Ms. Marvel-ous

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Ms. Mystery

How progressive, how sympathetic to the women’s liberation movement Gerry Conway may have been, we can’t say. The one statement that does feel kinda ridiculous is the bit about no “qualified women writers working in the super hero comics field.” Conway got his start writing comics as a high school teenager fer cryin’ out loud; how much real training did he have at that time? And even if we take Conway at his word, did it never occur to him that maybe he should try training a woman writer, then? It can’t be all that complicated, after all. There were certainly women writers around; adapting their writing for the medium of superhero comics couldn’t have been that involved.

There were some positives here though. As I said, the “Ms.” in “Ms. Marvel” was a feminist declaration. Conway even made Carol Danvers the editor of Woman magazine—clearly a conscious analogue for the real-world Ms. magazine. He was at least aware of these things when he was writing the book.

But she doesn’t know who she is…”

Using Carol’s identity issues to symbolize the larger issues of a woman’s identity in modern American society was also a fine idea, as well as a very compelling mystery. As I’ve often expressed, I’m a sucker for this trope. In many ways, it was rather reminiscent of the mystery and identity issues then taking place in Omega the Unknown, which, as I’ve stated many times, is one of my all-time favorite comic series.

Now Conway was still in the midst of his cup of coffee as Marvel’s editor-in-chief when the first issue of Ms. Marvel came out, so his writing stint would be a short one. He wrote her first two issues and received a plot credit for #3, while Chris Claremont took full writing credit for that third issue. Claremont would then be the writer of the strip for the remainder of its days (with one slight exception I’ll get to later).

And while I’m not 100% certain about it, I do believe that Ms. Marvel was a part of that group of female characters (along with Spider-Woman and She Hulk) that were created by Marvel for legal reasons. As Conway pointed out in his editorial, the Ms. Marvel project actually got started “before my rearrival at Marvel,” so he might not have been aware of this. The full story behind it would go better with a Spider-Woman post, but basically there was this time back in the mid 70s when Marvel became concerned over the possibility of outside companies (be they comics publishers, television, or movies) creating female versions of their characters and copyrighting them as original content. So they decided to cut them all off at the proverbial pass and create said versions themselves.

Once more, I’m not completely sure but I think this was the case. Not exactly the purest motivation for creating the character/title, but that’s okay. We wound up getting a pretty good comic book out of it, so I’m not going to complain.

Close Encounters of the Random Kind

Like I said, I never saw those earliest issues of Ms. Marvel on the stands, but the two Ms. Marvel comics I got started with were probably the best introductions possible. Those first two comics were Spidey Super Stories #22 (Apr. 1977) and Ms. Marvel #5 (May 1977). They’re one pub month apart and I wasn’t doing my shopping at comics specialty stores back then, I was buying off the newsstand (Google it, kids), which had irregular distribution and returns, so it’s possible I bought the Ms. Marvel issue first, but more than likely my first brush with the character was in Spidey.

Fun fact: Spidey Super Stories #22 was the second-ever issue of the series I had bought. The first was the previous issue, #21.

The Spidey book was designed to introduce very young kids to reading so it was fairly simplistic and I was definitely in the target audience at the time; I bought it with almost religious regularity, despite the fact that the other Spider-Man books were far more dramatic and exciting to me. It was standard comic-book length but no ads, cost a bit more than a regular comic at the time (35¢ as opposed to the then-standard 30¢), and always featured three stories. One of the three would be an adaptation of an episode from The Electric Company, one a solo Spider-Man tale, and the third would feature a guest superhero. As the stories were all designed to be easy to grasp for young kids, this was a great way to introduce many of the characters of the larger Marvel Universe to younger, more casual readers. The inside front cover usually offered a quick origin recap for the guest-starring superhero. In the case of Ms. Marvel, it read: “Who is Ms. Marvel? Carol Danvers, editor of Woman magazine, that’s who! When trouble starts… Ms. Marvel knows. Her seventh sense and mysterious powers… help her battle evil!”

Quick and easy, I knew all I needed to know about Ms. Marvel to get me started.

