The Middle Spaces

“Let’s Rewrite Some History”: Captain Marvel & Feminist Revisionism

As I mentioned in my post “Captain Marvel and More Black Iron Man,” in 2012 Carol Danvers, aka Ms. Marvel (sometimes Warbird, once Binary) took up the name Captain Marvel in a new (but now discontinued) series by that name written by Kelly Sue DeConnick—one of the few women currently writing mainstream comics.  While I developed an appreciation for the disappointment felt by some fans regarding Monica Rambeau’s loss of the “Captain Marvel” name, I still like the idea of Carol Danvers using the name and think it works in the scope of her military background and source of her powers.

Rereading the first major story arc in DeConnick’s series I also came to appreciate her attempt to write Ms./Captain Marvel into a revisionist feminist text. It struck me as a laudable attempt to make manifest the purported feminist subtext of the character.  The “Ms.” part of her former name alone suggests the kind of Gloria Steinem independence associated with the Second Wave of feminism of the era when the first Ms. Marvel title was published. Of course, being written and drawn by men has undermined this ostensible subtext many times over—starting with her halter-top, sometimes backless, sometime mid-riff showing  costume and reaching its height when she was kidnapped, mind controlled, raped, forced to give birth to her own attacker and then allowed to be carried off again “to be happy” in another dimension with her assailant.  Luckily, that was all undone (kind of).

It bears mentioning that when I use the words “revisionist” or “revisionism” in terms of history, I do not mean this pejoratively in the least bit. History requires revision, not only because of the various social and cultural forces that obscure the achievements of and the crimes against various people of different races, genders, classes, etc… but also to counteract the ridiculous notion that there is a such thing as a monolithic “history,” as opposed to competing stories comprised of the different ways knowledge is created through analysis, research and story-telling.  History needs continual revision because it is not only what is being told, but how it is being told.  Some of the historical events that DeConnick uses in this arc are not necessarily newly revealed (to many), but the way in which she uses them are new.

What is immediately apparent about DeConnick’s series is that most of the relationships depicted therein are between women. In other words, Captain Marvel easily passes the admittedly very low bar established by the Bechdel Test—two or more named women having a conversation about something other than men. Danvers has female friends not only among other superheroes (like Spider-Woman and a good-natured verbal sparring with Monica Rambeau), but Tracy Burke, the one-time editor of Woman Magazine (for which Carol worked) and later the young Kit Renner who is her neighbor and biggest fan.  They discuss missions. They discuss monsters. They discuss airplanes and cancer and living arrangements.  They also sometimes discuss men, but not often and even more rarely in the context of romance.  Romance is far from a central theme in Captain Marvel.  Instead (in the early issues especially), the series is about women as people and their capabilities and competence and cooperation.

From Captain Marvel Vol. 7 #2 (Nov 2012)

The first arc, which begins in the second issue, follows Carol Danver’s attempt to recreate a flight using an old plane to prove that a woman named Helen Cobb could have broken an altitude record with it at the time—something she claimed to have done, but for which she never got credit.  Unexpectedly shuttled back in time, Captain Marvel finds herself in trapped in 1943 helping similarly castaway members of the Banshees, a fictional unit of the Women’s Air Service Pilots combat Japanese soldiers aided by alien Kree technology on an island off the coast of Peru (how they got there is never sufficiently explained, but whatever…)

This plot-line allows DeConnick to introduce and explain about the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and by means of a comic adventure story highlight their contribution to the war effort during World War Two. This team of women is depicted as brave, skilled pilots and competent warriors fighting against enemy troops.  As such, DeConnick can make the argument that their service was valuable and heroic and their treatment after the war and their lack of recognition was particularly unjust. Not only did they not receive veterans benefits until 1977 as they were considered civil servants, not militarized soldiers, but their accomplishments were kept classified for 35 years after the war. She puts words to this effect in Danvers’s mouth just before the superhero leaves the group after aiding them in destroying the alien craft being used by the Japanese (the craft, it seems were a side-effect of the time travel shenanigans driving the plot). She says: “Whether you know it or not, whether it’s official or not…you’re soldiers. And some of the best I’ve ever fought beside to boot.”

