The forgotten history of Captain Marvel

Will the brains behind the series get paid?

Captain Marvel covers.
(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

After 10 years and 20 films, Marvel Studios has finally unveiled the trailer for Captain Marvel, its first movie starring a woman as the sole lead. It's a film that feels both wildly anticipated and immensely overdue after the small mountain of Marvel blockbusters with men in the lead role. But Captain Marvel is a special hero in the studio's canon, one with an unusual real-life story and a massive debt to the woman who helped tell it.

But first, Captain Marvel herself. Created in 1968 by Gene Colan and Roy Thomas, Captain Marvel was first known as Carol Danvers, an Air Force officer who would eventually gain superpowers and assume a number of superhuman identities. A complicated character with a convoluted history, Danvers was largely used as a supporting player in Marvel comics, despite arguably being one of its most powerful characters and one of the few female characters with a consistent presence in the books since her inception.

That all changed in 2012, when writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Dexter Soy relaunched the Captain Marvel series. In their version, Danvers inherited the title of Captain Marvel, donned a new, full-body costume (designed by artist Jamie McKelvie in perhaps the most iconic reinvention of a character's visual identity since Spider-Man put on a black suit), and shouted a rallying cry taken from the pages of the very first issue: Higher, further, faster, more.

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While all of Marvel Studios films are works of synthesis, blending stories old and new to weave a fresh, definitive take, the Captain Marvel shown off in this week's trailer is almost entirely cut from the cloth woven by DeConnick, Soy, and McKelvie. That's a smart decision — DeConnick's tenure writing Captain Marvel is the character's high point, one that converted plenty of new fans and started one of the most recognizable fan movements to come out of comic books in the last decade: The Carol Corps.

But this is where the immense popularity of superhero cinema and the practices of publishers that produce the books that inspire it collide in uncomfortable ways.

American comic books published by Marvel and DC are almost without exception the work of freelancers. Contrary to popular belief, most every major comics publisher does not have any writers or artists on staff, just editors. Thus, writers and artists don't have any sort of support that employers might offer full-time employees, like health insurance, paid time off, or retirement options. And, of course, anything created in stories they produce for their publisher becomes the property of said publisher.

Of course, every professional creator in the comics industry knows this, and work-for-hire agreements are commonplace in many industries, including journalism. But Captain Marvel's newfound popularity was no accident. From the very start, DeConnick took an active role in developing and marketing Captain Marvel, dipping into her own pocket in order to fund simple merchandise like membership cards and dog tags, and even offering to pay McKelvie for his now-famous costume design if Marvel would not pay him for it (Marvel did).

"My husband would have murdered me, because you don't front money for billion-dollar companies," DeConnick told Polygon, "I mean, I would have murdered me, that's nonsense."

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Simple math says she's right: She was hired to file script pages that told stories about a character that she did not and would not own, stories that — should they ever find their way to a major motion picture — would not send an extra check to her mailbox. Stories that were not granted the marketing budget to form even the crudest of fan clubs.

Again, everyone working in comics knows this is the score. This is why, after her three-year tenure at Marvel, DeConnick has mostly stuck to creating her own original series, with titles like Bitch Planet and Pretty Deadly, which she owns all the rights for.

It's bizarre and a little unsettling that the business of comic books — the extremely low-cost breeding ground for what will become billion-dollar film juggernauts — remains an industry that so rarely rewards creators, largely because that's how things have always been — and because monthly superhero comic books of the sort published by Marvel and DC are a drop in the bucket compared to films, with sales numbers that rarely break five figures. It's hard to drum up concern for an industry that so few pay attention to.

If you look at the poster released alongside the trailer for Captain Marvel, you'll notice that it pays tribute to DeConnick's run with its slogan: Higher, Further, Faster. It's strange that they cut more — the very word someone might use if they dared to ask for the recognition they felt they deserved.

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