June 18th, 2009
So the news about Captain Britain and MI-13 coming to an end hit just as I was halfway through a reread of the Alans Moore and Davis’s seminal run, and I’m left with the distinct feeling that had Cornell and Kirk engaged more closely with the question of haircuts that their tenure may have had more longeivity, or at least been more enjoyable from my own valuable perspective.
MI-13 never reached the heights of Cornell and Hairsine’s brilliant Wisdom mini. Even that series’ latter issues, the weaker ones, were comparable with MI-13 at its best. And Kirk’s art, sitting halfway between Mark Bagley and Brian Hitch, never rose above merely adequate. Perhaps if MI-13 hadn’t been creatively hobbled by a no doubt sales boosting tie in with Secret Invasion things would have been different; Perhaps if Cornell had opted/been permitted not to stretch the second arc to five increasingly tedious issues, and stuck to the snappy, smart high concept format which had worked so well for Wisdom I would be sad to see MI-13 end, but given that I’d just had the pleasure of wallowing in a youthful Moore’s kaleidoscopic take on the titular character I can’t say that the news bothered me overmuch. Yes it was half decent, yes it was one of the better books on the racks, yes I want to be a cheer leader for Cornell’s work because when it’s good it’s very good, but I know what I want to see in a comic featuring Captain Britain, and MI-13 wasn’t supplying it.
I want to see is a lot more of this…
Understood within the context of its time this haircut may or may not have been terrible – it’s hard to judge given that superhero comics have long rejected the tyranny of cool, hence mullets augmenting the head of every strong man late into the nineties. But if one were to suppose that Captain Britain’s adventures were all true, a la Morrison’s Batman, then when did he have that hair, two years ago? Five? Certainly not in era when it would have been endorsed by your local barber, let alone the hipster elite. But strikingly the search for a contemporary home for this kind of hair styling takes us immediately on to another kind of elite and Brian Braddock’s privileged background. I put it to you that what we have here is the kind of hair we would expect to find framing the toffy noses of the Bullingdon Club membership: not fashionable, no, but a marker of exclusivity nonetheless.
Bullingdon Club circa 1987. Trust me its members look exactly the same these days, only in colour and more annoying. Can you spot Boris and Dave?
I know Bradders is supposed to be from a fading aristocratic line, but let’s face it that still means he’s posh as absolute fuck. I get the impression from the Wikipedia entry that his background is an attempt to position him as someone who, despite the manor and the public school education and the blood stock, is something approaching a man of the people, a character who represents the fall of the landed gentry, and who can consequently understand the hard times that beset us all, while still retaining the sheen of Britain’s historic power. And that’s fine as far as it goes, the character needs a soft side, a uncomplicated way into his heroic status, but what interests me is the less positive baggage associated with privilege and how that might factor into our understanding of Britain’s most popular superhero.
On one hand it’s odd that Marvel haven’t done more with this stuff, after all they make it their business to brand themselves the home of the troubled hero; A toff setting out to save the proles would seem to fit the bill perfectly. On the other hand I suppose many American creators are simply unfamiliar with the many narratives bound up with the British class system, and have, quite rightly, opted to avoid going there. That’s not to say there haven’t been gestures in that direction. At the beginning of his run Brit scribe Jamie Delano has Cap sit down with a poor working class family and apologise for prioritising the needs of cosmic beings over the needs of the man on the street; a rather awkward attempt to bring a thin veneer of class consciousness to the book when one considers that Captain Britain had very good reasons for prioritising the needs of cosmic beings beyond their upper class allegorical status in that he was working with/against them in an effort to save the multiverse from destruction. Interestingly and almost certainly unintentionally Delano reinforces the more problematic dimensions of the relationship between the Captain and his down trodden chums by painting the mother as incredibly deferential to posh-boy Braddock, who, it turns out, was at best indirectly responsible for the death of one of her children.
Alan Davis, throughout his tenure on Excalibur, approached the class issue with a little more subtlety. By building on the character that Moore initially fleshed out, Davis was able to allude to a background of privilege without smashing us in the head with ill conceived attempts at class conscious storytelling (too often). Davis played up the character’s arrogance, his bull-headedness, his sense of entitlement (most notably in the love triangle between Meggan, Brian, and Courtney Ross), and, in common with Marvel’s other man of privilege, Tony Stark, his unhealthy lust for expensive booze. In short Davis had Captain Britain channel those personality flaws that we associate with the sterotypical upper class bore, while also allowing his heroic streak to shine through.
