Where to Start With Carol Danvers: A Pre-Movie Primer

Comic Books Entertainment TV and Movies

Of all the MCU movies I’ve watched and enjoyed, Captain Marvel is the first one I’m going into with more than a cursory understanding of the character. It’s never bothered me; MCU characters are never direct translations of their comic book alter-egos, which also hasn’t ever bothered me.

But given my deep and passionate love of Carol Danvers, and given the number of my friends who are excited to see the movie, I’ve had people who aren’t familiar with Marvel comics asking what they need to know heading in. So here we go.

Carol Danvers’ basic origin story is this: as an Air Force pilot working at NASA, she got caught in an explosion of alien technology. She was saved at the last moment by Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell), a Kree warrior who was pretending to be a scientist on Earth. The explosion caused his DNA to be fused to hers, giving her energy blast and absorption powers, flight, super durability, and super strength. Originally going by Ms. Marvel, she later took the name Captain Marvel and has been a rising star ever since, closer to Marvel’s Superman from a matter of scale and public importance within Marvel’s universe, and now, our own.

That said, Carol’s had some great comics over the years. Six months ago, I was pointing interested friends towards Kelly Sue Deconnick and Margaret Stohl for modern stories, with Brian Reed and Chris Claremont as older, more “historical” options (nobody is going to point to her time as a supporting cast member in late 60s/early 70s comics as a good jumping on point). But let’s say you’ve never read a comic. Let’s just say you’re familiar with the MCU and want to get a sense of this character’s emotional identity and core, either to get more excited for the movie or to dive deeper in to the comics. What would I recommend to you then?

I’m going to look at the more obvious entry points to introduce you to Carol Danvers. Spoiler alert: the best option by far is a one-shot by Jody Houser, published just two weeks before the movie premieres.

Captain Marvel Prelude

Carol Danvers in her movie costume. The words "Captain Marvel Prelude" in red against a black backgoround
Cover of Captain Marvel Prelude

This volume was released in 2019, and everything about the marketing and cover makes look like it should be a great place to start. It has Brie Larson on the cover and everything. I was hoping for something like the Rebirth one-shots that kicked off the DC Rebirth rebranding (as sad as that entire experience was for everyone), delving in to the fundamental aspects of the character. Instead, this trade includes the first issue of 4 different series (Ms Marvel 1977, Ms Marvel 2006, Captain Marvel 2012, and The Life of Captain Marvel 2018) and two one-shot issues (“Prelude” and a Generations event tie-in).

While each of these series could be a jumping on point, having just the first issue present is pointless in terms of understanding the character of Carol Danvers. The purpose of this trade isn’t to prep a reader for the movie or get someone excited about what they’re about to see, but to (badly) attempt to entice readers into looking at older series.

Oh, and if you’re worried about missing something in the “Prelude” piece, don’t be. That is a single issue from late 2018 which is a comic adaptation of the last couple minutes of Avengers: Infinity War, including the smashed pager flashing the Captain Marvel logo. I guess if you want to avoid the pain of seeing Avengers: Infinity War it’s useful, but other than that, it has no purpose.

Frankly, I wish I hadn’t bought this trade, and I very rarely say that.

Ms Marvel 1977

Carol Danvers in her original costume punching a bad guy. Text reads Marvel EPIC COLLECTION and below, MS MARVEL
Cover of Ms. Marvel 1977 Epic Collection (This Woman, This Warrior)

This is the first solo title for Carol Danvers, with its first issue coming out in 1977. Originally written by Gerry Conway and then picked up by Chris Claremont, I actually like the first thirteen issues of this book quite a lot (if you can move past the 1970s understanding of dissociative identity disorder and the concept of male writers going “I am totally the right person to write a feminist superhero” when people like Louise Simonson and Mary Jo Duffy were RIGHT OVER THERE). 

The series was originally printed in Marvel Masterworks collections, which means they’re out of print and ridiculously expensive. They also don’t include relevant tie-ins, which is always annoying. The first epic collection is already out; the second one is available for preorder.

