11/20/2008

Redefining The Comics Canon: The Death of Captain Marvel by Jim Starlin


As one might expect, The Death of Captain Marvel’s main theme is the death of a super hero. Captain Marvel's death is particularly notable in the world of super heroes because he is dying from cancer. One of the tests for super hero comics over the years has been whether they could be anything more than adolescent fantasy. Many have tried, using serious real world issues as topics, but most end up coming off as gimmicky and clich├ęd.

On the surface, the choice to make Marvel's death come from cancer seems this way, but Starlin avoids gimmick by making the disease a cosmic scourge that plagues all the races of the universe. Some call it the "inner decay" and Marvel’s race calls it "the blackend". Giving these alien names provides a plausible explanation as to why a usually invincible fictional being could be killed by a real world disease and it also gives an emotional description of what cancer represents. Marvel mentions his race, the Kree, who outshine humans scientifically but have never searched for a cure because of their warlike nature. This point reinforces the theme that people often focus on things too late or only on issues that hit close to home. Starlin focuses on the reality of the disease and especially on the small things that happen to the individual, but also the community, when someone dies.
Starlin focuses mainly on Marvel’s psychological struggle with dying. Starlin uses the super hero genre and the feeling that super heroes are generally immune to death to play into our own feeling that we will somehow escape death. Marvel says, “I just never figured it would happen to me. Deep down inside me I felt that those special things that make me who I am would just live forever.” Starlin empasizes this feeling with his panel layout by pulling back and showing Marvel surrounded by darkness.

Marvel struggles with the idea of his legacy and what will happen to things after he cannot observe them. The opening scenes show him recording his memoirs and reflecting on his life. This is the super hero genre at its best, showing Marvel immediately trying to get a grip on his situation and deal with the problems at hand, and at the same time revealing his humanity through his fears.
As the book continues, Starlin focuses more and more on the humanity of Captain Marvel. In one scene, Marvel approaches his friend Eros and asks him to be a good friend to his girlfriend Elysius. The implication of this scene is that Marvel is giving Eros his okay to date her after he is gone. Marvel is still concerned with his legacy and trying to get his affairs in order before he dies. This scene is awkward and captures perfectly the strange way people act when death becomes real. The scene ends with a wordless panel of Eros crying, adding the random emotion that surrounds death.
Starlin never plays up the fact that super heroes generally do not have girlfriends. Elyisus’ presence never comes off as a stunt to sell books. She is simply part of the story because she is a major part of Marvel’s life. One of the most affecting scenes is when Marvel tell Elysius about his disease. The wordless panels and their slow pacing nail the surreal feeling to suddenly confront death.

The panels of Mentor, Captain Marvel's father figure, looking down on the scene from a balcony and slowly fading away only enhance the feeling of inevitability of death. He is a master of balancing the huge scope of cosmic powers with everyday moments like this one. The scene puts special emphasis on the relationship between Marvel and Elysius. The page before, Mentor explains their relationship but it falls completely flat compared to this scene. This is her first appearance in the book and gives it a weight that carries through to the end when she is constantly by his side when he is on his death bed

The super hero community helps show how death affects people and the dynamic of a group. They are on the cover of the book and make up a lot of the important scenes. Starlin shows how Marvel’s death affects each person and is careful to show many different reactions to his death. The Thing tells stories of the past, Reed Richards works as hard as he can to find a cure, while Spiderman's overcome with emotion.
Marvel's best friend in the story isn't a super hero but a kid named Rick Jones. When Jones comes to see Marvel on his death bed he is in awe of the super heroes asking if he needs to "take a number" to see Marvel. When he goes in and begins to cry, The Thing has to leave the room because he feels awkward and, to give them some time alone. The super heroes who normally defer only to people who are more powerful here give Rick Jones special treatment that sets him above them. The Thing’s reaction isn't as emotional as Rick's but has a special affect on us because we are used to seeing such a popular character battle villains and not feeling awkward about being in a room.

As the community gathers around Marvel, the narrator mentions how each hero thinks of how they haven’t looked for a cure for this dreaded disease before one of their own members was struck down by it. Of course, this calls into question the value of super heroes and reading comics about them, but what I think it really does is make the super heroes believable. It gives them a touch of reality: they have the same doubts and fears and weaknesses that everyone does. It also makes their efforts to achieve good that much more heroic.

The super hero community talks about Marvel in such high regard that it creates an emotional connection to him for the reader. Spiderman remarks, “I mean, this just can’t be happening. Captain Marvel is one of us. He’s a full blown card carrying super hero.” He addresses the common view that super heroes are somehow immune to death and at the same time creates a connection between Marvel and the reader. Captain Marvel has a history with these characters and the reader feels that history.
The attitude of the comic--and presumably Starlin's-- towards death and an afterlife plays into the realism running through. Marvel mentions a couple of times that he thinks after he dies that everything will just be over. Drax the Destoryer comes to visit him on his deathbed and tells him he has been across the veil of death and that it wasn’t that bad. Marvel blows him off by telling him he isn’t in a rush to find out. Drax reminds me of a priest coming to comfort the dying but Marvel to the end, doesn’t believe, so Drax's comforts are wasted.

Starlin makes it clear that Marvel’s final fight with Thanos is nothing but a coma-induced hallucination. Even though it is sort of a dream sequence, Marvel seems to come to grips with his death, accepting the kiss of death. The sequence ends with his enemy Thanos saying that death is only the beginning, but the book ends with Mentor covering up Marvel’s body saying, “He’s gone.”

The book could have easily ended on the optimistic note of a new begining but instead, he ends it on the grief of the community Marvel leaves behind. This ending gives me the feeling that it truly was a coma-induced hallucination and that after he truly dies, the grim reality of the situation sinks in. Starlin uses the back page of the book to once again reinforce the community aspect but to give us some closer from the abrupt ending of Mentor not quite hanging the sheet over Marvel.
Comics like this one end up being more real and affecting than comics like The Dark Knight Returns or The Watchmen, which everyone praises for "updating the super hero genre" and their realistic portrayals of characters. Starlin doesn’t have to inject his stories with extra blood or really pissed-off characters to achieve "realism". He gives each character humanity and tackles a subject that all good works of art deal with on some level: death. He takes the super hero genre and uses it to shed light on the personal and group psychology surrounding death.

The back cover is a good summary of the whole book. In the foreground, there is this dead branch laying on the dessicated alien surface. The super hero community stands in the middle and Marvel's star hangs above them all. The scary reality confronts us first with a somber reflecting group collected in the middle. Finally, a vision of hope is offered with Marvel's star remembered by all those assembled.

2 comments:

Karen Peltier said...

Definitely ballsy and pretty heavy to use Michelangelo's Pieta as the model for the cover image, too. It's interesting to think that themes of humanity versus the supernatural in Christ's life and death could easily be compared to Capt. Marvel's.

Jesse Reese said...

WOAH. Double good call. I think it's really interesting too how Death's other physical form is this young woman kind of like the virgin mary. I think that Starlin tries to ground Marvel in humanity more than anything else, and pretty significant that captain marvel wasn't really resurrected for more than 25 years.