Retro Review: The Death of Captain Marvel By Jim Starlin For Marvel Comics

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Marvel Graphic Novel #1: The Death of Captain Marvel (1982)

Written by Jim Starlin

Art by Jim Starlin

Coloured by Steve Oliff

Spoilers (from forty years ago)

I think it’s pretty easy to make the argument that this was one of the most important Marvel comics to be published in the early 1980s.  It was a first in a couple of ways – the first of Marvel’s new oversized series of one-off graphic novels, the first book to show a relatively major character die from a real-life problem, and an early example of the growing maturity of comic books as the core audience grew in age.

When I picked this up, I didn’t really know Mar-Vell, and wasn’t familiar with Jim Starlin’s work.  I remember being attracted to the prestige of this book, and wanted it because of positive word of mouth.  I also remember that it affected me, because while we’ve always been used to heroes dying from heroic deaths (and often returning not long after), this was different.  It felt grown.

Let’s see how those recollections match with the reality.

Let’s track who turned up in the title:

  • Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell)


  • Thanos’s followers
  • Thanos

Guest Stars

  • Yellowjacket (Hank Pym, Avengers)
  • Black Panther (T’Challa, Avengers)
  • Vision (Avengers)
  • Wonder Man (Simon Williams, Avengers)
  • Beast (Hank McCoy, Avengers)
  • Iron Man (Tony Stark, Avengers)
  • Thor (Don Blake, Avengers)
  • Mister Fantastic (Reed Richards, Fantastic Four)
  • Doctor Strange (Stephen Strange, Defenders)
  • Captain America (Steve Rogers, Avengers)
  • The Thing (Ben Grimm, Fantastic Four)
  • Spider-Man (Peter Parker)
  • Drax, the Destroyer
  • Moondragon

Supporting Characters

  • Starfox (Eros)
  • Mentor
  • Isaac
  • Elysius
  • Rick Jones
  • General Zedrao (Skrull Empire)
  • Death

Let’s take a look at what happened in these books, with some commentary as we go:

