Mon
Jan 2 2012 2:00pm

The Great Alan Moore Reread: Captain Britain, Part 1

Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated the next twelve months to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 10th installment.

Not-yet the golden boy of Marvel’s late Bronze Age, Chris Claremont teamed with veteran Incredible Hulk artist Herb Trimpe to create a hero for the U.K market. Cover-dated October 1976, Captain Britain Weekly debuted, and we got a chance to meet Brian Braddock, student-who-becomes-hero-of-the-land.

As Captain Britain, with a quarterstaff and a lion decal on his chest, Braddock fought robots and angry guys with hurricane powers and even teamed up with Captain America to battle neo-Nazis led by the vicious Red Skull.

The Captain Britain feature was a typical Marvel superhero strip of the day – kind of a cross between Daredevil and Captain America, even when it shifted into black and white and more illustrative artists like John Buscema and Ron Wilson came in to draw the series.

Though it had its charms – and honestly, it was at its most bombastically fun with the America/Britain team-up involving Nick Fury and all the Red Skullian hijinx – there was nothing distinctively British about it, even if the bank heists involved “quid” and Merlin the magician was the ethereal spirit guiding Captain Britain in his origin story.

A few years later, Alan Davis, with writer Dave Thorpe, would come in to do a more imaginative, more slapstick take on the character, as the good Captain received a military-looking costume and he and his elf sidekick Jackdaw traded blows with the likes of the Crazy Gang. If you’ve ever read Alan Davis’s (or even Chris Claremont’s) run on Excalibur, you would have a good sense of the look and tone of that era of Captain Britain — Davis resurrected plenty of it for use with Britain’s X-team in the 1980s.

But, long before Kitty Pryde teamed up with Brian Braddock, something changed to give the Captain Britain story an unexpected depth. Alan Moore came to town. And he was about to kill Captain Britain.

 

“Captain Britain,” Marvel Super-Heroes #387-388 (Marvel UK, July 1982-August 1982)

On Moore’s first story, still with regular Captain Britain artist Alan Davis (who would soon join him as Garry Leach’s replacement on Marvelman), he introduces the Fury, an “unstoppable amalgam of flesh and metal.” A superhero-killing cyborg.

Moore’s work on this series – which continues into The Daredevils and into The Mighty World of Marvel as the “Captain Britain” story continued to find a home amidst various reprint collections from across the Atlantic — doesn’t have the stylistic bravado of his work on Warrior, but in its harsh, violent amplification of the superhero formula it actually ends up foreshadowing many of the kinds of post-Alan Moore comics that followed his mid-1980s American comics ascendancy.

To be frank, the kind of stuff you find in his “Captain Britain” comics are not that far off from the trends that Warren Ellis helped kick off with his work on Stormwatch and The Authority. Alan Davis crams a billion images onto a page in his U.K. work, so you can’t exactly call it “widescreen comics” like we saw from Ellis’s crew, but the ideas were there. And the tone was not dissimilar.

Jackdaw, the cute-and-admittedly-annoying sidekick elf, dies in Moore’s first issue. Blasted in half by the Fury.

Even Captain Britain himself didn’t make it through the issue that followed.

In his first two issues working with the character, Moore used a classic deconstruction technique: he killed off everything in his path and rebuilt the series with a new point of view. His was a significantly more dangerous interpretation of Captain Britain’s world. And the multiverse that surrounded it.

His Captain Marvel story begins on a parallel world, but that wasn’t a Moore invention. The previous creative team had introduced the alternate reality and the white-haired Saturnyne and her Avant Guard. These were Thorpe/Davis concepts, not Alan Moore ones. But he quickly amplified the conflict, and the introduction of the Fury as hero-killer was just the first, most viscerally dramatic, step.

Under Moore’s pen, the world of Mad Jim Jaspers — this alternate reality they landed in prior to his run —  becomes more clear, if completely insane. It was a world in which costumed superheroes were eradicated, in which signs blazed with “If they were honest, they wouldn’t wear masks” filled Trafalgar Square. We learn about the heroes who have fallen, like Iron Tallon, Captain Roy Risk, and Miracleman.

What’s that? Miracleman? He sounds familiar!

Miracleman — as we now know him — was years away, though. Moore hadn’t yet been forced to change Marvelman’s identity because of the legal attack dogs. But the name “Miracleman” was obviously already knocking around in Moore’s brain when it came time to rename his revisionist superhero saga.

Or, you could interpret his “Captain Britain” work as a time-tossed version of what happened after his Miracleman epic. You’d have to change most of the details of that series, but you can make it all fit together, I’m sure. If you were so inclined.

What’s important is that Captain Britain is dead by the final page of Marvel Super-Heroes #388, and he would stay dead for a long, long time.

If you consider four months a long, long time.

