Captain Marvel #33 © 1974 Marvel Comics. COVER ART BY JIM STARLIN.
As of 2004, there have been five Captain Marvels, the first of whom was Fawcett Comics' best-selling character and the most popular superhero of the Golden Age of comics (1938–1954). In 1966, notorious schlock publisher Myron Fass published a few issues of his own Captain Marvel, about which the less said the better. Marvel Comics' hero, on whom this entry focuses, premiered in late 1967, and it is widely thought that the company primarily wanted to copyright the name (as the publisher's success has grown, it has become increasingly proprietary over the name Marvel). Nevertheless, that first appearance of the character in Marvel Superheroes #12 was one of the more unusual of the 1960s.
An earlier issue of the Fantastic Four had introduced a large robot called the Sentry, which had been sent to Earth by an alien race called the Kree, who had apparently been visiting the planet for centuries. To find out what happened to their Sentry, the Kree send out an espionage unit headed by the ambitious Colonel Yon-Rogg and including the romantic couple of medic Una and Captain Mar-Vell. The Captain is dispatched undercover to assume the role of a professor in the Cape Canaveral missile complex, where he meets beautiful security chief Carol Danvers. Donning his white and green space suit (which looks much like a superhero costume), he has all sorts of abilities, including flying and super strength, which he has much use for as he encounters all manner of monsters, villains, and alien creatures. Confusingly, in his Kree identity he is Mar-Vell but seemingly changes the spelling of his name to Marvel when indulging in superheroics.
Much of the comic's tension issued from the love triangle of Mar-Vell, Una and Yon-Rogg, whose ruthless attitude to the natives (us!) and designs on the young nurse gradually forced the pacifist Mar-Vell against his own people. Una was killed in issue #11—an unusual event in comics at that time. Five issues later, an avenging Mar-Vell returned home, where he foiled a coup and was given even more powers, as well as a stylish new costume. But he found himself stranded in the Negative Zone, a kind of limbo.
Issue #17 saw a major change of direction, courtesy of a new creative team: Roy Thomas and Gil Kane. A spectral Captain Marvel convinces perennial boy sidekick Rick Jones to try on a pair of wrist bands (or Nega-bands), which when struck together enable him to switch places with the lad. Having initially taken the character's name from Fawcett, Marvel was now very cheekily adopting the transformation from boy to man that made Fawcett's Captain Marvel so popular. Following several periods of cancellation, Jim Starlin took over creative duties, and things started to get very cosmic. Starlin crafted an epic intergalactic battle that saw his arch-villain Thanos journeying to Earth from his home on Saturn's moon Titan, to find the Cosmic Cube and thereby take over the universe. In the granite-faced Thanos and his colorful entourage of lackeys and foes, Starlin had created an exciting cast of intergalactic characters, which would feature in Marvel for decades to come.
The Thanos saga ran from issue #25 to #35, to much acclaim, and was followed up by a bizarre story featuring Nitro (a villain who blew himself up!), after which Starlin was off to new pastures. The book carried on in a solid enough manner, including a story which de-coupled Mar-Vell and Rick, but was never as popular again. In 1977, on-again off-again romantic interest Carol Danvers was given her own, short-lived comic as Ms. Marvel, complete with cosmic powers and a more revealing version of Mar-Vell's costume (today she soldiers on as the Avenger named Warbird). The final regularly published Captain Marvel story came out in 1981, a long time from his glory days, but one year later Starlin came back for a graphic novel—Marvel's first—which wrapped the series up. His story revealed that, in fighting Nitro, Mar-Vell had been affected by radioactivity and, by the tale's end, our hero was dead from cancer.
After an appropriate period of mourning (i.e., a couple of months) Marvel, ever mindful of the dangers of letting a copyright lapse, introduced another Captain Marvel. This incarnation was statuesque African American Monica Rambeau, who could turn herself into pure energy. Following an early team-up with Spider-Man, she went on to a long spell in the Avengers (eventually being renamed Photon). As she faded from view in the 1990s, yet another Captain Marvel appeared. This time, it was Mar-Vell's previously unknown son Genis (whose growth had somehow been accelerated), complete with cosmic powers, his dad's costume, and a talent for teenage whining. (Uncharacteristically for comics heroes, Mar-Vell has stayed dead, though from the other side of the grave fans got to see a lot of him in the alternate-future series Universe X [2000–2001] and Paradise X [2002–2003], which portrayed him as a somewhat imperious self-styled messiah.) The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a number of relaunches for Genis, including a twist in which he dons a version of his father's first Kree costume, becomes incredibly powerful, and goes mad. Even Rick Jones has returned, proving that the more things change, the more they stay the same.