Or We Might Choose To Study Jim Starlin’s Captain Marvel Instead: 31 Days Of Atlas #20

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continued from here:

To suggest the creators of Phoenix: The Man Of Tomorrow #1 would have benefitted from the example of DC Comic’s pioneering Silver Age superhero reboots isn’t to say that that alone would have made a bestseller out of Rovin and Amendola’s book. By 1974, DC Comics was itself struggling in the marketplace, and where the late 50s/early 60s Schwartz-office model that I’ve been discussing was still being used, the results were hardly of real artistic or financial note. (Failing to keep up with the times in a commercially viable fashion, neither Adam Strange or Green Lantern even had a backup feature in an anthology title to their name.) But to have noticed the key similarities and differences between the first issue of Phoenix and the likes of the reworked Fifties Flash would at the very least have signed up where the storytelling in Phoenix was essentially sabotaging itself. From there, new strategies might have been developed, based on the lessons to be learned from long-established practise.

There were more contemporary updatings of that Silver Age narrative structure on sale during the period in which Phoenix was being developed that might have referred to. To take but one example, 1973 saw Jim Starlin assigned by Marvel as an artist and co-plotter to its faltering Captain Marvel title. Working with adept contributions by writers such as Steve Englehart and Mike Friedrich, Starlin’s “cosmic” storytelling focused on the grand sweep of Marvel Earth’s relationship with predatory extra-terrestrial forces. The plot of his 11 issue run was in essence straight-forward: the Titan Thanos was seeking the all-powerful Cosmic Cube in order to impose his will upon the Cosmos, while Captain Marvel and his allies attempted to ensure that nothing of the sort could occur. As the tale progressed, Starlin and his collaborators pushed the more soap operatic aspects of Marvel Comic’s house style further and further away and focused instead on fusing a superhero book with a range of Sci-Fi/Fantasy tropes. As such, situations and supporting characters established by previous creative teams, such as Lou-Ann Savannah, the love interest of Marvel’s partner/sidekick Rick Jones, become less and less central to the title.

In that, the Starlin-era Captain Marvel really was a direct descendant of the late 50s DC books we’ve been discussing. On the whole, external conflicts drove the plot rather than the spark-generating cycle of emotional striving and real-world disappointment. And as we’d expect from a comic expertly ground in plot and spectacle and framed using Sci-Fi as well as superhero conventions, Captain Marvel was a book marked by fast-moving storytelling, colourful, unpredictable and thought-provoking. (It sold too, which, for a previously bottom-tier publication, was apparently quite a surprise.) In essence, Captain Marvel took the later-Fifties traditions we’ve recently been discussing and refashioned them for a later age. Rather than being whimsical, it played its cards with a deeply serious tone. Rather than a series of single-issue tales, it presented one long saga broken into individual chapters. Rather than largely focusing on a single superhero with a small recurring nucleus of supporting characters, it featured a large and changing cast of costumed crusaders. Rather than being based in a particular place, it roamed across any number of physical and psychic planes without ever suggesting that events would arrive at a stable status quo. Where the DC tales kept matters of continuity and complexity to a relative minimum, Captain Marvel hauled in all manner of Marvel Universe lore while spinning a tale that involved dozens of active participants. Where Broome and Infantino and Kane’s Fifties work was essentially polite and restrained, Starlin’s was filled with the kineticism of Marvel’s most punchy titles fused with a host of psychedelic-flavoured, counter-cultural enthusiasms. When the Silver Age welcome tales of conventional morality and obvious motivations, Starlin presented us with text and sub-text in which alien cosmic overloads are driven to terrible deeds by a Freudianesque obsession with death. (Or rather, as Stalin would assure us, Death.)

