Thursday, 16 July 2009

Comic Review: Captain Britain - Jasper's Warp


Captain Britain was in danger of becoming a failure during the early 1980s. His original series had never quite caught on, largely through a succession of disinterested American creative teams unwilling or unable to move beyond stereotypical British characters, dialogue and settings; the much-trumpeted original Captain Britain comic was cancelled within nine months. The strip itself staggered on for a while in Super Spider-Man and Captain Britain with constantly shifting groups of Marvel US jobbers making the thing before that title too folded, merging with another title but leaving Captain Britain out of print. Come the turn of the 1980s and Marvel UK were slowly warming to the idea of making their own material, thanks to the influence of Dez Skinn. This included a mythologically-flavoured Black Knight strip in Hulk Weekly that revived Brian as a co-star. The "Otherworld Saga" was acclaimed by fans but the UK comic market just couldn't support the book, and again cancellation came. Skinn persevered however and decided upon a headlining Captain Britain solo strip in Marvel Superheroes. Initially this was written by Dave Thorpe while a young Alan Davis took up pencilling duties. The strip was interesting and certainly benefited from a British creative team and some very fresh ideas but the writing was undisciplined the plot turned into a confusing mess. Marvel turned to Alan Moore, then still on the way up but firmly making a name for himself on Quality's Warrior title where he had started Marvelman and V for Vendetta, to sort the mess out.

And this is where the trade starts. It's slightly baffling to be dropped into a storyline that's close to completion but Moore is able to fit a fair amount of recapping and exposition into the short, sharp episodes without losing the forward momentum. His usual vivid prose in narration boxes is evident even here and works beautifully with the nightmarish opening chapters set on the parallel world gone bad. Saturnyne and the Avant Guard are swiftly moved onto the back burner and the Captain's sidekick Jackdaw is brutally killed. Now, at the time of writing I still haven't read the preceding non-Moore material so it's a sign of the writer's craft that the death of a character I've seen so little of can hit this hard. Brian Braddock is just the kind of character that brings the best out of Moore and for me the UK material from here to before the Captain moved over to Excalibur is the definite text on the character. Brian is powerful and well-meaning; he'll do anything he can to save someone but he's arrogant and over-confident. He misreads situations and makes spiteful thoughtless little comments like most people do. He's a believable superhero, a sane man in a world of madness, so when he screams "He was my only friend, and you killed him!" you can really feel the raw emotion whether you know much about Jackdaw or not. The other masterstroke in the writing is the Fury, an unstoppable cybiote killing machine. It's a little scary early on, defeating Captain Britain in four frames, killing Jackdaw within three pages and then doing the same to Brian by the second episode. It'll get even worse later on.

Moore uses the first two instalments to clear the decks with Saturnyne, the Fury and Jim Jaspers (who gives some general exposition to tie up the parallel world storyline) all put on hold and the lead character killed and regenerated. The latter is carried out by Merlin and Roma on Otherworld, and allows an episode to be devoted to recapping Captain Britain's origin and subsequent life story, which is hugely helpful even now due to all the out-of-print material it covers. It makes for an interesting read, and will also make you want to read all the other stuff. The following episode also serves as set-up, concerning Brian returning to Braddock Manor and a couple of old plot-threads are tied up at the same time as the character is given a base of operations. Writing this down it's all very functional-sounding, but this is also very good reading thanks to Moore's skills and his handle on the compelling lead character. We're also given hints that the parallel world's issues aren't dealt with, and will come back. Another joy of these early segments is the evolution of Davis' art, which starts off a little raw and indistinct (though fitting the Earth 238 storyline) and gradually becomes smoother. It never quite reaches the heights of his Excalibur material but it's still excellent stuff, especially as Moore's imagination grows and Davis continually matches the demands of his scripts.

The next arc reintroduces Brian's sister Betsy, now a telepath who has found out that S.T.R.I.K.E. (the British S.H.I.E.L.D, a remnant of the original Captain Britain series) is being controlled by crime-queen Vixen and now her and her friends are being killed by an assassin. She calls Brian for help and the assassin turns out to be an old-time foe, Slaymaster. I'm not sure what Slaymaster was like in his earlier appearances, but here he's a superb character, smooth, resourceful and professional. It's a superior little story, even if Moore overdoes a little of the dialogue in the comic shop (the Uncanny X-Men #137 comment always bugs me… not for anything to do with the comic, but because it's so clumsy…). It ends with an odd little page that reveals Arcade hired the Slaymaster on commission from Vixen which doesn't really go anywhere. All I can think of is that it's a red herring for the forthcoming Special Executive.

