Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Alan Moore Obscurities: Captain Britain

"Poor doomed thing" - Roma


This will be a semi-regular feature concentrating on the lesser known works in the great man's canon. And yes, to me, he is a great man.  The best writer comics have ever had.  It makes me quite sad now that so many people seem to just know him as that grouchy British dude who keeps picking on DC. I've chosen the term obscurities to cover pretty much anything he wrote that isn't Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The Killing Joke, From Hell, Lost Girls, Promethea, Swamp Thing and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen because those books loom so large in peoples opinion of his work that pretty much everything else he wrote feels like it's in relative obscurity by comparison. For example, Lance Parkin's otherwise excellent biography of him - Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life Of Alan Moore - devotes two chapters to Watchmen and it's aftermath, yet his work for Image and most of his ABC work merits little more than a passing mention.  So hopefully this feature will bring a little more attention to his wider body of work; Supreme, Judgement Day, Voodoo, The Violator, AARGH etc. While most of this stuff was printed in trade paperbacks, many are out-of-print now including this standalone trade of his Captain Britain strips.  Although I believe they are included in a set of more recent trades covering the Dave Thorpe and Jamie Delano ones as well.

The Captain Britain Alan Moore arrived to work on had a somewhat complicated publication history.  He didn't have a comic of his own by then, being reduced to eight page strips in other Marvel UK comics at the time, running from 1982-84 and drawn by the talented Alan Davis.  Alan Moore's run was spread across  Marvel Superheroes #377-388, The Daredevils #1-11 and The Mighty World of Marvel vol. 2, #7-13.  The trade paperback of these strips only arrived in 2002, fourteen years after the post-Moore strips had been published in trade.  This was due to a tit-for-tat rights withdrawal row over the publication of Marvel/Miracleman Moore was having with Marvel at the time (and it's still on-going, which is why the recent rerelease of Miracleman does not have a writers credit at Alan Moore's request). 
Fair Play OId Chap!
Captain Britain as a character was and to some extent still is, a hard character to pin down.  Unlike Captain America, who represents a very clear set of US ideals and patriotism, making a British clone of The Cap was never going to work.  Extreme patriotism tends to make a large percentage of the UK population uneasy and is problematic because Britain is actually four countries with their own specific identities (extreme UK patriots always self describe as "an English patriot" or a "patriotic Scot", rarely as a patriotic Brit) so that has always lent a kind of schizophrenic quality to Captain Britain and probably explains why it was decided to root his power in Athurian myth, rather than real British history and identities (I'm English by the way.  Pleased to meet you. Now get off my lawn).  His powers receieved by some "mystic, glowing, folderol amonst the menhirs" as Grant Morrison rather unkindly (but amusingly) points out in Supergods. Maybe Moore couldn't see a current British identity worth celebrating.  Be hard to root for a hero who embodies petit bourgeois small mindedness after all. Probably the most interesting thing about this version is that he's a loner who isn't completely psychologically stable and isn't a soldier like Captain America.  He often comes over as much more vulnerable and far less of a "now who's ass am I gonna kick next?" version of his US counterpart.
                                 
Captain Britains first death
The strip was already in the middle of an arc when Alan came aboard, one which he admits in the introduction to the 2002 trade he "neither inaugurated or completely understood", Alan Moore sets about making the story his own by doing what he'd later do in Swamp Thing when he became the writer on that series a couple of years later.  He ruthlessly culls characters he has no use for, removes other characters he'll find a use for later and finally kills the protagonist stone dead.  Captain Britain, trapped on a parallel world, distraught over the loss of his friend, stumbles to an open grave with the name Captain UK on it, the female equivalent of him who escaped Mad Jim Jaspers cull of superheroes on that world by slipping away into the main Marvel Universe.  The agent of Captain Britain's demise is The Fury, an artifical lifeform created by that worlds Mad Jim for the express purpose of killing superheroes.

