A Name That Really Gets Around: The Many Captain Marvels

The Promiscuous “Captain Marvel” Title & It’s Legacy of “Cosmic Awareness”

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Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel (2011)
Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel (2011)

Though her ties to the original Captain Marvel go back several decades, Carol Danvers only recently became the latest in a long legacy of superheros to take on the “Captain Marvel” moniker. She dumped her long out-dated name “Ms. Marvel” in order to fly under the banner of the respected “Captain Marvel” title in her own comic, which debuted  just last year. Now in issue #11, Captain Marvel, under the creative direction of the much-admired comics writer Kelly Sue Deconnick, has taken this 70’s women’s liberation icon and given her pants, some kick-ass lady friends, and some menacing super headaches

And these headaches literally grounded her when her doctor forbade the high-flying superheroine (and former pilot) to use her flight abilities. But this isn’t the first time that headaches have been the crime-fighter’s biggest foe.

Back in 1977, shortly after the super-strong flying wonder Ms. Marvel made her debut on the

Ms. Marvel beating up manly superheroes
Ms. Marvel beating up manly superheroes

superhero scene, the young Carol Danvers, unaware of her Ms. Marvel alter-ego, is a newbie editor at Woman magazine. She only recently acquired the gig after losing her security position when she got caught in the crossfire of a fight between superhero Mar-Vell (aka Captain Marvel) and his foe Yon-Rogg. Since then, she’s had recurrent headaches that cause her to blackout.

We come to find out that Carol was saved by Captain Marvel when a Kree technology device blew up. He protected her from the explosion, but could not protect her from the energy radiation spewing from the device. The radiation put Carol in the hospital and transformed her into Ms. Marvel. Like Captain Marvel’s “cosmic awareness” trait (more on that below), Carol inherited a “seventh sense” that triggers the transformation into her Ms. Marvel superhero form whenever there is danger nearby. It’s this seventh sense that’s the cause of Ms. Danvers’ headaches.

This “seventh sense” sounds a lot like Spidey-sense, right?  However, though Spider-man predated Ms. Marvel by a little more than a decade, this “seventh sense” is actually a inferior version of the “cosmic awareness” power that Mar-Vell himself was gifted with in his role as “protector of the universe”. He gained this ability and the role by defending the earth against a racist tyrannical empire.  His “cosmic awareness” allowed him to detect any events in the universe that would affect him in any way.It’s this “cosmic awareness”  that I’d argue connects the various superheroes who’ve carried the Captain Marvel banner (and the socially aware creative minds behind them) throughout Marvel history.

While Mar-Vell was able to act upon this “cosmic awareness” by will, this 1970’s version of Ms. Marvel is physically compelled to act. For her, it acts as a sort of call to duty that literally forcibly transforms Carol Danvers into Ms. Marvel and drives the superheroine to fight in the name of justice.

DanversNewCostumeAnd that’s just what she does… er, did, before the comic was cancelled in 1979 after 23 issues.  Between 1977 and 1979, Ms. Marvel fought aliens and super-powered criminals on the pages of her self-titled comic. And as one of few female-led self-titled comics, Ms. Marvel struggled and grew with the strengthening women’s equality movement. Over the course of 23 issues, she got costume a makeover that covered up her conspicuously revealed mid-section, and then changed again, with a brand new color scheme, to liberate her from the association with Captain Marvel.

It was a fair enough association after all, since she became Ms. Marvel when her genetic makeup fused with that of Captain Marvel’s when, while he protected her from the explosion, both were exposed to Kree technology radiation, endowing her with Captain Marvel’s Kree powers. So, you know, he didn’t exactly give her a rib, but a DNA fuse is kinda a couple steps up from that. Kinda funny a feminist superhero was all but birthed by a man, a super man.

Nonetheless, it was obvious what the creators and Marvel were trying to do with this character. Hell, her first transformation occurred while she was cooking dinner, quite literally taking her out of the kitchen and into the fight… again, literally.

Carol Danvers, as editor of Woman magazine, deals with misogynist J. Jonah Jameson
Carol Danvers, as editor of Woman magazine, deals with misogynist J. Jonah Jameson

Discussions about the character’s role in the feminist movement peppered the letters section of the comic, Carol Danvers as editor of Woman magazine stood up to a misogynist J. Jonah Jameson (of The Daily Bugle), and she pounded on a number of bad guys who scoffed at her being woman.

