 16 pages out of the 21 pages being taken up with battle action, Roy Thomas still manages to squeeze in scenes with the two important female characters.|
Needless to say, The Sentry is defeated, Mar-Vell is accepted as a hero and the title is on the schedule as a monthly. Given that Colan's art does looked awfully hurried , you have to wonder what issue 2 is going to look like.
|Tick,tick,tick ... Mar-Vell must defeat the Super Skrull if he's to prevent his own nuclear briefcase from annihilating the US Army missile base and everyone on it.|
Well, to be honest, it looked a lot like the previous issue. Vinnie Colletta was still there on inks, doing as little as he could get away with, but Roy Thomas was gamely trying to include more story and less fighting. The plot had the nosey night clerk from the motel "Walter Lawson" was staying at - the one who was snooping around in Mar-Vell's room and finding the standard-issue Kree attache case - deciding that he should turn the case over to the military. What he doesn't know is that in fiddling with the case, he's armed a nuclear device that will destroy everything in a ten mile radius within two hours. Meanwhile, the Skrulls are wondering what a high-profile Kree warrior like Mar-Vell is doing on a backwater planet like Earth, and despatch the Super-Skrull to find out. Yes, you guessed it ... the Super-Skull tries to force Mar-Vell to explain himself, preventing our hero from disarming the nuclear explosive in his attache case. So Roy wasn't altogether unsuccessful here. Penciller Gene Colan does some great action sequences, but there's a lot of three and four-panel pages, to stretch the still rather thin material out to 20 pages.
|Mar-Vell finally defeats the Super-Skrull by using the same method Mr Fantastic used in FF2 ... (spoiler alert!) he hypnotises the alien into forgetting who he is ...|
Captain Marvel 3 (Jul 1968) has more of the same ... capturing Mar-Vell, the Super-Skrull takes his prisoner to his Skrull ship and tries to extract the secret of Mar-Vell's mission - though it's little more than a three-page recap of the previous chapters of the Kree warrior's story. But Mar-Vell breaks free and leads his enemy up to the edge of Earth's atmosphere, where Mar-Vell's jet-belt begins to fail. Thinking his foe doomed, the Super-Skrull returns to Earth to recover Mar-Vell's attache case (remember that?), while Mar-Vell manages to reach the invisible Kree ship. There's some more obligatory argy-bargy with the mean Yon-Rogg, then Mar-Vell wins permission to return to Earth and beat down on the Super-Skrull some more.
Captain Marvel finally defeats the Super-Skrull - using the time-worm hypnosis trick -and disarms his nuclear briefcase. And that's it for another month.
The following month, in Captain Marvel 4, our hero finds himself trapped in an almost identical plot, except this time the one preventing him from saving the Earth is Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner.
|My guess is that at the beginning of the Captain Marvel run, Stan had mandated that he battle a few established Marvel characters first to help with sales and to show the readers where in the power pecking-order Mar-Vell stood ...|
Namor is on his way to seek help tracking down his enemy Destiny from, of all people, Reed Richards (see Sub-Mariner 3, Jul 1968). At the same time, a test missile is being launched from the base where Mar-Vell poses as Dr Walter Lawson. The missile will carry bacteria into orbit to test their resilience to cosmic rays. But the missile goes off-course and crashlands in the sea close to New York. Mar-Vell hurries to destroy the payload before all of New York is drenched in deadly microbes, and The Sub-Mariner sort of gets in the way.
