Captain Marvel (2013) #17 by Joe Quinones

All the way back in March, Marvel announced a slew of titles that would be going away during and after the Secret Wars event. I tweeted the equivalent of a verbal shrug at the fact that Captain Marvel was one of the books apparently on the chopping block.

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Leaving aside for the moment that the announcement came with a huge “for now!” caveat, my tweet was met with teeth gnashing and hair pulling from some of my friends; from others, genuine shock. Several people were under the impression that Captain Marvel has become a jewel in Marvel’s new crown of female-led titles, populated with the likes of Elektra, Black Widow, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and the all-female X-Men. With a massive summer event coming and new titles like A-Force and the All-New, All-Different Avengers with two whole women in the lineup, Captain Marvel is seen to be leading the charge by a lot of fans, and it seems like Marvel believes that, too.

And that’s a problem that could very well torpedo the whole group.

Not only is Captain Marvel not the best-selling Marvel title with a female lead, it’s not even the best-selling title by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick. Last month, Comixology had a “buy one, get one” offer on Marvel books and the best-selling issues were from Silk, Ms. Marvel, and Thor. There were big numbers for Star Wars titles as well, but those have been outliers in every sense since their launch. Starting with a new #1 late last year, Thor starring a woman has been outselling the same book when the titular character was male to the tune of 20,000 copies a month. For context, Walking Dead #136, the 10th best seller for January 2015 according to Diamond Comic Distributors stats, sold around 66,000 copies. Total. Twenty thousand extra books a month is a big deal.

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Captain Marvel, on the other hand, sold 19,500 books, putting it at 113th place. It’s certainly in good company there. I’m still enjoying Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier and Lobo, not to mention Red Hood And The Outlaws and Secret Avengers, all of which are in the same neighborhood. Powers #1 was reprinted the same month and even with the boost of a TV show only pulled in about 16,000 sales. Admittedly, these numbers do not include digital sales, and women are more likely to buy online or trade wait than they are to visit their local comic shop or have a pull list of their own. But one of DeConnick’s other titles, Bitch Planet #2, sold more than 26,000 copies that same month.

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So what about the Carol Corps, the active and vocal fan base for Captain Marvel? I’ve heard friends, fans, and professionals joke that Marvel’s afraid of what the Carol Corps will do if it ever really cancels the series. The Carol Corps shows up at conventions en masse, dressed in so many different varieties of the iconic Captain Marvel costume it’s hard to keep them all straight. They’re featured on the cover of Captain Marvel (2013) #17 and this June will star with Carol in Captain Marvel & The Carol Corps as part of Secret Wars.

This is big. This isn’t just big, it’s fairly unprecedented. When was the last time that a group of fans were so passionate and influential that they actually became part of the book itself, meta-commentary twisting around to become canon?

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When news of Captain Marvel hit, I was all over it. I’d just started attending Ladies’ Night at my own local comic shop and I was stoked beyond reason. Lots of the women who attended were excited at the prospect of a mainstream female superhero with a butch haircut and a military background. I even made myself a Captain Marvel hoodie for C2E2 in April 2012 and sprayed my own short hair yellow—all before I even got my hands on the book. I was a proto-fan, so wound up at the prospect of the character that I dove into other Marvel books to get some background, after years of being a DC-only follower.

I tried reading Captain Marvel, both at her premiere in July of that year and the reboot in 2014. The story never grabbed me, which was a surprise because I genuinely like DeConnick’s work on Avengers Assemble, and Rescue is the reason I realized I don’t hate Pepper Potts, I just hate her in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. DeConnick’s a good writer with a fun sense of humor. When Captain Marvel proved to be not to my exact tastes, I was still excited because the Carol Corps was starting to form, which meant more female fans to geek out with, more women who would understand what it’s like to be judged and have your nerd cred questioned. More people to lend to and borrow from as we all descend into the madness that is being a comic book lover.

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After years of being told I wasn’t allowed in the boys-only club house, the prospect of an entirely new one with a bunch of girls was intoxicatingly exciting. Unfortunately, my hopes lasted about as long as Carol Danvers’ short hair did, and that camaraderie never happened. Without delving into internet politics that bore even the people involved, I, and many other female fans, felt that the Carol Corps isn’t particularly interested in welcoming anyone who doesn’t read the book that brought them all together. Attempts at discussing Danvers’ history as Ms. Marvel or her relationship with Rhodey are often ignored (at best).

And there is a serious racism problem in the Carol Corps that unfortunately hasn’t been addressed. Carol Danvers is not the first female Captain Marvel. Monica Rambeau served as Captain Marvel for well over a decade and currently does not have her own solo book. Some Rambeau fans feel that she’s been sidelined in favor of Carol Danvers, an issue that DeConnick tried to address herself on her Tumblr. And while Rambeau has had guest spots in Danvers’ run as Captain Marvel, the behavior of some Carol Corps members to mock and even harass fans who prefer Rambeau has not been adequetly addressed by members or by DeConnick herself. While she says “there was never a point where a decision was made BETWEEN Carol and Monica,” the truth of the matter is that it was a Carol Danvers book from the outset, which was a choice, and one that the Carol Corps is basing their behavior on. As long as fans of a woman of color character feel unsafe in the Carol Corps, they have a major racism problem that shows no indication of being resolved.

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Such is the case with any fandom; there are always some vocal leaders that make the whole group look bad. It’s particularly disappointing to see that in a group of women that, at the same time, are helping to change the face of a very backward industry.

