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Air Force brat breathes life, experiences into comic book heroine

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Brannen Parrish
  • 931 Air Refueling Group Public Affairs
Like Moirai or "Fates" of Greek mythology, comic book writers have near autonomy over the lives of the characters inhabiting their universe. Subject only to the managing editor who, like Zeus, can affect the direction of the hero's narrative, the writer leads characters from one interaction to another, battling enemies or assisting friends.

Kelly Sue DeConnick grew up on Air Force bases around the world and draws on those experiences to weave the fabric of the Air Force's most famous super hero - Carol Danvers - the new Captain Marvel.

"Kelly has always struck me as proud of her Air Force childhood, so maybe she's a little more comfortable with characters of that nature," said Robert DeConnick, Kelly's father, a retired master sergeant who served as a Russian linguist during his 20-year Air Force career.

The magazine rack at in the Stars and Stripes bookstore on Hahn Air Base in Germany seemed "ginormous" to the little girl who found joy in the stories. The base is closed, but memories of it linger.

"I remember very well comics and Hahn AFB in Germany specifically being closely linked," said Kelly Sue. "They had a tremendous comic section. Maybe this is my 'child's memory but it was huge! There were comics on one side and magazines on the other. That was how I spent my allowance."

As with any hobby, community can play a major role in a child's level of interest. Kelly Sue said a great deal of her exposure to comics began with family friends stationed at Hahn AB. One of the families had a large comic book collection.

"I would go to their house after school, and they had tons of comics," said Kelly Sue. "They had a girl my age named Missy, and her two older brothers were into comics. Missy and I were like 'anything you can do, we can do too.' So, we read comics with them. I remember one of the brothers had the DC horror anthologies. They scared me to death, but I loved them. They were a fun family. "

For 45 cents, Kelly Sue could engross herself in the adventures of super heroes and super heroines. Her mother encouraged her to become a fan of the genre.

"It was the 70s; there was a feminist movement. I think my mom had the notion that 'Wonder Woman' was a feminist to me," said Kelly Sue. "If I did my chores, she would dole out Wonder Woman comics as a reward."

Today, Kelly Sue authors the "Captain Marvel" and "Avengers Assemble" series for Marvel Comics.

She didn't start out with the goal of writing Captain Marvel. When she approached Marvel Comics managing editor, Stephen Wacker, about writing the character, Carol Danvers' alter ego, Danvers was still using the alias "Ms. Marvel."

"When I pitched the book, I pitched 'Ms Marvel,'" said Kelly Sue. "When I got the phone call from Stephen Wacker, he messed with me. He said 'So, you're not going to be writing Ms. Marvel ... because you're writing Captain Marvel.'"

According to comic book canon, Captain Marvel was a Kree superhero named Mar-Vell who died in 1982. The Kree are an alien species in the Marvel Universe. While working with Mar-Vell, an explosion fused Mar-Vell's Kree genes with Danvers' genes. When Danvers realized the experience left her with super powers, she took the alias "Ms. Marvel."

For all of Mar-Vell's superpowers and resistance to external trauma, his own cells plotted a traitorous and suicidal course against him, refusing to fall in line with his body's natural defenses. Ultimately, the cellular traitors killed Mar-Vell and themselves.

"The character Mar-Vell died many years ago, but he didn't die from some horrible villain. Mar-Vell died of cancer, and it was beautiful and sad and had some meaning," said Kelly Sue. "There have been other people who had the title but Carol got her powers from Mar-Vell. So, it made sense in the world for her to take this mantle."

A post-mortem Mar-Vell appeared in various storylines and comics, even returning from the land of the dead, but Wacker felt it was Danvers' turn to take the Captain Marvel title. A new alias would not be the only change.

Since 1981, Ms. Marvel had been associated with a costume designed by Dave Cockrum, the son of an Air Force lieutenant colonel.

Cockrum designed Ms. Marvel's outfit as a one-piece bathing suit. While alluring, it provided Ms. Marvel with minimal posterior coverage. Wacker told Kelly Sue he wanted a design he could feel comfortable having his daughter wear. After reviewing submissions, they selected a design by Jamie McKelvie, which comprised at least twice as much fabric of the old.

"The comment about my daughter, and really anyone's daughter, had mostly to do with the costume. While I think Dave Cockrum's Ms. Marvel design is elegant, like all his designs, I also think that it is of its time and has held the character back, at least slightly, in a world now where women and girls make up more and more of our reading audience. I wanted a Marvel costume that a little girl could proudly wear on Halloween and thanks to the great design of Jamie McKelvie, we got it!"

