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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

X-amining Ms. Marvel #1

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"This Woman, This Warrior!"
January 1997

In a Nutshell
As a mysterious new superhero, Ms. Marvel, arrives in New York, Carol Danvers starts her job at Woman magazine! 

Writer: Gerry Conway
Penciler: John Buscema
Inker: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: John Costanza 
Colorist: Marie Severin
Editor: Gerry Conway
Special Thanks: Carla Conway

A midday bank robbery is stopped by a mysterious new female superhero, though she is unaware that the thieves are merely pawns of the real culprit, the Scorpion, who absconds with a large sum of stolen cash. Later at the Daily Bugle offices, Carol Danvers, new editor of Woman magazine, negotiates her salary with its publisher, J. Jonah Jameson. On her way out of the office she bumps into photographer Peter Parker and his girlfriend Mary Jane, who becomes a fast friend to Carol. Across town, the Scorpion uses his stolen money to purchase a lab from Prof. Kerwin Korman, part of his plot to get revenge on J. Jonah Jameson. He proceeds to kidnap Jameson, just as Carol Danvers returns to her apartment and suddenly blacks out. Later, the mysterious new superhero arrives at the Bugle to try and track down Jameson; when someone asks her name, she has no answer. Eventually, her "seventh sense" leads her to Scorpion's hideout, where her Kree-trained fighting skills help her defeat the villain. Suddenly remembering her connection to the Kree Captain Marvel, when Jameson asks her name, she responds with "Ms. Marvel"! The next day, Jameson, safely back at the Daily Bugle, tasks Carol Danvers with investigating the new Ms. Marvel.  

Firsts and Other Notables
This issue marks the first appearance of Ms. Marvel, the super-powered costume identity of Carol Danvers. The series itself is notable for being created specifically to appeal to women & embrace more progressive values by presenting strong female protagonist steeped in the feminist rhetoric of the time (hence the use of "Ms." in the title, a reference to the preference within the feminist movement for "Ms." as a female title rather than the married "Mrs." and young/unmarried "Miss", as well as an overt callout to the popular Ms. magazine edited by Gloria Steinem). Though not Marvel's first ongoing series to feature a female superhero title character (that would be The Cat, which introduced the future Tigra in a series that was part of a trio of female-focused - with female creators - series making a similar effort back in 1972 to attract a wider audience), it does become, for a time, its most successful (The Cat ended after just four issues). 

Though this is Ms. Marvel's first appearance as a costumed character, her alter ego, Carol Danvers, first appeared in Marvel Super Heroes #13 as a supporting character in the cast of that book's main character, alien Kree soldier turned defender of Earth, Mar-Vell aka Captain Marvel. Carol was the head of security at the unnamed space agency base where Mar-Vell posed as a scientist, and eventually became his love interest for a time. After Mar-Vell got his own series, Carol came along with him, and was caught in an energy blast from an alien weapon in Captain Marvel #18; this incident will later be cited as the one in which she gains the powers she uses as Ms. Marvel. 

The link between the two characters is not directly made in this issue however, with Ms. Marvel presented as knowing little about herself or how she gained her powers, while Carol is simply an aspiring writer/editor suffering from strange, periodic blackouts. The connection between the two (and each "learning" about the other) will be made in issue #3. 

It's often said that Ms. Marvel was created to protect a trademark, not unlike the creations of Spider-Woman (who was created to get out ahead of an unrelated animated series using that name) and She-Hulk (who was created so Marvel would control the trademark on a female Hulk before the Incredible Hulk TV series made one); however, as detailed here, that's only kinda sorta true (generally, yes, sure, Marvel wanted to make sure they controlled the trademark to a name like "Ms. Marvel", but it wasn't the driving force behind her creation). 

On her way out of the Daily Bugle, Carol runs into Peter Parker & Mary Jane Watson, quickly befriending Mary Jane, who comes back to her apartment. To Conway's credit, Peter never changes into Spider-Man in this issue, thereby passing up an opportunity to use a guest-appearance by Marvel's most popular character of the time to launch the new series, instead allowing Ms. Marvel to stand on her own. 

Professor Korman makes his first appearance in this issue; a scientist working for AIM and Hydra, he will take the name Destructor when donning a battlesuit of his own design to fight Ms. Marvel, and serve as recurring antagonist in the series for its first year. 

He is partnered here with Spider-Man villain Scorpion, who buys a lab from Korman in order to get his revenge on J. Jonah Jameson (Jameson first hired Scorpion to undergo an experimental procedure to kill Spider-Man; now, Scorpion resents Jameson because the procedure was irreversible and Scorpion is trapped in his suit; the lab just seems to be a means to give Jameson an especially painful death, as opposed to, say, just dropping him out his high-rise office window after capturing him, in true super-villain fashion). 

