Saturday, 14 March 2009

Comic Review: Captain Britain - The Crooked World

PUBLISHER: MARVEL UK, 1981-1982
WRITERS: DAVE THORPE, PAUL NEARY
ARTIST: ALAN DAVIS

Dave Thorpe's run on Captain Britain doesn't get a lot of good press, and in some ways, it's easy to see why. The strips were omitted from the Alan Moore/Alan Davis TPB despite their close connection and received wisdom goes along the lines that Thorpe's writing was so muddled and poor that Dez Skinn had to cancel one of Marvel UK's longest-running titles and bring in another writer in some attempt to sort the mess out. This isn't quite fair. Thorpe does display a lack of discipline and he's certainly not on the level of Moore, but the issues aren't especially confusing. That said having read the Moore material (which does give a more clear explanation for some of the events of Thorpe's run) so many times that it's hard to perceive what many readers found to be so baffling.

There is certainly an odd feel to much of the narrative, especially in the dialogue. It may be the direct comparison to the charged Moore stories but the whole thing is surprisingly emotionless. This especially comes from Brian, who just tends to narrate events without much reaction, not showing much despair when he finds out Merlin has sent him to a parallel Earth - though the most notable juxtaposition comes from the 'death' of Jackdaw. When the elf is killed in Moore's second instalment despite the character being an unknown to me on first reading it's still a powerful sequence. When he seemingly dies at the hands of the Status Crew here it isn't and Captain Britain barely reacts, despite having no clue that Jackdaw has in fact escaped. It also doesn't help that once we've seen more of him Jackdaw is a deeply irritating character, less a noble Elvin sidekick and more of an annoying piece of useless comic relief.

There are a few other jarring changes beyond the characterisation of Captain Britain when you read this stuff in the wrong order (after Moore/Delano/Excalibur), though these are more niggles. Saturnyne (initially spelt Satirnyne) seems to speak with a Texas accent initially (which doesn't gel with the suave character later shown) while Captain UK is briefly mentioned as being male (quite why this wasn't altered for the X-Men Archives reprint I don't know).

Some of the narrative is badly paced. Mad Jim Jaspers, for example, meets the Captain almost immediately but seems nothing more than a crazed bank-robber (backed up by the interesting prototype version of the Crazy Gang). Then suddenly on the last page of Thorpe's run, Jaspers is almost casually dropped in as causing the world to go insane (it wasn't until Moore came along that the character being a reality-warping mutant is actually explained, though to be fair this could have been what Thorpe was going to do next as well). Again, this makes sense, but probably largely because I, for one, have already read the following material, and was probably a curveball at the time. Elsewhere, an entire chapter is devoted to the augmented rat Algernon who then disappears without having any great bearing on the plot, and leaving some frustratingly unanswered questions as to whether Jackdaw does indeed know him from somewhere or is just being a pain. Again, it feels a little churlish to criticise this as Thorpe was removed from the series prematurely, his plans changed and compacted by Moore, but at the same time Algernon occupies the fifth of Thorpe's ten strips and there's no sign of him coming back into the mix in any form.

The storyline just lacks a bit of coherence. While the idea that Captain Britain and Jackdaw are kept off-balance by a relentless barrage of strange happenings is laudable, the narrative does just seem to lurch from one foe to another. That said there are some terrific ideas on display here. We're introduced to the multiverse concept that would run throughout the Captain's adventures and the whole idea of the push (advancing this alternate Earth because it's holding back its' neighbours) is excellent stuff. Similarly - while it does use the opt-out of a parallel world - that a Marvel superhero would be involved in something of this scale is groundbreaking. The nightmarish Earth is sketched well with the National Front in command of an unhappy England littered with slums, unrest and the destitute while the illegality of superheroes is subtly nuanced rather than explicitly stated, which adds to the creeping feeling of dread that permeates the world.

There is a sense of character overload with Mad Jim Jaspers, the Crazy Gang, the junkyard thing, Algernon, Saturnyne, Dimples, the Avant Guard and the Status Crew all thrown in rapidly. This considered they all do rather well. While Mad Jim isn't particularly dangerous at this point both he and the Crazy Gang are entertainingly bizarre. The latter, for this appearance only, feature a pair of magicians with wand-shaped guns, and the Jack of Hearts (no, not that one) in place of the Knave who would later become common as well as flying teapot pilot Dormouse - this is a different Gang to those later created by 'our' Jaspers for the rest of their appearances. The junkyard thing is actually a very good monster, if a little derivative of Master Mold, and serves up an exciting couple of episodes, even if it serves to muddle what exactly the life-enhancing fluid is capable of. Algernon is well sketched, but is ultimately frustrating due to the lack of explanation. Is he Seamus of the Green Knights? Where does he get his dapper clothes? Beyond their odd dress code and powers, there isn't much to the Avant Guard either, though their surly behaviour contrasts nicely with their appearance. Saturnyne is more abrasive than she would later become, lacking a certain measure of dignity and arrogance, but this aside her personality comes across nicely. Stripped of the Fury (which would come with Moore) the Status Crew aren't massively impressive, beyond their cool analysis of the Captain's powers ('killing' Jackdaw isn't especially hardcore). Considering the break-neck pace we learn enough about these characters, though as mentioned above, the way Jaspers drops completely out of the plot and then reappears feels a bit deus ex machina (as does, to be blunt, the idea of the life-enhancing fluid, the effects of which tend to subtly vary to suit the plot - it can evolve rats, make Captain Britain stronger, or calm down mobs).


