Captain Harpswell

The year’s most talked-about big-screen superhero spends summers laying low (and occasionally battling aliens) on the midcoast.

Captain Harpswell
Artists: Joe Quesada and Richard Isanove

The 22nd film in the Marvel Comics movie franchise is about to drop and not even a peninsular fishing village in Maine can avoid its cultural ubiquity. Captain Marvel — civilian name Carol Danvers — was introduced to the movie-going world in March with an eponymous blockbuster that quickly became the year’s highest-grossing film worldwide. And the flying, energy-blasting superhero takes center stage in Avengers: Endgame, a late-April release that some Hollywood types predict will become the highest-grossing movie of all time.

Last year, Marvel laid the groundwork for Captain Marvel’s box-office debut with a five-part comic-book series called The Life of Captain Marvel. Writer Margaret Stohl was tasked with refreshing the character’s backstory. Carol Danvers, who premiered in ink in 1968, has always been from Boston, but Stohl set the flashback-heavy series at the Danverses’ beloved summer home in Harpswell. Stohl, who’s vacationed in West Harpswell for the better part of a decade, is no stranger to setting fantastic tales in out-of-the-way places — she co-wrote the YA bestseller Beautiful Creatures, which places a family of witches in the rural South — and she guided her artist collaborators in rendering midcoast Maine. Her Captain Marvel gazes soulfully from atop Giant’s Stairs and flies beneath Bailey Island’s Cribstone Bridge. An alien baddie commandeers a lobsterboat in Harpswell Sound, and a battle with laser-blasting drones destroys stand-ins for Frosty’s Donuts and Shere Punjab on Brunswick’s Maine Street.

We talked with Stohl, who also pens Marvel’s ongoing The Mighty Captain Marvel series, just as her heroine was making her first cinematic splash.

Captain Harpswell
Artist: Fiona Staples

So why set a superhero tale in such an unassuming little community?
One of the lessons I learned from Beautiful Creatures was that, because my wheelhouse is emotional and relationship-driven stories, the town is really often a character for me. And if we’re telling an origin story, then that’s a family story, so I wanted a town that could function as part of a family. That’s why I tried to make it so particularly Harpswell — I wanted to convey what an emotional memory and place and return it was for Carol.

Why is that easier to do with a Maine fishing village than with, say, a big city?
It could just be the way I’ve experienced Harpswell, but it so conveys that sense of a Maine summer and this element of play — the docks to jump off of, the lobsters to investigate, the traps, the ice cream, the waiting in line for lobster rolls. There’s so much particularity to the memories you have there. Plus, it’s small enough that you can feel like you know what’s on the street and what’s in the cove and recognize a particular boat. It’s knowable, but with these elements of childhood and nostalgia and fun.

In the comics world, is it still unusual to tell these stories from rural places?
I definitely think that’s part of it. Any time you talk about a small-town story, people just go right to Superman in the farm field. Marvel is deeply committed to “the world outside your window” [a longtime company catchphrase], and that tends to get translated as “the world outside your window in Manhattan,” but that’s not actually the sentiment. The sentiment is to tell a human story — when you’re telling a story about superhumans, you are telling a story about humans. So I really loved the challenge of telling a superhero story in a rural setting.

In the story, Harpswell has embraced its connection to Captain Marvel, but people are cool about it — she’s not signing autographs or anything. Is that how you expect Mainers would react to an Avenger in their midst?
The way Marvel frames it, this is a world where there are superheroes, and they are famous. The way I imagined it, Carol Danvers going back to Harpswell was a Carol who, in her neighbors’ minds, was still 12. I don’t know that you ever really exceed the way the fishbowl thinks of you.

When you’re here in the summers, is it productive time or leisure time?
If you’re a writer, there’s really no difference. Sometimes you’re writing and meeting a deadline, but a lot of the time you’re kind of grinding things in your head. I always feel like my relationship to the water is where the new ideas roll in from. So I just sit there and stare.

All images courtesy of Marvel, from The Life of Captain Marvel. Top images panel art: Carlos Pacheco and Marguerite Sauvage.