How writer Kelly Sue DeConnick helped Captain Marvel realize her full potential
When moviegoers meet Captain Marvel on March 8, they’ll meet a woman in control of her own destiny: a warrior, a jet pilot, a leader. But she wasn’t initially written that way.
In the hands of many men (and one key woman), Carol Danvers evolved from a one-dimensional love interest to a bona fide superheroine — and not simply by blending her DNA with original Kree hero Captain Mar’Vell. The final step in her comic book transformation occurred in the 2012 launch of Captain Marvel #1, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Her series, quickly embraced by a brand-new generation of fans, first introduced Danvers as Captain Marvel and heavily influenced directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
The series merges Carol’s story into the real history of women’s aviation, particularly the military’s ban on women flying fighter jets. “I grew up on Air Force bases,” says DeConnick, who dedicated her first issue to her father, a civilian pilot. “[My dad] swore when I was a kid I could identify the planes flying overhead by the sound of their engines.” Prior to Captain Marvel, DeConnick wrote several one-shots for Marvel Comics, including two covering the Asgardian warrioress Sif and Pepper Potts’ heroic alter ego Rescue. She credits much of her skill with dialogue to working for years as a translator for publishers Viz and Tokyopop.
Yet it was more than Carol’s Air Force origins that spoke to DeConnick; Carol also has a long history of being a feminist icon. When she first reemerged as the superpowered Ms. Marvel in a 1977 ongoing authored by Gerry Conway, Carol had the complete superhero starter pack: superstrength, the ability to fly, and a skimpy outfit. Despite the bare midriff, Ms. Marvel #1 had overtly feminist references; Danvers had just been hired as the editor of Woman magazine.
Later, under comics legend Chris Claremont, Carol’s backstory developed deeper connections to the Kree — and even more agency. “When Gerry [Conway] first gave her powers, she was called the female fury,” says DeConnick. “[Then, Claremont] makes her into practically Gloria Steinem fan fiction. She has the glasses and the center part. It is kind of delightful.
Carol Danvers isn’t the first woman to command the title Captain Marvel (that honor rests with Monica Rambeau, whose mother, Maria, appears in the movie and is portrayed by Lashana Lynch). Yet DeConnick’s version of Carol was embraced by its incredibly vocal fanbase for its positive portrayals of women and their friendships. The thoughtful depictions of Carol’s flaws — often pride but sometimes wrath — helped humanize her and brought the hero firmly down to earth. Readers even adopted a nickname: the Carol Corps. “We had only about 30,000 readers for Captain Marvel,” says DeConnick, “but every one of them got a tattoo.”
Marvel noticed, eventually asking DeConnick to serve as adviser on the upcoming movie. “I felt very heard,” says DeConnick, who spoke extensively to the filmmakers and visited the set.
And as to why Carol connected the way she did? “She’s so beautifully imperfect.”
Read on for our full Q&A with DeConnick below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you start on Captain Marvel?
Kelly Sue DeConnick: I heard that [Marvel editor] Steve Wacker was looking for a Carol Danvers pitch…I went looking into the character, and I found a lot in [her] that was interesting and personal to me. I developed a pitch with the idea of wanting to get into the history of women’s aviation.
There was a formula at the time: For a book to last, you needed either an A-list character, an A-list writer or an A-list artist. Carol was not A-list, and I was certainly not A-list, and we didn’t even have an artist, so the chances that this ongoing was going to stay an ongoing was pretty slim.
Steve was the one who was lobbying hard to get Carol to take on the mantle of Captain Marvel. We were able to work that into our very first story line.
You did end up recruiting an A-list designer to redesign Captain Marvel’s uniform — and there’s an interesting backstory.
There was a bet! The book ended up being me, [artist] Dexter Soy, and Carol. I think this may even have been Dex’s first Big two book [referring to Marvel and DC]. He’s incredibly gifted. So he was pretty new, I was pretty new, and Carol was kind of B-list. They did not have a big budget for the book, because they did not expect the book to run very long.
In fact, I did not think there was a chance we were going to have more than six issues. So issues seven and eight are a very short filler arc, because I had no plan. I had to buy myself time to plan a longer ongoing series.
They were going to redesign her costume to make her Captain Marvel, and they did not have a budget to do that. They did the initial redesigns in house. I was not very excited about them.