Of course, this work to revise depictions of history to include participation by women in areas typically imagined as being only the domain of men is somewhat undermined through the glorification of war, as patriarchal systems function through a complex and shifting skein of violence. DeConnick tries to mitigate the jingoistic fervor of the World War II setting in a scene where she stops one of the women from beating on a Japanese soldier who piloted the alien craft that killed one of their number, saying: “That boy didn’t kill Rivka…the war did. That one kid is not your enemy.” However, despite the depiction of this attitude within the comic’s narrative, when it came to the next issue’s cover undermining of it, DeConnick was overruled.   Issue #4 features a terrible word balloon on the cover, where Captain Marvel is shown saying: “You want to take another shot at an American soldier? You’re gonna need a bigger gun!,” which DeConnick herself characterized as “jingoistic.” The editor, Steve Wacker (who was also at the helm for Spider-Man’s deeply problematic torture of Sandman during Dan Slott’s “The Ends of the Earth” arc) may have been right that the word balloon itself makes the cover more dramatic and is a nice throwback to Silver Age comics covers, but the message itself is the worst kind of violence-glorifying patriotic platitude.  DeConnick was right.

The time-travel story moves forward to 1961 where Danvers takes part in an early astronaut training program for women pilots that required their gaining experience flying jets.  An apparent fictional version of the Mercury 13 (women tested for the rigors of space flight in the 1960s, but never allowed to complete training).  The alien materials recovered from the island where Danvers had her 1943 adventure become a bargaining chip in allowing the women to partake in some of the necessary jet training, but this falls through, and once again Captain Marvel jumps forward in time, but this time accompanied by Helen Cobb, one of the women pilots who was to be part of the astronaut program and whose record Danvers was trying to recreate to begin with.

This jump is to a necessarily unspecified time.  While they appear in time to witness the accident that would give Carol Danvers her powers, it cannot be 1973 or else Danvers would be in her 60s in the present time.  The strange ever-changing stasis of comic continuity strikes again. Regardless, as it turns out the origin event, which involves the radiations of a Kree wishing machine called the Psycho Magnetron, is what casts the Kree materials through time and space.  Danvers explains to the Banshees that when the machine exploded and she was bombarded with its radiation she was making her own wish. “I wished…for more time, that I had done things differently, but mostly I wished I’d been powerful enough to stop it. That’d I’d been strong enough to save myself, to save my friend.”  This characterization of her origin is actually a subtle form of ret-conning. According to the original origin, exposure to the machine while being shielded by the original Captain Marvel (an alien Kree-Warrior turned Earth superhero) caused their DNA to fuse, making her into a Kree-Human hybrid giving her her powers.  This new version, however, shifts her desires to a central position, rather than having her power derive directly from a man. This retelling of Carol Danvers’s/Ms. Marvel’s/Captain Marvel’s origin sends reverberations not only through her comic history, but DeConnick uses it as a way to send reverberations through the history of other American women who had the desire to be powerful as well, to act as warriors and explorers. Cleverly, instead of simply making up these women whole-cloth, DeConnick uses fictionalized versions of real women to emphasize that despite the superhero comic format, this desire is born out of an ability to accomplish those goals that has often been quashed by patriarchal forms of power—not through exceptionalism.  This is also echoed in the speech referenced above regarding who the “real enemy” might be. It goes unspoken, but there is a strong suggestion that the traditional notions of masculinity and aggression that not only make war, but that seeks to limit and/or occludes women’s participation in those violent decision-making processes while glorifying them as among the ultimate accomplishments are their real enemies.

The story-arc ends with the realization that Helen Cobb, one of the fictionalized Mercury 13, had made the arrangements for this journey through time in an attempt to get a hold of Danvers’s power.  The climax features two versions of Captain Marvels—one Danvers and one Cobb—racing to reach the old-fashioned prop plane that acts as the time machine. Only one of them can get back to the present and be Captain Marvel.  Of course, our heroine reaches the plane first and maintains her superheroic identity, but Cobb is never depicted as a villain. Instead, she is an ambitious woman who struggles to accomplish something outstanding in a system designed against her.  Captain Marvel’s superpowers come to represent that notable exception to the prejudicial rules and traditions that surround gender that can be pointed to in order to claim that equality and opportunity exist when they do not.  Wishing really hard is not an approach to issues of gender equity that is conducive to undermining the structural problems that limit women.  Even when wishes come true, as in the case of Carol Danvers, there are countless other wishes that remain unanswered or unrecognized like those shared by the historical women DeConnick highlights in her story.  Ultimately, despite the trappings of the superhero genre, this arc is not about having superpowers or being a woman superhero. While Captain Marvel makes use of her superpowers several times in her jumps through time, the emphasis of the story remains her interactions with strong and competent women running up against the patriarchal obstacles put up by a male-oriented power structure that only (regretfully) admits their ability when it is in its own best interest.