These last few issues have seemed a bit "by-the-numbers", as though Thomas and Colan were just trying to get a task off their to-do list as quickly as possible. I suspect Stan Lee may have mapped out the course for the first few issues, which Thomas just had to follow. Likewise, it's far from Colan's best work. Compare what he was doing over on Daredevil at the same time (issue 43 came out the same month as CM4) and it's a very different kettle of artwork. And adding to the pressure was the 25 pages of artwork Colan turned in for the Madame Medusa story in Marvel Super-Heroes 15 (Jul 1968). Colan had already dropped Iron Man from his workload a couple of months earlier, and Captain Marvel 4 would be his last issue. The following month he'd take over Doctor Strange from Dan Adkins and that was an assignment that really played to Colan's strengths. Besides, it would have sublime Tom Palmer inking.
|Just some of the highlights of Drake's stint at DC ... the Jerry Lewis comic with camp counsellors as Nazis caused less furore than you might imagine.|
Captain Marvel was not to be stopped, though. Issue 5 came with a change of personnel. The scripting was assumed by Arnold Drake, who'd toiled for 15 years at DC on strips like Challengers of the Unknown, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis and most notably Doom Patrol. It was Drake who had confronted Irwin Donenfeld back in the early 1960s, when Marvel was making inroads on DC's sales. Drake had tried to explain to the DC Editorial Director that times were changing and so were the comic audiences. DC needed to change with them if they were going to complete with Marvel Comics. The DC management still weren't listening as Marvel Comics overtook them in sales, and Drake left DC - quit or was shoved, accounts vary - and started working for Marvel around the beginning of 1968.
On paper, Drake probably looked like a good fit to Stan, who was in dire need of experienced writers to help with Marvel's virtually doubled-overnight output. But as I noted in my earlier piece, Drake had realised that Marvel were doing something right, but he struggled to articulate exactly what that was. "Pitch the books at an older readership" is a manifesto, not an instruction manual.
|Experienced though Arnold Drake was, he couldn't quite put his (typing) finger on the authentic-sounding Marvel "tone", and as a result, his third scripting job under Stan's editorship rings a little bland.|
So it's not surprising to me that Captain Marvel 5 (Sep 1968) could easily have been published by DC. I mean, there's nothing wrong with it ... the story moves along and the dialogue is serviceable, if a little ponderous in places, like a not-very-good pastiche of Stan's writing. But Drake is just finding his feet here - this is his third script for Marvel after Captain Savage 5 and X-Men 47 - so it wouldn't be fair to be too harsh, at this point.
On the other hand, the Don Heck art job was extremely serviceable. At this point in Marvel's history, poor Don had been abandoned to a certain extent. After losing his regular Avengers gig to John Buscema with issue 40 (May 1967), probably under the pretext that he had the 54 pages of Avengers Annual 1 (Sep 1967) to pencil. He returned to Avengers for a fill-in on issue 45 (Oct 1967) and was then assigned to X-Men, one of Marvel's poorest selling titles, from 37 - 55. We know this because when Marvel managed to hire Neal Adams, he asked Stan, "which is your worst selling title?" ... and when Stan said, "X-Men", Adams said, "I'll draw that, then." When Adams took over X-Men, Heck was left with pencilling Amazing Spider-Man 57-64 & 66 (Feb - Nov 1968) over John Romita layouts, Captain Marvel (reassigned to Gil Kane with issue 17, Oct 1969), Captain Savage (reassigned with issue 17, Nov 1969). It's almost as if someone had decided that Heck's services were no longer needed at Marvel. So by the end of 1969, Heck would pack up his pencil and head off to DC where he was better appreciated, drawing great female characters like Batgirl, Rose & Thorn and Wonder Woman.
|The monsters come thick and fast in Captain Marvel 6 ... it reads a little like Drake delivered a story synopsis front-loaded with too much story and Stan added the action sequence to kick things off.|
The following month, Captain Marvel 6 (Oct 1968) gave us not one, but two monsters of the month, behind the Don Heck cover. The first was featured in a spurious action sequence opener for the issue where Mar-Vell battled a simulated monster in a Kree virtual battle exercise. The second is the solar energy generated Solam, and energy beast created by a visiting scientist's ill-considered "tampering with the unknown" style experiment. Captain Marvel defeats the second monster by over-feeding it with energy, a tactic that's been used before in the Marvel Universe ... a No-Prize for the first reader who can identify where.
