Monday, November 05, 2007

Hello Cosmic Part 2: The Life of Captain Marvel

I know I said Thursday or Friday would begin my actual look at Jim Starlin's cosmic work at Marvel, but life got in the way (okay, TV got in the way), so here we are on Monday. But, I've got lots of material to look at, so no worries. I've also purchased (via eBay) a lot more of Starlin's work, so while I'll probably get through what I already own this week (maybe carrying over to next week), there should be a lot more in the coming weeks. Which is good news if you like both Starlin and myself. If you don't... well, uh, this is awkward... maybe Steve will show up and entertain you with posts about other things.

Jim Starlin's three-decades-long work on Marvel's cosmic books began in 1972 in Iron Man #55 where he introduced Thanos, Drax the Destroyer, Mentor and Eros (Starfox). Starlin said he introduced the characters then mostly because he wasn't sure he would ever get another opportunity to do so. The Life & Death of Captain Marvel collects Starlin's work on the character, first as artist and co-writer, and then when he took over the writing chores completely. The issue of Iron Man serves as a prologue.

Starlin does an interesting thing in the issue as he begins with a splash page of Drax--a hulking green alien with a purple costume (including a skullcap and a cape with a gold belt with skulls on it)--imprisoned in mechanical bonds at his wrists, glowing with energy and shouting things about death and desctruction--all directed at Iron Man. Now, we learn later that this "Drax the Destroyer" is, in fact, a hero, but Starlin does a nice fake-out as everything about this page suggests that Drax is a villain including his name. His warning for Iron Man is about a pair of brown aliens that we see beating the crap out of him called the Blood Brothers. Iron Man hears the warning telepathically, which imples the mechanical bonds we see Drax in are not imprisoning him, but part of his villainous plot--some sort of weird alien machine that will destroy the world or something.

Quick complaint before I continue. Apparently, The Life & Death of Captain Marvel was recoloured by a group called VLM and, well, they did a piss-poor job. Now, I don't know what "recolour" means in this case. It could simply be touching things up so the same old colours look solid on this glossy paper. But, if they went back and actually recoloured everything from scratch, they really just did a horrible job. In the Iron Man issue, Thanos looks pink. I opened up just now to a random page and his skin is blue. BLUE! There are dozens of weird mistakes like that throughout, which leads me to question exactly what was done. If I didn't know better, I would think these were the original colours from the comics, that's how poor and inconsistent they are throughout the trade. Now, obviously, recolouring the comics in a similar fashion to modern comics would be stupid and would look even worse. Recolouring comics from the '70s requires a simple touch in that the use of colours is pretty basic--but they should be consistent and complete. Eros appears on two covers of the original issues--and isn't coloured properly in either. In one, his hair is the wrong colour and, in the other, his costume is. I am mystified at what happened here. If it weren't for the fact that Marvel specifically points out that this collection is "newly re-colored," I probably wouldn't say anything, but I must wonder how much money Marvel wasted getting results this shoddy. Of course, they could mean that the old plates of these comics needed to be restored for this new edition, but that's not the same as recolouring--that's restoration. If that is what they mean, then I merely shift the blame from partially VLM's to completely Marvel's, because then it is simply false advertising that not only makes them look bad, but VLM as well.

Okay, back to the actual comics...

Actually, these comics aren't that great. They suffer a lot from the times, but Starlin makes a good go at it. The basic plot for most of the Captain Marvel issues is that Thanos needs the cosmic cube, so he can rule the universe or something. To do this, he need Rick Jones, the only human who knows (subconsciously) where the cube is. Except, Jones is bonded to Captain Marvel where only one can exist in our universe while the other is in the Negative Zone. And Thanos succeeds, because, well, Rick Jones is kind of shit.