Then in Ms. Marvel #5, we get the most complete reveal of Ms. Marvel’s origin to date. As she recounts in the issue, when Yon-Rogg’s “Psyche-Magnitron” blew up back in Captain Marvel #18, it changed her, giving her a semi-Kree physiology and other powers, along with some of Marv’s Kree knowledge and training. Now at this time, part of the explanation for her powers was a “sophisticated electronic webbing” in her costume; but this would be ignored/changed later (particularly when they redesigned her costume).

This particular issue also features the Vision, yet another great favorite of my childhood. If by chance I somehow bought this issue before the Spidey one, the presence of the Vision on the cover is probably what sold me. It’s a terrific story that I can recall reading over and over again as a kid.

Note that in the lettercol of the eighth issue it’s revealed that this issue (#5) was actually plotted by Archie Goodwin (then Editor-in-Chief) and Jim Shooter (then Associate Editor) while Chris Claremont was on his honeymoon. I’m guessing Claremont filled in the dialogue later, after he returned, hence the writing credit. Outside of this and those first few issues by Conway, Claremont wrote every other issue in the series.

This Female Fights Back!

Again, I greatly enjoyed seeing Ms. Marvel, be it in her own title (when I could find it) or elsewhere. Part of this was because I liked Captain Marvel, a character she was clearly related to. And I liked her costume—even though it was taken mostly from Marv’s design, they added a lot of that funky, 70s flair that I’m forever nostalgic for, with that almost bikini-like cut showing her belly button and a portion of her bare back, to go along with this scarf-type thing in place of the more traditional superhero cape. And I dug the Farrah Fawcett-Majors feathered hairstyle, aka the “Farrah-do,” aka the “Farrah-flip.” (How it went from long and straight as Carol to that Farrah ‘do when she transformed remains a mystery forty-plus years later.)

Her “seventh sense” also stoked my imagination. (Sidebar: Why a seventh sense and not the more traditional sixth? I guess a “sixth sense” is more a form of mental communication/E.S.P., while Ms. Marvel’s power was more like precognition? I have no idea, I’m just spit-balling here.) It reminded me of Spider-Man’s spider sense, only it seemed more specific in its effects. It also set her apart from Mar-Vell, who didn’t have such a power (although he did become “cosmically aware” later on, this was a bit more nebulous a talent than Ms. Marv’s seventh sense).

But the biggest contributor to my love of this character (and title) was the action. As I’ve detailed many times before, the thing I most loved about superhero comics as a little kid were the fight scenes; I absolutely loved them and lived for them. Nothing pleased me more than to see a villain get punched in the face and Ms. Marvel punched bad guys in the face a whole lot. The fact that it was a woman doing the punching didn’t bother me in the slightest, nor did it diminish my joy one iota. The guys drawing this action certainly helped a lot, starting with Big John Buscema, whose pencils in those first three issues were positively stellar; a trend that would continue with Jim Mooney and Sal Buscema in future issues. The corner box on the cover of the first two issues of Ms. Marvel featured the declaration, “This Female Fights Back!” and boy howdy did she ever!

Big John’s nearly peerless skills at Marvel action on display.

With the uneven distribution at newsstands, together with my own limited grasp of how that distribution worked, plus my short attention span, I didn’t find Ms. Marvel that often. When I did see the character, in her own title or elsewhere, I would buy the comic if I could. My next three encounters with the divine Ms. M were in Ms. Marvel #8 (Aug. 1977), Ms. Marvel #10 (Oct. 1977), and Marvel Team-Up #62 (Oct. 1977). Here’s a taste of that action I loved so much in this title, from the eighth issue:

When I drew my own comics, I swiped from that last panel often. As it’s all fighting with no dialogue to distract from it, I was pleased as punch. A few pages later, the art ventured into deeper waters, both literally and figuratively.

The artist here is the immortal Jim Mooney. As I pointed in reviews of his classic work on Man-Thing, his pencils may not have been that flashy, but they tell the story perfectly, and often with a great cinematic touch, as we see here. Grotesk thinks he’s finally killed our heroine and arrogantly leaves her behind after choking her under the seawater. She appears lifeless at first, but then we see her dramatically rise from the water, eyes full of rage. It takes talent to get this across in one small comics panel, especially so considering how bad the print quality and paper stock were in those days.

