Ms. Marvel: This Woman, This Warrior

With the arrival of the Captain Marvel movie only weeks away, the release of Carol Danvers material ratchets up with the collection Ms. Marvel: This Woman, This Warrior, collecting her earliest costumed adventures.

Some time after absorbing a blast of alien radiation, former NASA security chief Carol Danvers discovers she’s acquired both powers similar to her old ally Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell) and extensive knowledge of the militaristic Kree. Carol’s new powers manifest in an alternate personality, the forceful heroine Ms. Marvel. She also acquires a “Seventh Sense” that warns her of danger and occasionally assails her with a physically painful vision of the future. Now a successful writer, Carol accepts an offer from Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson to become editor of the new “Woman” magazine. Carol struggles with her debilitating precognition flashes, lack of control over her transformations into Ms. Marvel and the demands of her new role. The criminal scientists A.I.M. are eager to capture Ms. Marvel and unlock the secrets of her human/Kree hybrid physiology. Ms. Marvel comes up against a variety of other enemies, from the familiar to the brand new, including Scorpion, MODOK, the Destructor, the Doomsday Man, Grotesk, Deathbird, Super Skrull and Steeplejack. Over the course of these adventures, Carol struggles to reconcile her two warring personas, while beginning to make a name for herself as a costumed hero, teaming up along the way with the Vision, Spider-Man and the Defenders.

At the time of Ms. Marvel’s mid-70s debut, Carol Danvers had been kicking around the Marvel Universe for several years. She’d been a key part of the supporting cast for the first couple of years of Captain Marvel’s original run, but had fallen from prominence once Mar-Vell’s adventures shifted away from the NASA setting. Marvel in the ’70s eagerly mined a variety of sub-cultures and movements for new character ideas, and Ms. Marvel represented a deliberate intention to reflect the feminist movement of the era. Writer Gerry Conway and artist John Buscema (with design input from the legendary John Romita, Sr.) made use of the climax of Carol’s Captain Marvel run to craft her new persona.

As was standard practice at the time, new female characters were often based on existing male heroes. So Ms. Marvel was closely related to Captain Marvel, with similar powers that literally came from him (the radiation filtered through his body as he tried to shield Carol), a costume derived from his, and even an echo on the situation where he was forced to “share” a body with another character. The Carol/Ms. Marvel dichotomy also famously tracked a key element of one of Marvel’s marquee characters, the Hulk (especially Carol’s lack of control over her transformations and a somewhat antagonistic attitude toward her alter ego). Marvel went a step further, borrowing the Spider-Man set-up of Carol working for Jonah, who had a grudge against her heroic alter ego (Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson turned up early on, with MJ being an initial part of the supporting cast).

It was a solid set-up, though Conway dropped out fairly early on and turned the reins over to Chris Claremont, then the writer of Marvel’s hottest book, Uncanny X-Men. Claremont did a nice job of developing Carol and dramatizing her struggle to understand and cope with her heroic alter ego. Her Ms. Marvel powers were as often a hindrance to Carol’s life as they were an asset and Carol’s struggle to integrate her two halves was a key part of the first year of stories.

Claremont wisely moved away from the borrowed Spider-Man characters (MJ disappeared without comment after a couple of issues and Jonah transitioned into an often-unseen background presence), in favor of developing Carol’s own supporting cast. That included her co-workers and an array of friends, former colleagues and relatives, as well as a problematic love interest in her psychiatrist. The debut of Deathbird should be of significant interest to long-time fans, as Claremont would later successfully transplant her to Uncanny X-Men and develop her into a major villain. Claremont did an effective job with Carol, making her strong-willed, but also flawed. She was interesting, imperfect and actually went through a learning curve of figuring out how to be an effective hero.

The art side boasted a cadre of familiar Marvel Bullpen names that ensured that Ms. Marvel was done very much in the company’s well-known “house” style. John & Sal Buscema, Joe Sinnott, Jim Mooney, Keith Pollard, Carmine Infantino, Dave Cockrum, Steve Leialoha and others contributed to the usual set-up, with a dramatic splash page followed by tightly-packed panels that kept the action moving briskly throughout. With Claremont’s imaginative plotting and strong characterization, it was a state of the art Marvel book for its time, boasting all the usual tics (copious flashbacks, recaps and expository dialogue) that current fans often find charming and frustrating in equal doses. Of note, superstar artist John Byrne handled the pencils for the Spider-Man/Ms. Marvel team-up, bringing to the mix his well-known fluidity, creativity and way of pushing the limits of the page layouts typical of the time.

As an exploration of feminism, these early Ms. Marvel stories were a mixed bag. The series was on firmer ground when they showed instead of told, so that both Carol and Ms. Marvel were strong, intelligent women who were succeeding in male-dominated arenas. Just presenting a successful woman as though it were normal was the best aspect of the book’s exploration of feminism. Unfortunately, a lot of the rest of the time, the book’s handling of the topic could be rather shallow, when it remembered to tackle it at all. That could range from simplistic Women’s Studies 101 moments, like Carol instructing someone to call her “Ms.” instead of “Miss,” or overly broad situations like random extras goggling that the fights Ms. Marvel tackled weren’t appropriate “for a girl.” Jonah was an overly obvious strawman, demanding the magazine run articles on fashion, recipes and diets, while Carol fought for articles of substance. Potentially more interesting was Carol’s relationship with her chauvinistic construction worker father, introduced near the end of the run collected here. Claremont teased at that tension, but it would be left to writers many years down the road to more fully explore Carol’s problematic relationship with her father. Tellingly, for a series with a female lead that intended to explore feminist ideas, the book had only three female creators involved, all as colorists (including the legendary Marie Severin, who would have made an excellent primary artist for the series, had anyone at the time bothered to think about it).

The biggest problem that Ms. Marvel faced in establishing its feminist bonafides was the character’s visual presentation. Because leave it to a bunch of ’70s comic book men to produce a “feminist” book that presented its lead wearing hot pants, with bare legs and a top that was both backless and midriff-baring. That overly sexualized early look was moderated after a few issues, with Ms. Marvel at least getting a full shirt.

Despite a few missteps, Ms. Marvel: This Woman, This Warrior is an enjoyable collection with involving stories and good character work that showcase the early costumed adventures of a character that has in recent years developed into one of Marvel’s A-list properties.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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