In issue #3, Ms. Marvel visits the scene of her origin and is flooded with memories that help her realize that she is also Carol Danvers. The two personalities unify, realizing they have always been one and the same. This easily represents the 1970’s woman’s realization of her personal empowerment.

After her comic was cancelled in 1979, Ms. Marvel continued to play an important role in other Marvel comics, mixin’ it up with the Avengers and the X-men, including a stint as S.H.I.E.L.D Director in the Ultimate universe, before she got a self-titled relaunch from 2006-2010.

And now, detecting the cosmic shifts in the universe that have led to the empowerment of a new generation of women and comics fans, Ms. Marvel has traded in her swimsuit costume for pants (and even a turtleneck at that!), ditched the “Ms.”, and has taken up the mantel as Captain Marvel, her third chance at a self-titled comic.

Monica Rambeau as Captain Marvel (1989)
Monica Rambeau as Captain Marvel (1989)

However… This isn’t the first time a woman has flown under the banner of Captain Marvel, nor the first time a female Captain Marvel has gotten her own comic. In fact, after the original Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell himself) passed away from cancer in 1982, and while Ms. Marvel was still sporting her black bathing suit, Monica Rambeau,  formerly a lieutenant in the New Orleans harbor patrol, emerged on the scene kicking ass and taking names so hard that the media started calling her Captain Marvel, before she even had time to come up with a name for herself.  She reluctantly accepted the name with encouragement from fellow superheroes who felt that she was worthy of Mar-Vell’s legacy.

As Captain Marvel (only the second superhero at this point to take the name), Monica fought alongside the Avengers, and eventually she was elected the Chairwoman and leader of the Avengers. With the ability to transform herself into any form of energy and project that energy to inflict physical damage, Monica Rambeau is extremely powerful, but her powers are also physically taxing. Eventually she loses her powers and returns to New Orleans with her family.

And this is where we meet her when she debuts as the first Black superheroine to lead her own self-titled comic in Captain Marvel Vol. 2 #1, written by Dwayne McDuffie of

Monica Rambeau as Captain Marvel, flying home after a victory with an inspiring Zora Neale Hurston quote in mind
Monica Rambeau as Captain Marvel, flying home after a victory with an inspiring Zora Neale Hurston quote in mind

Milestone comics fame. Monica may not have had Captain Marvel’s cosmic awareness or even Ms. Marvel’s seventh sense, but Dwayne McDuffie saw an opportunity in writing her. This new Captain Marvel was only supposed to be a one-shot issue, but actually got 2 issues, and McDuffie took full advantage of every single page, putting race and gender issues center-stage throughout  the character’s stories, even including quotes by famous Black women, like Zora Neale Hurston and Audre Lorde. You’d have to be cosmically blind to miss it.

In the treatment of the character in the Avengers, gender was sometimes brought up, but rarely race. In the issue where Rambeau accepts leadership of the Avengers, we get a dose of gender discrimination is a flashback with her former boss. We get a dose of racial issues too, but not via. Rambeau, rather She-Hulk is turned down from leasing an apartment because she is green!

She-Hulk is denied an apartment for being green
She-Hulk is denied an apartment for being green

However, with McDuffie at the helm, race became front-and-center. The first issue was much much subtler than the second, which was published 5 years later, but issue #1 still had more Black and brown characters sharing the page than we ever saw in an Avengers comic in the 80’s & 90’s.

A group of students confront an armed white supremacist group
A group of students confront an armed white supremacist group
Captain Marvel Vol.2 #2 (1994)
Captain Marvel Vol.2 #2 (1994)

In issue #2, however… McDuffie really went to town. The cover itself is more radical, featuring in big bold type the title of the issue “Free Your Mind” and a No-Hate symbol is stashed under the Marvel icon. The story features Monica intervening when a white supremacist hate-group on a college campus starts violently assaulting students of color.

She is initially recruited to protect a young Black man who is organizing a multiracial group of students to set up a patrol and fight back to keep minority students safe. Things of course just aren’t that simple, since the hate group’s managed to nab some alien tech that puts the hurt on pretty hard. So Rambeau has to go all energy storm on them.  She even gets the chance to make an inspired self-love speech and quote Audre Lorde.