That said, the second half of the series was mediocre. Reprints tend to include Avengers #200, an issue so bad it was infamously written up with an article titled “The Rape of Ms. Marvel,” and required Chris Claremont to write an entire chapter of the Annual to do damage control. I think there’s a lot to say about how Carol has evolved and also retained her core identity – especially as her relationship with her dad is re-examined in The Life of Captain Marvel – but you won’t get that here. I’m not sure you’ll even recognize that Carol when you transition into…

Ms. Marvel (2006)

Ms Marvel punches out towards the viewer. Text reads Captain Marvel: The Ms. Marvel Years Volume 1
Cover of Captain Marvel The Ms. Marvel Years Volume 1

The 2006 Brian Reed run of Ms. Marvel is a great series…as long as you have some background on what was happening in the overall Marvel universe at the time. The first arc comes directly out of Carol’s experiences during the alternate universe of House of M, and how she reacts to that when she wakes up back in the 616 universe. The second arc is tie-ins to the (original, and not better) Civil War event. Reed does a good job of giving you enough context to basically understand what’s going on, and after the first two arcs, the book is much more accessible.

Pulling up some Wikipedia entries, especially on House of M, will make sure you understand what’s happening, but that’s still turning reading into homework, something I’m not going to do when I’m trying to turn someone into a fan. That said, I highly recommend the series overall – in its proper context.

Captain Marvel (2012)

Captain Marvel in a Rosie The Riveter pose. Text reads Captain Marvel Earth's Mightiest Hero Volume 1
Captain Marvel, Earth’s Mightiest Hero Volume 1

The 2012 run of Captain Marvel is by Kelly Sue Deconnick. This issue explains why Carol takes on the name “Captain Marvel” after decades as “Ms. Marvel,” which is pretty cool. But if you don’t know her history with the original Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell), some of the impact could be lost. Full disclosure, I had no idea what was going on there the first time I read Captain Marvel, and I still loved it. The Kelly Sue Deconnick run is beyond iconic. I heard about this book from people who don’t read comics, right up there with Batgirl New 52 and, later, Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel series. The upcoming movie seems to be very much influenced by this vision of Carol Danvers, but with five volumes spanning two different tie-in events, it’s a fairly hefty time investment.

This series ran until The Mighty Captain Marvel kicked off in 2017. I actually haven’t read this yet (I’m sorry, Margaret Stohl!) so I can’t say if it’s a great jumping on point – since it focuses on Carol’s time with Alpha Flight in space, I’m pretty sure it’s not. 

Moving on.

Captain Marvel (2019) by Kelly Thompson

Amanda Conner’s cover of the 2019 run of Captain Marvel by Kelly Thompson

This series is so cool. First of all, it’s written by Kelly Thompson, and if you don’t think she’s one of the best writers in current comics, I need you to reexamine your criteria. It starts with how Carol has an “image problem” back on Earth. The Avengers have nominated Tony Stark to talk to her about it because “Well, you’re scary.” In light of this, he wants Carol to do an interview with TV journalist Ripley Ryan to get the public back on her side.

But as she’s (unwillingly) meeting with Ripley, Nuclear Man starts a fight that ends with him taking Ripley through a portal and Carol following them inside. It takes her to a sort of post-apocalyptic Roosevelt Island. She’s there with a super cool cast of characters – Jessica Drew, Hazmat, Echo – but there’s only two issues so far. This is a fantastic series if you have a passing familiarity with the character, a good jumping on point, but as good as it is, it isn’t the best place to start – especially since there’s only two issues out.

The Life Of Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel with flame behind her. Text reads The Life Of Captain Marvel
Cover of The Life Of Captain Marvel

This is a fantastic book. I bought it in single issues, then paid full price for the trade, something I virtually never do. Since the Kelly Sue run, Carol has been a much bigger character. In many ways, she is the Superman of the Marvel universe, though she is rarely treated that way. This tells a quieter story about Carol, one that starts off with her going home to see her family, then helping to care for her brother after an accident. She sorts out feelings about her abusive father, which actually builds nicely on some stuff Claremont did back in issues #12 and #13 of the 1977 run, and she also finds out that her mother is a Kree warrior. Which was pretty much a shock to everyone, including Carol.

