The Wonderfully Mad World of Captain Britain, Part 1

Posted: July 31, 2012 by Brian in Comic Books, The Comic Spinner
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Join Brian every other Tuesday as he talks comic books from a reader’s perspective, both his new experiences with the medium and reflections on over thirty years of enjoying the finest in sequential art.

Excalibur #1

Excalibur #1, October 1988 (Image © Marvel)

In 1989, when I was at the height of my teenaged X-Men fandom, I discovered a slightly different flavor of X-book. Like the other X-books I was reading at that time (Uncanny X-Men and The New Mutants), Excalibur was written by Chris Claremont. Unlike the other X-books I was reading at that time, Excalibur was aggressively whimsical, often hilariously funny, and above all very, very British.

What I didn’t realize then was that the Claremont-penned, X-affiliated Excalibur was the end product of a line of story that had been developed over years in British comic magazines I never had access to, by a succession of writers that included most prominently the great Alan Moore (before his run on Swamp Thing and then Watchmen made him a household name in the world of comics), and that was infinitely, delightfully weirder than anything Marvel had been associated with up until that point.

So let me introduce you to the surreally entertaining and utterly English little corner of the Marvel Universe inhabited by Captain Britain.

In Great Britain in the 1970s and ’80s, comics were a very different thing from their American cousins. Instead of the monthly, full-color stories of about 20 or so pages that we were used to on this side of the Atlantic, the standard model for Marvel UK was weekly black-and-white magazines that contained one or more running “strips” of about seven pages (give or take), plus a number of reprints of American comics like The Avengers.

Captain Britain #1

Captain Britain Weekly #1, October 13, 1976 (Image © Marvel)

In 1976, Claremont and artist Herb Trimpe were hired to create a British analogue to Captain America for just such a weekly magazine. Captain Britain Weekly #1 was cover-dated October 13, 1976, and introduced the reading public to the proud, aristocratic young physics student Brian Braddock. When Brian is badly hurt in a motorcycle accident, Merlin and his daughter Roma appear and give Brian the mystical Amulet of Right, which transforms him into the super-strong, flying superhero called Captain Britain.

Captain Britain and his supporting cast (including his psychic twin sister Betsy, his girlfriend Courtney Ross, his odd elf sidekick Jackdaw, and the superhero-hating Welsh policeman Dai Thomas, who was mostly an adversary) soldiered on through a succession of relatively disposable adventures, surviving the cancellation of his own magazine in 1977 and even making a U.S. debut in Marvel Team-Up #65 (January 1978) alongside Spider-Man.

Despite Marvel UK’s best efforts, the character never really caught on, and by 1979, he was relegated to supporting character status as a guest star in the Black Knight’s strip in Hulk Comic. The character was so moribund the time was perfect for a drastic revamp and relaunch, which is exactly what happened in the pages of the Marvel Superheroes anthology magazine in 1981.

Editor Paul Neary gave the project to a young pair of rookies, writer Dave Thorpe and artist Alan Davis, and they immediately changed everything. Captain Britain’s uniform was completely redesigned, his Star-Sceptre (which had replaced the Amulet of Right as the source of his superpowers) was eliminated, and he was now adventuring in the gritty, grimy England that was so prevalent in comics of the Thatcher era (see V for Vendetta and Miracleman).

Or was he?

‘Cause, see, one of the first seeds that Thorpe and Davis planted was a mindbending matryoshka doll of alternate universes that made the Crisis on Infinite Earths look like a child’s tea party. It is quickly made apparent that Captain Britain and Jackdaw aren’t on our Earth, but instead on an alternate but similar world, one of many whose development is being interfered with, for the good of the Omniverse, by Majestrix Opal Luna Saturnyne and her Avant Guard. (This idea was a seed that would bear far-reaching fruit: the designation by which the “main” Marvel Universe Earth was known to Saturnyne and her bunch was “Earth-616”, and that, along with the various other Earth designations, has become the standard system for describing the various alternate realities of Marvel’s multiverse.) Thorpe’s ten-month run as writer also introduced the Crazy Gang, a hilarious bunch of Alice in Wonderland-inspired goons with extra playing-card flavor, and a loony MP called Sir Jim Jaspers.

And that’s when Alan Moore stepped in.

Before taking over the Captain Britain strip in 1982, Moore’s CV consisted mostly of one-off stories for Doctor Who Magazine and the legendary SF/adventure anthology 2000 A.D. The world was not yet truly acquainted with Moore’s particular brand of dark, brilliant storytelling that enriched worlds even as it tore them to shreds. It would meet that Alan Moore in Captain Britain.

Captain Britain

The redesigned Captain Britain gets put through the Alan Moore wringer in this page from Marvel Super-Heroes #387, July 1982 (colorized version from the 2002 trade paperback collection © Marvel)

In his two year run on the title, Moore wrote 20 installments of the Captain Britain strip comprising a relatively concise 183 pages, all at the same time he was also producing the better-remembered early masterpieces V for Vendetta and Marvelman/Miracleman. But in that space Moore kicked over the traces and created one of the darkest, most epic superhero sagas I’ve ever read, the “Jaspers Warp” storyline. He started by killing Jackdaw for the second (and final) time. More importantly, he turned Sir Jim Jaspers from the relatively mundane criminal of Thorpe’s creation into Mad Jim Jaspers, a truly frightening figure whose campaign to outlaw superheroes combined with his mutant ability to alter reality and his descent into madness to make him, not just a villain, but a destructive force of nature. To implement his anti-hero agenda, Jaspers created the Fury, an unstoppable android killing machine that truly was unstoppable.

As much as I love superhero comics, I have to say that they’re often very comfortable to read, and that’s part of their appeal. But as Mad Jim Jaspers progressively imploded an entire reality, and Captain Britain grew increasingly ineffective in the face of the Fury’s onslaught, I was not comfortable. I didn’t know how it was going to end. I wasn’t sure the heroes were going to survive. Everything was uncertain and tense… and it was great.

(Side note: In the course of telling the Jaspers Warp story, Moore also pulled in a group of time-traveling alien mercenaries known as the Special Executive, which he’d created for his “Black Sun Rising” strip in Doctor Who Monthly in 1981—making what I believe might be the only official link between Doctor Who and the Marvel Universe.)

By the time the story wrapped up in the pages of The Mighty World of Marvel #13 (June 1984), the reading audience had been put through a wringer of suspense and drama, and I’ve never been able to figure out why this storyline isn’t better remembered among the likes of the Kree-Skrull War and the Infinity Gauntlet.

This retrospective is getting much longer than I thought it would, so I’ll save the rest of the story—Jamie Delano’s equally weird and excellent run on the post-Moore Captain Britain and how Claremont and Excalibur folded all this good stuff into the X-Men’s world for American audiences—for my next column.

Note: Sadly, it looks like the original trade paperback collecting Moore’s run is out of print, but this more recent collection may still be available. But however you go about it, I can unreservedly recommend getting your hands on this unique, landmark storyline.

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