Captain Marvel was dead, to begin with. More than one Captain Marvel, if we want to be perfectly accurate about it. By 2012, the Marvel Comics hero that bore the company name had been relaunched in no fewer than six different series, and seen a total of three separate characters take on the name. More than three decades in, it seemed increasingly that Captain Marvel was the flagship character who just couldn’t manage to hoist a flag—and the Marvel powers that be were determined to change things once and for all.

What followed was a strange saga of missteps, false starts, and roads not taken, that finally landed on one of the most unexpected heroes of all: a neglected, half-appreciated, and similarly unsuccessful character called Carol Danvers. This is the inside story of how an ambitious first-time writer, a bullheaded editor, and a stylish designer created the most unexpected Marvel success of their era.

To understand why Captain Marvel was in need of saving, we need to understand something about why the character existed in the first place. Put indelicately, Captain Marvel was born as a trademark in need of a character. In 1967, Marvel Comics and its owner, a company called Magazine Management, realized that the name Captain Marvel—once held by the venerable Fawcett Comics character now known as Shazam!—had lapsed into disuse over the course of the decade. Fearing that another enterprising publisher would scoop up a name that should, by all rights, be identified with Marvel, a character was hastily rushed out by management fiat. Cobbled together by Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan (the latter of whom hated the character, and claimed no involvement in his conception), the good Captain was an alien spy of the Kree race, creatively named Mar-Vell, who turned traitor to his people to fight as a costumed defender of Earth. In such ways are great ideas born.

Secret Origins

Image for article titled Captain Marvel, Reborn: How Carol Danvers Became Marvel Comics’ Flagship Hero

Image: John Romita/Marvel Comics

Only trouble was, the public didn’t agree with that “great” part. Despite an ongoing series, and a notable run by writer-artist Jim Starlin that inaugurated the villain Thanos to the Marvel Universe, Mar-Vell struggled to gain traction with readers, finally saying farewell to comics after dying from cancer in the highly-regarded Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel in 1980. Over the next two and a half decades, Marvel would attempt two different, further attempts to make the Captain Marvel name stick to a character: both of them with cult followings that persist to this day, but neither of them able to sustain a long-running series, let alone establish themselves as brand icon.

It was in that original Captain Marvel series that Colan and writer Roy Thomas introduced Carol Danvers, a U.S. Air Force security officer who becomes a minor supporting character and occasional foil of the title character. But it was in the late ‘70s, at the peak of the feminist movement zeitgeist, that Carol got her first big moment in the sun, when writer Gerry Conway and artists John Romita and John Buscema reinvented her as the superpowered Ms. Marvel: magazine editor by day, fist-swinging superheroine in her spare time, and vanguard of a new generation of unapologetic, upwardly mobile career women. Ms. Marvel made a media splash when she debuted, but her success proved as ephemeral as Mar-Vell himself; by the early ‘80s, her series had been canceled and the character had been sent off into space without fanfare, to be largely unused by Marvel writers over the next two decades.

So that was where things stood in 2005, when writer Brian Michael Bendis—just becoming a white-hot fan favorite at Marvel after relaunching its flagship New Avengers series earlier that year—hatched a plan for Carol Danvers. Bendis, as it happened, had been a Carol fan from way back, owing to Avengers Annual #10 from 1981, which centers on the traumatic moment in which Carol loses her powers and stands up to her callous teammates. It had been among the first comics the writer owned, and remains (in his words) “probably my favorite Marvel comic ever.”

Bendis’s plan was to use his upcoming House of M event—a crossover set in an alternate reality in which every hero was granted their ideal fantasy life—to plant the idea of Carol “graduating” into the varsity-league title of Captain Marvel. Carrying the memory back to her real life at the crossover’s end, Carol would use the inspiration to become the best she could be, and finally live up to her potential as a Marvel hero. Bendis was keenly filling a publishing void in the absence of a Captain Marvel at the time, and he had the support of his editor, Tom Brevoort.

