Content Warning: The Marcus Story involves acts of sexual assault which will be under discussion in this article.
In superhero comics, there are a great many positive role models for women to be found. Characters like Storm, Kitty Pryde, Monica Rambeau, Dani Moonstar, Supergirl, Zatanna, Black Canary, and Vixen are only the tip of the iceberg. The downside is that many of those heroes have been habitually squandered or lost in limbo for years at a time with little interest from follow-up creators in establishing them or fulfilling their story potential. This occurs less in the modern era than ever before, but that is in no small part due to traceable work from feminist scholars and critics pushing companies to hire more women and centralize female heroes.
Comics culture itself has changed significantly in the last couple of decades. Much in mainstream superhero comics of previous years seemed to actively work against developing a female fanbase, yet there have always been people working to change that. Many recognize Gail Simone’s Women in Refrigerators as a feminist response to the general atmosphere of comics for female fans of the late ‘90s. WiR influenced change in both fandom and the comics industry over the last many years, continuing to impact discussion even after much of the information cited has become irrelevant many times over by now, but the questions posed remain as important as ever. Yet Simone was not the first person to notice the poor treatment of female superheroes and respond. Years before, a single issue, Avengers #200, had led to feminist analysis that helped effect change in Marvel continuity.
The Marcus story
The story in question introduced a character named Marcus, who impregnated a brainwashed Carol Danvers with himself. She gave birth to him, and he rapidly grew to his adult form, at which time he forced marriage on her with the use of technology that made her unable to break free from his control. The story openly states that Marcus mentally influenced (therefore raped) Ms. Marvel, but when she happily agrees to leave with him, the Avengers don't object. The team apparently misunderstands the situation entirely.
The letters page in response to Avengers #200 didn’t record any commentary on the lack of consent implied by the story. If anything, reader response was similar to that of the Avengers, with people writing in their relief that Ms. Marvel had found a committed husband. Art critic Carol A. Strickland wrote a sharp response to what she had read, shocked and angry at the overall nonchalance with which writer, editor, and readers had accepted what read clearly as the rape of a Marvel superhero. Published in the long-since defunct LoC Magazine #1, the essay, entitled The Rape of Ms. Marvel, went on to influence the direction in which the story was ultimately taken.
Strickland’s article reads with vehemence and disgust, but also a seeming assumption that her opinion will be questioned, dismissed, and even reviled. There had definitely been active feminists involved in both creating and critiquing comics before this essay. One example was Trina Robbins of Wimmin’s Comix, who went on to publish several books crucial to historical studies. Still, Strickland’s piece stands apart in its open criticism of publishers, creators, and a fandom that would allow such a thing to pass by unnoticed.
Writer Chris Claremont had no short history with Carol Danvers, having written Ms. Marvel for most of its run. Claremont is known for many things, but important to this article, he established believable female characters in a time when many people working in superhero comics struggled with characterizing women. After reading Strickland’s essay, Claremont used his story in Avengers Annual #10 to show Carol Danvers’ angry response to the Avengers for abandoning her when she needed them and allowing a self-proclaimed rapist to vanish with her while she was mind-controlled. The Avengers are shocked as Ms. Marvel lashes out at them for not paying attention to what was happening in front of their faces. After her initial outburst, Hawkeye nervously observes that coming to visit Danvers was a bad idea, and she snaps again, going more into detail about the pain she suffered. The Avengers come to understand that they did her an injustice by the end of the issue, and for her part, Danvers insists on taking the time to heal. In the same issue, she had her powers and a portion of her identity stolen by the then-villainous mutant Rogue, and so she was depleted emotionally on a level none of her fellow heroes could imagine.
After Avengers Annual #10, years passed before Danvers would rejoin the Avengers. More prominently, she appeared in Uncanny X-Men, working with Professor Xavier in hopes of accessing her powers again. She ended up in space with the X-Men during the Brood Saga, in which an alien race known as the Brood had inseminated every member of the team with Brood embryos. Meanwhile, Danvers gained the ability to channel the awesome cosmic power of a so-called white hole, which she used to kill a whole lot of Brood. When the X-Men prepared to return to Earth, Danvers, now called Binary, admitted that she saw no place for herself there, and was more at home among the stars. When the X-Men eventually took in Rogue, Danvers felt disgusted and betrayed by them, much as she had been by the Avengers.
Not only a survivor of both Rogue and Marcus, Carol Danvers also came from an abusive home life. Although the extent of that abuse has been seldom defined, it has come under more recent observation in The Life of Captain Marvel. Most of the fallout Danvers experienced from the mid-‘80s to the early 2000s was emphasized as the result of Rogue’s accidental tampering with Danvers’ mind, but it’s important to remember that it was neither the beginning nor the end of her troubles. In the late ‘90s, she was reintroduced to the Avengers by writer Kurt Busiek. Danvers was found to be suffering from alcoholism at the time. Theoretically, this development might have humanized her to an extent by adding some depth to her character, but Danvers had already been primarily defined by the pain she suffered for years by that point. The story lacks successful commentary on the character or on addiction as a social problem, and the Avengers behave as badly as they did before when it came to offering compassion to Danvers in her time of need. When Danvers is asked to leave the team, the Scarlet Witch does acknowledge that the Avengers are failing her again, as they did when she was kidnapped by Marcus.
Similarly, feminist comic studies struggled alongside Carol Danvers. Comics culture of the '90s was notoriously hostile to women, with Wizard Magazine defining much of the mood of the era. Seldom if ever presenting female columnists and actively focusing on some of the more anti-feminist aspects of the comics medium, such magazines only reflected an at best confused and at worst malicious attitude still seen today in comics fandom.
Becoming Captain Marvel
Eventually, Kelly Sue Deconnick’s Captain Marvel was introduced to the world, and much of Carol’s past was laid to rest in order to reestablish her as a hero capable of carrying a solo book. Danvers’ bitterness was replaced with a sort of profound humility and her overriding desire to serve the greater good returned to the forefront of her character for the first time in decades. Due to this, Carol Danvers would eventually become the first female Marvel hero to carry her own film, a development that would not have been likely between the years of 1980 and 2010 as Danvers struggled for reasons that were mysterious to newer readers and to be avoided by many writers. Meanwhile, in the days since Strickland's influential essay, comics criticism has changed significantly. Women writers are much more prevalent, both working in comics and in a critical capacity.
In the end, Captain Marvel’s story is a tale of triumph, despite all the tragedy along the way. Not only did her creation inspire many women to read comics, to begin with, but her poor treatment also led to a rise in feminist criticism and showed that analysis could indeed effect real change within an industry that was not hospitable to female creators, characters, or fans. Ultimately, the story of Captain Marvel will not be defined by the missteps of creators. She's a character that overcame incredible odds to be the hero we knew her to be, but she also reflects a real-world history of many critics and creators changing the way in which the industry treats its female superheroes.