The recent Captain Marvel movie was clearly the impetus for today’s post, as I’d like to discuss her antecedent, Ms. Marvel. I’ve mentioned more than once on this blog that Ms. Marvel was a childhood favorite of mine, and today I’d like to get into the reasons why—as well as examine one of the more complicated character histories you’re ever going to see in comics.
Carol Danvers, created by Roy Thomas and Gene Colan, began as a supporting character in Marvel’s original Captain Marvel series (that would be the one featuring Captain Mar-Vell of the Kree). Her first comic appearance was in Marvel Super-Heroes #13 (Mar. 1968)— Mar-Vell himself had only just debuted the issue before. Carol held the position of head of security for the military base where they were holding the giant robot, Kree Sentry #459.
The story this issue was the first of a two-parter that would be wrapped up in the first issue of Marv’s new solo series, Captain Marvel #1 (May 1968). After the villainous Yon-Rogg had revived the Sentry to destroy Mar-Vell in MSH #13, Marv makes his first public appearance as a “superhero” to defeat the robot and save the base in Cap #1. As he’s flying off at the end of this first issue, Carol thinks to herself “Perhaps it’s only the security officer in me—but I wish I knew more about the helmeted stranger [Captain Marvel] who rescued me! But somehow I feel certain that we’ll meet again!”
Despite this very progressive beginning (seriously, a female head of security on a military base? In 1968??), Carol would fall into the more stereotypical, lovestruck, torch-carrying, damsel-in-distress role for the bulk of her run in Captain Marvel. Most of the drama of their relationship was standard Marvel comics fare at the time: a potential love interest for our protagonist admires said protagonist in one identity (in this case, Captain Marvel) while not liking/not trusting him in the other (Walter Lawson, Cap’s earthly cover ID). What was different here was that Marv also had another love interest among his Kree brethren, a ship medic named Una. The two women came to represent their two planets/races, as Cap struggled with his loyalties in these early days of his comic adventures. (The triangle would be resolved with Una’s tragic death in issue #11.)
Carol’s feelings here were not one-sided, either. Early on in Captain Marvel #14 (Jun. 1969), Marv muses in a thought balloon, “in spite of the love I feel for the slain Una… I am not without feelings for Carol Danvers!”
It would come to a head in Captain Marvel #18 (Nov. 1969), where Carol was taken captive by Yon-Rogg in order to trap Mar-Vell. At the very end of the issue, Marv rescues her, carrying her out of Yon-Rogg’s lair just before it explodes. When the nineteenth issue opens, Carol Danvers is nowhere to be found. It would be five years before she popped up again oh-so briefly in Captain Marvel #34 (Sept. 1974):
In the next panel she offers, “Ever since the Walter Lawson/Captain Marvel foul-up at the Cape, I’ve been on the spot with some four-star chauvinists– so I’m running this show tight!” So naturally, two seconds later, the super-villain Nitro appears, blows himself up a few times, and makes off with the deadly prize Carol was in charge of securing—the horrifyingly dangerous and deadly Compound Thirteen. An all-too brief reunion with Mar-Vell followed shortly thereafter:
After this, Carol Danvers would disappear yet again for another two years.
“This Woman, This Warrior!”
At last, Carol Danvers would make her triumphant return to Marvel Comics as the eponymous heroine of Ms. Marvel #1 (Jan. 1977), in a tale titled “This Woman, This Warrior!” I missed this first issue when it first came out, but I would have loved it if I had only seen it. All the Spidey references on the cover alone would have most assuredly hooked me.
…It’s funny. Spider-Woman would debut just one month later, and in her case they were bending over backward to avoid any connection with Spider-Man (beyond the name, obviously). They clearly wanted her to be her own thing and not just a Spidey knock-off. Here, Spidey’s supporting cast—as well as Peter Parker himself—are all over the cover, along with one of Spidey’s classic foes, the Scorpion, despite the fact Ms. Marvel has no obvious connection to the webhead. Ms. Marvel is even described in a cover blurb as “A bold new heroine in the senses-stunning tradition of Spider-Man!” The character herself, however, took the exact opposite tact of Spider-Woman, with a costume design swiped directly from her male counterpart, and an origin (as we’ll discover later) deeply entwined with him.
