Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Captain Britain made me who I am today .. sort of...

Written the other night and cross posted to the FPI blog:

Originally this article was going to be a quick review of Paul Cornell’s new comic, Captain Britain and MI13. I was going to compare Paul’s comic with the Captain Britain I remembered from my childhood and adolescence. But as I started looking back over old Captain Britains the review became more of a retrospective nostalgia trip.

In fact, the review doesn’t even appear here (stay tuned for it) as I thought it would just get lost amongst the rose tinted look back on the comic that got me where I am today…

I’m certain that some comics from your childhood will stay with you no matter what and years down the line you’ll still remember every moment, every panel, even when you can’t remember your own birthday. For example I shall always carry a torch for the Chris Claremont & Paul Smith era X-Men and the multiple issues of Power-Man & Iron Fist from Preedy’s that my mom brought back to my sick-bed during a nasty bout of flu. This sort of nostalgic love is without reason, all it needs is that you read something at precisely the perfect moment and it shall be locked in your memory forever.

But the very first time this happened to me, my first moment of blissful comics nirvana was with Captain Britain:

(Cover to Marvel Superheroes 377, September 1981. Art by Alan Davis, from his website. Sadly not the cover to #388, which was my first ever Alan Moore/ Captain Britain comic.)

Captain Britain is the superhero I was in absolutely the perfect place at the right time to really get into. When I was but a young thing all I knew was that comics came from the newsagent. I used to get issues of Hulk Weekly, Captain America Weekly, Spider-Man Weekly every so often but never particularly fanatically.

As I recall, it was summer 1982 and I was on one of those magical childhood holidays that we always remember - nothing but sun, sea and sand, no boredom, no arguing, ice-cream, toy soldiers and comic books all week - or at least that’s how I see it now.

I pick up a copy of Marvel Superheroes 388 from some beachside newsagent.

I can pretty categorically state that this one issue changed my life.

Marvel Superheroes 388 was the first time I’d ever read anything by Alan Moore. It started with a terrifying, unstoppable killing machine, a madman with a new hat each panel and a hero quite understandably beginning to lose his grip on reality. Within 5 short pages Moore had introduced me to some wonderful characters and finished the strip with the brutal execution of the title character:

captan britain 7.jpg

(11 pages into his writing run on Captain Britain and Moore decides a good execution of the title character by a homicidal killing machine is needed. From Marvel Superheroes 388, cover dated August 1982. Art by Alan Davis from Uncanny X-Men.net)

Bloody hell thought young me, this is different, this is amazing. This sort of stuff never happens in the comics I normally read. And I was hooked from that moment on. I went away and over the next few months I spent all my pocket money on back issues and devoured the lot. Of course, the fact that Alan Moore only wrote the last 11 pages of the Captain Britain series in Marvel Superheroes almost didn’t matter. At this point I was just in love with the character anyway.

But it was because of that one comic that I was introduced to Warrior magazine, V For Vendetta, Marvelman/Miracleman and many more in a search for more Alan Moore. But perhaps most importantly, because I went looking for back issues of Marvel Superheroes I found out from the classified ads that there were such amazing things as comic shops. And from there I discovered Nostalgia & Comics. That, as they say, is another story (a story told here).

But it’s certainly fair to say that without Marvel Superheroes 388 and Alan Moore and Captain Britain I may not have had the same love for comics I have now. Who knows how it may have turned out?

Just for completeness and a little history; Captain Britain was originally a standard Marvel superhero created by Marvel US specifically to sell here. It wasn’t great, but I know a lot of people who loved it - maybe it was another case of right comic at the right time again?

Following the small revolution in thinking that went on at Marvel UK in the early 80s and under the editorship of first Dez Skinn and later Paul Neary, the rebirth of Captain Britain went ahead. Dave Thorpe was the original writer of the series and it was his work I read in those much loved (and lost) back issues until he was replaced by Alan Moore. On his very first page, Moore completely altered the series, shifting what had been a very good series into something very special. In the 11 pages of his Marvel Superheroes Captain Britain he altered reality, introduced two classic villains in Jim Jaspers and the Fury, destroyed a world and executed the sidekick and then the title character:

captain britain 5.jpg

(Alan Moore’s first page on Captain Britain, everything goes wrong. From Marvel Superheroes issue 386, 1982. Art by Alan Davis from Uncanny X-Men.net)

