The Death of Captain Marvel – A Marvel Graphic Novel

By Jim Starlin, coloured by Steve Oliff (Marvel)
No ISBN /later editions 978-0-7851-0040-9 and 978-0-7851-0837-5

Often reprinted and now released as a spiffy hardcover in their Premier editions range The Death of Captain Marvel was the first Marvel Graphic Novel and the one that truly demonstrated how mainstream superhero material could breach the wider world of general publishing.

Written and illustrated by Jim Starlin whose earliest efforts in the industry had revitalised the moribund hero with his epic, Jack Kirby-inspired ‘Thanos Saga’ (from issues #25-34 of the fantastically hit-or-miss comicbook) this tale effectively concluded that storyline in a neat symmetrical and textually final manner – although the tale’s success led to some pretty crass commercialisations in its wake…

Mar-Vell was a soldier of the alien Kree empire dispatched to Earth as a spy, but who subsequently went native becoming first a hero and then the cosmically “aware” protector of the universe, destined since life began to be a cosmic champion in its darkest hour. In concert with the Avengers and other heroes he defeated the death-worshipping mad Titan Thanos, just as that villain transformed into God, after which the good Captain went on to become a universal force for good.

That insipid last bit pretty much sums up Mar-Vell’s later career: without Thanos the adventures again became uninspired and eventually just fizzled out. He lost his own comicbook, had a brief shot at revival in try-out book Marvel Spotlight and then just faded away…

Re-enter Starlin, who had long been perceived as obsessed by themes of death, with a rather novel idea – kill him off and leave him dead.

In 1982 that was a bold idea, especially considering how long and hard the company had fought to obtain the rights to the name (and sure enough there’s been somebody with that name in print ever since) but Starlin wasn’t just proposing a gratuitous stunt. The story developed into a different kind of drama: one uniquely at odds with contemporary fare and thinking.

At the end of the Thanos Saga (see The Life of Captain Marvel, or you could try to track down the all-inclusive compendium The Life and Death of Captain Marvel which combines that tome with the contents of the book under discussion here) Mar-Vell defeated a villain called Nitro and was exposed to an experimental nerve gas. Now he discovers that, years later, just as he has found love and contentment, the effects of that gas have caused cancer which has metastasized into something utterly incurable…

Going through the Kree version of the classic Kubler-Ross Cycle: grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, the Space-Born hero can only watch as all his friends and comrades try and fail to find a cure, before death comes for him…

This is a thoughtful, intriguing examination of the process of dying observed by a being who never expected to die in bed, and argues forcefully that even in a universe where miracles occur by the hour sometimes death might not be unwelcome…

Today, in a world where the right to life is increasingly being challenged and contested by special interest groups, this story is still a strident, forceful reminder that sometimes the personal right to dignity and freedom from distress is as important as any and all other Human Rights.

No big Deus ex Machina, not many fights and no happy ending: but still one of the best stories the House of Ideas ever published.
© 1982 Marvel Comics Group. All Rights Reserved.

2 Replies to “The Death of Captain Marvel – A Marvel Graphic Novel”

  1. One of the best stories the House of Ideas ever published. Indeed. The idea was proposed to Starlin by Marvel because the series was not selling well and he used the disease which eventually would take away his father to create the most emotive story I have ever read.

    Thanos- Would you challenge the Abstract? Would you deny the Infinite?
    Marvel- Yes!
    Thanos- Then be prepared to find that your victories are the stuff of dreams… illusions.

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