Saturday, March 8, 2014

Does It Stand? The Death of Captain Marvel

With the January announcement that comic book legend Jim Starlin was returning to Marvel to write a new graphic novel titled Thanos: The Infinity Revelation to be released in 2014, I got to thinking about one of his marquee works The Death of Captain Marvel and an exchange at a Marvel panel of FanExpo Canada 2012 between Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso and a fan. The floor had opened for questions and the fan asked when was the real Captain Marvel coming back. Of course, the impressive sales Captain Marvel #1 (July 2012) were still on the Marvel minds and that's what probably led to Alonso's curt response: "We have a Captain Marvel in the Marvel Universe and her name is Carol Danvers."

Axel Alonso (far left) and other "House of Ideas" dignitaries at Fan Expo Canada 2012
The fan, not taking the hint, persisted and subsequently launched into an ill-thought-out diatribe about how Danvers wasn’t the same as Mar-Vell. Alonso’s tone immediately changed from fan-obliging editor to ticked-off expert and he proceeded to dress the fan down (in as polite a way as possible) explaining how he watched his father die of cancer and would never disrespect such an important part of the Marvel Universe. Alonso also saw Starlin's story as an important tribute to all those who have been taken by cancer and if Marvel were to resurrect Mar-Vell, it would seriously insult those people. As a cancer survivor myself I could not have agreed more with Alonso's statement and afterwards approached him to express my thanks. In my opinion Mar-Vell's death remains both an important moment in the Marvel Universe and in comic book storytelling generally.

The original cover of Marvel's Death of Captain Marvel Marvel Graphic Novel Vol.1 #1 (April 1982) by Jim Starlin. The volume was reprinted in a 2013.
But what of the telling of the death of Captain Marvel itself? Does this early graphic novel stand the test of time? It's over 30 years old now, and we've all read late Bronze age material that isn't quite as readable as today's books. Does The Death of Captain Marvel stand up to today's discerning comic book reader? The following piece will look at this question but also do so through the eyes of a cancer survivor as this aspect of the book is such an important part of the story itself. 

Pain, self-pity, frustration and fear are just some of the emotions Mar-Vell goes through when coming to terms with his cancer diagnosis. All subsequent images from Marvel's  The Death of Captain Marvel (April 1982)
I'd say that The Death of Captain Marvel does stand up for today's reader. Starlin’s writing could be counted in the "gifted" category even back in the early 1980s and while script does have some self-reflective bubbles that one normally doesn't see in today's books, the dialogue does not have too "Uggh the 80s" of a feel to it and could match contemporary comic book storytelling. 

The sentiment is similiar for Mar-Vell's friends.
Moreover, the basic storyline – one of reflection and contemplation is still very poignant. The story begins with Mar-vell on a spaceship, recording his thoughts about the life he has lived. We then track back to his days when as a hero he was exposed to a canister of nerve gas while fighting a villain named Nitro. This happened seven years prior, but now the exposure's legacy has finally come out of remission and presumably metastasized (become a secondary tumor of similar cells) and is killing him. It also becomes apparent that the Negabands which had previously held the cancer at bay, were no longer effective and the inevitable would soon arrive. Once the reader learns that it's the "Inner Decay" (call that by the Titans), the "Blackend" (Kree) or cancer, we are then introduced to Mar-Vell's efforts to come to terms with his impending death, his friend's efforts to use their considerable talents to save him, his final good-byes before one last challenge from his old foe, Thanos. When that is all completed Captain Marvel dies.

Mar-vell of the Kree dies surrounded by heroes in The Death of Captain Marvel.
As mentioned, I read this book through the lenses of a cancer survivor. My personal experience with the disease started in May 1995 when I threw a baseball and twisted my leg, experiencing a pain that I never quite experienced before. From there I met with a many different doctors who eventually referred me to one of the biggest research hospitals in Canada where I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. With that I immediately started an intense regime of chemotherapy. This went on for three days at a time with three weeks between each session. After the third, I had an operation to remove the infected tissue and have a titanium prosthetic inserted to hold my leg together. After three more chemo sessions, I started the long road to recovery and 18 years later, I'm still here. I now walk with a slight limp and cane, but otherwise live a relatively normal life. 

Very much like Mar-Vell's experiences in The Death of Captain Marvel, the external reaction to my own illness was quite mixed. Some friends walked away not sure how to deal with the gravity of my condition. Others did whatever they could to make me feel better. Again some other friends simply sat with me and were quietly and patiently my friends. Indeed, I think Captain Marvel is a story that most people who have been diagnosed with cancer can relate to and Starlin does an excellent job taking his readers through the journey of feelings and emotions of so many people who have undergone treatment. Pain, self-pity, frustration and fear is all very normal for anyone who has cancer and not even the greatest of us superhero or mortal is immune to them. Being a long-time volunteer with numerous cancer organizations and currently in a position where I sit on a committee of fellow survivors who advise doctors who treat cancer patients, I can tell you from personal experience that Jim Starlin hit on some universal feelings when he wrote how Mar-Vell saw his own life slowly slip away and how powerless he felt about it.

A Marvel-616 Universe without cancer would be unfair to  both the heroes and us readers. In this scene Starlin makes it clear that even the greatest minds in the Marvel Universe cannot stop cancer. 
In fact, I would go as far to say that The Death of Captain Marvel is an important comic reading experience and most certainly stands for the reader in 2014. The art is typical of what you would see in the early 1980s, but the real power is the experience of watching a formerly (near) invincible individual, reflect on his passing and then die. Fortunately, this is something I have yet to experience, but reading this graphic novel did remind me of many of my cancer-related trials and is valuable for anyone wanting to understand what it's like for someone living with cancer. Kudos to the list of Marvel editors who have keep this book so powerful by not resurrecting Mar-Vell (on a permenant basis at least) and to Axel Alonso for coming to its defence in 2012. As always, thank you for visiting WGTB and below are some links to cancer organizations you might consider supporting. They're from countries where the readership of this blog is greatest but if you would like to suggest another, please leave a comment with its website below. 

Sarcoma Cancer Foundation of Canada 
Sarcoma UK
Sarcoma Foundation of America 
Teenage Cancer Trust (UK)
Australian Youth Against Cancer

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