Despite the descent into cliche, it’s this vision of Captain Britain that I would like to see more of. I like the idea of a rude, conceited, hard drinking toff of a premier superhero, but, you know, with a vulnerable side. The concept is immediately fun and throws up a hundred ideas for amusing scenarios. Cornell’s close-cropped paragon of contemporary British virtue is frankly dull as dishwater, even if he upholds values like inclusivity and tolerance for which I have a great deal of time. I want to see a Captain Britain who wants to stand for those things but struggles to do so, whose aristocratic training gets in the way of his aspirations – a character at war with himself in an engaging and story generating way. His better nature should ultimately win out, of course – he’s a hero – but why not have him feel conflicted about aliens, and mutants, and, I dunno, foreigners? Why not have him, spurned in love, turn up to the occasional fight three sheets to the wind? The real beating coming not in the form of the Juggernaut’s fists, but in the self-loathing hell of the next day’s hangover. Davis’s Cap was a bull in a china a shop, always going in half cocked; an arrogant twit who frequently failed to navigate his emotions and the inevitable, and often physical, consequences, and I don’t see why that character shouldn’t be brought back, and in such a way that the pig-headed elements of personality meld more seamlessly with his class background.
Some of what I’m suggesting would at first glance seem to work against the studious loner Brain Braddock who is also evident in the character’s history, but again I want to reiterate that I’m focussing here on his negative qualities, and besides what happens to studious loners from a background of privilege and wealth when they get superpowers and labelled national heroes? Should it all turn out well? Would a person like that not have issues if one kind or another? Would they, for example, be good communicators? Would they be gifted at empathy? Would they be a fucking pain in the arse?
But going back to that Bullingdon hair for a moment, its juxtaposition with the Union Jack emblazoned costume can’t help but bring to mind particular kinds of British patriotic narratives: at it’s best it summons visions of old fashioned One Nation toryism (still alive and well in the 70s when Captain Britain was created, before Thatcher killed it stone dead with her consumer orientated brand of individualism), at it’s worst fever dreams of Empire. I don’t think for a second that Braddock should somehow embody the spirit of either of those things – when push comes to shove he should be just as ready to rescue a werewolf as he would a man – but I can imagine the character romanticising Britain’s empireal past, and cleaving very loosely to an anachronistic One Nation viewpoint.
My reasons for this particular take on the character do, as a matter of fact, find their roots somewhere other than hairstyles. In binding together super strength; super endurance; masculinity; class, economic and racial privilege; and the British flag it’s hard not to read Captain Britain as representing a particular kind of cultural unity*. In fact the idea of cultural unity fullstop when juxtaposed with more nuanced conceptions of nationhood and culture is problematic. How do subcultures and multiculturalism fit into this picture, let alone multi-ethnicity? One Nation toryism with its mono-cultural ideals would seem the natural fit for this kind of semantic set-up.
*It’s probably worth reminding our American chums that Britain, or the United Kingdom if you prefer, is made up of 4 countries: Engalnd, Scotland, (a large slice of Northern) Ireland, and Wales. And that this gathering of nations was largely brought about by the use of force on behalf of the English. [Edit: see the comment below to find out exactly how wrong I am]
What was particularly enjoyable about Moore’s run – or should I say one of the many particularly enjoyable things about Moore’s run – was the way in which he deconstructed notions of Britain as a unified mono-culture, both by toying with the fictional social landscape, and the character of Captain Britain himself. To begin with his Britain was inherently untrustworthy and unfinished, riven by secret organisations and agendas from within – Vixen, Strike, Jim Jaspers – and constantly under threat from, and altered by, alien agendas and forces from without – Saturnyne and her Status Crew, the Special Executive, the forces of the Multiversal Court, The Fury. Yes he gave in to some slightly dodgy sterotypes in the form of Slaymaster (I fucking love Slaymaster!), a rather too obvious example of the foreign Other, but on the whole his Britain is a place in profound flux that sits very uncomfortably next to the red white and blue certainties of Brian Braddock’s costume and bouffon. By introducing the multiversal element and the Captain Britain Corps Moore pulled the rug out from under our feet and revealed that there is no solid ground, no one kind of Britain, no one true Captain. In fact Moore even went as far as to disallow universal ethical standards with the introduction of a fascist Captain Britain analogue who we are not invited to judge. Later, when the Jasper’s Warp has all but consumed the universe, and chaos reins supreme and all notion of nationhood, culture and identity are literally up for grabs the best Braddock can hope for is a return to a stable multiversal order, (Captain) Britain as a unified whole or idealised space was never on the table.