|Captain Marvel's persistent thwarting of evil Yon-Rogg's plan are a bit more interesting than the battle with the obligatory monster ... this month, Quasimodo.|
Captain Marvel 7 (Nov 1968) cover-starred Quasimodo (last seen battling the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four Annual 5 (Nov 1967) drawn by John Romita, but Drake's script brought a bit more of Mar-Vell's melodrama to the proceedings. First, Captain Marvel faces the accusations of Yon-Rogg (again) for helping the Earthlings defeat last issue's Monster-of-the-Month. Yet, even Ronan the Accuser is unable to make the charges stick. Next up, Yon-Rogg, tiring of Carol Danvers' ongoing investigation of "Walter Lawson" resolves to disintegrate her with a blast of cosmic rays from his ship's cannons ... but Mar-Vell contrives to save her. The rest of the issue has Mar-Vell battle Quasimodo and thwart Yon-Rogg's orders to wipe out a random Earth community with a deadly virus, by appearing to "kill" Quasimodo's humanoid robots with the bacterial sample ...
|This was the first issue where I felt that Drake was daring to develop the characters and the backstory a bit ... exposing the real Walter Lawson as a bit of a shady character. Nice to see Gene Colan back on the cover art.|
Captain Marvel 8 (Dec 1968) opens with a battle between an interloping alien species called The Aarak and Yon-Rogg's Kree expeditionary force. Though Yon-Rogg is wounded in the battle and is recovered by Captain Mar-Vell, he shows little gratitude, relentlessly pursuing his vendetta against his junior officer. After the battle, Mar-Vell returns to Earth and begins to investigate the life of the Earth man he's impersonating, Dr Walter Lawson. Lawson's home is more lavish than a research scientist could aspire to. And beneath the house, Captain Marvel discovers an extensive and well-equipped laboratory. The evidence suggests Lawson had created a large robot, though for what purpose is not disclosed. The mystery deepens when two costumed gunmen enter Lawson's home and start shooting at Captain Marvel. It appears that Lawson had created the robot for some criminal organisation and now the murderous machine is on the loose, cuing up yet another battle between Captain Marvel and a monster. Inevitably, a five-page battle ensues and Captain Marvell apparently destroys the giant robot
|Last issue the giant robot didn't seen to have a name, being referred to as "robot" or "cyberton" This time out, he calls himself "Cyberex" and everyone else follows suit. Sounds like an editorial correction to me. And another nice Colan cover.|
But we're not done with the Aakon - or the robot - yet ... they're all back in the following issue. And because of Yon-Rogg's reckless attack, a retaliation by the Aakon threatens to expose Mar-Vell's Kree mission on Earth. So, here's an abbreviated version of the plot ... Carol Danvers goes snooping around "Walter Lawson's" motel room. The giant robot turns up and takes her as bait for "Lawson". The robot reveals that Lawson is not his creator. Inexplicably. Captain Marvel knows that the robot is holding Carol captive and rushes to rescue her. Yon-Rogg remotely activates Mar-Vell's wrist monitor so the Aakon know where he is ... and of course they attack. Cue the three-way battle between Captain Marvel, the Aakon and the giant robot (who now calls himself Cyberex) lasting a slightly excessive nine pages. It's all a bit humorless and po-faced. I'm not getting the sense, here, that Arnold Drake was able to grasp what it was that made Stan's scripts so memorable. Interestingly, that issue's Bullpen Bulletins bigs up the new Marvel scripters, Archie Goodwin and Arnold Drake. Stan (or maybe Roy) even touts some forthcoming work by Atlas veteran Ernie Hart. In the end that turns out to be the solitary dialoguing job Hart did on Nick Fury 8 (Jan 1969), before disappearing from Marvel for the final time.