He should have.”

Grotesk should have looked back behind him. He should have made sure he finished the job. But he didn’t, and now he’s gonna get his ass kicked.

I got the tenth issue and MTU #62 around the same time—not that I have any specific memory of this, but they’re the same pub month, so I must have. Team-Up featured Ms. M teaming up with Spidey to take on the Super Skrull, which was great fun with a sweet art job by John Byrne. (If Byrne had never tried to be a writer and just stuck to art, I would remember him with much greater fondness today.) With Super Skrull’s elastic form, you could bounce him up and down, stretch him out, and toss him all around, making for great visual action.

But then Ms. Marvel #10 sets a new bar ‘cause it’s got our pal Sal Buscema doing the pencils, and he’s king of the punch throwers.

That’s classic Sal right there, with Ms. M clearing out those A.I.M. scrubs with just one punch. Then she finally gets her hands on both Modok and Death-Bird, two people who are not exactly at the top of her Christmas card list.

Again, just great action by Sal. And this hatred/rivalry with Death-Bird felt electric to me; I could have watched them fight forever.

From here, it would be a while before I’d buy another issue of Ms. Marvel again. I did get my hands on Ms. Marvel #15 (Mar. 1978) via a trade with my friend that lived next door; the issue had yet another good fight, this time with Tiger Shark. But I wouldn’t buy any more new issues of the title before the last two that were published—Ms. Marvel #22 (Feb. 1979) and #23 (Apr. 1979). In case I needed any extra incentive to buy these, #22 featured another great battle with Death-Bird and #23 had Vance Astro of the Guardians of the Galaxy (who I also loved) on the cover. Mike Vosburg did a wonderful job with the art on both issues.

These were all the issues of Ms. Marvel I purchased contemporaneously. I’d fill out the run with back issue purchases by the late 80s/early 90s.

Personality Crisis

Carol’s personality issues had a great set-up and delivered some excellent drama, at least for a while, but how it all worked was always a bit muddy.

In the second issue, Carol’s psychiatrist-slash-boyfriend, Michael Barnett, hears her reveal that she is Ms. Marvel during hypnotherapy—an admission he finds hard to believe until he witnesses her transform into Ms. Marvel with his own eyes just moments later. By the end of the following issue, Ms. Marvel’s figured it out as well, though the two personalities are still separate and often conflicted, with each one still referring to the other in the third person. So who is Ms. Marvel? Since she’s clearly a separate personality from Carol Danvers, where did this personality come from?

In Ms. Marvel #7 (July 1977), Ms. Marvel has a “flasback” while under the influence of Modok’s “Mind-Ripper” that is quite revealing.

The “memory” we see here is clearly from the experiences of Mar-Vell. He, then, is essentially the source for Ms. Marvel’s personality. Interesting, but problematic—because in this light, Ms. Marvel is not merely derivative of Mar-Vell, the character is, practically speaking, a transgender version of Mar-Vell. As Jo Duffy put it in a letter that saw print in Ms. Marvel #11 (Nov. 1977):

Strength and courage she has in abundance, part of her heritage as a male Kree warrior. But her nature also incorporates certain elements that Captain Marvel himself (the source of those elements) had to abandon as self-destructive before he could attain cosmic awareness. Those elements are the worst of the classic macho, hostility, bloodlust, aggression and, ultimately, loneliness. (Comes with the package.) But I can’t object to Ms. M as she stands now because the possibilities these two women suggest are endless. They have much to learn one another—Carol the woman could borrow, the strength of Ms. Marvel the hero; Ms. Marvel could learn a lot about people and peace from Carol. I hope a fusion, with an amalgam of some of the elements (bad as well as good) of both is somewhere in the future.

Fun fact: Duffy had already taken a job in Marvel editorial and was working there (in the “editorial no-(wo)man’s land between Macchio and Hannigan,” as she put it) when she wrote this letter.

