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The ending that still matters – The Death of Captain Marvel

July 1, 2013

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Deaths in comic books tend to be a lot like retirement/loser leaves town matches in wrestling: they don’t stick. Sure, the characters get a “last” hurrah, and their proprietors get to milk all the associated drama and roll about in the cash that comes with it. We need only look to the ultimately underwhelming, incredibly long Death of Superman Sturm und Drang to know that morbid sells. But you always — always — know that these deaths aren’t forever. The nails holding the coffin lid shut aren’t tight. The crypt door is left open a crack. The wrestler *gasp* unretires or re-enters the city limits. And usually, sooner rather than later, the superhero so recently mourned is back as if nothing ever happened, as if the passage into oblivion was no more taxing than a trip to the dentist.

Captain Marvel’s death was different. It stuck. And it resonates to this day.  

Mar-Vell has so become the hallowed stuff of comic book legend, it’s easy to forget that he was once a third-tier Marvel character. Though he was integrated into the Marvel U. proper, and stood side by side with no lesser figures than the Avengers and Spider-Man, battling foes as Titanic (pun intended) as Thanos, he was never a true marquee star. Even in the hands of Jim Starlin, who wove a cosmic tapestry that became an entirely new wing of Marvel’s fictional architecture, his book never really sold. Mar-Vell’s eponymous title would be published in fits and starts (mainly to keep that valuable “UP YOURS, DC” trademark), and often he’d be relegated to anthology series, right alongside forgotten characters like Woodgod. He was something of an afterthought.

Then he died, and everything changed forever. Starlin, Marvel’s (both the character’s and the company’s) outer space maestro, sent him out in style in the very first Marvel Graphic Novel — before that lame descriptor had even entered the lexicon. And never was the larger, longer format used to greater effect. with more delicate aplomb, than in this first instance. The entire book is one long Viking funeral, written and drawn by Starlin, that winds down an alien hero’s life in a manner beautifully human. Re-reading it thirty years after publication, as I did for this post, it remains as fresh and affecting as it was when it was new. It has faults, but it’s stunning in parts, with emotional portions that surely draw some tears for the more sensitive among us. The book occasionally dips its toe into the pool of mawkish, but never dives in head first. And maybe what grounded it all was that it wasn’t some ray gun or death trap that killed Captain Marvel, but a scourge we all fear, the one that lurks deep in the lizard part of our collective consciousness: cancer.

The plot starts out in a pedestrian enough fashion. Mar-Vell is dictating his thoughts for posterity, from Kree warrior to the present, though it’s not clear at first why. He’s semi-retired at this point, fighting galactic threats when he feels like it, but not making a habit of searching them out. When he, Eros and Mentor travel to Thanos’ old warship to recover the Mad Titan’s petrified corpse, a surprise attack from that big bad’s old adherents, though quickly subdued, sends him into a coughing fit. Back on Titan he reveals his terminal secret to a concerned and suspicious Mentor: years before he inhaled a deadly nerve gas (an actual event from one of the old comics), and slowly it has mutated and metastasized his super-cells. Mentor promises to help, but there doesn’t seem to be much hope.

It’s then that Mar-Vell starts putting his house in order. First up: his new love, Elysius. To this point, Starlin’s pages have been your standard word- and thought-balloon-filled panels — possibly too much so. Which makes this revelation all the more potent:

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The reminisces continue, with Mar-Vell looking back over his times. Is it a blessing to know your days are numbered? Is it better to go quickly, if unexpectedly? These are questions that are pondered in the plot’s subtext, but Mar-Vell’s known prognosis at least gives him a chance to mentally bid adieu even to those who would never visit his bedside — most of whom he would never want there anyway. I wish I could give a prize (No-Prize?) to the first person to name every foe pictured here:

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One of the most poignant farewells is with Mar-Vell’s former alter ego and erstwhile human sidekick machine, Rick Jones, who’s in one of his non-superhero interregnums. Mar-Vell’s face, Rick’s hands:

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Rick’s response to both the illness and Mar-Vell’s calm acceptance of it is one of the stages of grief: anger. He stalks off, furious, and Mar-Vell wonders if he’ll ever see him again. He does, later on, as his universe of friends gathers at his bedside, and it’s one of the more tender reunions the book has to offer.

Small moments sell the reality of Mar-Vell’s cancer, like this one, familiar to anyone whose seen a friend or family member eaten away:

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The combined intellects of Mentor, Dr. Strange, Reed Richards, Thor, Beast, etc. are no match for Captain Marvel’s unique form of, as the Kree call it, “the blackend.” So begins the parade of old friends — and some honorable enemies — to the Captain’s bedside. The Thing and Spider-Man, who once shared a classic Marvel Two-in-One annual cover with Mar-Vell’s great foe, Thanos are among them, and the personalities on display tap into what makes the characters so appealing. Is it any wonder that the younger of the two visitors — who’s always, at root, just a scared kid under the powers and the tights — has the most trouble dealing with it all?:

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Mar-Vell’s story doesn’t end with a flatline and heroic efforts to restart his heart. It ends on whatever astral plane functions as beyond’s anteroom. There, suddenly whole again, he battles old foe Thanos one last time, along with other dead enemies — or so he thinks. It’s actually something else — a way to sever his final ties to his mortal husk. Thanos has always possessed elements of class and dignity to go along with his nihilistic madness, and never were they more clear than here, as he acts as a guide and co-traveler over whatever Styx this is supposed to be. Friends in strange places indeed. And who knows Mistress Death better? Who would be better at handling the introductions?:

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There are no last words for Mar-Vell. No “Rosebud.” Or “It’s under a big W.” Just a quick “He’s gone” from Mentor. That’s it. And by that point you feel like you’ve lived and died right alongside him.

