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Monday, March 2, 2009


So there she was: Monica Rambeau, an African-American woman, late of the Coast Guard in New Orleans. She had acquired the power to become energy of any wavelength and taken on one of the most venerable names in super-herodom, Captain Marvel. Directly she stepped off the bus in Manhattan, she was recruited into the ranks of the Avengers themselves. She rose quickly to the very leadership of the team. Captain Marvel had arrived. She stood at the top of the super-hero heap. She was one of the shining lights of the Marvel Universe.

And in a flash, she was torn down and discarded.

Marrina, formerly of Alpha Flight, betrothed of the Sub-Mariner (who had recently joined the Avengers), had gone insane and morphed into a colossal sea serpent. When the Avengers set out to corral her and contain her rampage, Captain Marvel struck with the full force of her power and became a mighty bolt of lightning...and disappeared! The Avengers feared the worst for their new leader, but a short time later, Captain Marvel rematerialized at the mansion as a shriveled, nearly dead, powerless husk of a woman. Having accidentally discharged herself over the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, she could barely pull together even this much of her mass. She was no longer in any condition to lead Earth’s mightiest heroes, and in a story centered on the dismantling of the Avengers as they were at that time, she stepped down and returned to New Orleans to recover. I was heartbroken. What had happened?

As I understand it, part of what happened was that Roger Stern, Captain Marvel’s creator and an old acquaintance of mine, was replaced as writer of The Avengers. The new writer was Walter Simonson, another former acquaintance. (In fact, Walter is an alumnus of Rhode Island School of Design, where I spent my first couple of years of college, which is a story for another time. A very, very long and unhappy story...) Part of Walter’s mandate for the book was to replace the Avengers lineup. And part of Marvel’s agenda was that the company wanted Captain Marvel gone. Since Roger was leaving, he couldn’t take his brilliant creation with him (all Marvel characters are Marvel’s property, to be done with as the company wishes), so he was forced to leave her fate in other hands. Hands that didn’t love her as much as Roger (and I) did. So, this most wondrous of super-heroines was doomed to be nearly killed, rendered powerless, and written out of the book that had been her home, never to be a regular, full-time Avenger, let alone their leader, again. To say the least, I was displeased.

At a comic convention a short time later, I approached a Marvel editor--and I only wish I could remember this person’s name--and asked him why Captain Marvel was treated so shabbily. The answer I got was exactly this: “She was too f***ing powerful.”

At that same convention, or perhaps another about that time, I approached my old acquaintance Walter himself about the Captain Marvel question. Do you know what he told me? “She was too f***ing powerful.”

Listen to how that sounds. Captain Marvel was an African-American woman. She was the single most powerful mortal, human character ever to serve in the Avengers. (Remember what I said about Thor last week.) She had risen to the leadership of Marvel’s most powerful hero team. She was one of the most prominent members of the Marvel cast. And... “She was too f***ing powerful.”

Mind you, Thor is not too f***ing powerful. But Captain Marvel was. And I have always been of the opinion that if this Captain Marvel had been male and white like the one before her (extraterrestrial that he was), she would not have been considered so f***ing powerful that she had to be torn down and discarded from Marvel’s most important team after the Fantastic Four.

Since the story in which she was nearly destroyed and written out of the Avengers, Captain Marvel has had to endure a series of indignities to her standing in the Marvel cast. They did a couple of one-issue specials about her. In the first one, she spontaneously manifested a different set of powers related to the dimensional field across which she initially exchanged her mass for energy. She seemed to have a personal static warp field that enabled her to move at supersonic speeds and simulate super-strength and invulnerability. Those were nice powers to have, I guess, but they were nothing compared to the powers that Roger gave her. But she remained only a reserve member of the Avengers.

In a subsequent special, CM manifested powers a bit closer to what she originally had. She could now emit electromagnetic energy of any wavelength. Not become it, just emit it. Well, that was a step in the right direction, of course. But she was still only an Avengers reservist, not a regular, full-time member.

In a miniseries called Starblast, CM was among the characters participating in some cosmic conflict. At the height of that battle, the cosmic entity called The Stranger decided that he needed all of the heroes that he had brought into the battle at their full strength. So he restored Captain Marvel to her original powers. She was back in full form--but not back on the team where she belonged.