One month later, in the lettercol of Ms. Marvel #12 (Dec. 1977), the editor(s) would shed still further light on the topic:

…why Ms. M’s Kree personality is so warlike compared to its template personality—Captain Marvel—has some validity. It’s partly that—so Chris tells us, sprinkling his answer with more snatches of psychological and physics terminology than we can shake a stick at (have a heart, fella; Marvel armadillos ain’t exactly college grads, even if some o’ you hotshot righters think you are. We have a hard enough time writing in English, let alone thinking in it. Let alone thinking at all!)—and partly a… synthesis of her Kree and human personalities, each reacting off the other and coming out with someone who’s like Mar-Veil and like the old Carol, and yet unlike them. Something like that, anyway.

Still not precisely clear though. And of course, none of this info ever found its way into the proper narrative. In any case, just one issue after that, in Ms. Marvel #13 (Jan. 1978), the two personalities were indeed merged together (as Duffy had hoped) and the character’s identity issues were effectively resolved. It was a bit of a simplistic resolution, and they could have easily kept it going longer (I think there was still a lot of potential drama to be milked there), but they didn’t. C’est la vie.

Haute Couture

Other, more superficial changes were also afoot. In issue #9 (Sept. 1977), the cut-out portions of Ms. Marvel’s costume were gone, leaving her upper body covered (though granted, like nearly all other superhero costumes, male or female, still skintight). From the lettercol of Ms. Marvel #12 (Dec. 1977), the change was explained thusly:

As far as the costume goes, a lot of readers have commented on our filling in the flesh cut-outs as of MS. M #9; that was partly an aesthetic decision, but mostly a production one—it was simply too difficult for artists, inkers, colorists and printers to deal with them. They’d look funny, or the coloring would go on right and come out wrong; in the end, they just became more trouble than they were worth. So we simply filled them in. Not as sexy, perhaps (sorry, young fellas in the audience) but a lot easier to handle. And, finally, we have no idea why her hair curls [when she changes into Ms. Marvel]; anyone have any suggestions?

The entire design would be thrown out altogether with Ms. Marvel #20 (Oct. 1978). A month or two earlier, Marvel house ads had hyped the upcoming change.

Dave Cockrum was the designer of the new costume (as well as the new artist on the strip, though he only lasted in this position for two issues, #’s 20 and 21). My fellow comics aficionados no doubt recognize a couple of the character designs above, as Cockrum would later end up using them in his Futurians project. For those unaware, that’s Mosquito and Werehawk pictured with Mystique in the background.

In an interview from Comic Book Artist #6 (Fall 1999), Cockrum revealed:

We went round and round about Ms. Marvel’s costume, too. Remember she started with a female version of Captain Marvel’s costume only with an open belly, and we all bitched about that because none of us could figure out a rationale for it. So they closed the belly opening, but we said, “No, she needs another costume.” We hassled Stan [Lee] about it for so long that he said, “All right! If you think you’re so smart, design a new one.” And I must have gone through 50 designs! Some of ‘em I would xerox and try out in different colors, and Stan would go, “No, no, no, no! Get that out of here.” Finally I did the one with the lightning bolt and sash, and I took it to Stan who said, “That’s what you should have done from the start! That’s what I like: Shiny leather and tits & ass!”

I’m gonna refrain from any further editorial comment and just leave that there.

One problem with the new design that was never addressed: The fifth issue revealed that the “electronic webbing” that was underneath her first costume went over the upper torso and shoulders, but the new costume had bare shoulders.

Another problem with the costume, one that started with the first design and remained unexplained with the second: What was the deal with the way she transformed in that flash of light as she did? What were the mechanics behind this? It was never explained and we’ll likely never know now.

In any event, it’s a shame that Cockrum’s run was so painfully short, as there’s no question I would have loved these issues had I only saw them. The art was great and the race of dinosaur-men Ms. Marvel was pitted against in these two issues was pretty awesome. Having missed these issues, my first exposure to the new costume came in the pages of Marvel Team-Up #76-77 (Dec. 1978-Jan. 1979).

From Marvel Team-Up #76

I liked what I saw. Ms. Marvel looked hotter than ever and continued to prove herself an ass kicker of a superhero.

After purchasing those last two published issues of her title, just by lucky coincidence I found and bought Avengers #183 (May 1979), which happened to be Ms. Marvel’s debut as a regular member of the team. Her solo title may have been gone, but it was good to know Ms. M would still be around.

NEXT: Disaster Strikes

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