Gerry Conway, fresh off a stint as Marvel's Editor-in-Chief (coming during that mid 70s era between Roy Thomas and Jim Shooter's tenure when nearly all of Marvel's top writers served a brief stint as E-i-C before burning out on the job), writes this issue and is credited as Ms. Marvel's co-creator, though he only sticks around through the next issue. 

Pencils come from Marvel stalwart John Buscema who amongst other things, also co-created Ultron and the Vision.  

Gerry Conway's wife at the time, Carla Conway, is credited with special thanks for this issue; I haven't been able to find what, specifically, she contributed.  

The Chronology Corner
Peter Parker appears here between issues #164 and #165 of Amazing Spider-Man. Mary Jane last appeared in Marvel Team-Up #52 and will appear in the next two issues of this series. 

This issue was on sale the month after X-Men #102 (which was bi-monthly at the time). 

A Work in Progress
In addition to her super-strength, flight, & invulnerability, Ms. Marvel has a “seventh sense” which, not unlike Spider-Man’s “spider sense”, warns her of immediate danger (I’m not sure why it’s a seventh sense and not a sixth).

Carol notes she’s only been a professional writer for a year, since leaving the security field, a reference to her time as a supporting character in Captain Marvel.

Later, she reveals that she wrote a book about the space program that pays for her swanky apartment. 

Is that a shot at Brooklyn? Abanonded? Derelict? Must be Brooklyn! 

I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar!
The cover of the issue triumphantly declares "this female fights back!" 

On the third page, a young girl sees Ms. Marvel in action and reacts in astonishment at the sight of a female superhero, declaring she wants to be one when she grows up; it's easily the best moment in this issue. 

Not surprisingly, J. Jonah Jameson isn’t the most progressive of publishers, wanting his women’s magazines to focus on things like diets and fashions and recipes, things women will find "useful".

That 70s Comic
We get one of those patented "all this superhero action must just be an advertising stunt!' declarations in this issue. 

It's in the Mail
In lieu of letters, this issue's letter column (titled "Ms. Prints") features an essay from Conway detailing the creation of and goals behind the series. 

Gerry Conway on the genesis of Ms. Marvel
"I had been brought over to Marvel to be an editor-in-chief, and that didn't turn out so turn out so well for me. I didn’t really enjoy the time I was there, and the people who were under me were not happy with having to work for me, and it just became more hassle than it was worth. One of the things I had been attacked for by people there was the idea that I was kicking them off books in order to take over [writing] their books. This was, of course, not the case—at least from my point of view. But given
that that was how they felt, I said to Stan, ‘Well, is there any way that we could create some stuff so that I’m not kicking people off books?’ Stan had either just created She-Hulk or was thinking about creating her, and we thought, ‘Can we come up with another female superhero that can use the Marvel name?’ And Stan said, ‘Like Marvel Girl or something.’ And I thought, well, you know, the ‘Something Girl’ thing might be offensive to some people. I had just done Power Girl over at DC, but that was more like a tribute to Supergirl than anything. I thought the idea of Marvel’s first real solo female character (other than the Cat) being a ‘Girl’ might be a little bit off-base. So we came up with the idea of Ms. Marvel.”.

Boney, Alex. "Ms. Marvel: A Binary Life". Back Issue #54, February 2012, pp23-24. 

On the design of Ms. Marvel's costume 
“I can’t say that I designed the costume, but I did want it to look like it was derivative of Captain Marvel. I felt that that was potentially one of the main selling points of the character. If you’re going to call somebody Ms. Marvel, you’ve got to tie it into the other character called ‘Marvel.’ Seems to me. The costume being derivative was something that, by definition, was going to happen. Whether the way we did it was good? That I can’t say.”

Boney, Alex. "Ms. Marvel: A Binary Life". Back Issue #54, February 2012, p24. 

Reflecting on his work on the series 
"I've always been slightly embarrassed by my brief stint on Ms. Marvel. Not by the quality of the writing, though tit's rough; by the standards of the time, it's no worse than the average Marvel title. No, I've been embarrassed by what I came to see as the insensitivity and clueless arrogance of my assumption that I was 'qualified' to create a super-heroine, at the same time I claimed there were no female writers 'qualified' to write a super-hero. Even then I knew this was a canard, though I would have defended it. For a long, long time, I kept my head down whenever Ms. Marvel was mentioned, offered an embarrassed self-deprecating smile, or murmured some apologetic 'you had to be there' deflective remark. Honestly, I was a bit ashamed. I felt like I'd missed an opportunity to do something worthwhile, and that I'd revealed myself to be less than the man I wanted to be (The fact that I was in my mid-twenties at the time was, I liked to tell myself, an extenuating circumstance, but not one I fully believed."

