Back in the 70’s, the now legendary Chris Claremont wrote a comic book called Ms. Marvel, and was trusted as the writer to install a new female superhero. This character would be a spinoff character for the cosmic hero Captain Marvel, but would feature a character that would have most of her early adventures on Earth. She’d be a character who was a woman in a man’s world, trying to prove herself as a hero to a planet that knows little about her and trying to prove herself as a magazine editor to none other than J. Jonah Jameson.
That character’s name was Carol Danvers.
In preparation for the Captain Marvel film coming out tomorrow, which features Carol in her first appearance on the silver screen, I took the time to read back through Claremont’s run on Ms. Marvel. He actually took over the book at issue number three, after the original writer Gerry Conway, left the book. Claremont stayed with the comic all the way until it ended with issue 23 in April of 1979. When you go back and read the book from a modern lens, one thing you’ll find is that Chris Claremont had raw talent even very early in his career. On my podcast, Micah and The Hatman, I’ve been quoted as saying that there isn’t a better writer of female characters in comics history than Chris Claremont. To this day I haven’t found any evidence that’s contrary to that.
Carol Danvers, as presented in this book, is a tough woman. She’s stern, won’t back down from a challenge, and isn’t one to put up with someone’s nonsense. Keep in mind she’s willing to match wits with J. Jonah Jameson in the editor’s room, and doesn’t put up with JJ..’s “eccentricities” if I’m to put it mildly. Carol was ahead of her time in a lot of ways. You didn’t see many female characters that had this kind of an edge to them at the time.
The character was very much a feminist character written by a feminist writer. With that said, this is a feminist in the 1970’s, and what I’m about to demonstrate for you isn’t something you’d see in the here and now.
This image from Ms. Marvel #20 is a full page splash of Carol. She’s wearing her brand-new and now iconic “lightning bolt” outfit while posing in the mirror. She has a wide smile on her face and says out loud, “If I do say so myself… I look GRRRRREAT!!” Ladies and gents, she isn’t wrong. You can tell that the penciler Dave Cockrum and the colorist Mary Ellen took their time with the art. They wanted to illustrate exactly how drop dead gorgeous Carol is. They wanted to convey a woman comfortable in her own skin, one who wasn’t ashamed of being who she is. Mission accomplished. To a modern reader such as myself, it’s actually really refreshing to see. This is how most confident women act. Despite what the website Jezebel would tell you, most women like to look good. Hell, every person does. Looking good makes you feel good.
Let’s describe a couple of other things you’d wouldn’t see with the character nowadays. Two of the most eye catching comic book covers I have seen in a 70’s series came from this comic run on issues 17 and 19. They show Carol vulnerable. Issue 17 has Carol surrounded by rubble, clearly having fought a hard fight given how badly torn her costume is. It shows her neckline and part of her chest, and given the situation it strikes a cord in a man’s brain that instinctively wants to protect a vulnerable woman. It’s emotionally heavy. The same can be said of Issue 19, showing a similar situation with a furious Mar-Vell chained to a wall, powerless to help Carol as Ronan the Accuser’s boot seems place to crush Carol’s skull.
Part of Chris Claremont’s strengths was always his willingness to portray characters as both vulnerable and three-dimensional. It’s rare that you find a character in his books that you didn’t see different sides to, and this title was no different. Some may cringe if they see J. Jonah Jameson make a “women in the kitchen” remark out of context. When you see Jameson try to wake up a fainting Carol and place her on the couch in her office after a fainting spell, you realize that Claremont didn’t desire to turn J.J. into a stereotype or into Satan. He wanted to present Jameson as he is, as a curmudgeon who has a heart beneath all the rough edges and tough attitude. It’s an attitude toward the character many tried to emulate over the years, including Amazing Spider-Man writers David Michelinie and Dan Slott.
This is part of what seems to have become taboo around writers these days. There’s a lack of willingness to place nuanced characters inside the pages of a comic book. If Gabby Rivera made an attempt at writing J. Jonah Jameson, she would likely follow up the kitchen comment with something about burritos or some other racial epitaph. If it were Nick Spencer, he’d likely have Jameson goose-stepping in his office while talking about Donald Trump in a positive manner. If you even think about placing Carol Danvers in a vulnerable position in her own book, you’d likely be getting your walking papers from Tom Brevoort. Women are apparently supposed to be written like men who only talk about food and cats.
The best way to write characters is to write them like human beings, and that was the philosophy that led Chris Claremont to have the top selling comic book of all time (X-Men #1 with Jim Lee) and it’s that same philosophy that makes this comic book so enjoyable. I consider Ms. Marvel volume 1 to be a hidden gem. Carol is definitely a character who is different than any other woman given how tough-nosed she is, but she’s got a big heart to her. She gives a damn about people. She’ll fight until she’s about to die to save lives. On top of that, she’s not perfect. She fears. She can be vulnerable. She has doubts and has to overcome them. She is everything that the current Carol Danvers isn’t.
History is important. You should never assume that just because you arrive on Earth later than someone else that you have the better ideas. This is a lesson writers like Brian Michael Bendis, Kelly Thompson, Margaret Stohl, and others who have taken on the character in recent years should have known. Though Claremont’s Ms. Marvel was not a particularly long-running series (Carol Danvers has never had a long run as a solo character), it is the definitive arc for the character before Rogue stole her powers. So, for those who want to learn how to write a woman well you should take notes. Claremont’s Ms. Marvel is a must-read.
I consider it a master class in how to properly write a superhero comic.