THE GEEK GIRL REVOLUTION

Captain Marvel wants YOU for the Carol Corps

By Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

She’s a daredevil pilot, she outranks Captain America, and she’s a feminist icon. No wonder Marvel Studios chose Carol Danvers to be the main character in its first female-led superhero movie.

While movie audiences might be more familiar with Black Widow, thanks to Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers, Carol Danvers’ popularity has skyrocketed over the past couple of years. Previously known as Ms. Marvel, her 2012 relaunch as Captain Marvel positioned the character as the superhero we all need—in comics and in the real world.

What she represents isn’t just a female alternative to characters like Tony Stark, but a woman who is surrounded by female friends and mentors. She’s an ideal figurehead for feminist Marvel fans, a role model who quickly inspired one of the most active and recognizable subcommunities in Marvel fandom, a community known as the Carol Corps.

In case you’re not familiar with Carol Danvers, here’s the lowdown. She first showed up in 1968, an Air Force officer who was injured by an exploding alien device and, as is inevitably the case in superhero comics, gained superpowers as a result. She then spent the next few decades going the typical route for a mid-level hero in the Marvel universe, changing her name and costume several times and getting involved in various hijinks with the Avengers and X-Men teams.

Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and drawn by Dexter Soy, Captain Marvel’s 2012 relaunch introduced a new generation of readers to Carol Danvers. Competitive, ambitious, and brave, Danvers was an immediate hit.

Captain Marvel’s success can obviously be attributed to the fact that it’s a very engaging read, but there’s also the superhero fandom zeitgeist to consider. Carol Danvers’ very public relaunch came during a time of great upheaval, with more and more people beginning to speak out about sexism, racism, and discrimination in the comic book industry. Captain Marvel is a proudly feminist hero with a proudly feminist writer—a woman who at last month’s New York Comic Con said, “I am willing to make other people uncomfortable so my daughter won’t have to.”

Alongside the popularity of the “fake geek girl” myth, the depressingly regular convention harassment scandals, the repeated public gaffes from white male comics creators, and Marvel’s apparent reluctance to make a female superhero movie, the new Captain Marvel was a breath of fresh air. She attracted readers who wanted to build a new kind of fan community, one that was as welcoming as possible to new fans and to people who might feel excluded from mainstream comics fandom.

The Carol Corps movement manages to stand out even within the obsessive, passionate environment of comics fandom. Carol Corps meetups have become something of a phenomenon at conventions, attracting crowds of people—mostly women and girls—in Captain Marvel-themed outfits, T-shirts, Etsy accessories, and knitwear. Actually, there’s a knitting club, known as the Carol Corps Yarn Brigade, for those who enjoy a bit of stealth cosplay in cold climates.

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Photo via William Tung/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“I feel like Carol Corps is a fantastic example of what female driven fandom spaces are at their best: welcoming, supportive, loving, nurturing,” explained Carol Corps member Ally Pelphrey. “I know without any doubt that in Carol Corps my passions will be supported, and that makes me want to return that support to my fellow Corp members in kind. At its heart, it’s about women inspiring and encouraging confidence in one another, and I’m finding that it attracts equally positive people of all genders.”

“This title wakes up my heart and makes me want to tackle my life with the same ferocity Carol does hers,” wrote Pelphrey when she first discovered the comic. “I haven’t had a story move me like this in a long time.”

This is a sentiment you’ll hear again and again in this community. Longtime fan and geek culture writer Sam Einhorn described the Carol Corps as a “different beast” from the rest of contemporary comics fandom. “In comics in particular, there’s traditionally been a feeling that our [minority] voices weren’t welcome in the stereotypical comic setting. But Carol Corps takes those of us who may have been marginalized and gives us a community and a platform. We’ve always been here, but now we’re welcome.

Another fan, Suzanne Walker, put it more bluntly. “I know so many women who ragequit comics when they were teens, and came back to it because they were finally given a hero like Carol.”

From day one, Captain Marvel was sending a message to the kind of people who would later embrace the Carol Corps. First, there was the name: the gender-neutral Captain Marvel. Then there was the costume redesign by Jamie McKelvie, an outfit that bore many of the hallmarks of a classic superhero costume (brightly colored and very tight) and called back to Danvers’ previous costumes but was far more practical and less revealing. In terms of speaking to its future audience, Captain Marvel was a success from the moment when that first, powerful image of Danvers’ new uniform was revealed at WonderCon 2012.

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The cover of Captain Marvel No. 1 relies on the simple primary color scheme of vintage golden age comics such as Superman. With Danvers staring proudly into the middle distance with her hands on her hips, it almost looks like a propaganda poster. This theme continues with the cover for Captain Marvel No. 2, a riff on the iconic Rosie the Riveter poster from World War II—a topical reference, since Danvers’ 2012 introductory storyline involves an all-female team of pilots from the 1940s.

Throughout the series, Danvers is drawn to look strong and physically confident—traits that seem like a no-brainer for a superhero but have been sadly lacking from many female characters.

For decades, a significant percentage of superhero comics have depicted female characters in bizarrely sexualized poses. There have been several flare-ups of controversy about this, most recently with the Hawkeye Initiative (a blog for parody fanart of Hawkeye copying the boobs-and-butt-displaying contortions of various female superheroes) and the reaction to Milo Manara’s anatomically unfeasible cover art for Spider-Woman No. 1 earlier this year.

When Carol Danvers flies, you can see the weight of her body as she punches through the air. During action scenes, her muscles are clearly visible and in use. When she’s moving, her hair whips in the wind rather than floating around her head in a perfect halo. A lot of thought has gone into her appearance and how it will be interpreted by readers. Even back in the first issue, writer DeConnick asked artist Soy to alter one of the pages so Danvers was no longer wearing a negligee (unrealistic for a scene where she’s hanging out in an old lady’s kitchen) but a T-shirt instead.

