Geek Culture

Captain Marvel Writer Margaret Stohl On What Heroes Can Be

As the author and co-creator of the Caster Chronicles young adult series, of which the first book, Beautiful Creatures, has been made into a major Hollywood movie, Margaret Stohl never imagined that taking the reins of a comic book character would unleash the full force of fandom on her.

Even before she tweaked the origins of fan favourite Captain Marvel for Marvel Comics in The Life of Captain Marvel, she drew flak, for — of all things — changing Carol Danvers’ hairstyle.

“I’ve also learnt that (people) don’t talk about male superheroes’ hair all the time,” Stohl drily recounts, of her wardrobe decisions for Danvers, because that doesn’t seem to be the case for female superheroes,

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“Ninety per cent of the death threats and the hate mail that I get, is about a girl having short hair, even in 2018. It’s crazy.”

Cheerfully strutting her stuff in a pair of brightly coloured Captain Marvel-themed sneakers, Stohl, the current writer of Carol Danvers’ ongoing origin comics — visited Singapore some time ago for the Singapore Writers Festival, and we managed to sit down with her for a chat. In case you didn’t know, Captain Marvel’s about to kapow her way through the silver screen come March 2019, and considering how she’s likely to play a decisive role in taking down Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, she’s definitely one of the MCU’s shining beacons of hope — both narratively and in a (at the risk of sounding like an extreme left-wing activist) broader, representational sort of way.

As the MCU’s first female superhero who’s set to take centre stage in her own film, Carol Danvers has her fair share of fans… and well, anti-fans — some of whom have been deriding Danvers for not being ‘expressive enough’ in her film’s promotional material.

“Women are not allowed to be unlikable. There are plenty of men who can cross back and forth — and sometimes kind of be jerks — and you accept a lot of that as strength or resilience. But that is very hard to pull off in women characters,” Stohl explains.

“Captain Marvel was in a big huge fight with Tony Stark in Civil War (II, the comic crossover storyline), and for the first couple years of my run (for The Mighty Captain Marvel), I was working off people still being so angry at her for being unlikable.”

With The Life of Captain Marvel, Marvel’s intending to give Danvers a more easily accessible and coherent backstory before her film hits theatres.

Carol Danvers was initially introduced as a love interest to alien war hero and space fleet captain Mar-vell, only inheriting his powers after an unfortunate abduction saga and subsequent explosion.

But according to Stohl, that’s not all there is to her superhero origin.

“What we’re doing now is showing another side of that same story, that says the stuff you saw happened, but there’s more to the story than that. We wanted to give new readers, and people who are coming to the movie, a chance to see a comprehensive origin story all at once,” Stohl says. “So that was my job. To write the clean-up version of her origins.”

Due to the complicated set of events that led to her coming into possession of superpowers, Danvers’ (hero’s) journey has been fraught with self-doubt — which sounds a great deal like the imposter syndrome, something a lot of us feel in this rapidly evolving economy and job market. For Stohl, she found that Danvers’ story paralleled hers, citing a traditional family that didn’t exactly believe her capable of being the protagonist, in favour of her brother.

If you’re curious, Stohl’s brother is David “Dave” Stohl, Head of Studios for Activision publishing, and chief of Infinity Ward, the shepards behind the hit Call of Duty franchise. Add in video game legend to his title and that’s objectively a really tough act to follow — it’s probably worse if you’re a girl, and your family one of those, “men-are-the-breadwinners” sort.

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Flashback to Danvers’ past
Danvers at her father’s grave

“A girl’s hero’s journey is going to look messy, because it’s a fight from the sidelines to the main stage, and I think the takeaway is,” Stohl said, “It’s about learning to say ‘I’m on a hero’s journey’, it’s also about learning how to root for yourself. And all of this didn’t come naturally to me. So in a way, dealing with Carol’s messy origin story was a way for me to work out my messy origin story.”

As one of the few women in this still distinctly male-dominated industry, Stohl may have successfully shed her society-and-family-imposed reservations to rightfully claim ownership of her hero’s journey, but the battle stretches ever on.

“I don’t think male creators necessarily have to tell themselves every day, ‘It doesn’t matter. You don’t let that impact the choices you’re making — the amount of hate mail or the death threats’. Specifically the death threats. I think that’s an ever-present thing for female creators that other people don’t realise how much there is.”

Stark and Danvers in The Life of Captain Marvel

“All of your decisions are definitely seen as ‘female’ decisions,” Stohl continues, before borrowing the term ‘rep sweats’ from fellow writer Sarah Kuhn, “You know, the pressure of representing a particular group of people makes you break out in sweat — because you have to get it right. I definitely feel that as a female creator a bunch of times.

“Sometimes I feel guilty because I want to write male characters. I want to further the representation of female characters, but I… Well, I love writing Tony Stark, sometimes I think I could have written a funny Deadpool, or I could have written some Daredevil,” Stohl admitted, “I’ve had different comic books offer me male characters, but that’s only started happening this year so I find that interesting.”

Well, we’re in a period of great change — if our recent political upheaval and social unrest aren’t indicative enough of this, we don’t know what is. And one may find it disheartening that we’re perpetually Team Tony versus Team Capt these days, but it’s perhaps inevitable that conflicts arise when the status quo is upset or questioned. Borrowing from her fairly extensive interactions with fans courtesy of various tours and conventions over the years, Stohl remarks on the changes she’s personally felt.

“I feel like if someone is under eighteen years old, maybe even like under twenty-two, they have the same views quite a bit of the time,” Stohl observed, “I’ve never seen such a unified approach, it’s almost like the internet has made the world divisible by age instead of nationality, or geographical distance.”

“Post-Millennials, eighteen and under, take themselves more seriously from the very beginning than my generation ever did,” Stohl is fifty-one this year, if you need a gauge, “And maybe it’s because they’re facing more serious issues and… the effects of my generation, but I do feel a lot of hope when I look at (them).

“Which is strange because it’s a very complex time in American politics and we don’t feel very much hope at all. There’s a terrible problem, as you know, with gun violence in the United States — it is unconscionable. And we also have a leader who says things which are unconscionable. These are things that are very hard to deal with.

“And the people who are most productive and outspoken about those issues are (teens and youth). So it’s a disheartening time for adults, particularly in the United States, but I’m proud of the teens.

“The teens are demonstrating what heroes can be.”

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