“Carol in the world of House of M is Captain Marvel, and she’s the lead superhero in the world,” recalls Brevoort, today still holding fort as Marvel’s Executive Editor and SVP of Publishing. “She’s the icon and embodiment of that world—when you think of a superhero, you think of Captain Marvel, and that’s Carol Danvers. And so, coming out of House of M, she was now motivated to do that in the here and now, real-world universe. And so, our idea was that we would launch her in her own book, and it will be Captain Marvel.”

The idea was a go, and Carol was set to have her big star turn. Only one thing: the top brass at Marvel had a problem. And it wasn’t the fact of her gender that gave them pause, so much as her checkered (and often commercially spotty) history: the character had, over the course of her publication, lost her memories, wrestled with issues of abuse and trauma, and entered a 12-step program for alcoholism, among other things. “The fact was that the name Captain Marvel had a huge weight in the minds of people,” Brevoort recalls. “And any character who was going to be Captain Marvel had to somehow be the perfect embodiment of all things Marvel. Very quickly a red flag came up that folks higher up the food chain had some concern about this.”

Last-minute concerns meant last-minute creative decisions. In place of Carol Danvers, one idea after another was mooted and then tossed into the wastebin of faltered comic pitches. For a brief moment, Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones’ recent creation Marvel Boy was set to be slotted into the Captain Marvel role, only for creators to belatedly realize that character offered even more red flags than Carol had. Then came a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it period when another recent creation, Sean McKeever and Mike Norton’s college-age hero Gravity, was set to take the role: in that case, the character was even killed off prior to an intended resurrection as the good Captain, only for plans to be scuttled, and a hasty resurrection pulled off in the pages of another series. Finally, and partly as an act of desperation, the original Captain Marvel, Mar-Vell, was returned to life in his own series—only to be belatedly revealed as a shapeshifting alien Skrull when Marvel thought better of the whole thing.

Meanwhile, the subtle drumbeat for Carol Danvers’ promotion continued. “All through this period, Brian [Bendis] and myself, not loudly but quietly, kept saying, ‘let’s just make Carol Captain Marvel,’” Brevoort recalls. “And we never got to a point where we could.” Carol, instead, was shuffled off into another relaunched series as Ms. Marvel—well-regarded and a reasonably solid seller, to be sure, but nothing that lit the world on fire. And the publishing curse of Captain Marvel remained as strong as ever.

An Unexpected Heroine

Enter Kelly Sue DeConnick. As an Air Force brat growing up on military bases in Germany and elsewhere, comics had always played a part in DeConnick’s imagination. “My youth predates the internet, and even VCRs, so [comics were] the form of entertainment you could get on base. I had a neighbor when we lived off-base, an American family… we would sit in their romp room where they had all their comics, which was a lot of horror anthologies, and, like, Richie Rich and Archie.” But DeConnick was especially drawn to female characters like Wonder Woman and Vampirella: unapologetically bold and proto-feminist figures, whose adventures even then struck a chord.

By 2012, DeConnick had been tentatively finding her way into the comic book business by way of the indie scene, having been a veteran of the Warren Ellis Forums (where she met her eventual husband and fellow writer Matt Fraction) and a translator for voluminous pages of Japanese manga. But she was itching to make her big break in the mainstream superhero fare of Marvel Comics, where Fraction had already established himself on several top-tier books, and she had a calculated plan to get there. At its center was none other than Carol Danvers.

“I’d done a couple of mini-series, and I wanted to do an ongoing,” DeConnick remembers. “So I was just trying to strategize what was my best play. First of all, I didn’t want to pitch on a character somebody else was already writing, because I didn’t want to look like I was gunning for anybody’s job. I didn’t know a whole lot about how the industry worked, but I had a pretty visceral idea that that’s not a good way to make friends.” So Carol, whose Ms. Marvel series had been cancelled two years earlier, passed step number one. Next came number two: sheer, crass marketability.

