Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Captain Britain

'The sky is torn, the landscape is raped and raw, the night is curdled with nightmares. 
It's still his country.'

The following is a (not so) short review of the 2002 Marvel graphic novel 'Captain Britain' by Alan Moore and Alan Davis which collects Moore's first work on a major superhero character (although he also began writing Marvel/Miracleman around the same time). Captain Britain had been created by Chris Claremont some years earlier and recently relaunched and substantially altered by Dave Thorpe and Alan Davis. I haven't written anything like this for a long time so my apologies if it's a little all over the place.
Prior to taking on writing duties on Marvel UK's Captain Britain series, Moore's most prominent work had been various 'Future Shock' stories for 2000AD and an assortment of Doctor Who and Star Wars stories for Marvel UK. He was hired to write Captain Britain midway through a storyline which had been criticised for some confusing writing by Thorpe (who is credited by Davis with coining the '616' designation of the Marvel Universe). Moore has apparently stated in the past that he himself didn't really understand the direction the story was taking up until that point and this perhaps explains his approach to his first segment. I say segment because these aren't full issues. As I understand it, each part of the story appeared as back-up strips in various Marvel UK publications: 'Marvel Super-heroes, The Daredevils and Mighty World of Marvel. As such, the story is broken up into short sections of between 5 and 8 pages each which, much like the episodic format of 2000AD, lends the narrative momentum and a rapid pace. Moore fills each of these short sections with a vast amount of information, especially at the start of the book creating a very dense story, very reminiscent of his later work, particularly Swamp Thing.
Anyway, on to the story. Under a lesser writer the first two chapters (a mere ten pages) could come accross as a little confusing. We see various characters (Opal Luna Saturnyne and her Avant Guard, Jackdaw, Dimples, The Fury and the as yet unnamed governing forces of this alternate world) in a scenario that we are thrown straight into the middle of. Only the Fury is actually a new character created by Moore, all the others having presumably complex back stories that may have proven useful. However, a single page of exposition and we are basically up to speed with previous events: Cap and his companions are in a parallel universe where all the superheroes are dead and reality is falling apart. Simple. Saturnyne and her Avant Guard
flee and Dimples and Jackdaw (two characters that from their brief appearances here really didn't seem worthy of any further attention) are swiftly dispatched by the Fury leaving Cap to deal with his assailant on his own. A quick run in with 'Mad Jim Jaspers' (who seems to be a character from earlier in the story that Moore has decided to give mutant abilities for reasons that become apparent later in the book) inside a giant flying teapot and it's on to a final showdown with the Fury in which Cap is disintegrated and we see a brief glimpse of Captain UK, the AWOL survivor of this world's hero purges.
It's a pretty intense and inventive ten pages and, coupled with the next chapter, a brief history of Captain Britain/Brian Braddock and an introduction to Omniversal manipulator Merlin and his daughter, Roma, quickly clears the board for Moore to tell his own story whilst effectively setting up most of the essential components of what comes with the rest of Moore's run. The writing may be a little clunky in places and it perhaps suffers from too much expository text (as do the next few chapters), bbut it feels necessary given the page constraints.
So Merlin and Roma rebuild Captain Britain in a scene reminiscent of parts of 'The Anatomy Lesson', in which Moore would redefine Swamp Thing a few years later, and send him off back to Earth 616 to reclaim his home from an evil computer and save his sister (a pre-Psylocke, purple haired, Betsy Braddock) from an assassin hunting down psychics. This short section in which Cap fights the, frankly amazing, Slaymaster (a canary yellow clad. mustachioed assassin with a variety of high tech weapons and a left hand that he has sharpened into a deadly blade) helps to effectively ground the character and introduce the human members of his supporting cast before the story takes a trip back into the omniverse. We also see a hint of things to come for Cap as he brutally beats Slaymaster, continuing to hit him even after he surrenders in a comically gentlemanly fashion. And then the story kicks into a higher gear.