Mar-Vell was long gone before I really dug into comics, but I recall his presence still being felt in Starlin’s Silver Surfer/Infinity Gauntlet-War-Crusade tenures in the 1990s. He — and his cancer — also came up in the final arc of Rom, a Ditko-infused treasure of my youth. Captain Marvel was by then like someone you see enshrined in marble in a city square: you learn they’re important, but you’re not sure why. You just see a hero of old with bird crap streaming down the side of his head.

And just what is Captain Marvel’s importance, his significance in the broader industry? What makes him a marble model? It’s his ending. What Starlin did was so deft and pure, it’s rendered the typical return impossible. Yes, the old Captain has occasionally made re-appearances, whether as a soul, a clone, or some imposter masquerading as the dead Kree — most recently a brief resurrection in 2012’s Avengers vs. X-Men crossover. But these returns have never been permanent. Mar-Vell has stayed dead, because no writer, artist, editor, letterer, whatever, wants to be the one to render it irrelevant. The only character death of similar import, one that had a long run, was that of the Flash, but no one ever confused his conventional, universe-saving sacrifice in the Crisis with Captain Marvel dying in his bed. And guess what — 20+ years later, Barry Allen was back running free in the DCU. But the Anti-Monitor isn’t cancer. It wasn’t some made up gray monster in green pants with bones protruding that was Mar-Vell’s doomsday, it was his own body. So Captain Marvel remains deceased, and rightfully so. The 2012 return trod dangerously close to blasphemy, but thankfully it ultimately let the poor man rest once more in peace. Nobody has trampled over Mr. Starlin’s Opus.

The Death of Captain Marvel will remain, for a very long while, one of the standards of the form. It’s already been just that for thirty years. It’s been that because it used the medium, one of fantasy, to deal with reality, and through that it moved beyond its confines. In some ways it’s just as touching as the infinitely more depressing Spider-Man/Power Pack molestation comic, though this story obviously has greater implications for the broader continuity. The death remains largely untouched because it was so powerful, yet it remains powerful because it’s been largely untouched. Here’s hoping that cycle is never broken.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. m.l. post permalink
    July 1, 2013 1:14 pm

    You’re right. Captain Marvel’s the only major superhero that never came back, as far as I know.
    It was a good comic. It treated the subject matter in a serious and sober way. I think I have some perspective on this, because my father died of cancer and it was very hard. There’s nothing funny about it.
    I think this comic is about finding dignity and grace in the face of something that often isn’t very dignified or graceful. It’s very personal for me, but I’m glad you showed it here.

  2. markginocchio permalink
    July 2, 2013 11:58 am

    Great write-up… Over the past year or so (really since the Thanos cameo in the Avengers movie), I’ve been reading more of the cosmic stuff, and specifically Starlin’s greatest hits. I haven’t reached Captain Marvel yet, but it’s on my “to-read” list in my Marvel U app. This write-up makes me want to move it to the front of the pile.

    • July 3, 2013 8:15 am

      This is an instance where it’s okay to know the end before the middle. I’d almost recommend starting with Captain Marvel’s death, as it makes the — sometimes mundane — events of his life more dramatic.

  3. Edo Bosnar permalink
    July 3, 2013 6:32 am

    Thanks for posting an outstanding review; I just re-read this last night – in fact, I realized after finishing that the first time, about 30 years ago, I pretty much skimmed through a borrowed copy of the book.
    Anyway, you’re right on all counts: the story hits all the right points, and it’s just as relevant and poignant today as it was all those years ago.

  4. Anonymous Comic fan permalink
    March 26, 2014 1:02 pm

    I respect your review and opinion, however I have some real continuity problems with it and always have, let me explain why and hear me out as I do not deny the touching of the work itself). First, if you read the original Captain Marvel series (Starlin’s original run coming after the classic Roy Thomas/Gil Kane run which saw the Mar-Vell get his now iconic red and blue outfit, Starlin’s run being issues #25-34) what baffles me is that Mar-Vell is an alien (a pink kree to be exact) and is clearly CURED of all effects of the nerve gas in Captain Marvel #35 by Dr. Henry Pym, yet they act like this never happened, lol. (Its true, pick one up and read closely.) The other problem is that even in Death of Captain Marvel’s spiritual form is separated from his dying body, and for a guy is literally “one with the universe” that’s an awfully big story hole in my opinion and an easy way to bring him back without undoing the story. Clearly, it never made sense to me to have such a touching and human death for such a beloved and cult hero (especially today) when he isn’t really human. Also, I think 30 years is long enough but that’s just how I see it. Thank you

    • March 26, 2014 1:15 pm

      I don’t think your criticisms hold any water — cancer can’t strike after a long dormancy, where everything seems fine? Is there not something called “remission”? And I’m not even sure what your point is in the second half of your comment.

      You’re not not seeing the forest for the trees.

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