Thursday, 16 July 2009

Comic Review: Captain Britain - Jasper's Warp

PUBLISHER: MARVEL UK (1982-1984)
WRITER: ALAN MOORE
ARTIST: ALAN DAVIS

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.

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.