|Captain Marvel 10 plods its way through Arnold Drake's plot. But Heck delivers some nice work here. I really like his layout on page 10.|
In Captain Marvel 10 (Feb 1969), we begin to learn a bit more about The Organisation, the criminal outfit that sent the Cyberex robot after "Walter Lawson", and its leader, Number One. Mar-Vell, too, is destined to discover more about his underhanded foes, as Ronan the Accuser orders him to gather information on The Organisation in case The Kree have to "deal with" them one day. However, The Organisation captures Carol Danvers and invites "Walter Lawson" to surrender to them. Captain Marvel goes in his place and initially pretends to be interested in an alliance, but slips a gas capsule to Carol that she can use to escape. Then all heck breaks loose and Mar-Vell finds himself facing an aging ray, apparently created by the real Lawson. Mar-Vell turns the ray on The Organisation and pretty much cleans their clock. But there's unexpected fallout from his victory. Yon-Rogg orders Captain Marvel's immediate execution.
And that pretty much closes the door on The Organisation, a kind of bargain-basement AIM, without the interesting bee-keeper outfits. I wasn't terribly sorry to see the back of them. I was a bit sorry to see Heck leave the book, though ...
|Why the Barry Smith cover and the rushed Dick Ayers interior art? I'd speculate that the inexperienced Barry was supposed to do the insides but ran into scheduling problems and Ayers had to bail Marvel out. But pure guesswork on my part.|
Captain Marvel 11 (Mar 1969) sported an interesting Barry Smith cover, one of his first works as Marvel. Channelling Kirby, Smith's art is is even more extreme, and it might have been more interesting if Smith had drawn the interior art. But what we got was a very rushed-looking Dick Ayers pencil job, not helped by Vinnie Colletta's usual slapdash inking. Arnold Drake's script takes Mar-Vell in a completely new direction. I don't know what went on behind the scenes. Perhaps sales weren't all that Stan was hoping for, but with this issue Drake brings in some sweeping changes. He kills off Medic Una, which I think was for the best. That storyline wasn't going anywhere. He also gets rid of Mar-Vell's weapon, the Uni-Beam, and gives our hero actual superpowers - through the agency of Zo and his conveniently lovely gaggle of handmaidens.
|The way in which Captain Marvel gets a makeover is all a bit contrived ... can it be a coincidence that "Zo" is Oz backwards? Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain ...|
The catch is that going forward, Captain Marvel will become a tool of the alien intelligence Zo and that may or may not involve some tough moral choices ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
|A hugely better art job from Dick Ayers in Captain Marvel 12, almost as if he's trying to blot out reader's memories of last month's lacklustre art, but the pace of Arnold Drake's storytelling is glacial.|
So, as Captain Marvel 12 (Apr 1969) gets under way, Mar-Vell returns to Earth and tries to resume his Walter Lawson identity. I'm not sure why, as he's no longer under any obligation to carry out his Kree mission. And posing as Walter Lawson won't conceal his presence from Yon-Rogg .. but as "Lawson" returns to the missile base a plastic robot, The Manslayer, attacks and Captain Marvel ventures forward to defend the base. In another location, Natasha Romanova, The Black Widow, is stalking the controller of the robot, presumably on a SHIELD mission. Though The Widow manages to stop the robot, she's captured by the bad guy controlling the robot, to be held as a hostage against some future threat.
This would be the last issue from Arnold Drake and Dick Ayers. In fact, shortly after this, Drake would finish up his run of Captain Savage, with issue 16 (Sep 1969), pack up his typewriter and move over to Gold Key. It wasn't a memorable run, and I don't think Drake ever really understood the Marvel way of doing things.
|Arnold Drake: 1 Mar 1924 - 12 Mar 2007|
Drake would spend the rest of his comics career writing a variety of titles for Gold Key, contributing a long and memorable run on Little Lulu, and even returning to DC where he scripted Phantom Stranger and wrote a few stories to DC's war titles, most notably Weird War Tales. Drake had pretty much retired from comics around 1985, and died in 2007 after a short battle with pneumonia.
But that wasn't the end of Captain Marvel's publishing troubles. Marvel Comics would continue to struggle to find a strong commercial direction for Mar-Vell, and I'll be looking at the rest of his rocky early progress in the next instalment of this blog.
Next: A superhero in search of a USP