Kill all the superheroes

Rereading Captain Britain by Alan Moore and Alan Davis. 

In a way, we were quite lucky with Captain Britain. Okay, so he was an aristocrat given superpowers by Merlin at Stonehenge who wore a rampant lion over a Union Jack on his chest, but it could have been much worse.

For example, this letter from Neil Gaiman appeared in #5 of Alan Moore’s 1963 series from Image:

Dear Al and the gang in the Sixty Three sweatshop,

I’m writing to you all the way from Merry old England, and I’m writing about the JOHNNY BEYOND story “England Swings Like a Pendulum – Don’t!”

I thought it was very good, but thought there were some things about England that you got wrong. I’ve been to London lots of times, and there aren’t any thatched cottages in Trafalgar Square. Also English policemen don’t carry machine guns. Also the Queen lives in Buckingham Palace, not in Big Ben like you said. And we don’t really say things like “Och Guvner, if oi dinna get me some steak en kidney pie this here minute I’m goin to be right chitlins,” like you had the Prime Minister saying to Johnny Beyond.

This is what other countries saw of themselves in American superhero comics. A distorted reflection unrecognisable, a Britain based on Hollywood movies which were already an abstraction from stories and cliches. A country which consists of London and rolling countryside, populated by lords and serfs. Have Cockney villains penetrated the American consciousness? If not, who was Captain Britain expected to fight? But at least being an Anglophone country got us a hero with his own title, however short-lived every incarnation of it was. Guys like Sunfire never even got that. The best you could hope for as an international hero was being drafted into the X-Men, and even then you’d probably get kicked out for a member of the Summers family.

So Captain Britain isn’t as bad as he could be. He was at least created by a Brit, Chris Claremont, who was born over here but grew up in Long Island. If we’d been properly foreign then we’d have got someone like Justice League Europe’s The Beefeater, except serious. Instead we got Brian Braddock, posh boy scientist, equipped with a clutch of loosely-defined mystical powers. I read his origin story in a hardback British superhero annual but I’ve only seen fragments of what followed: his own adventures, generic as everything else, then a long story with the Black Knight which attempted to make cloudy English lemonade from ersatz American lemons. Black-and-white, serialised weekly, drawn by Parkhouse and Neary, amnesiac and confused; Brian began to be a proper Brit right there.

At the end of the 1980s, when Alan Moore had seemingly departed from comics leaving a body of work to be interpreted without him, his Captain Britain seemed to be the missing piece. You could get Watchmen, Swamp Thing, V, even Miracleman. There were DC rarities worth chasing, and I had a few: the Batman annual, the Green Lantern Corps shorts, that Phantom Stranger Secret Origin. But there was no chance of getting a full run of Captain Britain together. In about 1994 I came across a stack of The Daredevils in a Brighton comic shop and began leafing through, excitement rising like I’d found Excalibur in an umbrella stand, but was stopped in seconds by an employee who was borrowing them off a colleague to read and who explained harshly that they were in no way for sale. I had no idea that Daredevils held only part of the story, which hopped from weekly to weekly like Frogger. It’s incredible, looking back, that Moore and Davis managed to complete their story at all. Ironically, of all the British superheroes I’ve covered in this blog, this is the only one that didn’t leave everything hanging, even though it came from a corner of the medium that habitually did exactly that.

It was 2003 or 2004 when I bought a second-hand copy of the reprint. I didn’t hold onto it for long. Alan Davis provided an introduction (and incredible covers) for the first colour reprints in which he admitted embarrassment at the quality of his artwork; Moore provided an introduction for the trade saying much the same. Both are right; compared to their later work, and even compared to their work on Marvelman, this is pretty crude. It develops quickly into a competent and exciting superhero story, using the reality-warping powers of Jim Jaspers to turn the dials straight up to apocalypse, but there’s no pretense that it has anything to say. The creators don’t even attempt to get Braddock’s house in order, establishing a solid foundation for the next guys; Captain Britain had been changed on whim for every other appearance (his costume and powers change without explanation in a single page at the beginning of the Thorpe-Davis run), so the assumption was that any new team would begin with their own reinvention. There’s no hint of the legacy they were actually creating in this run, building a sandcastle that unexpectedly got turned to stone.

What Alan Moore demonstrates is a remarkable ability to avoid entropy in a closed system. Like a writing exercise, he takes the elements he’s been given and rearranges them to tell an entirely new story. Almost everything in the Moore-Davis saga, with the exception of the Fury, comes from the Thorpe-Davis run that immediately preceded it: Mad Jim Jaspers, Saturnyne and the Dimensional Development Court, a world swept clean of superheroes. The former is made a Cabinet minister and the author of his reality’s troubles, when previously he was just the leader of a Carrollian criminal gang. He’s also, in a move nice enough to be re-used in Judgment Day for Rob Liefield’s Awesome universe, used as the excuse for the uneven writing of the Thorpe run. The alternate universe doesn’t make any sense because it’s being corrupted by an insane author. The elements of playful surreality that Thorpe enjoyed remain but his crooked world is briskly disposed of, as is comedy sidekick Jackdaw the elf. The decks are ruthlessly cleared.