Ah, the Special Executive. This group feature in the next movement of the plot and an excellent bunch they are too. A group of mercenaries, only a handful get much characterisation, but those that do are excellent and they're certainly more threatening than their non-copyrighted successors, the Technet. The tetchy banter between the characters makes them more believable than most super-groups, and Wardog especially is simply superb; suave, capricious and ever so slightly camp. Saturnyne is reintroduced to the plot, and we get to see Brian's warmer side as he protests at here trial, despite being utterly out of his depth. The Omniverse court room brings out the best in Alan Davis, who starts having fun with analogues of Captain Britain and the aliens (the trial has a human commentator paired with a blob sidekick) but there's drama as well, such as Lord Mandragon's chilling elimination of the entire universe than holds the Earth 238 in order to stop the reality-warping mutant Jaspers from escaping. Alongside this the Fury is still ominously present, most notably when Linda McQuillan (Captain UK from Earth 238, who escaped to the world of Captain Britain) has a nightmare, recalling how easily the Fury destroyed the heroes of her world. As well as serving as a British comic fanboy's dream (the sequence features analogues of Marvelman, Robot Archie, Tim Kelly, General Jumbo and Young Marvelman, as well as mentions of analogues of The Spider, The Steel Claw, Dolmann and Garth) it's also a terrifying sequence showing just how insanely powerful the Fury is, while others emphasise its' determination to finish the job it started. It's powerful enough to be aware it didn't succeed in killing Captain Britain, and has the means to follow him. Moore also takes the opportunity to reintroduce Jaspers via his Earth 638 counterpart, who is starting the same crusade his counterpart did.

This all begins to dovetail together as Linda turns up at Braddock Manor, followed by the Fury, just as Jaspers begins to set off on the path to madness. The resulting all-up fight pitching Captain Britain and the Special Executive against the Fury is superb stuff, and the cybiote is shown to be insanely powerful - the combined forces against it merely manage to neutralise it, taking heavy casualties themselves. The Special exectuive's role in the book sadly comes to an end (thanks to the well-characterised Zeitgeist) and the plot moves to London, where Jaspers' reality-warping pwers are really coming to bear.

The final third of the book is the conclusion to the "Jasper's Warp" storyline, with reality constantly shifting and giving everything a nightmarish feeling. It's brilliant stuff with the Fury also in the mix (its' duel with Jaspers is fascinating), full of power and emotion. Tom's death is a startling little sequence, as is Saturnyne bringing the fight out of Linda, causing her to finally attack the Fury. There's no easy wrap-up, though - the heroes need the Fury to kill Jaspers and then need Linda to save Brian and finish the cyborg off. Jaspers is, for once, a believable insane man, totally off his rocker but not just laughing manically and his bizarre behaviour while fighting the Fury truly makes for an absurd but dramatic spectacle, once again something Alan Davis is equal to. It's sensational stuff.

The final chapter, concerning Merlin's funeral on Otherworld, is a slowly-paced wrap-up, more a showcase for Davis' imaginative Captain Britain analogues (Captain England, Captain Albion, Captain Airstrip One , Captain Commonwealth, Captain Angleterre, Captain Empire, Kommandant Englander...), and briefly recapping the fall-out from the Warp, leaving a clean late for anointed successor Jamie Delano.

While it's not as revolutionary as Watchmen, Miracleman or V for Vendetta, this remains an excellent piece of work, the UK format allowing it a staggering pace which really brings home the imagination and emotion. The plot just keeps on twisting, and yet nothing seems like a cheat and it fits together like a jigsaw. It's certainly very atypical of 1980s Marvel, being closer to Moore's later work than contemporary Marvel US material. Essential reading for anyone with an interest in Moore or Captain Britian, and stands up to repeated readings thanks to a vivid cast including, in the Fury, possibly the scariest thing in comics history.