“She was a blonde, toyetic character with the company name in her title,” says DeConnick with a laugh. “She seemed like a good bet.” Only one catch: DeConnick hadn’t actually read any Ms. Marvel comic books. As a matter of fact, she hadn’t read any Marvel comics until the early 2000s, having grown up a DC Comics fan at heart. “I wish I could tell you this character was really important to me since I was a child,” DeConnick says. “No, no. I thought this would probably stack the odds in my favor since it was in [Marvel’s] best interest to have an ongoing [series] of this character.” As she prepared to work up her pitch, DeConnick proceeded to binge three decades of character continuity, and the result informed her approach and feelings about the hero.

“I loved that she had been a feminist character from the outset,” DeConnick says. “I loved the Marvel Universe’s emphasis on heroes as people who have street level problems. And I loved a lot of [writer Chris] Claremont’s run, when she was a magazine editor. And the fact that she was pretty much drawn to look like Gloria Steinem. It was like Gloria Steinem fanfic.”

At the same time, while DeConnick voices enormous admiration for the work of Brians Bendis and Reed (the latter of whom had spearheaded Carol’s Ms. Marvel series a few years earlier), she felt that the overall scope of Danvers’ history had left the character more than a little ill-served. “The choices that [Marvel] needed to make did not leave Carol in a place where she should have a solo series,” DeConnick reflects. “We were coming out of an event [2007’s Civil War] where Carol was a bad guy. Carol was basically the mom that came in and told everybody to clean their rooms, right? Military, by-the-books, fun-wrecker, joyless. So it was like, ‘well, this is a problem.”

DeConnick’s solution was to draw from her own experience growing up on military bases to create a portrait of a character emerged from an identity as a military woman: a combination of tough-as-nails feminism and the derring-do of an Air Force pilot. It was a tricky needle to thread, especially with reader memories of George W. Bush and the War on Terror still fresh, and often not popular, in their minds.

“We don’t know what to do with the idea of a military woman,” DeConnick says. “I say military man, and there are a whole bunch of different visions that might spring to mind. There’s a lot of different routes that are pretty easy shorthand to communicate. We don’t have that for women. If I say ‘military woman,” for the most part people are going to go to Margaret Houlihan [from the movie and TV series M*A*S*H]. And in the beginning, she’s a caricature and a fun-wrecker, and someone nobody wants to cheer for…

“I wanted [Carol] to have some swagger, and something that made her somebody I could root for. In my experience of Air Force pilots, they all have a little twinkle in their eyes, you know? These are people who understand the larger mission, but they are also little shits, every one of them,” DeConnick laughs.

So DeConnick had her character, she had her strategy, and she had her pitch. It was time to send it out the door and into the hands of the Marvel powers-that-be. Lucky for her, she had an unexpected ally who was just about to make the scene.

Editorial Interception

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Image: Frank Cho/Marvel Comics

By the time Steve Wacker arrived at Marvel Comics in 2006, he had a formidable editorial reputation that he carried with him. A six-year veteran at crosstown rival DC Comics, Wacker had closed out his time there by coordinating the mammoth 52 maxiseries: a year-long, four-writer, multi-artist extravanganza that may well have been the most complex undertaking in the publisher’s history—and which, during his time on the project, Wacker managed to execute without any delays or visible flubs.

This, perhaps, is why, when Wacker made the jump to Marvel as an editor, he had the clout to make some ambitious moves with the titles he was given. And one of the first new directions he had in mind was for the erstwhile Ms. Marvel. What he had in mind, specifically, was a high-profile promotion.