Yet, however laudable this explicitly feminist revisionary text may be, I wonder if it fails at what DeConnick is trying to accomplish.  I have doubts about the efficacy of fiction in disseminating information about these historical women.  I will admit that I did not know about the existence of the Women’s Air Service Pilots (WASP) before reading this comic and in the process of writing this post I came to learn about their efforts to be officially militarized and to later gain benefits and recognition for their work.  However, one might get the idea from DeConnick’s story that these women flew overseas (they didn’t) and that they were in combat situations (they weren’t). They did fly military aircraft, delivering fighters and bombers from factories to bases to free up men for combat duty and some of them did die (in training or accidents), but is it possible that by framing their achievements in terms of actual combat experience, even for the sake of a superhero comic, DeConnick is reinforcing the notion that participation in violence should remain the gauge by which their merits are measured? Does the license she takes in writing the WASP into this story actually, however inadvertently, threaten to undermine their value to the war effort by glorifying participation in combat as a form of virtue that has been historically used to exclude women?  It is possible to read DeConnick’s take as an attempt to use the conventions of both the superhero and war story to give women their due, but as Audre Lorde reminds us, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”  I have argued that violence is the normalizing force in superhero comics, and as such the participation in and justification of violence tacitly reinforces the systems of oppression that were an obstacle to “normalization” in the first place.  Like Captain Marvel’s journey backward in time made possible by her wish and that serve to highlight the competencies and accomplishments of women, writing them out of obscurity, the traditions of patriarchy also move backwards in time to re-inscribe acts in ways that keep them in line with dominant power structures.

I admire DeConnick’s revisionary urge and respect her story-telling ability—especially considering the limits of genre and industry she is working in—but unfortunately despite the deftness of her ability the ideological results only demonstrate the stickiness of the problem she appears to be wanting to write her way out of.

From Captain Marvel Vol 7 #6 (art by Emma Rios)

Note on the Art: I did not mention the art in this series because while I like the paneling and pacing of artists Dexter Soy (Issues #2 to #4) and Emma Rios (Issues #5 & #6), generally my feelings about the art are about as uneven as the art itself. Overall Soy’s style reminds me of some kind of American comics/Manga hybrid, which makes it sound better than it actually is. While there are some fantastic panels that depict the action very well or that capture a sense of the cosmic powers at play when Captain Marvel does her thing, the faces and figures of the characters themselves strikes me as overly angular and kind of generic.  The biggest problem might actually be the overuse of shadows in the coloring. I don’t know. I know I just didn’t like it.  The more time I spend with Rios’s work, however, the more I like it. It has a nice sense of movement and the faces are more evocative of actual human emotion.  The coloring is nice, too. It is different from the typical American superhero comic and it kind of reminiscent of an indie comic or maybe Dalrymple’s work on Jonathan Lethem’s version of Omega the Unknown.

An example of Dexter Soy’s art when it is good. This looks like something riffing on Starblazers (from Captain Marvel Vol 7 #4)

Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel series was always on the verge of cancellation, so I guess it is unsurprising that it ended with #17 (though I was really disappointed that two of the final three issues were given over to a disappointing Infinity crossover event, especially after the arc before that was split between this title and DeConnick’s other title, Avengers Assemble). It is being replaced by the much-talked about new Ms. Marvel title to be written by G. Willow Wilson and featuring Muslim Pakistani-American superhero, Kamala Khan. I am looking forward to the new series, though with some trepidations. However, what I’ve seen of the art, by Adrian Alphona, looks great. UPDATE: It looks like I was wrong about out-and-out cancellation, but rather the series is part of yet another set of numbering reboots of the Marvel NOW initiative and will be back in March.  Read here. (Thanks to Marc Buxton for the heads up!)