After her two-issue spotlight, and now that she’s got her powers back, Rambeau continues fighting crime and super badguys as a reservist for the Avengers. She doesn’t get to keep the name, however.

Monica quotes Audre Lorde
Monica quotes Audre Lorde

It turns out Mar-Vell had a son, Genis-Vell, and now that he’s come of age and folk started calling him Captain Marvel in honor of his father, Monica concedes the name to him and goes by Photon instead.

Sadly that doesn’t last too long either, when Genis-Vell forgets that Monica is calling herself Photon and adopts the name himself. She confronts him, but concedes again and decides to go by Pulsar. How terribly ironic.  Monica is intimately familiar with Audre Lorde’s work enough to quote her. I wonder if she’s ever read Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name… Just sayin’. These days the superheroine is mostly known as just Monica…

Genis-Vell, Mar-Vell's son, as Captain Marvel (1993)
Genis-Vell, Mar-Vell’s son, as Captain Marvel (1993)

Genis-Vell‘s stint as Captain Marvel is marked by the intergalactic superheroics of his father’ s legacy. Until his cosmic awareness kicks in, drives him insane because it’s too much to handle, and he destroys the universe. Apparently awareness is just too much for some folk. He’s able to restore the universe, but there are some slight differences, including that he now has a sister that didn’t exist before, Phyla-Vell.

Phyla-Vell (aka Quasar) and Moondragon in battle
Phyla-Vell (aka Quasar) and Moondragon in battle

Phyla-Vell makes her claim on the Captain Marvel title and wears it well for awhile, really rather aggressively protecting the universe. Where Monica Rambeau’s stint as Captain Marvel granted some commentary on race issues, Phyla-Vell becomes the token lesbian to take the title. Her sexual orientation is hinted at for a while until she finally asks Moondragon out on date. Eventually she ditches the name and goes on to become first Qausar and eventually Martyr, fighting alongside the Gaurdians of the Galaxy.

Khn'nr as Captain Marvel
Khn’nr as Captain Marvel

After Phyla-Vell gives up the name, a Skrull create a sleeper agent Khn’nr is created using Mar-Vell’s DNA, in order to spy on the Kree. However, the Skrull kinda botch the job and Khn’nr’s personality is wiped out leaving only the valiant Mar-Vell’s personality. So Khn’nr actually genuinely believes he is Captain Marvel, and he’s already been genetically altered to look the part so… Confusion ensues; he has some serious identity crises. He does all the good guy save-the-world stuff that Captain Marvel would’ve done, and before he bites it, he passes the title on to Noh-Varr.

Aside from Monica Rambeau, Noh-Varr is the only one who isn’t in some way genetically connected to the original Captain Marvel, Mar-Vell, so he lacks the “cosmic awareness” that the others had (or struggled with).

Noh-Varr raging in the name of Mar-Vell, the original Captain Marvel
Noh-Varr raging in the name of Mar-Vell, the original Captain Marvel

This is why he’s unable to sense that Norman Osborn isn’t the good guy, so he naively joins Osborn’s Dark Avengers team as the new Captain Marvel. Eventually he figures it all out and turns to the goodguys with a brand new name and costume, becoming Protector, and freeing up the Captain Marvel moniker for Ms. Marvel to finally, after all these years, take her turn at the name.

So far she’s done justice to the legacy. Her “seventh sense” doesn’t play a huge role in this new Captain Marvel series, but as one of the still few leading ladies with self-titled comic (where she gets to wear clothes!), Captain Marvel continues to keep an ear to the pulse of the world, and representing today’s more diverse comics readers, a good chunk of whom are women, of which at least most are badass, snarky, and, if they could, would totally punch a dinosaur in the face in typical superhero fashion…

Funny enough, real reason there have been so many Captain Marvels is so that Marvel can hold on to the trademark. Fair enough, but seriously could poor Monica could get a name for keepsies…?

Pick up Captain Marvel #12 this Wednesday at your local comics shop.

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3 thoughts on “A Name That Really Gets Around: The Many Captain Marvels”

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