The death and rebirth of superheroes is an old game, but it wasn’t so common in 1982. Yet, by the end of that year, Captain Britain was back, but in a new series…

 

“Captain Britain,” The Daredevils #1-6 (Marvel UK, January 1983-June 1983)

Somehow Marvel didn’t know that Alan Moore would one day become the GREATEST COMIC BOOK WRITER IN RECORDED HISTORY, because the revived Captain Britain didn’t even get a series with his own name in the title. He ended up part of a compilation – mixed with Spider-Man and Daredevil reprints. Presumably the “Daredevils” title was a reflection on the newfound popularity of the Man without Fear and, particularly, Frank Miller’s then-and-now career-defining run on the character. Marvel UK even commissioned Paul Neary to bust out his most Milleresque cover imagery to seal the connection.

Relegated to backup-singer-to-foreign-reprint status, Moore did what he does best: present compelling material, in comic book form.

Like he would later do with Swamp Thing, and had already done with Marvelman, Moore changes the origin of Captain Britain to explain that, yes, what we actually saw in the original stories wasn’t quite what really happened. What really happened was something more scientifically plausible, if still fantastic.

With Swamp Thing, it would be planarian worms, with Marvelman it was a sadistic government experiment, and with Captain Britain, it turns out that the wizard Merlin wasn’t really the one who gave him his magic amulet and superpowers. It was a pair of godlike aliens. Not unlike the Warpsmiths from Warrior. Not unlike some of Moore’s Star Wars deities. Alien, super-science creatures who are known as Merlin and his daughter Roma in the story, but are actually like guardian angels of the multiverse. Or the “Omniverse” as Moore calls it in this series. And Captain Britain has a destiny.

Merlin and Roma rebuild Brian Braddock, and imbue him with life. He awakens back where he “died,” not knowing of his role in the larger story that has begun to unfold around him. He struggles with mundane-for-a-superhero events, like confusion about his parents’ death, and the surprise revelation that his sister, Betsy Braddock, now works for the psi-division of an organization called S.T.R.I.K.E. He’s back on his Earth, though, this reborn Captain Britain, and that gives him a chance to reconnect to his old life, and Moore trots out many of the highlights from the Claremont Captain Britain era, but with more ruthlessness than nostalgia. He uses the weirdness of those classic superhero yarns to show an unbalanced Brian Braddock. Not quite the square-jawed action hero of the old days, nor the fantasy swashbuckler of the recent past.

The real meat of Alan Moore’s run doesn’t start to sizzle until issue #5 of The Daredevils, when we get a panel of shadowy figures, dossiers and surveillance photos, and a familiar-looking furry face. It’s Wardog, and the Special Executive, jumping through spacetime and across continuity streams to visit Captain Britain’s story all the way from the far reaches of Doctor Who’s Gallifrey. That continuity crossover is never mentioned in-story of course, but these are the same characters who Moore first introduced in the Time War Trilogy, just a couple of years before, in his short stint on Doctor Who Monthly.

It is the Omniverse. And that means it’s all in there, somewhere.

Wardog and the Special Executive reveal that they work for his old pal/enemy Saturnyne and take Captain Britain on a little jaunt to yet another parallel world. Captain Britain is not too happy about the “universe lag” he suffers from.

In this parallel world, Wardog introduces him to Captain England and Captain Albion (“temporarily on loan from the universe next door”) and thus the League of Infinite Captain Britains is born. Thank Glycon it’s never actually called that out loud.

The scope of the series magnifies a thousand-fold as The Daredevils #5 comes to an end, with Saturnyne on trial for what happened back in the world of Mad Jim Jaspers and the Fury. “His Whyness Lord Mandrake,” Saturnyne’s successor to the Imperial Throne turns out to be the judge at her trial, and he declares the dangerous old Jaspers/Fury universe destroyed with the turn of a crystal key.

The death of a parallel world. Years before DC Comics would make that kind of story the centerpiece of Crisis on Infinite Earths. Moore, once again, ahead of his time.

But even as the universe explodes, the Fury finds a way to escape. Because that’s what unstoppable cyborg killing machines do.

Moore has torn down and rebuilt Captain Britain’s life and the Omniverse around him, but he’s not even halfway done with the story.

Widescreen action. One tiny panel at a time.

More to come, next week!

 

NEXT TIME: Captain Britain, Part 2


Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, and Back Issue magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

4 comments
Jonesy Stark
1. Jonesy Stark
I've really been enjoying this series, Tim. Keep up the great work. Your revisiting of Moore's material has inspired me to do likewise and to finally get around to getting my hands on the large bit of his works I've yet to read. I most need to read his Swamp Thing run. And hit as many back issue bins as I can to try to scrounge up some Marvelman (really hope that legal situation works out so we can get that epic out to a wider market). Has his Captain Britain work been collected yet?

Hands down, Moore is the best to do it and it's amazing how consistent he's been in his career. There are some artits who's genius seems to come so effortless that we take it for granted, and Alan Moore is definitely one of those individuals.
Jonesy Stark
3. a-j
Jonesy Stark@1
Marvel printed a collected edition under the title Captain Britain in 2002, ISBN 0-7851-0855-6
rob mcCathy
4. roblewmac
No mention of the Fury killing "the spider" and Robot archiche
Jonesy Stark
5. Jonesy Stark
@a-J
Thank you, good sir!

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