Monday, January 5, 2015

'I need to find the edge of me' - a female superhero for our age? Introducing Carol Danvers' Captain Marvel

In light of my recent post on Carrie, aka Robin, in the Dark Knight Returns – I thought I’d do another relatively brief (in terms of depth) post on a female graphic novel/comic character. One of the gifts I received for Christmas was the first issue of the most recent Captain Marvel (by Kelly Sue DeConnick) collection – one of Marvel’s new(ish) diversifying characters. Now I am no comic buff (yet) and have only come to graphic novels quite recently but I have always had an interest in the superhero genre and an interest in diversity and women in literature - particularly dystopia. So I want to learn - this post is as much for me as for you guys!

I want to introduce those of you who don’t know to Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (the latest of many but sure to become one of the most prominent female superheroes).

First a bit of backstory  which isn’t evident in the comic. (I admit this is heavily simplified and not comprehensive. For a look at the controversial side of her history see this link:

Carol is not just a new character conveniently assigned to fulfil a quota of female superheroes and protagonists which the comic/gaming world has been under pressure to provide (I am one of the people who want these – obviously there is though a tension between forcing it and creating natural/organic characters who are individuals and not just created for the sake of political correctness. Perhaps though this stage is necessary to get to the desired outcome. Diversity is something that has to be promoted and should ultimately only benefit the comic universe). 

Carol Danvers has been in the Marvel universe for a long time though it is only in the past two/three years that she has become THE Captain Marvel. Prior to this she was Ms Marvel and before that – a member of the Air Force and a Security Chief of a military base. Growing up she fought (notably against her father) for equal pay for women and to be deemed worthy in her father’s eyes in spite of his negligence. She received better grades but her brother was sent to college over her. She faced many civil struggles that women of the age were facing and confronted them with her characteristic stubbornness and refusal to play by others' rules. 

Carol is the incarnation of Captain Marvel which is going to be released as a film in 2018 – a credible female-led Marvel movie! This basically confirms she will be around for a while. She first came into existence in Marvel Super-Heroes #13 in 1968 and became Ms. Marvel in 1977. She becomes a human-Kree hybrid after being rescued by the then Captain Marvel in the 60s. The title ‘Ms.’ is definitively intended to release her from simple categorisation by marital status. As is typical in the comic world – her character has been changed over time, given different aliases, had stories written and unwritten and been given a variety of different characteristics. Overall though, she is shown to be confident (with a large ego!), stubborn, independent and highly powerful. She has super-strength, can fly, shoot energy beams from her hands and has a pretty practical suit which isn't gratuitously showing off her assets to the extent that we see in many female heroes, and villains, in the comic-verse. 

In the 2000s Danvers is on Iron Man’s side in Civil War (as an advocate of the Superhuman Registration Act) – which causes a rift in the Avengers. In DeConnick’s first go at the Captain Marvel storyline with Danvers, she interacts with and grows close to Spiderman and gains high rank in the Avengers team. Danvers is then effectively rebooted as Captain Marvel (a post-trauma/memory loss Captain Marvel who is trying to rediscover herself) in Higher, Further, Faster, More where she realises her dreams of working in space and joins forces with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Carol sets off to return an alien girl to her home world and defend a people who are being taken advantage of by the Spartax, and she does it in lovable, head-strong style. 

In a recent article by Time, which talks about Captain Marvel and the relationship comics have with feminism, Kelly Sue DeConnick outlines her goal in writing female comic book characters (

'“The test that I always give young writers is if you can take out your female character and replace her with a sexy lamp and your plot still functions, you’re doing it wrong,” says DeConnick. “You would be surprised how many times this is actually done. These women are purely there to inspire or motivate or reward or sometimes decorate. I don’t want all of our female characters to be good or to be role models. I just want them to have an interior life. If you can’t answer for me what does this character want in this scene, you’re not writing a woman, you’re writing a lamp. Start over.”'

The crucial thing, for me, is the sense she alludes to of interiority - a character's individual needs, dreams, and inner world. We get this with Carol in Higher, Further, Faster, More in one particularly thoughtful scene, as she contemplates her ambition of going to space:

'Have you ever seen a little girl run so fast she falls down? There's an instant, a fraction of a second before the world catches hold of her again... A moment when she's outrun every doubt and fear she's ever had about herself and she flies. In that one moment, every little girl flies. I need to find that again. Like taking a car out into the desert to see how fast it can go, I need to find the edge of me... And maybe, if I fly far enough, I'll be able to turn around and look at the world... And see where I belong.'

Weirdly my only criticism is that this kind of insight doesn't really arise again - but this is perhaps unfair to level at the first part of a reboot. I guess that will only come with time. I wanted perhaps a longer comic that tried to plumb the depths a little more. But the adventure is still very enjoyable and does make you want to read more. Danvers is a self-proclaimed fan of two things – Star Wars and punching things so she is perfect as the only Avenger representative in space. It is a decision she takes at the cost of her relationship, but in a genuinely touching scene both she and the Iron Patriot agree it is what she needs and deserves. She gives up her relationship to focus on herself - and maybe it seems idealistic and contrived but it also makes a point of her independence and ambition, her refusal to compromise in issues of self-knowledge and integrity (makes more sense if you know about the memory trauma from previous versions). How can she love if she is not self-aware? Her relationship would never be fulfilling until she has more idea of her own being and her purpose. This moment is probably my favourite part and will definitely linger in my mind.  Also see this really beautiful post about the importance of the Captain Marvel movie for many women:

I think this comic is great for all ages - it's an exciting, clever, amusing and exhilarating adventure story with some of the most entertaining heroes, it features many diverse characters (and species) and includes a non-hetero romance (albeit briefly). Carol has great potential as a hero to connect with a new generation of young girls and women - and hopefully boys too. I just hope DeConnick can delve deep into this character and create a cast around her that will engage as many as possible. And I hope they get the casting right for the film so that they can give the Captain some gravitas and not just a preen and pretty face.


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