Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Death of a Hero

Back in 1982, Marvel published a graphic novel entitled The Death of Captain Marvel. This was the death of — not Carol Danvers (who had at that writing, not yet ascended to the mantle of “Captain” Marvel (and was still going by the appellation of Ms. Marvel), but depicted the death of her predecessor — the Kree warrior — Mar-Vell.

The essay that follows, was one of the earliest articles I wrote as a professional in the field of comics (it appeared in Comics Collector #1 1983). In it I wrote about how this death affected me. The post that follows is essentially the same as it originally appeared with only a couple of minor edits for style. 

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It’s all over now…even the shouting. Captain Marvel is dead, and there is no changing that. No eleventh-hour reprieve, no writer to revive him in a later issue, he’s gone, and that is that. All we have now is the leftover wine, and its bittersweet taste. There are those among the fan-elite who have reduced this tome to so much pop psychology and trite nonsense. Yet to do so is just so much feigned intellectualism in hopes of impressing the masses of fandom is not only unfair; it is outright criminal.

I have two illusions in life; one is grand and terrifying, and the other is dark and fascinating. Together, they form the basis of my beliefs and philosophies of life and truth. Still, Jim Starlin, with his finely-crafted work, cuts through all this and exposes the core of my being with his own mysteries that are more fascinating and awesome than I could hope to imagine.

To Starlin, death is a reality. It is not something that only happens to the other guy. It is a part of life, it is a measure of the truth, and everybody is touched by it, one to a customer, with no exceptions. Rich, poor, old, young, coward, hero, it does not matter, we all die, and not always in the manner or fashion that we would expect or prefer.

The Vikings of old believed that the only way for a warrior to enter Valhalla — the place of the noble dead — was to die with one’s sword in their hand. Calvary men of the American West wished to die “with their boots on,” that is to say, in battle. The plains Indians of America refused to fight at night for fear that the great spirit Wakanta would miss their souls in the dark. Warriors the world over, throughout history have sought to die “with honor” (as witnessed by the death of General Sam Sawyer in Captain America #274).

After reading The Death of Captain Marvel, I cannot help but to feel that this attitude is so much horse manure. When I die, I would wish to go as did Mar-Vell, surrounded by my family and friends.

Noted physiologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote extensively about the death experience, and she has broken it down into five stages: denial, depression, anger, bargaining, and finally acceptance. Starlin has Mar-Vell move through each of these stages as he approaches his end. This is not pop psychology, but a man who has spent his entire adult life as a warrior, fighting near-impossible odds, now he has come to find out that a disease will strike him down. Even more than that, there is nothing that he can do. Mar-Vell is a man who loves life even more than honor (that which he as a warrior has been taught to love). Now he must face death a it slowly creeps up on him.

Starlin stalls this moment throughout the book by always tempting the reader with the possibility that Mar-Vell will live, in spite of what we all knew was going to happen. Therein, he manages to sustain the suspense of the book, for the reader is always teased by the thought that no company would really kill off a major character, yet another company (DC) did kill off a major character, that “would not be killed off,” The Batman of Earth-2.

When that Batman died, fandom was enraged. Many fans felt that he should have been killed by a major villain, and that a big deal should have been made about it…perhaps by putting the story in an annual .or something (needless to say Marvel has been criticized for doing just that — making a big deal over Mar­Vell’s death — sometimes you just cannot win for losing). The death of Batman was proclaimed as both stupid and wasteful. Well, it was, but not for the reason that many claimed.

When you think about it, is it not stupid and wasteful to die? Batman spent his entire adult life fighting crime, and then he died doing the same. He spent most of his tenure as a crime fighter putting away nameless criminals, and finally one of them put him away. Elysius, Mar-Vell’s lover, confessed to him that she always feared that he would die in some lonely place surrounded by his enemies (what Batman of Earth 2 in fact did). Dying in this way at least she could be with him. It is this that is stupid and wasteful about death; to die in some meaningless gesture, at the hands of some cheap thug. Batman’s death was cheap and pointless, but it was meant to be. Paul Levitz in that story was making a statement about superheroes and their lives, only no one understood the message — pity. Still again, had Mar-Vell been given the choice he, too, would have gone as had the Batman. The desire among warriors to go out in a blaze of glory is great indeed. Yet more than that Mar-Vell would reject death, he would fight to the very end, denying that it was possible for him to die. When Thanos asked if Mar-Vell would “...Challenge the abstract...deny the infinite?” Mar­Vell replies, “Yes!” But why?

Why indeed? In the award-winning television show M*A*S*H, Colonel Henry Blake was consoling Hawkeye over the death of Hawkeye’s friend. “They taught me two rules in command school,” Blake said, “Rule number one is that young men die. Rule number two is that doctors can’t change rule number one.” The man who attempts to deny the infinite is both a fool and tilting at windmills greater than those against which Don Quixote fought.

It is only human nature to deny death, especially one’s own. Yet when a study was made, it was discovered that we “need” death. A few years back several people were hypnotized into thinking that they would not die. They all promptly lost the will to live. That is to say that they had no real reason to do much of anythingtoday. It was discovered that death adds immediacy to life. For if one has forever to live, then one also has forever to do whatever one wantsso why do it today?

Death is as much a part of life as is living; to ignore one is to reject the other. Perhaps those who panned The Death of Captain Marvel were more upset about Jim Starlins message than about the way he packaged it. Unable. (or unwilling) to deal with the form they ripped apart the latter — mores the pity.

The Death of Captain Marvel is a powerful, and important piece of literature, well worth both the wait and the purchase price. All that is now left to say of the Kree Captain, by way of a eulogy, is to paraphrase George Harrison, “Mar-Vell is a dead man...miss him...miss him.” 

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As of this posting, I haven’t yet been see Marvel’s new Captain Marvel film (staring Brie Larson), but I will be seeing it tomorrow; after I do, I’ll be posting my review of the film, and will be adding a link to that review here.