  • Mar-Vell is on a ship, and starts to record his history to leave a record for the people he leaves behind.  He talks about being in the Kree military, and how on a mission to spy on the people of Earth, he turned on his people, and convinced his love, Una, to join him.  Yon-Rogg, a rival for Una’s love, arranged for him to be attacked by enemies of the Kree, and Una was killed.  Mar-Vell deserted the Kree, and changed his look, becoming the hero Captain Marvel.  He gained ‘cosmic awareness’ from the entity Eon, and fought the good fight before deciding to retire to Titan.  We learn that Mar-Vell is travelling with Mentor (the leader on Titan) and his son Starfox to the ship of their great enemy (and for Mentor and Eros, family member, Thanos.  Eros is surprised that Mar-Vell is working on his memoirs at such a young age.  They arrive at Thanos’s ship, the place where Adam Warlock, assisting Mar-Vell and Earth’s heroes, was able to defeat Thanos, turning him into stone.  They find his body where they left it, but Mar-Vell notices that it’s standing on a platform that wasn’t there before.  Mar-Vell’s cosmic awareness gives them a warning just before a couple of dozen aliens of different races attack.  Mentor and Starfox do most of the fighting, while Mar-Vell hangs back until it becomes clear he has to get involved.  He helps, and soon they’ve taken out all but one of the aliens.  This guy tells them that they worship Thanos and are waiting for him to return.  This enrages Mentor, who tells them all that they are taking Thanos’s body, and that they need to leave the ship because they plan to destroy it.  As the aliens scurry, Mar-Vell is overcome with a wracking cough that he minimizes to his friends.  Mentor offers to have Isaac, the computer that runs Titan, run a scan when they return, but Mar-Vell reminds them that he has cosmic awareness, and he already knows what is wrong.  Back on Titan, Mentor confirms that Mar-Vell has cancer, with perhaps three months left to live.  Mar-Vell remembers a time he fought the villain Nitro, and had to seal a canister of poisonous gas with his own hands – he figures this gas altered his body and started his cancer.  He also believes that the photonic power of his nega-bands held the cancer at bay, but now is no longer effective against it.  Mentor asks if he’s told his girlfriend, Elysius, yet.  He doesn’t want to cause her pain, but realizes that it’s the right thing to do.  Mentor watches as on a beautifully drawn silent page, Mar-Vell breaks the news to her as they sit on a park bench.  Mar-Vell continues to update his audio files, and talks about the period of his life when he was exiled to the Negative Zone and then became bonded to Rick Jones, exchanging place with him whenever they hit their nega-bands together.  He thinks about how close he and Rick were, and how he became part of the larger family of Earth’s heroes, while also facing a growing number of villains.  After the final fight with Thanos, Rick and Mar-Vell were separated, and gave each other space.  Now Mar-Vell is concerned that Rick might also be sick, so he goes to see him.  Rick is practicing his guitar on a rooftop when Mar-Vell comes to see him, and tells him to go get checked out at Avengers Mansion by Don Blake.  Rick doesn’t take the news that Mar-Vell is dying well, and gets angry with him, before storming away.  When Mar-Vell returns to Elysius, she helps him understand Rick’s reaction, and they talk about life.  Rick convenes a number of Avengers – Iron Man, Black Panther, Yellowjacket, Vision, Wonder Man, Beast, and Thor – hoping that with their medical and mechanical knowledge, they might be able to help Mar-Vell.  When Tony and Beast try to manage Rick’s expectations, he gets angry and storms off again, not even waiting to learn that they’ve already been in touch with Mentor.  News of Mar-Vell’s illness spreads throughout the galaxy over a span of a few weeks.  When we next see Mar-Vell, he’s wearing a tunic designed by Isaac to help slow the cancer, but we can see that he’s looking worse than before.  Mar-Vell talks to Eros, who he knows has always had feelings for Elysius, asking him to look after her once he’s gone.  He records the story of how he and Elysius were once enemies, but fell in love with one another.  As he finishes recording this story, he’s overcome with a wave of pain and smashes a machine.  He has a talk with himself about how things aren’t fair, but that he also shouldn’t expect that his life is different from anyone else’s.  Mentor watches, vowing to try to help.  We see that he has Beast, Thor, Mister Fantastic, and Dr. Strange working on Titan, but they can’t devise any treatment that the nega-bands won’t immediately negate.  At the same time, Mar-Vell’s become so dependent on the bands, which have been keeping him alive, that to take them off would kill him pretty quickly.  As they talk, Eros comes to tell them that Mar-Vell has collapsed.  As he lies in his bed, visitors arrive on Titan from all over, including one ship that is almost not allowed to land.  We see on a lovely splash page that most of Earth’s heroes – the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the Defenders, the X-Men (did they even ever meet Mar-Vell?), and many others have arrived.  It’s worth noting that the Silver Surfer’s inclusion here, at a time when he was trapped on Earth, became a plot point in a later Surfer comic.  Elysius and Mar-Vell talk until Eros comes to see if he can bring in some visitors.  Mar-Vell brightens, hoping that Rick is among them.  The smart heroes continue to work to find a last-minute solution.  The Thing and Spider-Man are chatting with Mar-Vell, but Peter becomes overwhelmed and leaves the room.  When Ben is annoyed by this, Mar-Vell reminds him that people feel things differently.  Outside the room, Peter chats with Beast, who tries to help him.  Rick arrives and enters Mar-Vell’s room, quickly breaking down and apologizing for how he’s acted.  Ben brings everyone else out of the room to give them privacy.  Later, their discussion is interrupted by the arrival of Drax the Destroyer and Moondragon.  Drax, having been dead before, tells Mar-Vell that it’s not what he imagines, and is not all bad.  They are joined by the Skrull General Zedrao, who came with Drax.  He’s there to pay his respects on behalf of the Empire, to a respected foe.  He gives Mar-Vell the Skrull Medal of Valor and salutes him.  Rick is hurt that the Kree are doing nothing to honour Mar-Vell, but Mar-Vell understands.  Mar-Vell tells him that all he needs is to have Elysius and his friends with him. It’s worth noting that he looks a little worse with each page.  Later, Eros comes to tell his father that Mar-Vell is in a coma.  We see a variety of heroes standing vigil around Mar-Vell’s bed, and Mentor mentions how unfair this all is.  Mar-Vell’s face is slowly replaced with Thanos’s.  In the basement, the Thanos statue starts to move, walking to Mar-Vell’s room and blasting the door open.  Mar-Vell, alone now, is surprised to see him.  Thanos tells him that he can tell he’s going to die, and that he’s always respected him.  He tells him to stand up, and Mar-Vell is restored to health, in his costume once again.  He takes him to a strange landscape dominated by a large heart, which Thanos calls the ‘heart of [his] universe’.  He says he’s going to destroy it, and he wants Mar-Vell to stop him.  They begin to fight, and many of Mar-Vell’s old enemies, all dead, appear.  Mar-Vell fights them all, showing great determination.  He destroys all of them, and follows Thanos into a cave, while telling him that Death is unstoppable.  Mar-Vell tries to keep fighting.  He smashes Thanos into pieces, but he’s restored. They are joined by Death, and Mar-Vell says he no longer needs any illusions, swiping away Death’s pleasant face to reveal the skull beneath.  She kisses Mar-Vell, and we see the giant heart stop beating.  Thanos tells him that Death will lead them on their journey, and they walk off, each holding one of her hands, into a white light.  Mar-Vell’s heart monitor shows that he’s died, and Mentor shuts it off, telling the heroes, “he’s gone” while raising his sheet over his head.