The Fury is a tremendous enemy.  Blank faced and non-speaking, it can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead. It is Thanatos, the Death Drive incarnate and in the end it's not Captain Britain who defeats it, but a vengeful Captain UK.  Tearing the creature apart in blind vengeance for her destroyed universe after The Fury exhausts itself fighting Mad Jim Jaspers.  Mad Jim is also an interesting character, a Tory MP (and so of course the obvious political enemy to a lefty like Alan Moore) with reality warping capabilities, later in the collection he manages to twist the main Marvel Universes history so that there have suddenly been concentration camps and anti-superhero purges, with only Captain Britain, his sister Betsy and a couple of other characters able to remember the real history.
Captain UKtakes revenge at the end of the story
What's fascinating about this collection is how quickly both Alan Moore and Alan Davis both improve their craft.  The early scripts are not good, although "A Rag, A Bone, A Hank Of Hair" shows promise, as Merlin, and his daughter Roma rebuild Captain  Britain body and soul, before transporting him back to his reality to take part in some cosmic chess game they are playing.  But then we get a somewhat unimspiring run of scripts as Captain Britain - Brian Braddock being his real name - returns home to find his mansion is not a bombed out wreck, fights the evil computer in the basement, goes to meet his sister Betsy in London (she later becomes the powerful X-man Psylocke, though at this point her only powers seem to be telepathy. She's currently recovering from the indignity of being drawn sans hips by Greg Land in Uncanny X-men) and has a fight with an antagonist called "The Slay Master" and it's all rather dull, and somewhat crudely drawn.  The suddenly, with the story "Executive Action", both art and script get really, really good and as if by magic, the real Alan Moore appears.  With a script that imparts complex ideas with a sense of fun and vivid, three-dimensional characters that you feel have genuine inner lives.  And the art steps up to match with Davis just at home drawing the quirky alien mercenaries The Special Executive as he is drawing the hefty, muscularity of Captain Britain.

The Special Executive
The main story of the book starts with the Special Executive (a merry band of aliens, first created by Moore when he was writing for Doctor Who Magazine) breaking into Captain Britains house to take him to an interdimensional court.  The court is trying Saturnyne, (the woman who abandoned him before his death on the alternate earth) for being an agent of that worlds destruction.  We get to meet alternate Captain Britains - Captain England and Captain Albion, and for the first time the main Marvelverse is given the label "616", although there is some disagreement as to whether this was Alan Moore, or the previous writer Dave Thorpe's idea (it being the "true number of the beast" reflecting Thorpe's unhappiness at writing superhero tales according to Alan Davies).  The universe Saturnyne was tasked with "jump starting" is being infected by the powers of "Jasper's Warp" and to stop it spreading the whole universe is destroyed at the press of a button.  Captain Britain is accused of having romantic feelings for Saturnyne and when he reacts in anger his testimony on her behalf is denied and she is sentenced to execution.   The good Captain starts a brawl with his alternate selves to save her and the Special Executive decide to pitch in and help, with them causing enough confusion to make their getaway back to Earth 616.

Captain England: " By 'eck lad.  I hope tha knows what tha's getting into."

Captain Britain: "What do you take me for? Of course I know what I'm getting into. I'm in a parallel universe fighting an alternate version of myself alongside a group of parahuman mercenaries who want me to help the wrongly accused Majestrix......... Do you ever get halfway through a sentence and find yourself unable to believe you're actually saying it?"

Captain England: "No" [clonks Captain Britain with a big stick]

Captain Britain, Saturnyne and the Special Executive all arrive back at Brian's house, where Betsy and her lover Tom are waiting. This leads to the wonderfully incongrous image of a bunch of aliens watching telly, and seeing the anti-superhero speech of this worlds Jim Jaspers.  A distressed woman, who was the now destroyed alternate earth's Captain UK arrives to warn Brian that what happened on her earth is starting again, while Merlin and his daughter Roma start playing chess with the various characters as pieces.  But Merlin hasn't accounted for The Fury which wasn't destroyed when it's universe was and it arrives and tries to kill Captain UK, who Merlin protects from the blast.  A battle between The Fury, Captain Britain and The Special Executive ensues.  They manage to defeat it for now, but at a cost.  One of the Special Executive is killed and another maimed, so they cut their losses and depart.
The Fury Pwns All
The next issue sees Jim Jasper's Warp has fully taken hold of the UK.  Reality and history have been changed. Betsy, Tom, Saturnyne, Captain UK and Captain Britain are hiding out somewhere planning their next move.  It's very stressful for a psychic like Betsy and every 80's lefty's worst nightmare of how Britain might end up under the Thatcherite junta.

Betsy: "Of course I'm not alright.  England's gone insane.  There's concentration camps, curfews and stormtroopers... and how long has it been like this?  Days? Or months?  How long have we been existing like this?  I don't remember anymore."

