Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book issue of significance. This week it’s Captain Marvel #1. Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick (Osborn, Supergirl) and drawn by newcomer Dexter Soy, it’s the beginning of a new era for Carol Danvers, who is giving up her Ms. Marvel identity to take on the mantle of “Earth’s Mightiest Hero,” Captain Marvel.
It’s not easy being a female superhero. Except for Wonder Woman, most superheroines are just the female versions of their male counterparts, and when it comes to headlining an ongoing series, unless the character has “Bat” or “Super” in her name, the market isn’t very friendly. This past year saw superheroines taking some major blows; Marvel cancelled the last few female-focused ongoings it had left, and DC erased some of its strongest women as the New 52 sparked a heated debate regarding female portrayals in comics. (The current debacle at DC over the Stephanie Brown Batgirl is particularly troubling, as DC has done everything in its power to make ensure that Barbara Gordon is the only Batgirl in its current timeline. Why can there be multiple Batmen, multiple Robins, multiple Green Lanterns, but only one Batgirl?) There’s always been a distinct lack of female legacy characters in comics, and the few legacies that are carried on by women are usually ones originated by men. Batgirl is one of the few mantles that have been carried by multiple women, and multi-dimensional characters like Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown have been wiped out in favor of one singular iconic hero. Barbara Gordon isn’t any less interesting than these two women, but DC’s decision to get rid of characters with an actual female fan base is puzzling.
Marvel doesn’t have a flagship female character like DC’s Wonder Woman, but the rebranding of Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel is the company’s attempt to give the character the spotlight she deserves. Marvel’s smartest decision with Captain Marvel is putting Carol Danvers in the hands of Kelly Sue DeConnick, a writer who has proven herself adept at writing strong female leads with her work on Supergirl, Rescue, and Sif. There’s some heavy-handed dialogue at the start of the issue as Carol and Captain America team up to take down an ultra-chauvinistic Absorbing Man, but it’s part of the writer’s aggressive effort to make sure Carol is viewed with the same respect as Captain America and Spider-Man. While it comes off as forced during the opening fight, Carol’s conversations with Steve Rogers and Peter Parker later in the issue get the same idea across in a subtler manner.
Carol’s new look is strongly influenced by the old Captain Marvel costume, and with the change in uniform, Captain America thinks it’s time for her to “quit being an adjunct” and take on the Captain Marvel title, and all the expectations that come with it. That discussion continues when Carol spars with Spider-Man, and it’s clear that she’s made a decision, but isn’t fully confident in embracing it. Carol has already proven herself worthy; she’s just not ready to accept the recognition she deserves. Her conversations with her fellow Avengers could be viewed as Carol seeking male approval for her career change, but if appearances by Captain America and Spider-Man help sell copies of this first issue, they can be excused.
Having grown up on Air Force bases, DeConnick brings her military knowledge to Carol, who served as an Air Force Colonel before gaining alien superpowers. Carol has an incredibly convoluted backstory, but DeConnick skips over all the cosmic incest-rape (the ’80s were unkind to Ms. Marvel) and focuses on Carol’s military background to bring focus to the title. This first issue introduces Helen Cobb, a record-breaking female pilot whom Carol looked up to growing up, and it’s interesting DeConnick focuses on Helen’s legacy rather than Mar-Vell’s. The previous Captain Marvel may have been the person that gave Carol her powers when he saved her from the Psyche-Magnetron device (DeConnick wisely rushes through Carol’s extremely Silver Age origin), but Helen is being set up as the Uncle Ben to Carol’s Peter Parker: the person who teaches her how to be a hero before she gets the powers. Helen’s introduction comes via her obituary, and while it would have been nice to see more of Carol’s past interactions with her mentor before learning of her death, it looks like their relationship will be further explored in later issues.
Like Geoff Johns’ early Green Lantern issues, Captain Marvel #1 puts an emphasis on the thrill of being a pilot and how being a superhero both intensifies and diminishes that rush, giving a personal perspective to Carol’s powers. There’s a short bit of Carol lamenting the loss of risk that comes with gaining her abilities, but as she reaches out and touches outer space, she realizes what a gift she’s been given. One of the issue’s strongest sequences comes when Carol relaxes at the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, freefalling at Mach 3, absorbing the heat and turning it into pure adrenaline as she decides to take on the Captain Marvel name. That sense of appreciation is something rarely shown in modern superhero stories, and despite the last scene taking place at a funeral, the issue ends on an uplifting note.
DeConnick is joined by Dexter Soy, who pencils, inks, and colors the issue. He’s a capable artist, but his muted color palette gives the book a chilliness that works against DeConnick’s sunny script. The opening action sequence has some awkward anatomy and muddy storytelling, but Soy’s art improves during the less chaotic scenes. The personal story would benefit from a more expressive artist; the bright Ed McGuinness cover is the kind of style that fits this new interpretation of Captain Marvel. DeConnick will be joined by her Osborn collaborator Emma Rios for an upcoming arc, and Rios’ fluid, animated artwork is just what this book needs to become a complete package.
Jamie McKelvie’s new design for Captain Marvel is the best superheroine costume since J.H. Williams’ Batwoman, using Carol’s Air Force background as the inspiration for her sleek, primary-colored flight suit. Like Williams’ design (and Darwyn Cooke’s now-classic Catwoman redesign), Captain Marvel’s new look is focused on function, with just enough visual flourish to make it pop on the page. The sash around the waist is a connection to her previous costume, and DeConnick makes sure to show how it can be used in combat when Carol suffocates Absorbing Man with the Stark-made fabric. It’s also a nice design touch that adds playfulness and femininity to the costume, and when she takes it off, it means she’s about to kick some ass. The jury is still out on Carol’s pinned-back hairstyle, though, which has this weird mullet-mohawk effect that is not a good look for anyone. Carol should just cut it all off and complete her transformation into the Starbuck of the Marvel Universe. If DeConnick can make Captain Marvel as popular as Battlestar Galactica’s hotshot fighter pilot, Marvel Comics might finally get that flagship superheroine it’s been looking for.