There is a lot of good stuff in here but it's all very muddled, showing Thorpe's inexperience. Alan Davis' art is often very good, but a bit scratchy and low on detail (although this does suit the bleak alternate world) and he's yet to learn how to get the best out of the space allowed to him by the short, sharp episodes. The new costume design, though, is fantastic - so much better than the replacement later brought in during Excalibur.
 

It's difficult to evaluate this run, however, as it is basically abortive and we've really got little idea where Thorpe was planning to take things (the final instalment, "If The Push Should Fail", has a distinct air of "Dave, tie as much as you can tied up this week, we're bringing in someone else next issue" to it). However, it's certainly interesting, if a little disengaging at times and certainly better than its' reputation. If you're expecting something of a Jasper's Warp-level of intensity or coherence, you'll be disappointed, and you can probably live without this, but for those interested in Captain Britain, these stories are worth reading (and certainly better than the 1970s US-written material).

Comic Review: 2000AD Action Special

PUBLISHER: FLEETWAY, 1992
WRITERS: PETER HOGAN, JOHN TOMLINSON, ALAN MCKENZIE, SI SPENCER, MARK MILLAR, JOHN SMITH
ARTISTS: SEAN PHILLIPS, JIM BLAIKIE, BRETT EWINS, SHAKY KANE, JOHN HIGGINS, DAVID HINE, JOHN BURNS

I thought long and hard about actually getting this, considering I've seen it described as an atrocity. But a cheap copy came up, and I thought "How bad can it be?". One question that always springs to mind when you read these things is why exactly writers bother bringing back characters if they're going to totally change them... In this way, this thing's a decade ahead of its' time, foreshadowing the damage Marvel and others would do to their characters around the turn of the 21st Century.

The best episode is probably the 'Cursitor Doom' story. It's a little predictable, but true to what I've read of the original, and it is pretty neat on the first read as all the pieces slot into place. Doom is an interesting character and the contemporary framing against a television charlatan works really well. The Cursitor is kept as he was in the 1970s, and the result is a great story, with competent, if unspectacular, art by Jim Blaikie.

The 'Steel Claw' episode pours on the "adult" and "cynical" portions in great big ladles, but it's actually a pretty logical update, with a world-weary Louis Crandell growing into his job as a government assassin. It's not exactly faithful per se, but it fits in with the shades of grey shown in Crandell's character. Sean Phillips' painted art is beautiful too and perfectly fits the mood of the piece.

Another logical extrapolation is the 'Kelly's Eye' strip, which sees Tim under experimentation in a future, totalitarian Britain (the character would spin off into 2000AD's 'Universal Soldier' strip). While the eye of Zoltec is now part of Tim this makes sense, as does it lending him longevity, and it means an end to all those bloody stories where Kelly's placed in danger because the Eye he insists on wearing on a thin chain around his neck threatens to fall off. It's a bit bland and some sections don't make much sense (the superhuman nurses are a bit out of nowhere) but it hangs together just about. The premise also roughly pre-empts Albion (superhero captured so the government can exploit his powers).

2000AD's own Doctor Sin makes an appearance too. The strip's basically a cross between Doctor Strange and Hammer horror (you'll have to forgive me, I haven't read any of his other adventures) and it's fun in a hammy Hammer way. John Burns' artwork is simply beautiful, and Smith's script is full of wonderfully over-the-top language. The best bit is the Doctor is plainly out of his tree, and with his enemy basically being a possessed piece of dough it's difficult to see whether this one is tongue in cheek or not. Either way, it's diverting.

The Mytek strip is about... Oh, God only knows. I've only read a couple of 'Mytek the Mighty' strips, but this is a mess. I think it's something about Apartheid and colonialism and some toss with some Oppressive Bastards using a Mytek knockoff to keep The Man in power, but thankfully they shoot a monkey and this brings back the real Mytek, who wins. It's an absolute bloody mess, and why Si Spencer couldn't make up his own character for this piece of nonsense I don't know, as it certainly doesn't have much to do with the original Mytek.

The same can be said for Mark Millar's defiling of The Spider. This portrays the character as an insane cannibal who keeps the bodies of his victims in an underground station. As obviously signposted by the character's previous appearances (just like Jack Hawksmoor's God-complex was evident in early Authority, and didn't at come from out of Millar's arse, nosiree). Still, top marks for not just combining the Joker and Kid Miracleman. Oh, he did (most notably, the sequence where the Spider kills his psychiatrist, which is a straight rip-off - sorry, homage - to Kid Miracleman killing the nurse Annie in Miracleman #14). It's a total bloody mess, raping the character and not even getting a good story out of it. Adding to the feel that this is a hotchpotch of several other comics with the gore turned up, Higgins & Hine conspire to make the Spider look just like Namor. A horrible piece of work.
So this leaves us with four good strips, and two bad ones. But, to be honest, the good strips aren't that good - some originals will be much more satisfying and the Cursitor Doom strip especially while interesting is nothing spectacular. The new Steel Claw lacks substance, feeling like a preview of a series which never happened, while the Kelly's Eye story doesn't tempt me into tracking down Universal Soldier. Doctor Sin is fairly disposable, too. And the two bad stories? They're really, really bad, too bad to even be considered as a curiosity.