“Truth be told, I didn’t love that original run [of Ms. Marvel],” Wacker admits now. “And it was certainly, understandably of its time, though you could see the seeds of something great lying beneath the surface… I suppose I did come to believe pretty strongly that the Carol Danvers had outgrown the name ‘Ms. Marvel,’ especially in the wake of House of M and given her military background… I had just edited a mini-series about that original Captain Marvel, so with the name back in my office, I pushed to finally do it—mostly out of hubris and blind willpower.”

DeConnick’s pitch for “Carol Danvers as Chuck Yeager” happened to land on Wacker’s desk at precisely the moment he was looking to make waves with the character was a happy accident—but one that the editor was determined to make the most of. “While I didn’t phrase it as well as she did, that angle was exactly what I wanted. I love The Right Stuff, and to me that was what was missing in Carol’s books. I also loved what Geoff [Johns] had done with Hal Jordan/Green Lantern [on his relaunch a few years prior], so I’m sure that was in my head a bit as well,” he says.

“Once the name change to ‘Captain Marvel’ was approved, I knew the character would now represent the company on a deeper level. Whether we liked it or not, she was potentially going to be seen in the same iconic orbit as Captain America. The name was just too strong… and seeing one of our female characters at that level was going to get some attention.”

In characteristic fashion, Wacker delivered the good news to DeConnick in an inimitable style. “When the book finally did get greenlit, he called me to tell me,” DeConnick remembers. “He was like, ‘You’re not writing Ms. Marvel.’ And I said, “Oh. Okay. Well… thank you.” I was bummed; I’d been working hard on it.”

DeConnick takes a long pause before resuming her story: “And he goes, ‘Because you’re going to be writing Captain Marvel!’ And that was how I found out.”

So the big name change was a go, and the pitch was a hit. Now all they needed was a brand new costume.

Suffering for Fashion

Ah, yes. The costume. Ms. Marvel had gone through a surprising number of official outfits while creative teams attempted to make her character click over the years, but the most enduring, a skintight black leotard with a lightning bolt decal designed by artist Dave Cockrum, had become a kind of icon in its own right—even as it raised some unavoidable hackles for its very 1970s hypersexualized look.

DeConnick, for one, had issues. “The Cockrum suit is a beautiful design,” she says. “And in the early days of creating these characters, they were based a lot on gymnasts and circus performers, so there were a lot of leotards and swimsuits. But there’s a difference in the way that we sexualize men and women [in comics]. When we idealize the male physique, we’re generally idealizing them as an aspirational strength: ‘I want to be that person.’ And when we idealize the female characters, we’re idealizing them for sexual availability… so what we’re talking about here is who we are assuming is reading these books.”

Wacker agreed—up to a point. The trouble ultimately came down to a matter of dollars and cents. As Wacker recalls, “We just didn’t have the budget for a new design. It was as simple as that.” In-house experiments were attempted, to only moderate success. “At first, we tried something simple,” Wacker says. “Our artist Dexter Soy tried taking the classic Cockrum design and just covering the legs and arms and experimenting with some different colors on her chest symbol. But they really didn’t hit for me. They were exactly what I had asked for, but the darkness of the design made the character seem more violent and edgy than I wanted.”

So, desperate to pull off a new look and confident her editor would go along, DeConnick hatched a daring—and more than a little risky—scheme of her own. “[Artist] Jamie [McKelvie] and I, and a bunch of others, were part of the same cohort that came into comics together at the same time,” DeConnick explains. “And he has such an eye for design, and such a smart fashion sense.”

So DeConnick made a phone call and got McKelvie on the line. “I called Jamie and said, ‘I want to make a bet with you,’” DeConnick remembers. “My bet is that you are so good that if you were to do this design, and I could get it in front of Marvel, they would buy it. And if I win the bet, they buy it. If I lose the bet, I buy it [myself].” The writer was putting her own financial stake in the project on the line, banking that her instincts would prove right. In her words today: “Yeah. It was stupid.”