From Kelly Sue's perspective, the Ms. Marvel outfit needed to be revamped. It needed to be something that fit her personality, and she didn't see an Air Force officer going to work in that old outfit.

"She wouldn't call it a costume, she would call it a uniform," said Kelly Sue. "If you look at the new outfit, it's sort of like a flight suit."

According to the Marvel storyline, Carol Danvers joined the Air Force after high school. Though she worked hard and earned better grades than her brothers earn, her father didn't support the idea of women's education. Carol enlisted in the Air Force and performed so well that she was eventually recruited by the intelligence community for service as a special operations intelligence officer.

She worked as a spy in clandestine operations before NASA recognized her potential and recruited her to serve as head of security for NASA.

Danvers retired at the rank of colonel and eventually left NASA to pursue work in the private sector. She has worked in numerous fields from journalism to aviation and held many aliases, including "Binary," "War Bird," "Ms. Marvel" and now, "Captain Marvel."

Kelly Sue said she considers Danvers' Air Force service to be an important part of her personality, and she likes to intertwine references to that service. In one storyline, Danvers wears an Air Force T-shirt. In a conversation with Captain America, she informs the soldier that she outranks him.

"I think it's a big part of her personality. I can always tell when military people come up to my table at a convention because there is that, 'yes ma'am, no ma'am'," said Kelly Sue. "When you are active military, it's a big part of your personality. She's not active military anymore but she was for so many years that I don't think it stops. I'm 42 now; my dad retired when I was 20 and he still carries himself like he's in the service."

Danvers has battled external and internal villains. The character has not been immune to human frailties. She has struggled with an alcohol addiction, and Kelly Sue described her as, "an adrenaline junkie" who sometimes misuses her superpowers in order to get thrills.

"She likes to fly as high as she can until she passes out and then lets herself fall and gets boosted by the friction energy that she absorbs but that's kind of a jacked up thing to do," said Kelly Sue. "That's a different kind of chemical high."

According to Staff Sgt. Dylan Bolander, a broadcaster with 3rd Combat Camera Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio, and a fan of the series, Danvers' shortcomings only endears the character to readers. For him, she represents a hero whose humanity shows through, and someone Airmen can learn from.

"As far as literary characters go, she's a great representation for the Air Force," said Bolander. "She's presented as a strong female, but she has flaws. If I were an 18-year-old who was learning what the Air Force is all about, I'd have a role model in Carol Danvers."

The transitional life of a military child is not easy. According to the US Census Bureau, the average American will move about 2.5 times by the age of 18. The average military child will move more than 2.5 times before completing the sixth grade. Writing about the life of a retired Airman, even a fictional character, is both a reward and responsibility for Kelly Sue.

Just as the comic book genre helped Kelly Sue cope with the mobile lifestyle and transitions, she now has a responsibility to readers with similar backgrounds.

Polly Ann Bauer, Kelly Sue's mother, said reading comics was one way her daughter managed the transitions.

"Moving schools frequently is the way of life as a military family. It's not always easy to uproot to a new home and a new school," said Bauer. "I think Kelly's love of comics and her joy of reading eased some difficult situations. Regardless, Kelly Sue was extremely proud of her father and his commitment to the Air Force. Her choice of Carol Danvers, an independent, strong female and retired colonel, seems perfectly natural and it seems natural that Kelly would unleash Carol as 'Earth's Mightiest Hero'!"

Though Kelly Sue's experiences as an Air Force 'brat' allows her to bring a unique and relevant dimension to her story telling, Wacker did not take that into considerations when he selected her to write the Captain Marvel saga.

"I didn't know about it when I hired Kelly Sue, but I think it comes through on every page. As an editor you depend on the writers making a personal connection to the characters, and I sure got lucky in this case," said Wacker.

Currently, Kelly Sue is the writer most closely associated with Carol Danvers and Captain Marvel, but she recognizes that her role as a weaver of the story is not permanent as it is with the Fates.

Kelly Sue brings her perspective - a perspective shaped by an early life of transitions and all of her experiences since - experiences very similar to, and very different from that of every military child.

"We have to remember that none of us owns any of these characters. These characters don't belong to us. Someone wrote them before us, and someone will write them after us. They belong to Marvel Comics," said Kelly Sue. "Marvel Comics is the longest-running continuous narrative in human history. It is 70 years of story, which is pretty amazing. It is a distinct honor to be a part of that, but you also have to remember that you are pretty tiny part of it."