Conway, Gerry. Introduction. Marvel Masterworks Ms. Marvel Volume 1, by Gerry Conway, Chris Claremont, et. al, Marvel Comics, 2016, p viii

Austin's Analysis
This isn't a series I've ever read much of before, but it's a series I've long known of, by reputation at least: an attempt by Marvel to protect a trademark (sort of, as detailed above) and cash-in on "feminism" while earnestly (if only with occasional success) attempting to put forward a female-first perspective on traditional comic book story beats, it's also the place where Chris Claremont gets his hooks into a character he will eventually (following the cancellation of this series and a somewhat disastrous run in Avengers) feature in a supporting role in X-Men, which leads to her transformation into Binary (thereby doubling-down on the cosmic origins of her initial powers and making her one of the few characters with ties to the Avengers, the X-Men, and Marvel's larger cosmic trappings). Today, Carol Danvers (in the guise of Captain Marvel) is Marvel's most significant female characters and one of its most successful characters, period, the star of a billion dollar film franchise (to say nothing of her appearances in the current biggest movie of all time) also capable of headlining her own successful comic book series and leading line-wide crossover events, all of which follows on from an effort in the 2000s, similar to (and ultimately more successful than) the one which led to the launch of this series, to center the character as the woman of note in the Marvel pantheon. 

The beginnings of that rise to pop cultural dominance today gets off to an inauspicious start with this issue, released back in the late 70s. It is perhaps to writer Gerry Conway's credit, at least in terms of appealing to larger (mostly male) audience in 1976, that this issue functions more like a standard "first issue of a new series featuring a new hero" than as a trailblazing feminist statement (in terms of making the series a trailblazing one, of course, this timidity and business-as-usual approach is less creditable, particularly given the obvious way the central character is drawn very much from within the male gaze, her costume featuring booty shorts and a bare lower back/midriff). There are nods to that intention, nods which were likely more impactful/obvious in '77 than now: the little girl inspired to see a superhero woman in action is a great panel no matter what decade it occurs in, and the whole premise of Carol Danvers being a Gloria Steinem-esque editor of a woman's magazine, while thinly-veiled, is clearly intended to set the main character up in conflict with the more conservative J. Jonah Jameson and his take on what women want. 

In fact, I was genuinely surprised by how much work Conway does in this issue setting up Carol's professional role; I knew going in that the character shifts from the military security work that led her to palling around with Captain Marvel to running a magazine, but I always assumed it was just one of those things where the character's past history was quietly ignored in favor of the new gig. However, Conway spends some time acknowledging Carol's past career and the transition to her new gig here, and while simply having her state she's always had a desire to be a writer is a pretty easy (and basic) way to sell the career change for the character, it's more than I was expecting going in. 

Another surprise for me in this issue is the whole plot point of Carol Danvers not knowing she's Ms. Marvel (and vice versa); obviously, this seems like the inspiration behind a similar setup in the Captain Marvel movie (in which Carol starts off believing herself to be a Kree warrior, with no memory of her time on Earth as Carol Danvers), which I had always assumed was an invention of the film. And while it won't last long, it is an interesting introductory premise for the series, something that gives its initial storytelling engine a different flavor beyond the more standard "day job, supporting cast, antagonist" setups. 

Ultimately, this issue is perhaps most successful in that regard, as an introductory issue setting up this new(ish) character, the setting of the series, and some of its themes. As much as the nods to more inclusive storytelling and feminism may feel half-hearted & lip service-y today, the general premise of the series (Carol Danvers, crusading magazine editor by day, unknowing superhero by night) is presented clearly enough, with the mystery of Ms. Marvel's identity and connection to Carol offering up a unique hook for the series in addition to the more historical & cultural elements. 

Next Issue
Ms. Marvel battles the Scorpion (again)! 

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  1. This is a series I keep meaning to check out. I started reading Carol Danvers with the Brian Reed series and am still following he today so it's odd to me that I have not yet gotten around to this series. Especially the Claremont penned issues.

    I like the Jekyll/Hyde conceit of the first issue. If not original itsi at least a rare way to start a new series.

    And as skimpy as that costume is, I much prefer it to the S&M costume she wears in her second series.

  2. The film effectively placing Captain Marvel as the Superman equivalent of the MCU, it's fun to now notice the probably very intentional callback to the cover of ACTION COMICS #1 as she picks up (and slams down) a green car as her first superhero thing.

  3. January 1997?

    "To Conway's credit, Peter never changes into Spider-Man in this issue, thereby passing up an opportunity to use a guest-appearance by Marvel's most popular character of the time to launch the new series, instead allowing Ms. Marvel to stand on her own."