In the process, Captain Marvel obtains cosmic awareness, gets blonde hair and manages to defeat Thanos when Thanos just leaves the cosmic cube laying around after declaring that he no longer needs it as he's sucked all of the energy out of it. Yeah, he lied. But, Thanos existing as a being of pure energy only to forget that events in the corporeal world can still affect him will actually show up again a couple of decades later. As will an explanation for why Thanos is such a shitty villain--in that he always wins and then does something to sabotage himself like leaving the cosmic cube out in the open for Captain Marvel to smash. Tacked on after that story is one issue where Captain Marvel fights Nitro and the seeds for his death are planted--but we'll get to his death in a couple of days.

These issues have some interesting moments and lay out a few of the themes and tropes Starlin will continually explore in his work. The first is his use of psychology, which is how Thanos' minions (Super-Skrull and some other Skrull) attack Marvel/Jones. They use their shapeshifting powers to continually assault Marvel as various foes (alive and dead) until they finally appear as Marvel and Rick Jones, seemingly blowing Marvel's mind. Turns out, he was faking, but it is an odd way to go about attacking a hero.

In one sequence, Drax finally comes face-to-face with Thanos, the man he was created to kill and the two battle in psychic warfare (called "TIME-MIND SYNC-WARP" which is an awesome name and something I wish Thanos would still use) where Thanos is victorious. In these few pages, Starlin plays around with page layouts and representation of battle within the mind. The final page of their battle is laid out in a very strange way. There is a border of five panels by five panels. The five top ones depict Drax going from normal to twisted as the camera closes in on his eye. The bottom five do the same for Thanos, but begin with the twisted eye and return to normal. On the left, the first panels of Drax and Thanos make-up the first and last panels of those five--the other three show an eye in space as we pull away. On the right, Drax/Thanos take up a panel each while the remaining three depict a hand crushing a red planet. In the middle of the page are various panels of characters and worlds and odd images--some of which are split in two and separate by three or four panels.

One of Thanos' aides is the Controller, a weird looking guy who uses devices to control minds, again demonstrating that the way to victory is not brute force but a superior mind. However, strangely enough, the Controller is also super-strong--and is ultimately defeated through strength.

Another idea that Starlin first advances here is the uselessness of the traditional Marvel heroes in these types of stories. In nearly every one of Starlin's cosmic tales, the Avengers eventually show up and do nothing of consequence. They try to fight Thanos and get defeated with ease. At best, they distract Thanos while the real hero (Captain Marvel here, but usually Adam Warlock) is able to defeat him; at worst, they just get beat on. I'm not sure if Starlin was told to use these characters here, but I imagine that was the case in stuff like Infinity Gauntlet and Infinity War where the heroes are utterly useless.

The most notable thing of these stories is Thanos as he is the character that is the common trait throughout all of Starlin's cosmic work at Marvel pretty much. The Thanos we get here isn't quite the one we're used to. Here, Death is more an ally than an object of affection--but that element of the relationship is there. The Thanos/Death relationship is, by far, the most consistent, brutal, and strangely subtle (mostly because no one ever seems to notice it) criticism of women I think I've read in comics. Death never comes off looking good. Here, when Thanos is defeated, she laughs with glee. In every story, Thanos is just a guy in love, doing his best to prove himself, and, in every story, Death rebuffs him somehow. I'll get into this in more detail later, but if Thanos is the common character of Starlin's work, the relationship with Death is at the heart of that character until the end of Infinity Gauntlet.

Captain Marvel's cosmic awareness is also something that Starlin tends to play with in his work--the concept of enlightenment. Here, Marvel is given it by Eon and it doesn't actually change him much. He gains a new perspective and makes an attempt at pacifism from time to time, but even Marvel points out it's nothing beyond a slight costume change and a blonde dye job. You get the sense that Starlin was trying for something meaningful, but didn't quite know where to go with it. It's an idea he struggles with throughout these comics: what is enlightenment? And, especially, once gained, how does one sustain it? Marvel can't, because he's quickly drawn back into regular fights he knows are pointless--he even uses his new awareness to fight better.

While "The Life of Captain Marvel" is the weakest of the Starlin comics I've read here, they contain a lot of the ideas and characters he will develop throughout his career, laying the foundation for much of what's to come.

Tomorrow, I'll look at his run on Warlock (which may continue on to Wednesday as well, I don't know).