"Straw Into Gold: Captain Marvel in Marvel Super-Heroes #13"A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Jason Sacks
Most comics artists save their best work for work they care most about. But it takes a real professional to do their best work on a series that they don’t care about.
Such is the case with Gene Colan. Colan did sterling work on dozens of series over the years. It must have been easy to get excited to work on Tomb of Dracula, Daredevil, Howard the Duck, Night Force or the stories he did for Warren Publishing. However, Colan has always been a true professional, and nearly every piece of artwork done by him shows great passion, intelligence and enthusiasm.
Want proof that Gene did great work on obscure comics? Take a look at the “Captain Marvel” strip in Marvel Super-Heroes #13, from 1968. This story presented the second appearances of this final major Marvel-era character, and it had to be obvious even at that early date that this character just would not be a hit. Yet despite the obstacles of the work, Colan delivered work that showed great intelligence, enthusiasm and storytelling ability.
Captain Marvel was the last of Stan Lee’s Silver Age creations, and perhaps the least intriguing of them all. Mar-vell was a spy for the alien Kree , placed on Earth on a military base to assess our world’s preparedness for war, in a twist out of a bad ‘50s b-movie. While on Earth, the alien Captain is swayed by the greatness of Terran people, goes native and becomes a Terran hero.
That story isn’t exactly an archetypical Marvel origin. The origin is so tightly tied to Marvel continuity at the time, and so obscure in its twists and turns, that it really stands out. Add a hideously ugly costume and a civilian identity with a head of shiny white hair, just like your grandpa, to that mediocre origin and you have a born loser of a hero in Cap.
Yet Colan’s work on Marvel Super-Heroes #13, embellished by Paul Reinman, is compelling and exciting. The artwork and layouts are rousing and thoughtful, proving Stan Lee’s lofty opinion of Gentleman Gene’s artwork. Stan Lee has always been fond of saying that Colan could make any scene exciting. Even a character reaching for a doorknob, Stan always likes to assert, was exciting under Gene’s pencil.
The splash page of MSH 13 is a perfect example of Gene’s genius. The full-page spread just shows Mar-vell putting together his uni-beam hand blaster. It’s a quiet scene, showing nothing more than a white-haired guy doing some welding. But Gene’s beautiful composition makes the page compelling. Gene does a masterful job of drawing Mar-vell’s hands, showing them in motion as Cap assembles his weapon. Sparks fly dramatically from the uni-band as Mar-vell welds it, and emphasis lines in the background accentuate the work. We see both Mar-vell’s ability to do delicate work, and his quiet strength as we follow Mar-vell’s hands up to his broad shoulders and the stoic, intense look on his partially shaded face. In the hands of a lesser artist this page would not be compelling; in Colan’s hands, the page is intriguing.
Almost every page in this issue contains similar scenes that would be dull in many other hands but interesting in Colan’s hands. Flipping over to page two, panel three has a similarly spectacular quiet scene. In this panel, we simply see a close-up of Marvel is putting his weapon into his carrying bag. But again, these are wonderfully rendered hands, full of power and energy. The inside of the bag is suffused with shadow, in dramatic contrast to Marvel’s strong hands. Again, there’s little or no inherent drama in this scene, but somehow Colan adds energy to the moment.
Page three, panel three is a close-up of Mar-vell as he walks from his boarding house to the spaceport. In this panel, readers see nothing of Mar-vell but his lower legs and dress shoes. Colan does a brilliant job, however, of conveying excitement simply by showing legs in motion. Again, the way that shadows are used in the scene emphasizes the moment. Marvel’s dress pants are partially in shadow, as are his shoe tops. The contrast of light and dark adds energy to this quiet scene, giving it drama. The uniqueness of the panel arrangement also adds to the feel of the scene. Gene chose an unusual angle in that panel, and that gives the moment a unique feel.
For another example of Colan’s amazing artwork, see page twelve, panels two and three. In those panels we see Mar-vell, in his human guise of Walter Lawson, entering a secret hangar that holds a Kree sentry. Panel two shows Lawson in the foreground and General Bridges in the background as Mar-vell takes in the scene before him. The look of intensity and surprise on Mar-vell’s face in this panel is accentuated by the deep shadows under his chin and to his right. The scene has the feel of a man emerging from darkness into light, which is only appropriate. Marvel is literally stepping into learning what is happening around him, moving from the darkness of lack of information into the light of knowledge.
Panel three accentuates that moment. That panel is saturated with darkness, as Marvel’s half-hidden figure is only shown in silhouette while the General describes the amazing thing that Marvel will see on the other side of a closed door. It’s no surprise, then, that on the half-page fourth panel, Marvel is literally stumbling forward with excitement about the item he sees there. Again, Colan and Paul Reinman use shading on Mar-vell’s figure to emphasize the excitement of the moment, while Colan renders Marvel’s figure in startled surprise at the sight of the sentry.
Marvel Super-Heroes #13 is a textbook example of how to make a dull script exciting through masterful storytelling.
And yeah, the script really is pretty dull. Frankly, the story isn’t exactly the kind of work that makes a reader jump out of their seat with excitement. It's written by Roy Thomas, who is at his most over-wordy in the story. I hope that Roy was paid by the word, because this is one of the most pointlessly verbose Marvel Comics ever. It's the verbal equivalent of empty calories – all fluff and no meat.
Mar-vell is all alone on Earth, but he compensates for his lack of companionship with a never-ending dialogue with himself. It quickly becomes exhausting to listen to the Kree Captain's monologue, which stretches through almost every scene that he's in.
And the poor guy is so boring! The man is as stiff as Doctor Strange's collar, a man thoroughly lacking in charisma and energy. Eventually after a bunch of blowing up rocks and vaguely fighting his fellow Kree oppressors, an enormous robot comes to life on the military base, which at least spares us the pain of listening to his boring-ass introspection.
There is one aspect of this issue that makes it notable in more than one way - as you can see from the panel included below, this issue features the first appearance of Carol Danvers. She's the head of security at the base on which Mar-vell works - a significant and interesting role for a woman in 1969, whether in comics or not. Somewhat later on, this issue would figure in her origin as Ms. Marvel, but at this time she represented a quiet and interesting step forward for women in comics. At the same time that Supergirl was daydreaming about merman boyfriends, Danvers was showing that women could take positions of power and handle them as well as any man.
Mar-vell wouldn't become interesting for many years - first at the hands of a far more capable and engaged Roy Thomas, then at the delightfully enthusiastic hands of Jim Starlin. But for all the dullness of the story in this issue, Gene Colan's art is plain gorgeous in this story, and it's worth reading just for that.