Who Is Agent Carter? A Brief History of the Marvel Heroine

Photo: ABC, Marvel

This story originally ran on January 6, 2015. With Agent Carter returning for its second season tonight, we're republishing it.

Don't feel bad if you have no idea who the title character of ABC's Marvel's Agent Carter is. She's based on a comics character who's been around in various forms for decades, but who is by no means iconic in the comics world. Prior to 2011, most geeks would've been hard-pressed to name a single story arc involving her. But in that year, she made her live-action debut in the cumbersomely titled Captain America: The First Avenger, portrayed with grit and grace by Hayley Atwell. The movie was a hit, Carter went on to have a few live-action Marvel appearances, and a couple of years later, boom, here we are: Peggy Carter is a tentpole character for Marvel Entertainment.

Indeed, Peggy's sudden rise to fame is a kind of bellwether for the world comics fans live in now: Afterthoughts have become flagships. Last summer's Guardians of the Galaxy was the most famous example of this phenomenon, given that the Guardians were not already a recognizable franchise. But even then, there was a rich, printed history for almost every character in the flick. Not so with Peggy. She's been barely more than a blip in comics history — meaning, excitingly enough, Agent Carter is basically an all-new story with very little baggage.

Sure, there's a character named Peggy Carter in the mainstream Marvel Comics universe — but Atwell's Carter only bears a passing resemblance to her. For one thing, comics-Carter is American — and as anyone who has heard Atwell's mellifluous tones can instantly tell you, screen-Carter is hugely defined by her Britishness. Comics-Carter made her quasi-debut in a 1966 issue of Tales of Suspense as an anonymous love interest for Captain America during a World War II flashback. She promptly disappeared from the pages of Marvel.

Excerpt from Peggy Carter's first (unnamed) appearance in Tales of Suspense No. 77. Art by Jack Kirby.

It wasn't until 1973 that she even got a name, when readers learned the lady from the flashback had survived the war and reemerged in Cap's life. We found out she'd left Virginia during the war in order to join the French Resistance, where she met Cap, fell for him, and fought alongside him under the code name "Agent 13." She had gone into shock upon learning of the Star-Spangled Avenger's apparent death near war's end and had not been told that he'd returned to the superhero trade. Captain America eventually found her, and — despite her age — she became a fighter for international peacekeeping force S.H.I.E.L.D. and a backup member of the Avengers (who, in Marvel's comics universe, are not a government organ). As such, she was a recurring character in Captain America stories of the '70s, and she played a role in a handful of Avengers stories in the late '80s and early '90s.

But for the most part, her only legacy was that she was related to Sharon Carter, a younger spy who became Cap's longtime confidante and intermittent romantic partner. Marvel killed off the long-irrelevant comics version of Peggy in 2011, presumably to at least acknowledge that she existed at all, what with her big-screen analogue's appearance in the Cap movie of that year. Since then, she's gone mostly unmentioned in print ... until this month. Now she's starring in a series set during the Cold War called Operation S.I.N.

The idea of a monthly series about the untold tales of Peggy Carter would've seemed insane just a few years ago. But hunger for her has grown exponentially since that first movie appearance. On the screen, Peggy Carter was a Brit working on classified Allied military projects. After the first Cap movie, Peggy starred in a short film — one of Marvel's so-called "Marvel One-Shot" shorts — called Agent Carter, which was released as a Blu-Ray extra for Iron Man 3 in 2013. It was a thrilling little story about postwar Peggy being chained to a desk job at the top-secret Strategic Scientific Reserve while her male co-workers (led by a delightfully sleazy Bradley Whitford) dash off to save the world. She sneaks away to solve a caper, saves the day, makes the men look like idiots, and gets promoted to a senior position.

Atwell appeared in last year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier as an elderly Carter who reunites with the still-young Captain America, and in May, ABC picked up a series based on the short. To build buzz, Peggy made a few cameos in Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and now we're looking at an entertainment landscape where Disney thinks it can make her an icon.

Peggy resists the Red Skull in Captain America No. 184. Art by Frank Robbins.

It's been said countless times, but it bears repeating here: When it comes to the Marvel mythos, the tail is wagging the dog these days. Comics are where Marvel's characters were born, and for most of the company's 75-year history, it's the only environment they've lived in. But now, as wonderful as Marvel's comics output is, those comics are microscopically small potatoes compared to the movies and shows they can spawn. Peggy Carter first appeared in comics, but she owes her fame to movies, and those movies (and their TV spinoffs) are now the only reason she's popping up in comics again.

It's also worth noting that the Peggy Carter renaissance no doubt has a lot to do with Marvel's confusing licensing situation. There are whole chunks of the Marvel Comics universe that Marvel Studios can't use in movies or shows because the film rights are owned by 20th Century Fox and Sony. That means Marvel's screen output has been forced to squeeze whatever assets it does control, no matter how unknown they might be. But because it's so good at that squeezing, and because so few people read comics anyway, there are millions of people who will think Peggy Carter has always been a top-tier Marvel character. It's refreshing to see superhero entertainment explore neglected nooks and crannies of the Marvel Comics world — nooks and crannies like the tales of Peggy Carter. But that doesn't make it any less surreal to see it happen.