Friday, 13 November 2015

What If... Essential Captain Britain volume 1?

This time the look at hypothetical Essential volumes take a somewhat different series and format...

Essential Captain Britain volume 1 would contain the character's original stories from Captain Britain Weekly #1 to #39 and then the stories from Super Spider-Man and Captain Britain Weekly #231 to #253, including the reprint of Marvel Team-Up #65 and #66 in the last six issues with additional splash pages added when the two US issues were each split in three for the weekly format. These issues have had a mixture of reprints over the years in both the UK and US, starting with the 1978 Captain Britain annual but in the UK at least the best modern source are the trade paperbacks from Panini (who now hold the Marvel reprint licence in the UK), specifically volume 1 Birth of a Legend (which had two different covers), volume 2 A Hero Reborn and volume 3 The Lion and the Spider. Alternatively the issues were published in the US in two oversized hardcovers entitled Birth of a Legend and Siege of Camelot. The writing on the Weekly comic is first by Chris Claremont and then Gary Friedrich who carries onto the merged Super Spider-Man with help along the way on plots by Larry Lieber, Jim Lawrence and Bob Budiansky. Jim Lawrence then finishes off the Super Spider-Man issues and Claremont returns on Marvel Team-Up. The art on the UK stories is by Herb Trimpe, John Buscema, Ron Wilson, Jim Lawrence, Bob Budiansky and Pablo Marcos with John Byrne on the Marvel Team-Up stories.

For those less familiar with the British comics industry of old (and in to some extent this is still the same today), it differed from the US in a number of ways including retaining a younger focus for longer and used the weekly anthology format far more. "Free" gifts would sometimes come attached as a way to boost circulation at a launch, smooth over a price rise or help at relaunch moments. (Nowadays most British comics aimed at younger readers seem to come packed with multiple "free" gifts every issue.) Full colour was rarer, with many comics having some pages in black and white or in a three tone format that added a single colour and it was far from unusual for a strip to switch between colour, black and white or three tone in a single issue. Series would often contain multiple strips, some originated for the title, some imported reprints and some reuses of old strips, plus additional features. When a series was nearing cancellation, it would often be "merged" into another series, which in practice meant adding the main strips and the cancelled comic's title though over time both would be diminished. A disappeared series could also experience something of an after-life in the form of holiday specials, usually carrying reprints or left-over inventory material, and annuals, which here are hardback books mainly aimed at the Christmas market (normally carrying the following year's date although there have been exceptions) and again carried a mixture of strips, features and quizzes.

Superheroes are thinner on the ground here and the British generally aren't into massive flag waving American style overt patriotism. So creating a British version of Captain America and making them last seems rather a tall order. However that's not quite the way the character went. It is hardly an original observation to note that whilst Captain Britain's name may be derived from Captain America, the character owes rather more to Spider-Man with a small dose of Thor thrown in for the origin. Thus we get the tale of a university science student with an alliterative name, family members whom he tries to keep out of trouble, a struggling relationship with a girl, a campus bully and an authority figure with a heavy opposition to all costumed heroes in general and this one in particular. Then there are the dead parents, although this isn't established at the outset, and an investigation into their fate leads to conflict with the Red Skull. The costume also downplays the overt patriotic elements with the Union Jack confined to the top of his mask and wrist bracelets, whilst the heraldic lion isn't such an automatic symbol that screams "Britain". Otherwise, the main colour is red. The main Captain America influence can be found in the powers and weapon, with Captain Britain initially only have super strength and agility plus a predominantly defensive weapon, although as time goes on and other writers take over the quarterstaff is first revealed to also generate energy shields and blasts and is subsequently replaced by the Star Sceptre , a more ornate piece that additionally brings the power of flight. And the origin shows an ordinary man gaining powers thanks to mythical magic, though the wizard who co-grants them isn't explicitly named as Merlin for some time to come. So certainly there's a lot of borrowing from other characters even if not mainly from the most obvious one. However few ideas are truly original and it's the mix and blend that matter. Here there's a lot of originality and potential clear from the start.

But despite generating several hundred pages of material, the original Captain Britain strip lasted barely fifteen months. It's clear that Marvel had high hopes for the character and series but also that sales success was elusive and this shows in a succession of reactions. First, there's the resort to a big name guest star in the form of Captain America for quite a protracted run. (Nick Fury also appears but his own adventures were reprinted elsewhere in the comic.) Then there's a change of format with an expansion in the number of pages and strips masking a contraction as the title strip shifted to black and white. And then there was the cancellation of the title with a trumpeted merger really being a cover for dumping the remaining material in another title so as to salvage some of the costs. All of these developments took place within nine months. And whilst the continuation in Super Spider-Man may have allowed for the resolution of the existing storyline, the last few originated stories seem so detached and thrown together that it seems the merged comic was just treading water until the Marvel Team-Up story was available to be simultaneously printed in the UK and US. Otherwise, it would have faced the embarrassment of cancelling the feature only to revive the character within a matter of weeks. As a result the last weeks feel very patchy as though leftover ideas were grabbed and thrown in without too much thought for overall narrative coherence - e.g. why Captain Britain, in costume, has come to an island as part of a group visit goes unexplained - or continuity - for instance Betsy goes from being a commercial pilot to a professional model without explanation, beginning the long-running practice of making sudden changes to her without a coherent explanation. As a whole, the strip suffers from being constantly in a state of panic. But it also suffers from a lack of authenticity, and this may be the reason why 1970s readers didn't take to it in sufficient numbers. (Equally, it may be the case that Marvel had unrealistic expectations for the series, hoping for rather higher sales than for its all-reprint titles. I don't know if the strip had any contemporary printings in other countries but it's doubtful there was much additional income available to support it.)