And it just got better from there. Every episode was special, eagerly awaited and much loved. Over the years the Alan Moore / Alan Davis Captain Britain stories hopped from comic to comic as titles started, merged and folded into others. From Marvel Superheroes to the Daredevils and then onto Mighty World Of Marvel. In 1984 Moore left after finishing his big storyline and it was down to Alan Davis (later with Jamie Delano) to carry on the Captain Britain tale in his own comic. And whilst Davis & Delano did a good job it was never in the same league as Moore & Davis. The spark of genius had gone and we were left with just a thoroughly entertaining British superhero. But like all the attempts before, the sales just weren’t enough to keep the title going and the idea of a Marvel UK version of Captain Britain ended with issue 14 of Captain Britain.

dd1.jpg The_Fury small.jpg

CapMWOM12 small.jpg captain britain 1 small.jpg

(Various Captain Britain comics. Daredevils #1 (Jan 1983), Daredevils # 11 (Nov 1983), Mighty World Of Marvel # 15 (May 1984), Captain Britain # 1 (Jan 1985). Together with Marvel Superheroes that made it 5 titles in 5 years. All art Alan Davis.)

After that final Captain Britain comic finished I waited around until something was done with the character again, hoping for more of the same, yet knowing, in my slightly older wisdom, that what had gone before was pretty much unique. And sadly, I was right, as Alan Davis joined with Chris Claremont for Excaliber and Captain Britain was rolled into the huge, ever-growing, continuity nightmare that is the Marvel Universe. Effectively from this point on I had no interest in the character at all. His story ended for me with that final issue of Captain Britain.

I reread the Alan Moore / Alan Davis collection recently and I have to say it holds up pretty well. I’m sure some of this is just a sense of wonderful nostalgia, much the same as I’m having now typing this and hunting down images to use for this article. But I’m also pretty sure that a lot of it is the skill of both writer and artist coming together and creating something very special, completely unencumbered by the weight of all that crappy continuity usually associated with Marvel Comics.


(From Daredevils # 9. Two panels showing James Jaspers of Captain Britain’s Earth declaring war on superhumans, just like he had previously on the Earth of Captain UK. Multiverses, the politics of genocide, concentration camps for heroes - not something you were getting in Spider-Man at the time. Art by Alan Davis, from Uncanny X-Men.net)

Obviously Alan Moore was using a lot of the concepts and ideas on plotting, story and themes that we’d see in later works, but at the time it was wonderfully original, particularly to the young me. Tales of multiverses, the multiple Captain Britains, the Special Executive, the Fury, the facist state under Jim Jaspers, persecution of the heroes, dark political times and the sense of something different to standard superhero fare were completely intoxicating at the time.

And after all of these years, although the idea may not be so original anymore, the whole thing still entertains and is still a perfect example of a really entertaining, perfect superhero tale. I’ll always hold it up as something special, not least because of it’s importance in getting me fully into comics.
A quick overview of the individual issues goes:

First Captain Britain (the red costumed version):
Reprints found in two volumes so far; Birth of a Legend & Hero Reborn.

Modern Captain Britain (My Captain Britain):
Marvel Superheroes, #377-388
The Daredevils, #1-11 -
The Mighty World Of Marvel, volume 2, #7-16
Captain Britain Monthly, #1-14

CaptainBritainVolume 2 small.jpg Captain Britain vol 1.jpg

(Captain Britain Volume 1 on the left and Volume 2 on the right. Confusingly they published Volume 2 first. Volume 1 is the essential Moore & Davis volume)

There are two collections of the modern Captain Britain:
Volume 1 (2002): Marvel Superheroes 387 & 388, Daredevils 1-11 & MWOM 7-13 - Alan Moore / Alan Davis.
Volume 2 (1988): MWOM 14-16 and Captain Britain 1-14 - Alan Davis / Jamie Delano.

A very good plot summary over at Uncanny X-Men.net.
Alan Davis’ website is a source of invaluable dates and facts for this article.

And finally a little request. If anyone has a copy of Marvel Superheroes 388, I’d love to get a scan of the cover and bits of the inside, just for the lovely warm and fuzzy feeling I know it will produce. Just email the blog if you could help me out. Thanks.


  1. You're absolutely right - spot on little article. I read the Moore stuff in photocopied pages, passed around samizdat-style, because even a year or two after they came out, they were impossible to find growing up in Cumbria. While the Claremont/Davis Excalibur stuff never really recaptured the spirit of the Captain, I thought Davis' later run on the title (without Claremont, and marred by copious fill-ins) was as close as we're likely to get. Am looking forward to the new series but am, um, waiting for the trade...

  2. Dude, I totally want to read this, but the black writing on black background makes it basically indecipherable.