Monday, May 10, 2021

A Few Words About Carol Danvers

Here’s an old piece you probably haven’t seen. Back when I was doing The Hurting Gazette I produced a few exclusive essays for the ebooks that were never published anywhere else. Along with a longer piece about Thor: Ragnarok and the larger MCU, the following was designed to slip into the reading order in the collected version of Ice Cream for Bedwetters, tentatively titled Salting the Wounds. While at least putatively a review of the 2019 Captain Marvel movie, it mostly offers a brief outline of my thoughts on the character. 

This essay isn’t about Rogue. It’s about another character who means a lot to me, completely separate from her relationship with Rogue. She’s suffered a lot, but in a completely different way. Rogue is strong because she has always had to be strong, she doesn’t know how not to be. Strength is survival. Carol isn’t strong because she always was, she had to learn. She was crushed repeatedly by life and circumstances, and had to rebuild herself up from ground zero. Multiple times. She’s at her best when she has to overcome. 

As solitary as she may be by nature, Rogue also recognizes in the X-Men she has a family who will always have her back. Carol has no family. The Avengers betrayed her, the X-Men rejected her, her own blood relations are strangers. Rogue is responsible for two of those losses. Carol isn’t a loner by temperament but by circumstances. Having to rebuild yourself so many times makes you strong but brittle. Civil War II was a terrible character assassination from which she may never recover, but it’s not outside her character to stake her ground on an unpopular position that would alienate everyone she knows. For her that’s practically positive reinforcement.

If only said position hadn’t been, you know, fascism. Ah, well. At least Steve was a Nazi because of the Cosmic Cube, which was a fair play even if I found the results wanting and timing unfortunate. Carol only has herself to blame.

In all likeliness this will also be added to the final running order of Oh, What a Rogue, as an appendix. The essay was the germ of many of the ideas that have appeared and will appear in that series - I was chagrined to find I recycled a few phrases directly without even remembering. That these two incredibly strong but temperamentally dissimilar women share such a crucial trauma in their backgrounds make them a fascinating pair. Perhaps one day I’ll write a similar series on Carol, but it would be difficult to stop myself from criticizing her politics. The one thing she and Mystique share is that they both voted for Reagan. Carol would have voted for him twice but she was in space the second time around. 

“Raven, I see very clearly that you’re going to march in that booth and pull the lever for Reagan, again. After all that I’ve seen!”

“Well, Irene doesn’t see the tax bill, now does she?”

“And you report, what, 5% of our actual income?”

“6% but who’s counting? It’s the principle of the thing.” 

“And what principle is that?” 

“‘Don’t be a pussy.’”And with that she very slowly put her cigarette out on her tongue and walked out of the kitchen. 

Captain Marvel

Carol Danvers wasn’t much of a player in the comics of my childhood. There’s a reason for that - oh boy is there a reason for that - but it’s not as important now. It’ll come up by and by. 


I started reading in the 1980s, and she was gone for most of that time. When she showed up anywhere it was as some kind of cosmic hero called Binary, who didn’t actually do a lot with the other cosmic heroes, and so had no relevance to the space stuff that appeared in, say, Fantastic Four or Silver Surfer. (She was in Starblast, but, like, everyone was in Starblast. You were in Starblast.) Space stuff that appeared in an X-Men book tended to appear only in the X-Men books. 


After spending well over a decade completely off the radar she returned in the late 90s, as a member of the Avengers. They didn’t want to bring back the Ms. Marvel moniker so they called her Warbird, which I liked. She was given a modified version of her original costume, with a one piece and thigh-high leather boots, which I also liked, and that remained the standard for her until the McKelvie redesign. It was tame by the standards of the time, is a completely true statement that nevertheless seems rather odd out of context. 


Here’s why I liked Carol, upon her reappearance: she was fucked up. 