But it got McKelvie in the game. And McKelvie, whose streamlined, elegant designs had attracted widespread attention ever since the artist’s breakout comic Phonogram in 2006, had a method behind to pull it off. “Superhero design for me has three pillars which all influence the costume to varying degrees,” McKelvie explains. “The character’s personality, their background, and their powers/how they got those powers. In fact, I’ve probably listed them here in general order of importance. Would this person wear this outfit? That’s the most important thing.”

“So, for Carol as she was to be in Kelly Sue’s book, that strong, stubborn streak, and her background as Air Force personnel were two incredibly important parts. The other was that she was stepping into the role as Captain Marvel, which has its own lineage. Something that combined these things was the key—a costume that implied her pilot history as well the superhero legacy. I also wanted something that acknowledged her own superhero history.”

The result was a new outfit that incorporated the aesthetic and appearance of Air Force uniforms, while harkening back to Cockrum’s design with its use of the iconic sash, as well as Captain Marvel’s alien heritage with the central Hala star. Just as DeConnick imagined, the gambit worked: Marvel was sold, and DeConnick (blissfully) got to keep her paycheck.

So Marvel had a writer, an editor, a pitch, and a snazzy new costume. Now they just needed to see if readers thought it was all worthwhile.

The Carol Corps Comes to the Rescue

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Image: David Lopez/Marvel Comics

When the first issue of the new, relaunched Captain Marvel series hit stands in 2012, it was met with a predictable mixture of responses. Amid the reasonably (but not explosively) strong sales for its debut issue—heartening, but not out of the ordinary for a high-profile new series—were criticisms from the already sizable population of online fans. Some, predictably, complained about the fact that a woman had taken on the title previously held by male heroes. Others balked at the militarism inherent in the book’s focus on Carol’s Air Force background.

But underneath it all was a passionate and vocal base of support: the self-styled “Carol Corps” of predominantly female fans who refused—through their letters and consistent purchases—to allow the relaunch to fall down flat. To this day, DeConnick appreciates just how much those fans did for the character and her own career.

“Our sales numbers were good, but not extraordinary,” DeConnick says. “I had an indie book that I think topped my sales numbers. And so it was a slow build. It was not a hit out of the gate. But it developed a following and a community that invited a bunch of people into comics who had felt excluded for a long time. Shocking no one, there were a lot of women who were reading the book.”

That slow-building base of women fans would not only keep the series alive throughout DeConnick’s four-year stint, but would ultimately result in an outcome that none of the player’s involved had expected in 2012: an expansion into the then-booming Marvel Cinematic Universe with a 2019 movie, now set to receive its long-anticipated sequel when The Marvels reaches theaters this week.

Looking back, the key figures in Carol Danvers’ reinvention remain honored to have been involved a small but significant moment in Marvel Comics history—and in the history of the prominence and vocalness of a female fanbase.

“I think Kelly embraced the moment in a hugely, powerful way that spoke especially strongly to Marvel’s always growing female audience who hadn’t had anyone like her in their corner for quite a while,” Wacker says now.

McKelvie, likewise, is proud of what he helped to bring into the comics world. “I’m still very proud of it,” he says. “I might make some minor changes, adding a few extra paneling lines (but not too much—people need to draw this stuff over and over, it’s not the same criteria as in the movies!), tweak the gloves and boots, push harder to keep the sash long—not a million miles away from tweaks other artists have made since. But the recognizable core is still good, and I can’t separate it from the effect it’s had on my life and the mark it’s left on pop culture. It’s a great feeling to be part of that.”

And for Kelly Sue DeConnick, the proof of Captain Marvel’s legacy is in what she meant, and continues to mean, for Carol Corps fans who adopted her as their own. “I was maybe one of the first people writing the book who made the conscious decision to center the woman reader,” she says. “And I think that was maybe the difference. Community builds up around it very quickly. It was a really wonderful community because people are drawn to characters that speak to them.”

“You know, I didn’t come in having a personal attachment to her,” DeConnick continues. “But I certainly do now.”

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