So they had put her back the way Roger Stern had her, and what did they do next? They decided that the prior Captain Marvel, who was originally a warrior of the alien Kree Empire, had sired a hitherto-unknown son, and that this character was now going to be the official Captain Marvel with his own book. (Apparently the first Captain Marvel of Marvel Comics was a bit of an interstellar tomcat like Star Trek’s Captain Kirk. He has at least two other children from different affairs. One of them is his son with the Skrull Princess Annelle; we know him as the Hulkling, a gay character, in The Young Avengers.) With a different Captain Marvel headlining a new series, Monica could not keep the name with which Roger created her, so they had her rechristened as “Photon”. This was yet another comedown. Any super-hero with energy powers could be called “Photon”. This name was nowhere near special enough for this character. And yet...Photon she was. And even as Photon, she was still not restored to her standing in the Avengers.

At least Photon still got to take part in some Avengers missions, even if it was only as a reservist. She got some play in the stories of Kurt Busiek, George Perez, and company. In the opening story of the “Heroes Return” Avengers, she was among the characters with enough of a strong sense of having been an Avenger that she could shake off the effects of Morgana Le Fey’s spell on the world and join Captain America in fighting back. She stood with the Avengers against the menace of Pagan and Templar. She was part of the resistance against Kang the Conqueror’s overthrow of Earth. Roger Stern got to write his creation again in the miniseries Avengers Infinity, in which Photon, Thor, Starfox, Moondragon, Tigra, and the Jack of Hearts faced the threat of the Infinites. That was another of Monica’s shining moments, reunited with the writer who brought her into the world and loved her best. The Avengers Infinity team also took the spotlight in The Avengers Vol. 3 #35, the only story except for her origin in which the former (and still rightful) Captain Marvel was drawn by her originating artist, John Romita Jr.

Perhaps Photon’s greatest moment at this point in her career was her participation in Avengers/JLA, the George Perez-drawn miniseries in which the Avengers met and battled DC’s Justice League of America. This was where Photon actually defeated the Green Lantern! In the epic clash between the two teams, she matched the energy output of the Green Lantern’s ring and sucked all the power out of it, leaving him helpless, and used his power to put a righteous zapping on Firestorm and Captain Atom to boot! That was one of the few stories after her ignominious takedown in which Monica really demonstrated what she’s capable of doing. Talk about “justice”!

And even so, not only has Monica remained on the sidelines, they’ve even gone so far as to take away her name--again! When the first Captain Marvel’s son thoughtlessly assumed the name of Photon, Monica was furious with him at first (as well she should have been), but relented and decided to call herself “Pulsar”. Can you believe it--from Captain Marvel to Photon to Pulsar? Why not just call her Generic Energy Power Woman and have done with it? And even this didn’t stick. Next, they decided to make her the leader of something called Nextwave: Agents of HATE, a group of third-string and lower Marvel heroes in which she called herself “The Captain” and nattered on about having once been the leader of the Avengers. And even more recently, in Ms. Marvel, the robotic hero Machine Man had himself a Life Model Decoy made of the former Captain Marvel who whined about having once been the leader of the Avengers, and onto whose body Machine Man put his own head! So there we have it: Monica Rambeau has gone from Captain Marvel, most powerful (mortal, human) Avenger and leader of the team, to a throwaway character on reserve status, to “Photon” to “Pulsar” to the leader of a lot of third-stringers, and finally to being a JOKE!

But what else could Marvel do with her, right? I mean, after all, she was black, she was female, and she was “too f***ing powerful”.

After Roger Stern was removed as writer of The Avengers, the entire history of the great and awesome super-heroine that he created has been about people taking something away from her. Take away her powers (and almost her life), take away her place in the team, take away her name. And oh yes, she doesn’t even use the costume that John Romita Jr. designed for her any more; let’s rob her of that as well!

I told you last week that this was not going to be a pretty story. As I write this, I have given up on Marvel Comics ever doing right by this magnificent character. She is an unloved, devalued creation, seen as being nothing but fodder for jokes. Here we have this heroine who could have battled the entire Justice League of America single-handedly and probably defeated most of them, this leader who once took the Avengers through a battle with the Greek gods themselves and hurled a bolt of lightning that actually hurt Zeus--and this is all they can do with her.

It’s another one of those situations that make me wash my hands and just say, “They’re not my characters. I have no responsibility for them and no one has ever wanted me to have any responsibility for them, so just let them do whatever they see fit with their property.” No one at Marvel seems to care about this character or have any kind of positive regard for her, and it’s a shame and a disgrace and a waste.

