clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Captain Marvel’s Carol Corps: how a sisterhood of fans made Carol Danvers great again

How Captain Marvel and her Carol Corps helped change comic books for female readers.

Brie Larson in Captain Marvel.
Marvel Studios
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The first time I realized that Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, traveled with an entourage was in 2013. Toward the tail end of New York Comic Con, tucked deep into the heart of the Javits Center, was the standing-room-only “Women of Marvel” panel.

Attending the panel were Captain Marvels of every size, shape, color, and gender. Many were dressed in her various uniforms, dating back to the character’s introduction in 1968. Some had her now-signature mohawk. Others donned her traditional black mask or her newer space commander helmet. The one thing that unified them all was their love for Carol Danvers.

Each year thereafter, I’d see more and more Captain Marvels at subsequent conventions. Some fans went for the full look, while others would sport backpacks, sneakers, badges, and jackets — many of these items homemade — with Danvers’s stars and stripes logo. In between conventions, these fans, who exist all over the world, would connect online to share fan art, news updates about the character, and their cosplay uniforms.

They call themselves the Carol Corps, and they are integral to Captain Marvel’s continued success.

“I mean, if I were to die tomorrow, Captain Marvel would appear in the first line of my obituary,” Kelly Sue DeConnick told me.

DeConnick wrote the vaunted 2012 Captain Marvel comic that saw Carol Danvers take the title of Captain Marvel and become one of the leaders of the Avengers. And in promoting the book — both online, via platforms like Tumblr and Twitter, and in real life, at comic conventions and meetups — she started the fandom known as the Carol Corps.

On the surface, they look like any other devout fandom: They worship the character of Carol Danvers and cosplay as her space commander alter ego. But the Carol Corps, DeConnick, and the character they love are also pushing back against a history of the comic book industry neglecting some of its characters, its readers, and the very women who make comic books.

Ultimately, this fandom is more than fidelity for a character — it’s about the journey Danvers has taken to become a central figure in Marvel’s crowded comic book universe and about DeConnick’s spirit to push for something more for the character, for herself as a creator, and for fans.

The Carol Corps represents Carol Danvers’s resilience and heroism just as well as, if not better than, the character’s own adventures. And her fight to be a hero is theirs too.

The Carol Corps formed as part of a bigger response to the comic book industry’s treatment of women

To fully understand the Carol Corps, you have to understand the comic book industry and how hard it has been for women to be recognized within that industry, both as creators and readers. That struggle is a product of the pernicious myth that women aren’t interested in comic books and that comic books aren’t made for them, even though women have created and consumed comics for as long as the medium has existed.

Some scholars have traced the origins of this myth to the late 1970s, when comic books became synonymous with superheroes — who were mostly male at the time. That shift coincided with a drop in women comics readers because of a lack of representation of women and the glut of male superhero protagonists. There was a period time, particularly in the ’90s, where women characters in comics books, Danvers included, were predominantly objectified and smashed into skimpy costumes rather than written as three-dimensional characters.

As a result, a trope took hold in the broader world of pop culture that positioned women as foreign visitors to comic book stores, as if it were unfathomable that they could ever be interested in comics. (See: the controversial 2013 teaser for The Big Bang Theory that labeled the show’s comics shop as a place “where no woman has gone before,” or the 2000 episode of Sex and the City devoted to the humor of Carrie dating the owner of a comic book shop.)

There have also been more serious — and lasting — consequences. There’s a gender gap within the industry. The new Captain Marvel movie has been met with outright hostility and trolling from sexist comic “fans” that isn’t unlike the harassment targeted at the 2016 all-women Ghostbusters film or the new Star Wars trilogy that features a female protagonist and prominent female characters. Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot was criticized by some for “not being curvy enough” to play the hero, while others complained about the feminist edge of the movie and the message of female empowerment that was present in some of its marketing. (For example: A theater was sued for having an women-only screening of the movie.)

By the early 2010s, many comic book readers felt like the “comics aren’t for women” myth had reached a breaking point.

The year before that 2013 “Women of Marvel” Comic Con panel, in 2012, writer DeConnick, with artists Dexter Soy and Jamie McKelvie, created a storyline that would see Carol Danvers take on the flagship title of Captain Marvel. While Danvers was already part of the Avengers as Ms. Marvel and considered one of the team’s more powerful characters, she had never quite managed to be a central figure or flagship character.

DeConnick leaned into Danvers’s stubborn and unapologetic love for adventure and exploration — Danvers wanted to punch holes in the sky. In her new role as Captain Marvel, she not only got a new uniform, she also became one of the Avengers’ leaders, earning the respect of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Captain Marvel no.1
Captain Marvel’s new uniform in Captain Marvel No. 1.

“People are drawn to characters that resonate with them because of who they are,” DeConnick told me, explaining her inspiration for writing Carol and why she believes fans took to the character. “Carol is someone who is always trying to get a grasp on her own power and potential, constantly making mistakes and picking herself back up, determined to do better. People who are drawn to that are people who are like that.”