That’s the short way of saying she’d been through the wringer. In-story the metaphor they went with was alcoholism. She suffered from serious memory problems combined with episodes of disassociation stemming from the fact that she’d had a part of her mind stolen by Rogue - another favorite, because she was, you guessed it, another troubled girl who wasn’t afraid to own her anger. So it made sense given all that junk heaped up in Carol’s baggage check that she would turn to alcohol, and that rebuilding her life from the ground up once she had hit rock bottom would be the thread running through the entirety of Busiek’s run on the book. By the time he left she had been successfully smuggled back in from the cold, restored to usable status, even if the A-list was still a while off. 

House of M created far more problems than it fixed, but one thing people might not remember was that it was also the catalyst for the company making a concerted effort to push Carol - back under the Ms. Marvel moniker - into the limelight. The gist of the push was that whereas most every non-mutant character suffered in the House of M reality, Carol actually saw a reversal of fortunes as the most famous and powerful non-mutant superhero on the planet. The “reality,” at least at that time in the 616, was that she was a recovering alcoholic who had just recently been the subject of a disciplinary hearing for killing an enemy while serving with the Avengers (which actually made me angry at the time, which is funny because generally I agree with the principle but also thought Carol getting pulled up on it by everyone else after everything else that happened over the course of that long storyline was complete bullshit. She was, to put it bluntly, a trainwreck. 


I loved Brian Reed’s Carol. She was trying, dammit. 


So now he we are.Credit where it is due - the kind of stem-to-stern update she got at the hands of Kelly Sue DeConnick doesn’t always take. It’s hard to move the needle on a character so many people already knew. But they did, and it was a model for precisely how that kind of thing should be done. Technically speaking it was a two-for-one, as opening up the Ms. Marvel name and logo also allowed them to do something very different with a brand new character. 


But something else is always left behind, even when change is for the better. It would be difficult to argue that Carol hadn’t been the victim of - 


Well, that’s the thing. It’s one story we’re really talking about. Avengers #200. So bad, so weird, so regrettable - don’t be fooled by the cool cover. It’s a story so bad they let the guy who was writing X-Men write the next years’ annual and have Carol Danvers specifically dress-down the founding members of the team for leaving her high and dry, in one of the single worst actions to which anyone of them have ever been a party. If you haven’t read it, you can discover it for yourself, as I fear my description could not do justice to the actual depravity contained therein. 


That’s why she was written out, stolen by Claremont and the X-Men office. Did it really make sense why someone who had been a member of the Avengers for much of her superhero career would suddenly just start interacting exclusively with mutants and mutant supporting characters? Although, it’s probably a more dignified shoehorn than poor Longshot - 


“Hey, why is Longshot on the team? Is he a mutant?”


“Actually, no, it’s going to turn out to be some kind of incredibly arduous ‘I’m my own grandpa’ thing when they get around to streamlining his origin in a couple decades, because they’re going to tie him in with a completely derivative character who also joins another X-affiliated team for no real reason other than the guy drawing the book just bought a new ruler and really liked drawing parallel lines -”


“You know what Gary I'm sorry I fucking bothered to be interested in your crap for once.” 


Another odd thing about Carol Danvers and Chris Claremont: he essentially did put Ms. Marvel on the X-Men by having a mutant, Rogue, absorb her powers, which then got stuck permanently because blah blah Kree DNA super-bullshit. But then they decided to make Carol Danvers a player again and somewhere in there Rogue ended up losing Carol’s powers, which I hated and still hate, but since she had them for twenty years and now has lost them for about twenty years, it’s probably time for her to get them back again. I mean, should could already have. You know I’m out of the loop. (2021 Me: I’m pretty sure she does now, but I’m still catching up. I read two issues of the new Excalibur and all she did in them was fall asleep.)

Anyway: Rogue and me, disenchanted X-Ennials who’ve spent basically their whole life being jerked around by The Man because we were too powerful. Carol’s Gen X so dammit if she doesn't make disaffectedness look so alluring.