I don't want to go into too much depth and spoil the rest of the book (or make this 'short review' too long) but basically the Fury escapes from it's dying universe, Cap meets (and punches) various parallel universe versions of himself (a concept that Claremont would later make extensive use of in Excalibur) and once again battles the Fury before finding his own world falling to the reality warping powers of its own version of Mad Jim. It's fast paced high concept stuff and I loved every panel. I'll just talk about a couple of chapters that are particularly effective and then wrap things up with a look at the artwork by Alan Davis (spoiler: it's great).
There's a chapter in the middle of the book where Moore introduces a group of mercenaries, 'The Special Executive', who have been hired by Saturnyne to bring Cap to her aid. Moore has eight pages to introduce four brand new characters, have them carry out their mission and either succeed or fail. What we get is a masterclass in how to define a character and their powers, most of which are fairly high concept. Each of the four has an essential part in the plan, each one uses their power effectively and in a way that allows Moore to explain it in the most elegant way possible. It is quite simply a superb bit of writing, coupled with some great power effects in the artwork. I particularly like the fractured panel where Fascination warps Cap's mind and
the demented look on Cobweb's face as Betsy falls into the trap of reading her broken, dimension spanning mind.
The second chapter I wanted to talk about occurrs around two thirds of the way through the book and acts as a bridge between the rematch with the Fury and the establishment of Jaspers as the new threat. The series jumps from Cap and his dwindling allies observing that things are about to get much worse to two characters that we have never seen before (although we will see one again in Delano and Davis' run. Hint: it's Meggan), sometime in the future, telling stories of Cap's acts of heroism. It's a great way of showing the passage of time and letting us know that Cap has been carrying out heroic acts of defiance even as his beloved country falls into decay. The story they tell has the requisite amount of exaggeration but some clever ideas in the artwork show us the difference between the story and the less grand but equally heroic reality. It might just be my favourite chapter of the whole book.
And so on to the art of Alan Davis. What can I say? Davis is a master of comic art. He was already working on the book when Moore joined and it's clear that he has the character designs down right from the start. Cap looks suitably heroic in uniform and fantastically steel jawed and aristocratic in his civilian guise, the Fury looks alien and menacing, Jaspers is visibly insane with an effective visual gag of never wearing the same hat in two panels for most of the story, and the alien members of the cast (including a tiny sentient mountain on a floating platform that speaks only in haiku!) are varied and inventive. Davis really excels at crowd scenes, cramming in plenty of detail (and a couple of sneaky cameos by Mr Miracle and a Green Lantern) and giving every character, even those who will never be seen again, their own unique personality and appearance. His facial expressions are also worth noting and there is some great 'acting' between characters. I was also really impressed with Davis' layouts for the series, some of which seem pretty innovative for 1982. The POV shots from the Fury's perspective are presented in circular panels with information around them, Cap bursts out of panels in a rage, there's an unexpected double page spread (again highlighting Davis' skill with crowd scenes) and the final issues showing the climactic battle with Jaspers are expertly handled despite the demanding script and lack of logic inherent in Jaspers' powers. If I had any problems with the art here it's that Cap sometimes looks a little stretched. There's a couple of panels where his neck or torso are a little too long but it's a minor and occasional fault. Also the resizing of pages from larger UK comics size to the standard US size and shape makes some of the inking in the smaller panels look a little heavy.
In short then, the stories collected in this book show a young Alan Moore starting to find his voice and noticeably refining his craft as the story develops and a young Davis already exhibiting the kind of attention to detail and creativity that would make him a comic book legend in years to come. It is well worth your attention and it has been an absolute pleasure rereading it after over a decade.

Oh, and there's also a scene where Terry Wogan commentates on an omniversal tribunal and then gets squashed by a giant robot. How often do you get to see that?

I'm in the process of reading a load of Captain Britain and Excalibur stuff that I own (The Delano and Davis trade, the first 26 issues of Excalibur and a few of the Warren Ellis issues including the X-Calibre spin off for Age of Apocalypse) so I may post some more reviews and drawings as I go along.

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