As editor of a new publishing venture (Woman magazine) being put out by J. Jonah Jameson, Carol Danvers bumps into Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson in the Daily Bugle office building in this first issue and winds up having coffee with MJ. The two ladies then meet again in the following issue (#2) for a brief dinner, and that’s the last we’ll see of Pete and MJ in the pages of Ms. Marvel. Jameson will continue to appear occasionally, but new characters, mostly the editorial staff of Woman, will fill out the book’s supporting cast from this point forward. So the Spider-Man connection didn’t last very long, but I suppose it served its purpose, as I’m guessing it picked up some extra readers to help get the book off to a strong start, sales-wise.
It should also be noted that with this series, any romantic feelings Carol Danvers had for Captain Mar-Vell evaporated and were never so much as mentioned again; not even when he guest-starred in the nineteenth issue, where they shared one chaste kiss of friendship at the end of the story. Now on the one hand, I get it—they wanted to take Carol Danvers out of the tired, damsel-in-distress role and make her a modern, liberated woman. But on the other hand, it felt like there was still some dramatic meat left on the bone in her relationship with Mar-Vell; something that might have been worthy of deeper exploration.
It’s kinda funny, the random nature of these instances of ignored continuity and retcons; what they choose to keep and what they choose to ignore and/or throw away. More on this later.
Miss, Mrs., Ms.
If you grew up watching broadcast TV in North America in the mid-70s to early 80s, you no doubt came across the Norman Lear sitcom One Day at a Time at some point or other. And in nearly every episode, someone would mistakenly address Ann Romano (played by Bonnie Franklin) as “Miss” or “Mrs.” and she would invariably respond with a stern, “That’s Ms.” And the other party would be caused great annoyance and consternation at this. Hence the stereotype of the feminist ball-buster that insists on being addressed as “Ms.”
Back in the old, old, OLD days, “Miss” and “Mrs.” did not signify marital status. “Miss” merely connoted that a girl was young (much like young boys are often addressed as “Master”) and “Mrs.” was for women that were more mature and/or possessing some social stature. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century (or thereabouts) that the two designations came to represent single and married women, respectively.
Now very early in the twentieth century, someone noticed that this usage created a problem: How does one address a woman of uncertain marital status? The proposed solution was “Ms.” It was rather slow to catch on.
Much later in the twentieth century (1961 to be precise), future feminist and civil rights activist Sheila Michaels was “looking for a title for a woman who did not ‘belong’ to a man” and came across the designation “Ms.” Once again, it didn’t really catch on.
Fast forward to 1971, when feminist icon Gloria Steinem heard a radio interview of Michaels from a couple years prior, wherein she promoted the use of “Ms.” Steinem then used the term as the title of her new women’s magazine Ms., which was first published in January 1972. This was what truly popularized the honorific and led to it being more commonly used. Most of the women who chose to go by “Ms.” were making a conscious feminist statement by doing so. (Which is one of the reasons I wish Carol Danvers had kept it as her superhero name rather than adopt “Captain Marvel,” but I’m getting ahead of myself.) Ergo, “Ms.” was an important part of Ms. Marvel’s identity and—perhaps even more so—her presentation at the time.
Feminism in the 70s
A great many men in the 70s who considered themselves supporters of feminism (and may, in fact, have been extremely liberal in most of their political views and actions), really weren’t as supportive as they liked to think they were. I don’t know if the writer of the earliest issues of Ms. Marvel, Gerry Conway, fell into this group or not, but he was kind enough to offer his views in the lettercol of that that premiere issue. Judge for yourself—if nothing else, I think it shows how much people were struggling with a then-rapidly-changing society.
Scene one, take seventeen.
For the past hour, I’ve been trying to start this letters page for this first issue of MS. MARVEL, and I’ve been getting nowhere. There are so many things I want to say, I’m tripping all over myself trying to say them. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll try to get through this as quickly and as painlessly as possible.
First of all, there’s Ms. Marvel.
She isn’t your average super heroine (we hope). For one thing, at this point, she doesn’t even know her own secret identity. Oh, yes, she has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal women; but her weakness (if it is a weakness; I’m not sure it is) is almost as great as her super strength or seventh sense or power of flight. She doesn’t know who she is.