Yet for all of that, Captain Marvel did remain a recognisable descendant of the Silver Age SF/superhero comicbook, and the methods Starlin used, consciously or not, to tell his story were often, in their broadest strokes, the same as those applied by Broome and his colleagues. (Even the design of Cap’s costume clearly came from the same tailors as Green Lanterns, as might be expected from the fact that Gil Kane created them both.) A great deal had changed between 1956 and 1973, but the basic requirements of the soap opera-lite superhero form remained similar. (*1) Where emotional conflict and social/romantic frustrations aren’t central to a superhero story’s development, many, if not all, of the very basics of Fifties storytelling – visual appeal, novelty, distinctive characterisation, pacy narratives, hairpin plot twists, and so on – become all the more important.

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From Starlin’s first Captain Marvel tale, with writer Mike Friedrich & inker Chic Stone, in which the front-and-centre lashings of soap opera & Kirbyesque punch-ups make it look as if the coming issues would be identikit Marvel period tales. From such a traditional beginning would swiftly develop a hybrid that was recognisably Marvelesque and yet something rather different too. (CM#25, March 1973.)

We can note this in the cast of villains that Starlin either appropriated or invented for the title. As we discussed yesterday, Phoenix’s cadre of antagonists were, in terms of their visual appeal, culture and character, interchangeable and dull. By contrast, Captain Marvel saw a rich and varied and distinct cast of evildoers being put to work, including his own uber-baddie Thanos, the Super-Skrull and The Controller along with an army of disposable piratical alien cannon fodder. Everyone was distinct and purposeful. Everyone, beyond the mysterious entity Eon, for whom mystery was the essence of its character, had a clear end, a set nature and an obvious set of strengths with which to call upon. Captain Marvel himself was as handsome, noble, sensible and self-sacrificing as any straight-shouldered Fifties lead. His enemy was a fascinating individual with am army of fearsome underlinings rather than a species of like-as-each-other technocratic humanoid lizards. It was a set-up, in short, that was as fit for purpose as it was obviously the supercharged heir to a longstanding Silver-Age tradition.

In this, Captain Marvel might have been an example for Phoenix: The Man Of Tomorrow, a textbook of sorts to dip into and draw technical inspiration from. Its example would have suggested that the very narrative options that (mis)shaped Phoenix could have rather been used in a productive and contemporary fashion. As Starlin and his fellow creators had themselves drawn upon previous traditions, reshaping them as they went, so too might have the men behind Phoenix. It is, of course, the nature of creative endeavour in all but the worst fever dreams of genius and autuership to build upon the work of those who have gone before. Starlin, by his own ready admission, playfully plundered Jack Kirby’s Fourth World titles for the figure of Thanos, amongst other things. The result was something that was inspiringly fresh rather than insultingly secondhand. Starlin and his colleagues had read and read again and processed and reworked and innovated and even, yes, compromised, and the result was something both excitingly new and fundamentally traditional. Phoenix was, sadly, neither.

to be continued, with a final look at the Phoneix and how it might have incorporated the soap opera story-motors of the Lee/Kirby/Ditko tradition.

4 thoughts on “Or We Might Choose To Study Jim Starlin’s Captain Marvel Instead: 31 Days Of Atlas #20

  1. Go Colin Go!

    This essay is a great reminder of those nutty Starlin Mar-Vells. He did regain his sense of humor with Warlock, even tho the protagonist was also still a bore, thanks to Pip the troll and giant silver afro Magnus!

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Steve – It’s funny now, isn’t it, when Starlin’s 1973-77 take on the MU is in many ways the same one adopted by the Marvel movies, to recall how odd and exciting his first run at the company’s mythos was. As a young man with a head full of melancholy, I think I found Warlock more endearing as a protagonist than many did! But he was most certainly largely humourless, only laughing at the meaningful likes of cosmic absurdity, and it’s easy to see why the book failed to gain sufficiant traction on the newsstands.

      Again, I can only agree with you about ‘giant silver afro Magnus’. So VERY mid-70s disco that he could have guested on stage with Labelle. Splendid!

      Like

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