Chris Claremont may have been born in the UK and Herb Trimpe may have lived in Cornwall for a while (and the spellings may be British and the British characters at least don't sloppily use "England"/"English") but fundamentally this strip feels far too American, writing about a stereotype of Britain gleaned more from films, television and the odd guidebook than from reality. Brian Braddock's Britain of the 1970s is an idealised land of moors, country houses, villages of superstitious people willing to burn anyone suspicious as a witch, super spy agencies, functioning London docks, a monarch who can easily take the fleet off to war with no one objecting and more. The dialogue is often Hollywood~ised, whether it's the excessive use of swearing and Cockney or subtler things such as British characters saying "Prime Minister Callaghan"/"Mr Prime Minister" for a surprising guest star when those US styles aren't used here. (Captain America and Nick Fury also use them but they at least have the excuse of being abroad.) The political elements of the stories are rather generic with Callaghan and Parliament's treatment being pretty interchangeable with any national leader and legislature apart from the iconic showdown when a bomb is planted on the face of Big Ben's clock. The Queen's appearance is surprising for the amount of actual power she's credited with, being able to call out the navy to go and reinstate a dictator with a touch of Ian Smith about him in the fictional nation of Umbezi. And the general style of the series is that of a conventional Marvel US superhero series, without any particular home-grown twists or humour. As a result, the strip doesn't feel particularly British in spite of the name or location. It's little wonder it spent so much of its brief existence trying to find a way to survive.

It also doesn't help that at times the strip wanders all over the place, with ideas introduced and then rapidly changed. This is most notable in the way that Dr. Synne is changed from a magician to a man controlled by an advanced computer and then before the computer can be taken on and deactivated, it falls under the control of the Red Skull but becomes only a minor part of his overall plot. Braddock Manor gets blown up during the story and the computer is ultimately ignored. The sudden change of approach to the villains is reflective of a wider shift as Gary Friedrich takes over the writing from Chris Claremont and shifts the series even more in the direction of a generic superhero series. And just as the UK entered a year of patriotic celebration of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, the strip drifts into the American national myth of coming in and saving the British from the Nazis with the arrival of both Captain America and Nick Fury in order to battle the Red Skull.

There aren't many recurring foes in these tales though a number of the villains introduced here have since popped up in other Marvel stories. The origin villain is the rather forgettable Joshua Stragg the Reaver, seemingly a businessman trying to corner the market in nuclear energy through the use of a hi-tech assault force to attack research centres and kidnap scientists. In pursuit of Brian he picks up the sword his quarry has rejected and becomes a powerful knight who is soon dispatched. Subsequent foes include the Vixen's mob of hi-tech bank robbers, the Hurricane with wind powers, the dark dream generating magician turned old man powered by a computer Dr Synne, the aforementioned but unnamed super computer and its projection Mastermind, the scientist Lord Hawk with his robotic bird of prey, the Mind-Monster who inhabits another realm alongside Merlin, Nykonn the other-dimensional dark magician, the motorcycling thug the Highway Man, his employer the Manipulator who is actually the deposed white dictator of a southern African nation seeking restoration through mind controlling the Queen, the alien Lurker from Loch Ness with a ship that has come to resemble the Loch Ness Monster, the Black Baron who is both vampire and werewolf, Doctor Claw the mad scientist on a remote island, and the serial killer the Slaymaster who targets collectors and steals their most valuable objects. The Marvel Team-Up issues introduce the bizarre assassin Arcade with his funhouse of terror, as well as briefly establishing a Maggia interest only to kill them off in a subplot. But by far the longest running and most established villain to appear is the Red Skull with a scheme to either take over or destroy the UK by holding the Prime Minister hostage in order to get Parliament to surrender. As the contemporary Chancellor (and one of the strongest candidates to replace him) would say of this nonsensical approach, "Silly Billy!"