    True, though he is featured on the cover in his civilian is his girlfriend...and one of his villains ;)

    "a young girl sees Ms. Marvel in action and reacts in astonishment at the sight of a female superhero"

    She must be a tourist, as a true New Yorker even at that age would have seen the Wasp, Scarlet Witch, or Invisible Woman at some point...though I suppose there is the appeal of seeing a young girl say that on-panel, I suppose.

    "a somewhat disastrous run in Avengers"

    It was the last few issues of her run with the Avengers that were the disaster; prior to that Carol was a great addition to the team.

    "The film effectively placing Captain Marvel as the Superman equivalent of the MCU, it's fun to now notice the probably very intentional callback to the cover of ACTION COMICS #1 as she picks up (and slams down) a green car as her first superhero thing."

    Er, what? No.

  4. I read this series all the way through about ten years ago. My recollection is that I found it uneven, but I mostly liked it, once Chris Claremont came aboard -- and I thought it was really ramping up near the end, just before it was cancelled.

    It's interesting as the series goes along to see just how many X-Men related concepts pop up. I knew about the first appearance of Mystique, of course (where she's clearly meant to be an alien), but I was surprised to see Col. Michael Rossi appear. And then of course there's an appearance by the Hellfire Club in the final two issues, which were published a decade after the series was cancelled, so I guess we may never know if Claremont actually originally planned to use them.

    Oh, and the series features the beginning of his "Cavourite Crystal" storyline, which Claremont threaded through MS. MARVEL and MARVEL TEAM-UP before ultimately resolving it years later in early NEW MUTANTS issues!

    As far as the costume goes, I like it better after they cover up her midriff at some point. It just looks absurd as originally designed. But in either case, I vastly prefer the Dave Cockrum costume she gets near the end of the series, which she wears for her Avengers stint and which George Perez brought back in the late 90s. That one is iconic; this one is, as Gerry Conway notes above, (intentionally) derivative.

    I used to not like her Captain Marvel costume very much, but it has grown on me a lot over the past several years, to the point that I now consider it my favorite costume for the character -- though I prefer when she has long (or longish) hair with it.

    Someday, I really must patronize you.

  5. I read five or six Ms Marvel books when I picked them out of dollar bins a few years ago. I love almost everything about them. I love how they were an unapologetic shot at feminism during an era when that was particularly difficult. I love how the writers and artists didn't make Carol a shining, pristine beacon of female power, even when she was sometimes a literal shining beacon of alien power. I love the attempt to really cram a lot of women into the pages, not just feature a woman in a man's world. I love just about everything except, well... the comics themselves, which are very hokey 70s-style books (at least the few I read.) Like most superhero books of the era, they have the stilted superhero dialogue and pacing that was seemingly a requirement up until the end of that decade. There are plenty of good-to-great books written and drawn in that era and style, but I'm glad the medium eventually outgrew it.

    Also, put me down squarely in the "black costume with the lightning bolt" fan club.

    1. Funny, I love that 70s style you’re talking about here. I wish comics were still written that way!


  6. The Ms. connection would be inevitable anyway, but it’s worth noting that Wonder Woman had been on the cover of the first regular issue of that magazine in 1972. Although now I’m curious what cover its Marvel Universe version launched with…

    // I’m not sure why it’s a seventh sense and not a sixth //

    Yeah, I don’t really get that either. I’m pretty sure that at least once she has a vision of a near-future event that isn’t an imminent attack, so it’s possible the reasoning went that if a sixth sense alerted you to, say, an opponent creeping up on you from behind at that very moment then one that was outright predictive — or maybe just the kind of long-distance clairvoyance seen here with “Brooklyn!” — would be seventh.

    // That 70s Comic //

    Ms. Marvel’s feathered haircut is intensely of the era — as well as really confusing since it’s shorter than her alter-ego’s. There was obviously meant to be at least some veneer of mystery about Ms. Marvel’s identity and Carol Danvers’ relation to the series before the reveal, which might have informed the discrepancy, but I can’t recall whether it ever gets explained.

    // tit's rough //


    // while simply having her state she's always had a desire to be a writer is a pretty easy (and basic) way to sell the career change for the character, it's more than I was expecting going in //

    Even reading this at six years old, I had an inkling of how odd it was for Carol to be hired with so little experience to oversee a new magazine. The reference that Mary Jane makes to an article of hers for Rolling Stone was itself more than I expected, rereading all these years later, and the explanation/revelation that she authored a book about her military career was quite welcome. So my precocious younger self turns out to have been more judgmental than present-day me for a chance.


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