It should probably be said that the reason I adore Carol has as much to do with my affection for Busiek’s run on Avengers. He put in the work of rehabilitating her character, and it took a while to stick but by the time he left the book Marvel once again had a functioning Carol Danvers. Again, that’s not an easy thing to do, not for a character who’d been so badly abused and then, in the process of having being put on a shelf for a while, forgotten by a generation of readers.            


Perhaps it’s as simple as that, for me the parts I appreciated about her character were precisely the parts that made her unworkable. She had a reason to be pissed. People she trusted had betrayed her, she’d spent years in deep space getting lost in her own head, she had memory problems stemming from the aforementioned incident with Rogue . . . she was angry and liked to punch stuff, but it wasn’t for vague reasons, no, it was for some very specific and and undeniably hinky shit that made everyone around her uncomfortable for a long time afterwards. There was a considerable paper trail. 


That’s not something people like. People like equanimity. They like resolution. They don’t like it when things or people who had been swept under the rug come dragging their asses back for another round of public humiliation. 


Because that’s what the story was - something terrible, really awful happened to Carol while she was an Avenger. She rightfully blamed the rest of the team, because they all dropped the ball in a number of ways. Think about situations like that - in real life, when women are fucked over, are they usually allowed to come back?


Or more often swept under the rug?


So I liked Carol a lot. I liked the push she got out of House of M because it did feel like a natural progression from where we had been, without sacrificing the vulnerabilities that had endeared her. There were some porny covers on the book over its run, but that was a fairly common thing at that point in the company’s history. 


There was always a hapless element to her, even when she was at her strongest. She kept the unflattering costume partly out of defiance. If post-DeConnick Carol is anything, it isn’t “hapless.” She’s strong and confident but the gnawing insecurity predicated on years of both getting fucked over and fucking up doesn’t seem as apparent. She’s, gasp, got on with her life.  


There’s nothing wrong with characters changing. And it’s worth pointing out, change goes both ways - even if you lose a character to changes you find extrinsic, that same kind of tinkering can just as easily create new favorites. 


It also feels slightly ungrateful, on some level, to resent a character for essentially getting healthy. I liked watching her struggle that boulder up the hill, because I too have pushed that boulder up the hill. Seeing her get the boulder up the hill, and then to get it to stay there, well, by the time she’s done that she’s become a different character. 


But, you know, it’s not like I'm the same person I was in 2012 either, so. That’s life. I’d probably not be inclined to oblige, myself, were someone to burst into my living room decrying me for being too stable and insufficiently interesting.


What I didn’t like about Carol’s 2012 soft reboot I don’t like about her movie. Chuck Yeager-type macho doesn’t interest me when it hangs around Hal Jordan like a cloud of Old Spice, and it doesn’t interest me when it’s a woman either. Switch out Geoff Johns’ usual daddy issues for a heretofore unknown mother figure, boom goes the dynamite. 


A few years later she’ll be on the wrong side of Civil War II, one of the worst stories I will ever read. One of the reasons is that it takes Carol to a place where I don’t think I’ll ever be interested in her again - actually making a strong case for fascism, if I recall correctly? Ah well. I’m not motivated to go back to double-check anytime soon. 


I went in with a bit of a mad-on against the film, on the basis of the trailers I had seen. I didn't know, sincerely, whether or not the Kree would be the villains, and that’s kind of a big question in regards to Captain Marvel’s origin. You could swing it either way. Marvel, for most of the company’s history, stuck to the line that neither Kree nor Skrull had designs on Earth for any good reasons. But given that a rather big deal was made of the movie’s connection to the United States military, it occurred to me that the Kree might be portrayed in a significantly more positive light. Call me paranoid. Like I say, the character was making a strong case for fascism just a few years ago.  