It’s been argued that Monica Rambeau was created as “a placeholder,” a means of retaining Marvel’s rights to the Captain Marvel name and keeping that name “in play” until the company decided what it really wanted to do with the property. The trouble is that the character my old acquaintance Roger Stern created had far greater possibilities. Even at the pinnacle to which Roger took her, she was a character on her way up. Roger had given her a history and a family and the potential for a relationship (there was this Denzel Washington-like government agent character who had his eye on her), and could have made her something truly unique in the super-hero genre: a fully developed, fully realized black, female lead character. This, however, was not to be.

But you know what? No matter what they call her and no matter what indignities they heap on her, she’ll always be Captain Marvel to me.


  1. Nicely done - not being a Marvel reader, I knew almost nothing about Captain Marvel (except that she probably never said "SHAZAM," so what kind of Captain Marvel could she be??)

    "Too powerful" is never an excuse to ditch a character - it's shorthand for "We don't want to bother writing creatively." Pity....

  2. Alas, her creator is probably the only one who will ever care enough about Captain Marvel to want to put any real creativity into her.

  3. I certainly remember her origins, but the rest of that stuff must have been after I had abandoned comics. "Too F***ING POWERFUL", indeed.

  4. Joe, you should offer this piece to Comic Book Resources or someone, get it out there. Maybe send it to the Blog@Newsarama/Robot 6 at CBR - get it seen, fight for Monica. You've come this far . . .

  5. The Quantum Blog has now gone to a larger, though still crisp, type size.

    And your idea about Newsarama and CBR is not a bad one, Mart. It couldn't hurt.

  6. Good lad! If you wanted a third party to recommend it, let me know!

  7. This commentary about Marvel's contemptuous, discriminatory and shabby treatment of Roger Stern's Captain Marvel (later, Photon, later Pulsar)should be published in general interest newspapers and magazines. Too powerful? What a terrible excuse! Marvel alone has had a half-dozen-plus cosmic-powered superheroes, including Thor, the Silver Surfer, Adam Warlock, Nova, Quasar, and Firelord, who have been given the appropriate-level menances to combat, a task not too herculean for any talented writer to envisage.

  8. Thank you, Maurice. I always wonder who's reading The Quantum Blog besides my friends and relatives! I'm pondering exactly where to shop this story around right now; my friend Mart over in Scotland had some good ideas about it. There may well be a follow-up on Captain Marvel in the near future.

  9. Great piece, didn't know this character but will definitely be looking out for her now!

  10. Thanks, Andrea. I'd like to think she's a character with a future, but only if someone cares.

  11. Hey, this was a really wonderful essay. I'm a huge Monica Rambeau fan and I'm glad to see other people are as well. I just wanted to tell you, though, that NEXTWAVE is actually a really wonderful series.

    It's a comedy series, for sure, and it can be a little silly at times. But it's really worth reading, especially for Monica fans in my opinion. There's only one continuity error, a panel where Monica is portrayed as having her powers in childhood, but I'm comfortable just ignoring it for the sake of a good story.

    'The Captain' is a different character entirely, a joke on how many heroes are ranked as 'Captain'. He actually says he wanted to be Captain Marvel once, leading Machine Man to point out that Monica used to be Captain Marvel.

    Monica definitely comes across as the most capable and powerful member of the team. It's not the Avengers, but it was a wonderful way for them to bring the character back after she was in limbo for so long. It also totally ignored that whole 'Pulsar' debacle, which can only be a good thing.

    Here's hoping that sometime soon she'll be Captain Marvel again.

  12. Thanks, Eleusis, for pointing that out about "The Captain". I'm glad you enjoyed this post and I hope others are out there listening too.

  13. Hi Mr. Fludd, I'm really glad you bought the issue of Marvel's questionable treatment of Monica to the light. It's an eye opening experience for those who want to know where she's been and what happened to the Lady of Light.

    I'm big fan of the character and I have put together a respect thread. Come through and check it out.

  14. That's a wonderful retrospective on the character, Maurice. A lot of great memories there; thanks for sharing!

  15. In re an e-mail you sent: you're as much of an authority on Captain Marvel as anyone not directly involved. This IS your field by vocation or avocation. You develop an expertise as anyone does. I now know more about post-WWII black soldiers in Germany than I care to, but I have a reason.

  16. Hmm... Nowadays you can check out Al Ewing's use of her in recent Mighty Avengers / current Ultimates...!