I don’t think I expected reading this again to be quite so devastating.  When I read it the first time, I was pretty young (my copy is an 8th printing, so I’m not exactly sure when I would have gotten it, but I was probably about ten or eleven) and while I remember finding it sad, I think that the ensuing decades, and the losses accumulated over that time, made this so much more relatable as a middle aged reader.  Starlin was only in his early thirties when he created this, and he really understood the pain and anger that comes with cancer.

This really is a beautiful book.  Starlin’s art is so evocative and emotional.  The way he managed to show Mar-Vell’s decline is pretty stunning, as we go from seeing him looking healthy and vibrant, to a shadow of himself in the end.  We also can easily see the pain on other characters’ faces, and Steve Oliff’s colours add so much to the emotion on each page.  The most powerful pages are the silent moments shared between Mar-Vell and Elysius, which manage to say so much.

I’ve never really read any Captain Marvel comics beyond this one.  I’m familiar with his story, but by the time I started reading comics, his series was canceled and he was a character that got mentioned in flashbacks more than anything else.  I can’t imagine what reading this graphic novel must have been like for a long-time fan when it came out.  I imagine that it was greeted with the same emotions Rick displayed in the story, as I’m sure it was pretty shocking for fans to see the character killed off in this way.  I really do need to start digging into Jim Starlin’s work from the 70s, and read both Captain Marvel and Warlock, as well as finally read the Thanos storyline.

I’m unsure how I feel about the ending of this book.  It strikes me as odd that the book ends with Mar-Vell’s life, and that there aren’t any scenes of the other characters reacting to it, but the more I think about it, the more I think that was a good decision.  The back cover shows the heroes standing at a grave marker in silence, and I think that might be the most effective and fitting ending.

I think it’s cool how Starlin had so many heroes show up for Mar-Vell in his last moments.  The Marvel Universe of the early 80s was much smaller than it is today, and the cross-pollination that eventually put just about everybody on the Avengers hadn’t happened yet.  I think that many of these heroes wouldn’t have known each other very well, so it’s even more touching that they would come to pay their respects to a colleague and hero without a personal connection.

I am impressed that Marvel chose this story to debut their new graphic novel format.  The larger size really helped sell the emotion of this story, and at the time, the shiny paper was a revelation.  My copy still has its original smell, which, I won’t lie, could be addictive.  Marvel didn’t seem to know what they wanted with this format at first, giving us licensed characters in one issue, creator-owned in the next, and then using this format to debut New Mutants and publish a ground-breaking X-Men story.  I think today’s readers won’t be able to understand how innovative this format felt at the time.

I’m really glad that I dug this book out and read it again.  It brought back some good childhood memories, and took me to some painful more recent ones, but it also models how to face adversity in a more relatable way, and that’s what we turn to great fiction for.  Starlin went on to do a lot of other comics work after this book, and is still active into his seventies, but I think that this is one of the comics that he’ll always be remembered and known for.  It’s a stunning and mature piece of work that helped to elevate the entire genre.

For my next column, I’m going to look at another entry in the Marvel Graphic Novel line, which I stumbled across while looking for this book.  It’s by my one of my favourite writers, but I have absolutely no memory of buying or reading this book.

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