Captain Britain decides it's time to confront Mad Jim. "The sky is torn.  The landscape raped and raw.  The night is curdled with nightmares.  It's still his country."  Back with Merlin, Roma pleads with him to abandon the game, that his peice, which is Captain Britain can't win the battle alone.  But Merlin refuses. Meanwhile, Betsy is captured, while Tom is killed and Captain UK flees in terror closely followed by Saturnyne.  Merlin loses more pieces, but insists he sculpted Captain Britain to faces this very terror.  He'd sent Captain Britain to the alternate earth to practice against a less powerful version of Jim Jasper.  This time he cannot fail or the whole omniverse will fall into chaos.
Mad Jim's Reality Warping Power
Back with Saturnyne and Captain UK, Saturnyne tries to persuade her to go help Captain Britain, when she refuses, Saturnyne punches her repeatedly calling her a coward.  Finally Captain UK punches her back and Saturnyne smiles and says it's time get moving.  Captain Britain faces down a huge version of Jim, who assaults and confuses him with visions.  No matter how hard Captain Britain attacks him, Jim doesn't seem fazed.  Then The Fury arrives on the scene, first it attacks Captain Britain then when Jim attracts his attention, attacks him instead.  The Fury and Jim have an epic battle that ends with The Fury frying Jim's brain.  This also causes a backfire in the cosmic chess game, killing Merlin.
Jasper versus The Fury
The Fury goes back to fighting an exhausted Captain Britain, but it too is running out of energy and a vengeful Captain UK strikes the final blows against it, killing it utterly and ripping it into shreds - even after it has expired - in a tearful rage.  Captain Britain, Captain UK and Saturnyne are then transported to the "Otherworld" to attend Merlin's funeral alongside all the other alternate Captain Britains, and be thanked for preventing omniversal disaster.  Roma tells Captain Britain that his Earth has been healed, although bruises remain.  She also tells him that unlike her father she has no desire to interfere with his life and that he is free.  She transports him and Captain UK back to earth 616, and Captain UK bids Captain Britain farewell.  And that brings Alan Moore's run on Captain Britain to an end.
A multitude of Captain Britains
Alan Moore left the strip due to late payments for his work from Marvel UK and never worked for them again.  Apart from a couple of contributions to some charity comics, he never worked for US Marvel either.  It probably wouldn't have worked out even if he had wanted to, the "Marvel Method" of creating comics didn't fit his style, prefering as he did, the "Full Script" method that 2000AD and DC employed.  Still he did finish off his major plot arc, setting things up for Jamie Delano's excellent run.  And unusually for an Alan Moore book, no one got raped.  Which is nice.

2 comments:

  1. This is a very accurate review of the book that deftly covers all its salient points. Until you pointed it out I hadn't noticed how odd it is that reality-warping Jaspers is a Conservative MP, because Conservatives want to keep things the same. Perhaps Moore is saying that in fact they want to warp reality into a dark product of their imaginations, like Torquemada does to modern Britain in book IX of Nemesis the Warlock (different author, similar political outlook, i.e. Tories are evil).

    I don't think Mr Moore could have got away with having a woman raped in a Marvel UK book, but if he could've I bet he'd've done it to Captain UK. She certainly seems to have undergone a very traumatic experience.

    Love all the different Captains Britain at the end, and how one version seems to come from Orwell's Airstrip One. Doesn't feel like an Alan Moore book, does it? Nothing about women being the moon, or ascending to higher planes of consciousness via mind-bending drugs, or pentagrams or tarot cards or anything. But I can remember that the Fury was very scary. And it serves Merlin right, getting pwned by his own chess game. It'll teach him not to treat people as objects. Or maybe this is Mr Moore getting pwned by his own story, i.e. not getting paid on time. The story/game bites back!

    I agree that Mr Moore is a great man. But is he a poor doomed thing, condemned to be thought of as a grumpy old man who doesn't like DC Comics and has a big beard? Well, probably not. And he'd make an ace superhero. He could be Captain Northampton. In fact, I think he may be a superhero already.

    I think that the British identity is about lots of different types of people all rubbing along together and trying to be friendly and welcoming, but it would be difficult to embody that in one bloke unless he had multiple personalities. Which might be a cool idea for a story, actually.

    Did I mention that Charlie's written a series called British Steel? 'Cos Charlie's written a series called British Steel.

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  2. I think you're right about the British identity, it's actually something like how Paul Cornell writes Captain Britian as, while keeping the mythic elements as well.

    Jaspers being a Tory MP is actually presented to us quite subtley. It's only mentioned on a newspaper article, so Moore gets a jab at the hated Conservatives but not in an overbearing manner.

    I agree it's not much like later Moore works, even Swamp Thing which he went directly onto is nothing like Captain Britain. But Moore's Captain Britain stories do have a very "2000AD" feel to them, especially the Special Executive.

    I didn't know Charlie had written a series. Sounds cool.

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