This attention to detail made Captain Marvel an appealing character to cosplay, because fans felt confident they could replicate her costume on a sliding scale from super-tight spandex catsuit to a hoodie and leggings. And that’s not even counting all the Captain Marvel costume remixes, reboots, and genderswaps.

Calling yourself an Avengers fan or a Spider-Man fan could mean almost anything, but calling yourself a member of the Carol Corps means something specific.

The abundance of female characters in Captain Marvel also had the helpful effect of weeding out the type of reader who’d object to a majority-female superhero fandom. Along with Danvers herself, Volume 1 introduces her lifelong role model (a female pilot), her friends (another superheroine and an elderly woman with terminal cancer), and two teams of female pilots from different periods in history. Come to think of it, female pilot characters may outnumber all of the male characters in that entire story arc, regardless of profession.

It’s not uncommon to see parents posting on message boards and blogs, asking for recommendations of comics they can read with their daughters. Unsurprisingly, Captain Marvel is a very popular choice. She’s a cool, exciting, powerful character with a classic superhero origin story, but she exists in a more or less real world where sexism still exists. In fact, Captain Marvel No. 1 jumps straight in at the deep end with a storyline about female pilots struggling for equality in the mid-20th century, paving the way for Carol Danvers to become the space-traveling superhero we see today. Danvers is aware of her own roots in the feminist movement, just like DeConnick and many of her readers.

The Carol Corps phenomenon really does make you to think about what the term “role model” means as more than just a buzzword. Clearly, Carol Danvers is an inspiration for fans young and old in a way that gels perfectly with the popularity of iconic heroes like Superman and Spider-Man. She’s a superpowered wish-fulfillment fantasy like any other character who can fly through space and save the world, but she’s also a flawed person with relatable problems and relationships.

At GeekGirlCon in Seattle last month, one of the members of the Carol Corps discussion panel was a fourth grader named Aeris who blogs about Captain Marvel alongside her mother, Anika Dane. Together they run a Tumblr called Carol Corps Cat Commandos, where they post cat photos and raise money for two cat-related charities: a nonprofit rescue service called Cat Tales and the World Wildlife Fund’s Save Tigers Now campaign.

“It was Aeris’s idea to use it to raise money and awareness for stray cats and now tigers,” her mother said in an email. “She wants to be a superhero and save the planet. That’s what Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps has given her, the belief that she can affect change.”

This type of charity outreach can be found throughout the Corps, along with DeConnick doing things like donating her WeLoveFine T-shirt curation commission to the Girls’ Leadership Institute. In this, as with many of the Carol Corps’ activities, DeConnick’s influence is clear.

Social media can easily become a stumbling block for writers and artists who want to get in touch with their fanbase. All too often, creators will belatedly realize that they don’t understand fandom at all, but somehow DeConnick has gotten the balance just right. She’s approachable enough to take countless selfies with fans at every signing, but her presence in fandom never feels invasive.

Plenty of fans have their own Kelly Sue DeConnick stories to share after every convention. “She greets all her fans with a lovely and warming ‘Hello Friend,’” wrote Carol Corps member Robert Marchese. “She signs EVERYTHING you put in front of her no matter what. She will talk to you like a person and she actually cares what you have to say.”

Carol Danvers is aware of her own roots in the feminist movement, just like Kelly Sue DeConnick and many of her readers.

“A lot of the friends I have in the fandom I met because Kelly Sue reblogged some cool thing or another that they said or did,” Suzanne Walker added. “If a member of the community is struggling or having a rough time, she’ll make sure that everyone rallies around them for support. About a year ago, one fandom member said that she would be willing to knit Carol-themed things for anyone who was having a rough time and wanted/needed one, and so many other knitters rallied around this idea that the Yarn Brigade was formed.”

The enormity of comics fandom can be daunting, particularly if you don’t fit the traditional (although increasingly inaccurate) fanboy mold. In this sense, one of the Carol Corps’ main selling-points is its cohesive nature as a community. Calling yourself an Avengers fan or a Spider-Man fan could mean almost anything, but calling yourself a member of the Carol Corps means something specific: inclusivity, optimism, and a belief that feminism is a truly superheroic cause. For this reason, it’s become a kind of gateway fandom, ushering in new readers and even longtime fans who had long since given up on feeling comfortable at conventions.

This year saw the birth of a new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan. It’s a very different comic from Captain Marvel—Kamala is a teenager who lives with her parents in New Jersey, for one thing—but the tone of the fandom is very similar: inclusive, friendly, and fond of dressing up. They’re known as the Kamala Korps and are hoping that the Captain Marvel movie may pave the way for a Kamala-centric spinoff.

Outside the world of comics fandom, the biggest impact of the Carol Corps may be the public reaction to the Captain Marvel movie news. The Corps’ ongoing support for a Carol Danvers franchise contributed to geek news blogs reporting rumors for the past 18 months, and replicating casting ideas from Tumblr and Twitter. By the time Marvel made the announcement last month, people who had never read a single Captain Marvel comic were getting excited. Carol Danvers was already on the public’s radar thanks to the persistence of her fans.

The Captain Marvel movie doesn’t come out until 2018, by which time the Carol Corps will be six years old and far bigger than it is today. What the comic will be like in four years’ time is anyone’s guess, but it’s nice to imagine that the Carol Corps will retain the same personality it has right now: creative, determined, and ready to welcome the onrush of new Carol fans with open arms.

 

Photo via Shelby Shepard (C) used with permission