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As with many superheroes, Carol Danvers’ long and storied comic book history is a minefield of potential missteps that can land you squarely in problematic territory. Some of us love to pick through all the comics and decide on each entry in what is now nearly an 80-year company legacy, but not everybody has the time for that.
For those of you who just want the cold hard facts about Captain Marvel before walking into that theater this March, these are the comics that will help you along your way to understand the puzzle wrapped up in a riddle tied up in a conundrum that is our girl Carol Danvers. If you stray off the path you might end up in weird Avengers continuity, so don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Captain Marvel #18
Carol Danvers was introduced to Marvel comics as the potential love interest of Mar-Vell, and they did date casually throughout this series. This was a rough time for female characters in comics, and most of her appearances were just excuses for Mar-Vell (and the writer) to chastise Carol for choosing “man's work” in working for the Air Force. It is... not always a lot of fun to read.
All that starts to turn around here, though. It wouldn't be revealed until later, but this is where Carol gained the powers of Mar-Vell. This story is a little frustrating in that it changes the trajectory of Carol's life, yet she herself appears very much as a side character. A great deal of this origin would later be retconned in The Life of Captain Marvel, but this will explain a lot about the Kree and the origins of Mar-Vell, so it's an important stepping stone in Captain Marvel's story.
Ms. Marvel #19
Much like the original Captain Marvel series, Ms. Marvel is fraught with sexism and thus peril for much of the modern audience. Still, this is the series that introduces us to some of the Carolisms and core concepts behind the character that remains in place to this day, so it can’t all be bad. Despite the flaws of the series, Carol’s autonomy and her sharp temper are very much intact for much of her arc. As said, the previous series had done very poorly by Carol, so regardless of anything this was still a step in the right direction.
Although there are nuggets of awesomeness through all twenty-five issues of this series, the most relevant to understanding where Carol is from and where she’s going is in this issue. Reuniting with Mar-Vell now as a peer, Carol comes to terms with her identity as Ms. Marvel and begins to truly live up to her mantle. She and Mar-Vell have a tender moment with one another for possibly the last time, as he would pass away shortly hereafter.
There is some pretty controversial stuff in Carol’s story after her title ended, and although she did join active Avengers duty for a time, it didn’t go great for her and she ended up traumatized and with no superpowers. Fortunately, the X-Men were around to help her out. Well, by that we mean they brought her to deep space with them where she was experimented on by the Brood until she gained the power of a small star. Even at their best-intentioned, the X-Men are a real bundle of trouble.
This arc showed us a Carol that was reeling from trauma but whose willful anger and stubbornness took on epic proportions. She breaks into the Pentagon and deletes all records of her own existence then ends up staying in space for years. This story was the one that really solidified Carol's character for many readers, and though it is also an X-Men story and not just a Carol story, it remains one of the best stories in Captain Marvel history.
Ms. Marvel #47-50
This ran longer than any other Ms. Marvel series until Kamala Khan's debut a few years later. Before this story, Moonstone had taken the role of Ms. Marvel for several issues until the epic fight between her and Carol during the War of the Marvels storyline. Carol took back her mantle albeit only for a short time in that arc, leading us to these few issues.
This story feels a bit tacked on to the end of a mostly unrelated series, but it was a great chance to show who Carol is, who she'd become, and in the end it opened new doors for her. She has an awkward date with Spiderman, then ends up in a conflict with a highly irreverent Mystique while dealing with her leftover Mar-Vell feelings. When she finally becomes Captain Marvel a short time after this story wrapped, it was because of what she learned about herself and her legacy here that she began to realize a name and costume change would be necessary for her to move forward.
This is not just a Carol Danvers story, but it does reveal a great deal of how she interacts with her close friends and peers. This tale occurred in part during the Civil War II crossover. Although Carol does lowkey try to arrest Nico Minoru and during this whole time period isn’t always the greatest, it is fantastic to see her interact with fun characters like She-Hulk and Medusa while learning and growing as a person. Civil War II is a complicated and mostly baffling storyline, but it still held secret gems like the second volume of A-Force.
For other stories in which Carol serves mostly a friendship role, her appearances in the Dennis Hopeless Spider-Woman stories, as well as her time spent hanging out with Jessica Jones in Alias, are both a lot of fun and both show us the complicated, caring, loyal side to Carol's personality.
Kelly Sue DeConnick Era
Rather than breaking it up story-to-story, we’re viewing the DeConnick run on Captain Marvel as a single arc. Not only is the entire series well worth your time, but it's one of those stories that begins on an important, life-changing note for Carol, and only gets better and more interesting as it goes along. There is a Secret Wars break in the title where Carol is transported to an alternate reality in which she is part of a crew of WWII era female fighter pilots called the Carol Corps, and despite being out of continuity, it manages to be just as integral as the rest of the run.
It is more or less impossible to create a Carol Danvers reading list without paying tribute to the arc that brought her to the forefront of the Marvel Universe, not to mention giving her time to explore her history as an officer of the Airforce and her love for space adventures. Her relationships with other superheroes came under greater focus than they really ever had before, and she travels to space with her cat and the Guardians of the Galaxy while carrying on a casual long-distance relationship with James Rhodes. Most importantly, this was Carol at her most confident and self-assured, which made it a huge relief after years of wallowing through angst. To get a good read on Carol’s character before walking into the theater, there’s no better place to start.
Captain Marvel (2016) #6-7
The eventually genocidal mad geneticist Doctor Minerva will be making her film debut as played by Gemma Chan in Captain Marvel. In the comics, Minerva appeared primarily as a Mar-Vell antagonist, then partnered with fellow Kree Mister Atlas in the Quasar ongoing series. The couple eventually parted ways, and Minerva appeared as an antagonist in Spider-Man and, finally, Captain Marvel. She has yet to live up to her full potential as a villain, but this story might be the start of her doing just that.
This whole series was really good and the only real downside to it is that it takes place during Civil War II, during which Carol’s actions were fascistic and mostly out of character thus fairly cringeworthy to read. On the other hand, it was in this series much more than in the crossover at large that we were given a deeper look at Carol's motives and the overwhelming desire to protect her friends that drives her to make some ill-advised decisions.