And at the same time as she was helping Carol Danvers realize her own potential, DeConnick wasn’t afraid to do the same for women and girls who showed an interest in comics. She wanted to take down the myth that comic books and the industry that publishes them were only for men and boys.

In Carol Danvers, DeConnick gave people who were frustrated at being overlooked — especially women and girls — a character to rally behind. The character’s overall historical journey, from her first appearance in 1968 as a girlfriend to a secondary hero and then a leader, resonated with readers. As did the adventures that DeConnick and artists like Soy and David Lopez created for her.

“I feel like [DeConnick’s Captain Marvel run] said, explicitly, ‘You’re wanted here,’” Sara Bay, a Captain Marvel fan and member of the Carol Corps, told me. “It was a look at this character that a lot of us didn’t know well, who was unapologetic and huge-hearted and also kind of a dork, who had overcome a ton in her past … and [stepped] up into her potential. And it was written by someone who generously interacted with fans and was so thoughtful about her approach to this character.”

Bay is referring to the fact that the Carol Corps didn’t manifest on its own. Carol Danvers memorabilia, the kind that’s so inescapable now, did not exist when DeConnick started writing the character. So she created her own badges, her own Carol Danvers dog tags, and, as Bay recalled, the knitting pattern for the character’s lucky hat.

DeConnick didn’t do this for profit, but rather to promote her character, her comic book, and a fandom in ways that Marvel wasn’t yet doing. She coined the term Carol Corps herself, saying that she modeled the term after the Kiss Army, the label applied to fans of the rock band Kiss, which she belonged to as a kid.

There was no gatekeeping in the Carol Corps. DeConnick wanted to create a fandom where anyone could feel welcome and the myth that comic books aren’t for girls could finally die.

“I am white and present as Male; there has always been space for me in the [comic book] community, but I am not so naive to think that there was always room for everyone,” Cary Shepard, a proud Carol Corps member, told me. “The Carol Corps wedged open more room for people who had been excluded from geek spaces or forced to acquiesce to the ‘boys will be boys’ atmosphere of it all. The Carol Corps stood up and said, ‘We’re fans, we want female stories, and we’re feminist.’ I guess that’s the other thing — before the Carol Corps, ‘feminism’ seemed like a dirty word in geek spaces.”

Women, girls, boys, and men began showing up to conventions donning Danvers’s golden stars and stripes logo, some dressing as different iterations of Danvers.

Bay attended her first dedicated Carol Corps panel at the HeroesCon comic convention in June 2013, and recalled the excitement of the event.

“If memory serves, it was the first convention panel that was branded that way,” Bay said. “It was full of a great crowd of folks, but it wasn’t jammed to the gills. Not so the next year in panels at HeroesCon and DragonCon — by then, it was standing-room-only crowds in full Carol regalia packed into rooms that made it clear the interest in those panels might’ve been underestimated.”

The “Women of Marvel” panel, which was first held at San Diego Comic-Con in 2009, grew with each passing year — and in 2013, just a year after Marvel published DeConnick’s Carol Danvers storyline, people were waiting in line for more than two hours to get in. While there have been significant and legendary female characters in Marvel’s longstanding history, it’s difficult to think of any that galvanized readers the way DeConnick and Danvers did.

“Kelly Sue inspired female readers to be a fandom. Period,” Magaret Stohl, who wrote Danvers’s character in the 2018 comic The Life of Captain Marvel, told me. “She revolutionized what it means to be a female superhero and a female who reads superheroes.”

The growth of the Carol Corps also coincided with the rise of well-received comic books with female protagonists, like Lumberjanes (published in 2014), Young Avengers featuring the fan-favorite character Miss America (published in 2013), and Gail Simone writing on Batgirl and Giant Days (which began as web comic in 2011). It wasn’t just members of the Carol Corps who appreciated that stories about women and girls were gaining prominence.

Before long, Marvel itself seemed to take notice, at least of the fact that there was an audience of women and girls that was invested in comics.

What would follow were numerous new titles centering on women superheroes. Solo titles for characters like Black Widow, She-Hulk, and Scarlet Witch were announced and published. Characters like Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, and Cindy Moon, a.k.a. Silk, were introduced and given solo tiles in 2014 and 2015, respectively. And in 2015, Marvel announced that the next Thor would be a woman.

Collectively, these moves were lauded. But perhaps none spoke to the specific power of the Carol Corps fandom more than a special tie-in miniseries called Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps, which also debuted in 2015 and imagined the fictional Carol Corps as a team of women pilots.

Though of course, the fandom’s crowning moment had already happened in October 2014, when Marvel Studios announced that it would finally make its first solo superhero movie about a woman superhero: Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel.