Jamie McKelvie, I think, is one of the most gifted costume designers in comics, and he has a real eye for contemporary fashion. I asked if there was any chance we could get Jamie to do this. Steve was like: no. But he also said, “You know, if you were to find a design, if Jamie were to just do the design and you happened upon it, and it came across my desk, I might be able to show it to someone and get it paid for.”
That’s usually not how it happens.
It was a very wink-wink, nudge-nudge thing, you know? I reached out to Jamie, and was like, hey, make this bet with me. If you do a Captain Marvel redesign for me — and he does character redesign occasionally just for fun — if you will do a Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel redesign for me, I bet you I can get Marvel to buy it. And if not, I will pay you for the work. (I have never asked Jamie if he would have made me cough up the money or not.)
He did this beautiful design that reimagines her in a way I have always described, as it looks like she comes from the superhero branch of the service. I find that very appealing.
[One] thing I find is really interesting about the character is as someone who grew up on military bases, there’s a tendency to think that the Air Force or military characters are really by the books and really stiff and really joyless. And that’s not my experience with that community. It’s certainly not my experience with pilots. I’d like to say yes, Carol is Air Force. So was Pappy Boyington. So was Chuck Yeager. She doesn’t have to be a sort of joyless hooligan by-the-books nag. She can have that same swagger and the same sparkle. She’s a pilot.
You wrote a whole series featuring Carol that included female fighter pilots: Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps.
There’s an amazing book by Martha Ackmann called The Mercury 13. It’s a true story of these 13 women who were considered for the Mercury program. For a lot of reasons women were better choices to be astronauts than men. They outscored the men in everything but brute strength.
There was a secret program that tested them, these 13 women. How is that not the greatest movie or show ever? I totally wrote about them in that Captain Marvel arc.
Why did Captain Marvel have this resonance with her fans?
There’s something about her, about Carol. She’s ornery, she’s defiant.
We talk about Captain America — he always gets back up. And Carol’s the same way. [Kevin] Feige asked me, “We already have that with Steve. He even says it: ‘I could do this all day.’”
I said yeah, but the difference is Steve always gets back up because it’s the right thing to do. Carol always gets up out of spite.
There’s a thing about that. Carol knows she’s wildly imperfect. She knows that all of her motives aren’t pure. She knows she has a short temper, she knows she has a goofy sense of humor, but she’s always going to try to do better — and you can’t keep her down. The more you try to, the more defiantly she will go up.
There’s a line in the Martha Ackmann book where she talks about one of the pilots from Oklahoma. This part of Oklahoma is very windy, and if you drop a candy wrapper, it goes into the air and the street signs shake as if they were trying to leave the earth. No wonder she became a pilot; everything from that part of the world is trying to take flight.
I think that’s the thing about Carol.
Everything about her is trying to go up. And the more you try to push her down, the harder she goes up.
The movie was announced in October 2014, just around that same time that you walked away from the series. What made you decide that that was the time?
It was a calculated decision. I was running behind schedule, I had too much on my plate, and I knew I had to let something go. When the film was announced, it was like, okay, so here you either drop the mic, get offstage right now, and you are leaving at a [high] point. Or you stay on this book, and you gotta have three more years of something to say.
What can you tell us about your role in the upcoming film?
I got to read all of the drafts; I got to give notes; I got to have an hours-long meeting with the directors talking about the character and what I love about her.
And also [I spoke] about what I thought was important from a feminist perspective, which I know sometimes we cringe talking about, but I don’t want to apologize for that. This is the first female superhero movie from Marvel, and that is important.
Sometimes when we’re underrepresented, we carry the weight. When a movie that stars someone from a marginalized community fails, then it means you can’t do any more of those. And that’s ridiculous, but that’s how the system works. It’s really important that this be both a good piece of art and that, regardless of your gender, you see something in Carol that is human and inspiring and you feel something for her. That is super, super important. And it is also important that this movie be successful!
We need this to make a gazillion dollars. Because if it does, it opens up so many doors. Look at Black Panther. Look at all the films that Black Panther is going to get made. And look at how that will change our culture. That’s real.
You and Brie spoke for a while.
She’s so lovely. We talked about the character a bit, but more than that we talked about how much it mattered to both of us. We talked about why she had chosen to do it and what doing a film of this magnitude had done to affect her life, and how she was adjusting to that and why it was important to both of us.
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