Carol is not the first female character whose origin story is innately tied to a male character (She-Hulk was created from a blood transfusion from Bruce Banner, X-23 is a clone of Wolverine, Kate Bishop got permission from a guy to call herself Hawkeye…you see my point here). But by making her mother Kree, and Carol half-Kree, the origin story shifts. Now, there’s no more Captain Marvel DNA fusion; because Carol would have died in the explosion, her latent Kree DNA activated, giving her the strength and powers of a Kree warrior so that she could survive.

This book is great. I love how it updates Carol’s origin, and since there’s no sign of Mar-Vell in the movie trailers, I have to assume that this is to bring the current Carol closer in line to whatever they’re going to do in the movie.

Does it give you what you need to understand something about Carol going into the movie?  That’s a little more debatable. Until February 27th of 2019, this would have been my top choice due to its length, its examination of the character, and serving as a strong retelling of her origin story. And then. 

Captain Marvel: Braver & Mightier

Carol Danvers in the background in a pilot uniform, in the foreground as Captain Marvel.
Cover of Captain Marvel: Braver & Mightier

Because when February 27th came, it brought us one of the best Carol Danvers stories of all time, under Jody Houser’s pen. If you want to go into Captain Marvel with a sense of who Carol is in the comics, pick up this one-shot. It’s a quick read, it’s effortlessly good, and it doesn’t require any real knowledge of Marvel at all to appreciate. You guys. This is the one. It’s incredible. I started sobbing halfway through, and started ugly crying on the last three pages so hard that I had to control myself to keep reading.

The set-up is simple; there’s a Carol Danvers Day event that Carol is supposed to be attending. There are a couple of kids who get to ask one question for their high school paper. They’re worried about what question to ask. As they debate, they run through what they could ask their hero for their one question. Who is her favorite Star Wars character? Probably a pilot? (I guess they don’t know that in the comics, her cat is named Chewbacca, not Goose.) What about her time in the Air Force? (Did you know that she’s a Major and outranks Captain America?) Or just something about the alien attack currently happening, which is why Carol’s running late?

Teen reporters wondering what to do with their one question

Interspersed with this, we see Carol fighting off the aliens. This is the most Superman stuff I’ve ever seen her do in Marvel comics. She is literally placing herself between an alien force and Earth, challenging them to “get through her.”

Spoiler alert: They absolutely cannot.

When Alpha Flight shows up, she leaves the clean-up to them and flies back down to where the event is happening. The first thing she says, “I’m sorry I’m late,” is both the most Superman thing I’ve ever heard in Marvel, AND a callback to her alternate reality self in House of M, where she was the most well known and arguably most powerful hero in the Marvel universe. I started to cry.

Captain Marvel flies back down to earth for her press event. "Sorry I'm late."
Carol’s return to earth

She starts talking to the teen reporters (a Black boy and a white girl, which seems like a total nod to Brie Larson’s insistence that her press tour include journalists who aren’t white guys at every event and junket, so help her God). They ask Carol what advice she’d give her younger self.

A series of Carol's costumes, from the original 1977 costume to the most iconic black with lightning bolt and sash Ms Marvel costume
A review of the Ms Marvels over the years

And then I started ugly-crying, because Carol talks about telling her younger self “She’s right….everything she dreams of doing, everything she was told she couldn’t do. They’re wrong. She’s right.” We see a panel of all of Carol’s costumes – the original 1977 design, her time as Binary with the Avengers, her second Ms. Marvel costume. And then we get the most gorgeous splash page. “And she’ll fly higher and faster and further than she ever dreamed.”

Splash page of Carol flying into the sky
Carol flying into the sky. Higher, further, faster.

You can pick this up as a single issue at your local comic book store, or get it on Comixology or Kindle.

I’ve already got tickets to two showings of the movie. One for the Thursday opening, so I can sob my eyes out in the privacy of a couple hundred strangers, and one for Saturday afternoon, when I’m taking my 11 year old daughter. I’m going to hand her this book before we go, because all she really knows about Captain Marvel is that I love her to bits. I don’t expect the movie to be like the comics, as they rarely really are – but I hope to see just a little bit of this Carol – fearless, funny, powerful, unrelenting – in what Marvel has brought to life.

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