Many have pointed out that the ultimate shape of the plot is resoundingly anti-military. I’d say, yes, that is true, but also completely besides the point. It takes a remarkable feat of storytelling to get American audiences to recognizes their own faces in stormtrooper regalia. People believe we, we as in the United States, are the good guys. George Lucas made billions of dollars from figuring out he could hock loogies at the foundations of American imperialism on an unprecedented scale so long as he dressed everything in outer space junk and made the Viet Cong blonde. American audiences are conditioned to root for America, to root for the good guy, and to finish this syllogism, in that order.         


The movie seemed to struggle in a few instances where it needed to soar. The 90s movie cues were, strangely, both overbearing but not near integrated enough. I have my problems with the Guardians of the Galaxy films, but they do use music well. And what’s more to the point, Marvel sold a lot of copies of the Guardians of the Galaxy ancillary soundtracks. The Black Panther album did some business as well, from what I gather. I expected to see a similar effort for this film, but apparently not, or not yet. 


The use of “Immigrant Song” in Thor: Ragnarok casts a long shadow, but barring that I’d settle for Carol whupping ass on some goons to Nine Inch Nails. We don’t get that, but we do get to see her dressing like my ex-wife who was a ten-year veteran of the Air Force, which is one of those things that did make me sigh deeply when I realized how old I was now compared to how old I used to be. Then I thought about the age lines on Jude Law’s face and my brain flashed to the image of the old guy in the red sweater who guesses he’s now going to die. That was the hard part, to be honest, seeing the music from that time period, the time period of my youth, used as cues in a period piece - not even particularly artfully or incisively at that! In the words of the bard of my people, “Aye, caramba!”


Certainly, it’s not that I’m precious about the music of that period. On the contrary, I honestly don’t listen to much from my teen years regularly these days. Whether it was good or bad, it’s not very pleasant to me when I hear it now. A lot of popular music in the 90s was unobtrusively overproduced in a way that at the time seemed very clear but now just makes everything sound like advertising jingles. 


I’ve made my peace with the fact that this is who Carol is now: someone whose character in 2019 is premised on having overcome great hardship to reach a place of new confidence. I read every issue of DeConnick’s run - I didn’t hate it, but it was clear the character had been set on a very successful new direction that would continue just fine with or without me. Maybe one day the worm will turn and Trainwreck Carol will return for a season - like Black Costume Spider-Man only it’s a joke about how difficult it is to recover from serious trauma. 


Not Trainwreck Carol is, like, that friend you used to hang out with when you were both depressed but now she eats a lot of kale and goes to the gym and doesn’t understand why anything is such a big deal anymore. Call me when you need to eat chocolate cake at three in the morning. Until then, you’re just too happy for me to fuck with.


Oh, What a Rogue

1. I Got No Clue What They Want to do With You

2. Hello Again

3. Make it With the Down Boys 

    I. Everything is Science Fiction 

& A Few Short Words About Carol Danvers


Adam said...


Great read as always. Also wondering if you read Brian Reed’s Ms. Marvel run and what you thought. I really liked it, esp. the character beat where Carol starts writing sf novels based on her Binary adventures, but had to drop after the skeevy girl on girl puppet master story. i liked the dark avengers moonstone stuff though - read that in trades from the library.

CalvinPitt said...

I think I got interested in Carol Danvers as a character because of Busiek's Avengers run. Like you said, she was kind of a mess, and there was a lot of weird shit in her backstory, but she would punch the hell out of things when she got angry about all that stuff. (Also, I loved that Warbird codename and that costume.)

I didn't enjoy Brian Reed's book, although I gave it until it was going to do Secret Invasion tie-ins (so, about 24 issues). Her siding with the Pro-Reg in Civil War didn't help, and then that bit where she lets Puppet Master blow himself up (fine), but then lies about it to her team really irked me. Especially after Reed has her emphasize that she's willing to make tough decisions. Well then own the tough decision, don't lie about it like some spineless politician.

Anyway, I'm looking for to reading more about Rogue. Or more about Carol Danvers, or pretty much whoever.

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Throgg said...

So, i guess you hated Thor Ragnarok?