Captain Marvel survived cancellation when the vast majority of the “diversity” titles in Marvel’s roster were shut down after 12 or fewer issues: All-New Ghost Rider, Elektra, Iron Patriot, and the much-missed She-Hulk are prime examples. Sure, Robbie is returning in this summer’s Ghost Racers, but there’s a huge difference between a book starring a Latino teen and a book that happens to have him in it. That leaves us with Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Black Widow, the juggernaut of Miles Morales who hardly counts, and an all-female X-Men title whose first major story arc was explicitly and disappointingly about babies. Fans are already braced for the cancellation of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Silk, and Angela: Asgard’s Assassin (also unfortunately about a baby). Spider-Gwen wasn’t even going to be an ongoing title at first, and anyone who thinks that Thor will always be a woman and Captain America will always be a black man is probably new to comics. And yet, Captain Marvel survives, but I can’t remember the last time someone mentioned Carol at Ladies’ Night.

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Even a casual glance at the Carol Corps online demonstrates two things: the group isn’t a purchasing powerhouse, and it isn’t really the Carol Corps. One of the benefits of buying a Marvel monthly title is that they often come with a free digital download code for the same issue, allowing people to have both the physical and the digital copy of their purchase. Early on, it was exciting to see people offering their digital codes to others, drawing in new readers and showing that comics are for everyone. Any comics fan knows that the easiest and fastest way to convert a friend is to lend them something to read. But comics can get expensive. It’s hard to tell because no data exists to demonstrate digital code swapping, but this practice appears to be in integral part of the Carol Corps. It’s difficult to argue that the Carol Corps will be the reason that Captain Marvel can succeed as the first female-led movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe if the fan base doesn’t even show up to buy the book.

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Even more remarkable is that the longer you look at this group of women the more it becomes clear that they aren’t really the Carol Corps—they’re the Kelly Sue Corps. The same people who were making Captain Marvel costumes and getting “punch holes in the sky” tattoos are now dressing up as Ginny from Pretty Deadly and knitting Bitch Planet’s Non-Compliant symbol into blankets. This is the real mistake that Marvel has made: confusing adoration for a story with loyalty to character. The books that are selling well right now, particularly with new readers, are selling because they’re compelling and representative, not because they star a specific character. Ms. Marvel and Gotham Academy and Batgirl and, yes, Bitch Planet all sell because for the first time in a long time, (mostly female) fans are getting a taste of something entirely new, something that looks like them, something that feels authentic and real. Carol Danvers isn’t suddenly popular after languishing in relative obscurity because she’s now Captain Marvel. She’s popular because Kelly Sue DeConnick has tapped into a market demographic that’s been not only ignored but actively abused by publishers and fans alike.

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The first time I visited a comic shop in person, I was in my early 20s and headed toward the trade-paperback shelves to pick up a couple Batman titles. I was doing research for my thesis on the legacy of Frank Miller’s Batman work, but upon entry the clerk behind the counter pointed out where the Archie comics were. When I politely said that’s not what I was there for, he said, “Oh, what does your boyfriend read?” I left without buying anything. I have a friend who, years later, stopped in a new local comics shop to pick something up and was told before she even was entirely inside that they were already “out of Buffy, so don’t bother.” Now, when I say I read comics (obsess over comics, blow my paycheck on comics), people who know at least a little about the industry assume I’m part of the Carol Corps. And that’s just as dangerous as assuming I’m showing up for romance comics or Buffy: it presents women as a monolith, all interested in reading the same kind of stories and buying the same kind of things. I don’t particularly care for a lot of comics I’m “supposed” to like, and I like a ton that people might expect me to hate. I’m not a huge fan of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Agent Carter. And none of that makes me a bad comics fan, or even a bad feminist comics fan. That’s the whole point, remember? DeConnick, along with G. Willow Wilson, Gail Simone, Genevieve Valentine, and scores of others on every point along the gender spectrum are proving that what matters is good storytelling and a sense of authenticity. There is no universal female (or person of color or LGBTQ+ or person with disabilities) experience. Expecting them to be content with one particular story to represent them is stupid, and more importantly, it’s bad business. Unfortunately, it’s putting the Captain Marvel movie in an untenable position.

It was recently announced that two women will be penning the Captain Marvel script, which is great news but let’s be real: Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Nicole Perlman has talked about the difficulties she had with that movie and it wasn’t the most female-friendly film of last year. That title goes to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, obviously. A director can make or break this kind of movie, and Carol doesn’t (yet) have the formula of hero+love interest+foil+villain that’s made so many Marvel Cinematic Universe endeavors successful. She also doesn’t have the name recognition that Iron Man, Captain America, and the Hulk could rely on to launch their MCU careers. Even Thor had his cameo in Adventures In Babysitting to fall back on. There are so many expectations and hopes being piled onto this one movie, it’s impossible to see it living up to the bar that’s being set. Any failure will undoubtedly be blamed not on the problems with the script or the movie or the subject, but on the fact that it starred a woman.

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If Marvel really wants to set itself up for success, it should abandon plans for the current Captain Marvel and look to a previous one. Not Mar-Vell, but instead the previously mentioned and always badass Monica Rambeau. With no discernable plans to include Danvers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe prior to her solo film, despite constant references to Kree technology, she’s been set up for failure. On the other hand, Rambeau could easily be introduced in the Jessica Jones Netflix project, paving the way for not only her own film but Nextwave, which is just begging for some kind of cinematic presentation.

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Then again, female fans are legion, but as I said, we’re not a monolith. And far be it from me to tell everybody what they should like.