What Moore consciously or instinctively understood is that the tension between the slightly absurd set of connotations embodied by the concept of Captain Britain, and the deconstructed and bizzare environments and characters of his story were where the magic happened. So much of the run’s humour, so much of its horror, so much of its intimacy stem from the juxtaposition of these elements. Take Cap’s final stand against the Mad Jim Jaspers, for instance. As I’ve already mentioned, the script up to that point has worked hard to undermine the notion of Captain Britain as an uncomplicatedly British saviour* there’s no doubting that you want him to save his mortally wounded nation from the bizarre and lethal predations of Jim Jasper’s and his unstoppable creation, The Fury. The fact that Cap wears the flag, the sheer unbridled quixotic hopefulness of the symbolism in play lends considerable emotional energy to the scene because Jaspers is the void, he stands for chaos and ultimately nothingness. Any symbolism, any at all, even when exposed as fundamentally lacking, somehow appeals in the face of the kind of existential nightmare represented by Jaspers.
*It’s worth noting that Moore, while playing up the ridiculousness of the idea was simultaneously giving it a peculiar kind of weight. The Captain Britain Corps is utterly silly, and yet the fact that the Multiverse *has* a Captain Britain Corps in the first place lends a strange brand of gravitas.
Of course this look into Captain Britain’s world wouldn’t be complete without some discussion of his foes. For my money Brian Braddock’s rogue’s gallery is, without a doubt, second only to Batman’s in terms of what I look for in supervillains. It has it all, colourful themed baddies like Arcade and Vixen (think Thatcher reimagined as a sleazy, criminal mastermind, on, as they say, crack); anti-batmanesque bad asses like Slaymaster; psychedelic loons like the Crazy Gang and Mad Jim; megalomaniacs like Saturnyne, hordes of super-powered alien bizzaroids: Gatecrasher’s Technet, the Special Executive, the forces of the Omniversal Court, the War Wolves; and one truly terrifying unstoppable horror, the prototype for the Terminator and Doomsday, The Fury. Between them, these villains tap into rich veins of British cultural life, and to do them justice would really demand a whole series of posts. Needless to say, I’d be loathe to Rogue’s Review many of them because I feel that they’ve already lived up to their potential, or at least I’ve seen from them what I wanted to see. Alan Moore has a way of doing that. I know that The Fury is one of the most awesome villains I’ve ever come across not because that’s how I imagine him to be, but because Moore and Davis built him that way. My love for War Dog’s Special Executive hasn’t got anything to do with potential and everything to do with the ways in which Moore and Davis handled them, rubbing their balls out berserkness up against parochial British culture, humanity and ritual (there’s a panel review waiting in the wings!).
Ah, time is getting on. I’m going on a stag weekend in France in approximately seven hours and I need to go to bed, but I still have so much to say. If I have to sum up my thoughts I want to stress that perhaps the Captain Britain that I want to see simply wouldn’t work in the current market. It would necessarily be a book with a British focus, with a British audience in mind. It would play with cultural seams that many Americans would likely be unfamiliar with, and possibly be alienated by. It would tap into our rich history of surreal humour and our very own brand of psychedelia, it would feature lots of characters most readers would never have heard of and feature a lead character who would often be hard to like, just like that bloody hair. But most importantly, most importantly I wonder if we haven’t seen Captain Britain at his best in the form of Moore and Davis’s stab. The prose was purple and plentiful, for sure, but that’s still one bloody entertaining, sophisticated bunch of comic books.
Perhaps only Alan Moore can make you care about something as stupid as Great Britain and its Captain and that hair. Perhaps we shouldn’t blame Cornell.