But the most recurrent problem for Captain Britain is Detective Chief Inspector Dai Thomas of the Metropolitan Police. As with most fictional police officers his jurisdiction runs wherever the story needs it, and he brings a recurrent threat to Captain Britain. Though used somewhat to fill the J. Jonah Jameson role, he is actually a very believable antagonist since an official police officer is naturally going to be hostile to superheroes running around as self-appointed vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. And his background is expounded upon to explain that he's even more hostile than other authority figures because on a trip to New York his wife was a bystander killed during a superhero battle. Nor is he selective in his discrimination, being just as hostile to Captain America. As a result, he comes across as a well rounded character with an understandable motivation for his hostility to the hero. The series initially offers a contrast in the role of good cop Detective Inspector Kate Fraser who proves much more sympathetic to Captain Britain, but she's forgotten amidst the change of writers. Both had previously had bit parts in Marvel US titles and serve to help subtly connect these adventures to the mainstream Marvel universe being published over in the US (indeed the main name used for it today was introduced in a later Captain Britain story). The rest of the authority side of the cast comes in the UK's answer to S.H.I.E.L.D. - Strike - Special Tactical Reserve for International Key Emergencies, yet another in the long line of agencies whose names seem to have been chosen more for creating a memorable acronyms than anything else. Both it and its director, Commander Lance Hunter, recur throughout the run with a strong indication that Captain Britain will eventually be conscripted to work for the agency.

The non-costumed side of Brian's life also brings a somewhat underused supporting case. Thames University seems a rather generic institution, not based on anywhere specific but rather an institution that can support as diverse a range of plots as possible. Amongst Brian's fellow students are Courtney Ross, the inevitable romantic interest, and Jacko Tanner, the campus bully and rival for Courtney's affections. When Courtney is a bystander injured in a battle Captain Britain is rather too open about his concern for her. Later on Arcade deduces enough to kidnap Courtney and use her as bait in her funhouse, suggesting Brian is rather too loose with his identity. His siblings, Betsy and Jamie, also discover it quite quickly. Betsy here demonstrates hints of her psychic powers that she will later use heavily in X-Men but otherwise is something of a blank slate available as a recurring damsel in distress despite being a working women in either aviation or modelling depending upon the writer. Jamie is more consistent as a racing car driver who tries to help his brother more than he should, to the point that Brian eventually resorts to tying his sibling up to keep him from danger. Brian is given guilt to carry that his parents were electrocuted by the supercomputer in the mansion basement whilst he was out with a girl, but it's hard to rationally accept anything as his fault. There's no reason why he would have been with them below stairs, nor could he have spotted the danger in time. And where were Betsy and Jamie at the time and why don't they carry any guilt? It's another part of the attempt to copy the elements of Spider-Man but failing to make them convincing.

Apart from the final six issues, these stories were all originally written for a weekly format of just seven pages at a time (though a couple of issues go to eight pages and pass off the final page in black and white as "A Captain Britain do-it-yourself colour page!"). It's quite a constraining format without that much space to develop characters and subplots but at the same time it's easier to run lengthy stories as the action continues week from week. Wisely the story lengths are variable rather than trying to line up to three issues at a time that could then be collected in the US format; however some storylines run on for more weeks than there's plot for and sometimes it takes two issues before revelations promised in the next issue caption are delivered upon. The art is generally strong as well though the artists take time to remember these were originally published on a larger page than a US title and so have more room to work with. The final six issues constitute the reprint of Captain Britain's first US appearance in Marvel Team-Up. Being reproduced so quickly in the UK allowed for extra splash pages to be produced for individual chapters. These manage to slot in quite nicely (although they were only done in black and white so can look odd when combined with the colour pages from the US) without disrupting the story flow at all.

But despite the writers and artists adapting to the format well, overall it's hard to disguise just how weak the original Captain Britain stories are. The basic problem seems to be a belief that sticking a superhero in the UK and slapping around some names and Union Jacks would deliver strong results when instead it delivers a rather inauthentic piece. US fiction in many different mediums has been popular in the UK but it rarely tries to pretend it's a great local thing. As a result the series struggled then and now as not sufficiently convincing but the wrong conclusions were drawn leading to a state of flux and panic throughout the strip's lifetime until it was just treading water before a key US appearance. These adventures are very disappointing to read even today.

Should they have had an Essential edition? It's hard to say. One thing where an Essential edition would have helped is in standardising everything in black and white. The "Captain Britain do-it-yourself colour pages!" do stand out in the trade paperbacks (although colour versions were done for the 1978 annual that have been reused since) and the Marvel Team-Up issues were never meant to be read as a hybrid of original US colour material and additional UK black and white material so again an Essential could remove the jar. More pertinently the main strip went black and white from issue #24 onwards, midway through the Red Skull storyline so having it all in black and white would help. But although the format itself would offer advantages, the material quality raises real questions. Were these the only Captain Britain stories then they are frankly so poor they could be easily forgotten, leaving the Essentials to focus exclusively on Marvel's US output. But some of the later Captain Britain stories were landmarks that might be worthy of a volume 2 - which by definition would need a volume 1 to come first. The stories have had reprints on both sides of the Atlantic so there is clearly a market for them but they're not something that really needs to be collected in every library style format.

1 comment:

  1. Regarding the 'do-it-yourself' colour pages in early issues (the first two, I think), apparently this happened because the editors forgot to include the cover in their page count of colour content, leaving the last CB page in B&W. That's why Cap's stories dropped from 8 pages to 7, in order to adjust for the cover.

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