Comic That Changed the Way You See the World
Today, I’m writing about a different Captain Marvel than the one I have already discussed. I’m talking about Marvel Comics’ version of Captain Marvel, the extraterrestrial spy-turned-traitor, Mar-Vell.
In 1991, I purchased The Life of Captain Marvel graphic novel. It tells of Mar-Vell’s encounter with the alien, Eon, and a transformation that changes him to the core. When I read this book, I wasn’t familiar with the original concept for the character: an alien spy, working for the evil Kree empire, posing on earth as scientist Walter Lawson. When he is seen wearing his Kree uniform, the earth-people mistake him for a superhero. Mar-Vell grows to sympathize with the earth people. He fights on their behalf, and he sabotages all the efforts of the Kree to subjugate the planet. But he also tries to maintain the appearance of a loyal Kree — a difficult balancing act. It’s a unique concept, but one that was doomed to be exhausted sooner or later.
So the character was re-invented. He was released from servitude to the Kree and bonded to the teenager Rick Jones, much as Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel had been bonded to the boy, Billy Batson. They would switch places whenever trouble came calling. Mar-Vell’s adventures become less space-oriented, and he was more of a typical earth-bound superhero than he had been. In spite of these changes, Marvel’s personality didn’t fundamentally change. This means he was basically a stern and somewhat paranoid military man.
This is the status of the character at the beginning of The Life of Captain Marvel. But writer/artist Jim Starlin has grander plans for the character. He has Mar-Vell be hand-picked by the alien entity, Eon, to become Protector of the Universe. To do this, Mar-Vell the Warrior must die. So Eon leads Mar-Vell through a death-and-rebirth ritual. During this ritual, Mar-Vell is confronted by graphic images of war through the ages.
Eon declares, “You have lived and accepted the ways of the warrior! The universe needs not a warrior, but a protector! He who seeks to protect must first love … and there is no love in war. Do you know war, Mar-Vell? This is war…. Destruction on an insanely gigantic scale, perpetrated by man against man! Man gives many reasons for battle, but can one truly believe that any cause is worth all the blood that war spills? Is it worth the dead, the crippled, the lost? Answer us, Mar-Vell!”
Eon goes on, “Do you not have an answer, warrior? Did you not fight for the Supreme Intelligence of the Kree in the past? Have you not had your share of warfare? Have you not tasted the sweet wine of victory? Or do you begin to realize that in war there can be only one true victor…. And that he stands alone atop a mountain of skulls — for he is death.”
Mar-Vell protests, saying there is honor in war; and he argues that he was always fighting for the good of those he loves. That’s when Eon hits him where it hurts. He shows Mar-Vell the body of Una, his one true love — who died as a casualty of the Kree’s warmongering ways. Eon brings the body back to “life,” but the body is without a soul. It shrieks like a banshee and attacks Mar-Vell before collapsing on the asteroid where she had been laid to rest. Eon says, “She is what you fought for! … Was it really worth it, warrior?”
Mar-Vell is now like an empty shell, questioning everything he ever stood for. He consents to be re-made by Eon. So Eon bathes him in energy, transforming Mar-Vell into Protector of the Universe. Part of this change is that Mar-Vell acquires a psychic power called Cosmic Awareness. This is the fundamental change of personality the character needed. So he becomes like a space-faring psychic hippie with vast cosmic powers.
In retrospect, the nature of this transformation was part of the zeitgeist of the early 1970s. And it was also a drastic effort to save a floundering comic book. But it nevertheless taps into a powerful idea that Joseph Campbell wrote about extensively. Death-and-rebirth rituals are a common rite of passage in numerous societies, because they help a young person “die” to his or her self-oriented, dependent self; and be “born” as a community-identified, contributing member of society. I didn’t know anything about Joseph Campbell or rites of passage when I read this book. But Mar-Vell’s transformation moved me deeply. Perhaps because it caused me to question my own identity…. Can we not all become Protectors of the Universe?
Tomorrow: A Smart Comic