The Carol Corps is more about the spirit of Carol Danvers than a specific comic book issue or adventure

The strange thing about the Carol Corps is that Marvel never really figured out a way to harness its presence, or the gem of a character that is Carol Danvers and her potential.

DeConnick stopped writing the character in October 2015 to devote her attention to her independent, creator-owned comics Pretty Deadly and Bitch Planet, as well as the production company she co-founded with her husband Matt Fraction, Milkfed Criminal Masterminds.

But even when DeConnick was writing Danvers’s storyline and amassing a following for the character, Captain Marvel’s comic book sales (beyond its initial issue) were never record-breakers.

The way comic book sales figures have traditionally been tabulated, as well as the lack of solid figures from digital sales, could skew Captain Marvel’s numbers (fans who buy comics as collected trade paperbacks or online instead of going into a brick-and-mortar store aren’t counted), but that doesn’t fully explain the lackluster sales of the comic. And that’s especially true given that titles like Ms. Marvel and Marvel’s female Thor comic — whose audiences presumably overlap with Captain Marvel’s — have both published issues that topped the charts.

“This is the real mistake that Marvel has made: confusing adoration for a story with loyalty to character,” Caitlin Rosberg wrote for the A.V. Club in 2015, discussing the apparent fandom-to-sales disconnect and Captain Marvel’s 113th-place sales position.

But DeConnick’s independent books have gone on to post impressive sales even though Captain Marvel’s sales never set the world on fire.

“[T]he 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,” Rosberg wrote, explaining that DeConnick’s independent books outsold Captain Marvel. “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.”

That’s not an unfair assessment.

After all, DeConnick started the grassroots movement to drum up support for Danvers. And perhaps Marvel — which has the final say in which characters get the spotlight in its comics’ big crossover events and storylines — never truly figured how to elevate Danvers to an exciting editorial figure beyond the title change from Ms. Marvel to Captain Marvel.

Looking back, Danvers didn’t really play noteworthy roles in big arcs and story events like Inhumanity (which was Thanos-centric) or Secret Wars (aside from her Carol Corps miniseries). She certainly was never part of a blockbuster narrative like, say, Captain America becoming a Hydra agent.

And though Danvers recently did get a starring role in Marvel’s 2016 event Civil War II, it seemed more like a move that Marvel made in anticipation of the movie, rather than one made to invest in the character’s comic future.

Ultimately, as a result of DeConnick ending her run on Captain Marvel and the lack of spotlight stories for the character, in addition to other factors like splintering factions within the fandom (see Polygon’s rundown here) and policy changes at social media platforms like Tumblr, the Carol Corps seemed to lose some momentum.

The rabid enthusiasm I saw at New York Comic Con in 2013 mellowed.

Enthusiasm is understandably difficult to quantify. Anecdotally, Danvers cosplayers have still been present at every comic convention I’ve attended. And while it feels to me like the fandom may not be as vocal as it was in 2012 and 2013, that observation comes with its own caveats, since there’s more attention paid to diversity in the industry today than back then.

Still, that doesn’t diminish the power of Carol Danvers, what Danvers and DeConnick inspired, and the community that both women — one fictional, one decidedly not — built. To Danvers and DeConnick’s biggest fans, the character will always stand for those tenets.

“Carol is about realizing you might already be on a hero’s journey of your own, whether or not anyone realizes it, whether or not even you realize it,” Stohl told me. “Carol’s journey from being a side character to a protagonist is something every girl and every girl creator can relate to, or at least I know I could. Carol is about learning to root for yourself. Not being afraid to be a hero, not being afraid to be the first person to see yourself that way.”

Perhaps that’s why the Captain Marvel movie feels like such an important moment for the Carol Corps. It’s less about the movie’s success or about a specific comic book adventure than about seeing the spirit of Carol Danvers celebrated on the big screen.

And DeConnick has returned to the character, at least for the movie. She is credited as a consultant on Captain Marvel and even has a brief cameo in the film — at my screening, several people whispered her name when she appeared in a subway station scene. DeConnick told me that even though she stopped writing Danvers a few years ago, she never stopped following the Carol Corps.

I asked her whether she thinks the Carol Corps changed the comics industry.

“I lived in New York for a decade, so I think I’m allowed to say this: New Yorkers can be brusque, but they are so proud of their city and knowing their way around that they will go well out of their way to help someone find something — especially out-of-towners,” DeConnick said. “There’s something of that New Yorker in the Carol Corps (minus the glorious New Yorker attitude): When the Corps finds out you’re new to comics, they will bend over backward to help you navigate shared universes or get reading lists, or even find your way to independent comics. They will put themselves out there to make sure everyone feels not only welcome but invited.”

Captain Marvel is already projected to make more than $100 million in its opening weekend. How many of its ticket buyers are part of the Carol Corps, we don’t know. But there’s reason to believe that the Corps should be ready to welcome new members who are being introduced to Carol for the first time — and perhaps find itself ready to punch holes in the sky once again.