Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review - Captain Marvel: Higher, Further, Faster, More by Kelly Sue DeConnick and David Lopez

Short review: Carol Danvers answers a call for aid from space, and finds a problem that requires more than punching to solve.

Call for aid from space
An avenger comes to help
Punches everything

Full review: With all of the well-deserved praise being heaped upon the current run of Ms. Marvel, one might lose sight of the title dedicated to the super-hero that Kamala Khan idolizes: Captain Marvel, also known as Carol Danvers, and that would be a shame, because Danvers' story is almost as good. Although this volume, subtitled Higher, Further, Faster, More, is listed as "Volume One", it is actually a continuation of the story started in DeConnick's run with the character that began in In Pursuit of Flight and Down, although having read the previous volumes is not a requirement for enjoying this one. While this story doesn't have same kind of the cultural resonance that that of an awkward immigrant teenager trying to balance growing up, fitting in, remaining true to herself, and being a super-hero, Captain Marvel does feature one of the most classically heroic of all of Marvel's characters, and is full of action and adventure.

As a super-heroine, Captain Marvel is pretty much standard issue: She can fly, is super-strong and invulnerable to most things, and can hurl blasts of energy from her hands. She is basically Superman with a slight adjustment to how heat vision works. But as a character, Carol Danvers is much more interesting. She has relationship issues. She has people she cares about. She has a surly cat. She has a desire to help people and fix things even though her skill set for fixing things is only slightly larger than "punch everything". In Higher, Further, Faster, More, we see all of these elements come to the forefront in a story that is both galactic in scale and intensely personal at the same time.

The story starts in media res with a scene drawn from deep into the plot, with Captain Marvel at odds with the Spartax Secret Police on an alien planet. Or at least it seems like a start in media res, because from there the story jumps backwards in time and begins to run through the events that led Danvers to the opening scene, starting with intercepting a capsule falling to Earth. This leads to Tony Stark goading Danvers into accepting an assignment as the Avengers' off-world emissary, some touching moments with James Rhodes, and a single page allegedly drawn by Kit outlining how Danvers got her super-powers. This one set of panels is pretty much the best thing in the entire volume, as it shows just how simple it is to tell a super-hero origin story. There is also a rather humorous sequence mixed in where Danvers and Stark stop a mugging in process, carrying on a casual conversation while they deal with a pair of miscreants in an almost off-hand manner.

From there, the book moves on to the meat of the story, with Danvers setting out to return the wayward refugee - who turns out to be named Tic - to her home. After a brief space battle with some mercenaries (the course of which causes one to wonder why Danvers ever fights a space battle from the inside of her space ship), the Guardians of the Galaxy show up to provide some opportunities for exposition. This segment of the book highlights both the benefits of having stories set in a shared universe, and the drawbacks. The benefit of a shared universe is that a writer has a large stable of characters to draw upon, and DeConnick avails herself of this benefit by pulling the famous quartet into this story. Unfortunately, after their splashy entrance, they are mostly used to fill Danvers (and by extension, the reader) in on recent developments in galactic politics. And this is the drawback of having a sprawling, interconnected universe as the backdrop for your stories: Almost every plot has to have some fairly heavy background filled in, leaving substantial chunks of the tale to be taken up with a fairly heavy slog through necessary exposition. On a side note, the art style used in this volume emphasizes just how alien and quite frightening a portrayal of Groot really can be.

In this particular story, the plot is a continuation of a previous story line in which the Galactic Council and the Avengers fought a war against the enigmatic (and overwhelmingly powerful) "Builders", during which the Ring World was destroyed. Many of the Ring World inhabitants were saved, but became refugees who needed a home. The Spartax Empire happened to have the spare planet of Torfa to offer them, but it came with a major drawback: It was unoccupied because the previous inhabitants were afflicted with a mysterious and uncurable sickness that either killed them or forced them to relocate elsewhere. Now, the varied new inhabitants of Torfa have begun falling to the same illness that afflicted the previous inhabitants, prompting the Galactic Alliance to attempt to relocate them again, by force if necessary, and Tic has come to the Avengers looking for aid.

In response, the refugees on Torfa get Captain Marvel, who really isn't very good at the things they seem to need done. Danvers has no appreciable medical skills, and thus cannot offer any assistance in treating the sick, or any advice on how to find a cure. There is a mystery to be solved, and Danvers helps out as much as she can, but given that her usual outfit is somewhat conspicuous, and she is generally has about as unsubtle a personality as possible, her endeavors there seem to be somewhat of a mixed blessing. It is touches like this that elevate a story like this above the ordinary: Anyone can write a story about a hero who is good at punching in which all of the problems are solved by punching them, but the stories that reveal the true heroism of a character are where the problems are not amenable to solutions they are good at and they must do something that is difficult for them. Captain Marvel taking on an entire fleet of warships in a giant space battle is fun to watch, but more or less routine for the character. Captain Marvel operating outside of her comfort zone to play diplomat and then unravel a complex mystery involving backstabbing and betrayal is much more interesting.

What makes Captain Marvel work so well is that underneath the stereotypical super-hero panoply of power, Carol Danvers is a fully realized character. She is feminine, but also tough and not particularly nurturing. She's a soldier sent on a job for a diplomat and a doctor who somehow manages to muddle through despite her lack of applicable skills. This volume offers all of this complexity plus some high powered fisticuffs, or rather, high powered punching of space battleships. In short, this is a strong story of super-powered heroics layered with excellent characters and a plot that is often surprisingly subtle.

Previous volume in the series: Captain Marvel: Down
Subsequent volume in the series: Captain Marvel: Stay Fly

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  1. I love kick ass women characters and this sounds like it fits the bill there! I'd love to read this one!

    1. @fredamans: She is definitely a kick-ass kind of character.

  2. I cannot wait for her movie and am impatiently counting down the days. Thank you for this review though, you made her accessible in a medium I don't often enjoy.

    1. @Verushka Byrow: I'm really looking forward to a Captain Marvel movie too. I am kind of annoyed that we have to wait until 2019 for it.