The fact that Captain Britain was unknown and unknowable during Moore’s late 80s ascendancy meant that he got away with pulling the same tricks twice. Nobody noticed that the ground-up reinvention of Swamp Thing, the retcon bait-and-switch that changed the character’s nature while reinvigorating his core mission, had been done before in Captain Britain. Point-for-point: the death of the protagonist immediately after all the loose ends left by a previous writer have been tied up, his rebirth as disparate elements from his past are woven into a single piece of cloth, the establishment of a new base and supporting cast, the revelation that our protagonist is one of a long line of similar heroes and that he’s being manipulated into a position of leverage. A sci-fi Merlin rebuilds our boy while making sense of his wildly varied previous adventures – surely unnecessary when they were all unavailable to readers, but Moore respects continuity – and he’s given a home, a friendly contact in the police and a sister before the engine of the main plot roars back into life.

The sister – Betsy Braddock, Psylocke, an X-Men mainstay for a quarter of a century now – came from an earlier story. Moore created the Fury, the implacable foe which proves to be almost the point of the whole enterprise, and he created the Special Executive. Originally appearing in Doctor Who Weekly, they’re a postmodern collision of genres, a group of space mercenaries with their names/powers/personalities hung on a collection of sci-fi concepts ramming full-speed into a superhero comic. They were the legendary part of this run, the bit you heard about. Their amorality, their wilful strangeness, even their name was a radical break from anything in superhero comics of the time. Neither villains nor heroes, chiefly non-human, used for comic effect when Wardog’s procrastinating about what side to take and to underscore the the desperation of the situation when Legion’s killed, they’re easily one of the best things about it. They leave the reader wanting more. If the comic had been published ten years later in the Chromium Age, they’d have had their own miniseries with hologram cover before the run concluded. Instead of a team consisting of a powerful leader and one-dimensional henchmen there was an ineffectual leader and a team packed with bickering personality. Legion speaks no more than a few staccato sentences and we have no understanding of how he even works until he’s dead, but he’s intriguing and the visual, Captain Britain buried under a mountain of muscular, big-eyed midgets, is powerful enough to draw you in. They turn up, drag Brian off for the low point of the run – a trial in a corrupt faux-Galactic Senate or similar which doesn’t really fit in and is irredeemably obvious in execution – and leave before the climax, but they get things going and create enough noise to distract from the one-note protagonist. Resurrected in part as Gatecrasher’s Technet, the characters changing but the alien approach the same, they’ve become fixtures of the Marvel Universe.

What’s the storyline of the run? Captain Britain is rescued from death in a broken alternative reality and resurrected to serve as Merlin’s champion. He saves his sister from old enemy the Slaymaster, and after a brief excursion to the Dimensional Development Court fights the Fury, a refugee from that broken reality which is turning itself into the ultimate killing machine just for him. Mad Jim Jaspers, who broke that reality and created the Fury, warps Britain into a concentration camp for the killing of superhumans. The Captain faces him, pursued by the Fury, and it and Jim kill each other, pretty much. The world goes back to normal.

Usually at this point, writing about an Alan Moore comic, I’d say Ah, but that’s only what happens. How it happens is far more interesting. But this is one of the very few Moore works where that isn’t the case. There are a few episodes where the writing goes up a level, seems to be trying something new and accumulating strength, but mainly it’s just a decent superhero comic. The Special Executive are their own brand of fun, The Candlelight Dialogues which introduces Meggan (and don’t Moore-Davis own her? How come she plays in the Marvel universe when the Executive and the Fury can’t?) manages to move the story forward from looming disaster to post-disaster while only featuring rumours of the titular hero. The Fury vs Jaspers battle is winningly silly for something with so much sturm und drang in the build-up. And there are touches, like Captain Airstrip One or the redemption of Captain UK or the whole idea of a plotline constructed around the dogged pursuit of a bad guy from a previous adventure, that were original at the time and are recognisably Moore now. But it’s ultimately an empty confection.

If it wasn’t for Alan Davis’s art, that would be much more apparent. Both Alans cut their creative teeth on the story. The early Dave Thorpe episodes, Davis’s first published art, begin strongly and fade quickly as the pressures of meeting deadlines while working full-time – art was drawn in the back of vans during lunch breaks – take their toll. But by the time Brian Braddock’s back in his mansion the art has settled to steady excellence and the Davis style appeared to have moved straight into maturity, that perfect balance of cartoon and realism, dark and light, fantastic and grounded. The Fury’s weight on the page, empty of design but an asymmetric face, makes it live. Merlin’s Otherworld has the fully-realised design John Byrne’s Krypton strained for a few years later. The ride is so slick that the reader doesn’t notice it judders off the road into a dead end.

It isn’t a lost classic. It’s accomplished juvenilia. Superheroes are at their best when they’re saying something, however facile; Christopher Nolan’s Batman isn’t as deep as people think it is but it has statements to make about surveillance, terrorism, morality. Superman, in all his incarnations, is always a pronouncement on the American dream. Perhaps British superheroes have been few and far between because we can’t make them articulate anything meaningful about our country; perhaps there isn’t, post-Empire, anything meaningful to say. Marvelman, for all its British touches, was about superheroes rather than the nation. Zenith was a product of Thatcherism but didn’t have any comment to make. New Statesmen was about the US. Paradax was ostensibly a New Yorker. The closest to political comment here is the Vixen’s resemblance to Maggie, and even that’s probably no more significant than Captain UK’s resemblance to Deirdre Barlow.

That was always the problem with Captain Britain; he didn’t represent us. He was an American’s idea of a Brit. For a true British hero, a real man of the people, a recognisable denizen of our isles with the values and beliefs that make Britain what it is today, we had to wait about a decade. But it was worth the wait.

Captain Britain by Alan Moore and Alan Davis was published in a number of titles and is available in the trade paperback Captain Britain. 

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