Now, if you’ll think about that for a moment, you might see a parallel between her quest for identity, and the modern woman’s quest for raised consciousness, for self-liberation, for identity. In a way, that’s intentional. Ms. Marvel, because of her name if nothing else, is influenced, to a great extent, by the move toward women’s liberation. She is not a Marvel Girl; she’s a woman, not a Miss or a Mrs.—a Ms. Her own person. Herself.
But she doesn’t know who she is…
Naturally, in time, she’ll learn her true identity (in two issues, to be exact, if you’re statistically inclined), but that search for self will continue for as long as the character lasts. Ms. Marvel is many things, but most of all she’s a growing personality, constantly reaching for a better understanding of herself as a human being.
But why the name Ms. Marvel?
I believe it was Roy Thomas who suggested the name when Stan Lee suggested the book, But that was before my rearrival at Marvel, and I’m not sure. Other writers were scheduled to do the book at one time or another, but eventually it came to me; and I’ve since developed my own ideas, uninfluenced by whatever thinking may have gone before.
Ms. Marvel. Two things about the name struck me as important—the Ms. and the Marvel. We have a character called Captain Marvel, and since I’m a continuity fan from way back, I decided that one Marvel should be tied to the other; and when I came up with that bright thought, I remembered a character from the early issues of the CAPTAIN MARVEL book—a security agent at Cape Kennedy named Carol Danvers. Any woman who could become a NASA Security Chief in those pre-Liberation days, had to be a woman who’d call herself Ms. Since Ms. Danvers had dropped from sight a while ago, it occurred to me that there might have been sufficient changes in her life to a) bring her to New York and into contact with the other members of our supporting cast (Jonah Jameson, Mary Jane, Watson, Peter Parker, et al.), and b) change her into a first-class super-heroine,
The rest, as they say, was simple.
But not so simple,..
Like anyone who’s been alive in the past decade or so, I’m aware of the tremendous changes occurring in society; and like anyone who’s lived with those changes, I’ve changed myself. Only a fathead would call himself a reformed male chauvinist and expect people to take him seriously; that’s not the sort of judgment a man can make about himself. One lacks perspective. Still, if not totally liberated, I know enough to be aware that a problem exists, and to understand that we’re all susceptible to chauvinism at times. Thus, approaching the character of Ms. Marvel, I bent over backward to put myself in her point of view, and because I’m a writer (and because injecting oneself into a character is the writer’s craft), I believe I succeeded. Like I said, not so simple.
Which raises another, thornier, question. Why is a man writing this book about a woman? Why didn’t a woman create Ms. Marvel?
And to that question, there really are no simple answers….
For one thing, for whatever reason (right or wrong), at the moment there are no thoroughly trained and qualified women writers working in the super hero comics field. (By making that statement I’ve alienated half a dozen talented women; but I stand by what I said—no women writers trained in super-hero comics.) There should be, no denying it; but there aren’t. That’s reason one.
Reason two is more personal. A man is writing this book because a man wants to write this book: me. It’s a challenge. I want to do it. More reason than this, I don’t personally need.
Reason three is—why not a man? If the women’s liberation movement means anything, it’s a battle for equality of the sexes. And it’s my contention that a man, properly motivated and aware of the pitfalls, can write a woman character as well as a woman. There used to be a belief that women couldn’t write convincing male adventure stories, but in many fields, that’s been proven completely untrue. I hold that the reverse is equally untrue—that men “can’t” write convincing women. That men haven’t written convincing women in the past, doesn’t mean it can’t be done; it simply means that those men—as individuals—could not. Whether I can or not is some thing you’ll have to decide; but in the abstract—why not?
Well, as I said at the beginning of this page, I’ve been trying for over an hour to write what I’ve written, and at last, it’s done. Forgive the lack of organization, the rambling and partial incoherency, if you can. It’s after 3:00 AM, and the poor man’s mind is going. This has been one of the hardest introductions I’ve ever completed; but it is completed, and I’m going to leave it as written.
At the very least, it’ll give you a stellar picture of a mind deteriorating from pressure and lack of sleep.
And at the most, it might just have given you a thought or two to mull over, about the woman warrior we proudly call… Ms. Marvel.
…Btw, the title of Ms. M’s lettercol was “Ms. Prints.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again and again): Lord how I miss those old lettercols.