Monday, 3 March 2008

Understanding Captain Britain: The Basics.

Let me start by saying that this article has been in the pipeline for quite some time... ;D

As you can probably imagine, I receive a fair few emails from people visiting this blog, asking for more information about all things Marvel UK. I'm more than happy to oblige. But of all the requests for more information one character gets more than all the rest put together.

That character is Captain Britain.

Some people love him, and just want to know more. Some people find him confusing, and just want thinks clarified. I can understand that. There was a time when I was a little befuddled by it all myself. But as I always try to point out to people, it isn't actually as complicated as it might first seem. It's just a case of finding the right place to jump on board. The problem with Cap, is that those places are harder to come by than many characters...

Captain Britain was the first official Marvel UK superhero to be given his own series. He's the longest printed M:UK property, and one of the rare few to have properly survived into the present day. And yet, sadly, the larger part of Captain Britain's early continuity - the parts which really formed the character - have never been reprinted. Panini have reprinted most of his first solo run (ISBN-10: 1905239300, ISBN-10: 1905239726), Marvel US have put out the Alan Moore/Alan Davis stuff out (ISBN-10: 0785108556), and if you trawl eBay you'll be able to find the Jamie Delano/Alan Davis run (ISBN-10: 1854000209) - which was traded in the UK to coincide with the launch of the original Excalibur. But the larger part of the meat and potatoes of Brian Braddock's history has remained unseen by a good many readers in the UK - and was never printed at all in America. It is perhaps for this reason that a number of American writers in particular have had trouble writing for Cap - understanding who and what he is, and finding a way to best use him.

In the last few months a fair bit has been happening in the good Captain's life. New Excalibur came to a close, spilling into a mythos-changing mini-series (The oddly titled X-Men: Die by the Sword), and of course the announcement that the first Marvel title in twenty years to bear his name (Captain Britain and MI:13) will be released in May. With regards to the first two of those events, in particular, I know that a lot of people have not been left very happy. I know this because they've told me via email, or via the message boards I visit, as to exactly why they feel that way.

As the Die by the Sword mini ended I had several people contact me, asking me to make some kind of statement on it. I even received one request to start some kind of odd online petition against it. At the time I just resisted in getting involved. I did that because I felt that a lot of hate was being generated, back then, and it was almost exclusively being directed in one specific direction - the writer. People were quite extreme about it all, and while that tension was running high I felt that the one thing the internet did not need was another site to fill up with the kind of online comments those conditions almost inevitably produce; Which unfortunately tends to be ill thought through personal attacks rather than reasoned arguments.

We're a couple of months on, now, and I'd like to hope that the dust has now settled enough for me to talk about rationally on the subject of Cap without stirring that backlash back up.

I would hope so, because I like talking about Brian. I've always felt him to be a much more complex character than a lot of people give him credit for, and after following his adventures for the larger part of my own life, I've come to gather a lot of thoughts on the matter. I can't share them all in one blog here, so I'm going to try and spread them out a bit, over the coming weeks. I think that Captain Britain is a winning character; and I'd like to explain why.

Today I'm going to be talking about the basics of Captain Britain. The basic rules of his mythos, as it stands, how they work, and how they came about. And in order to understand that we do need to go into that incredibly nerdy territory of continuity.

Now, I don't believe that past continuity is the be all and end all of comics. I don't believe that a writer must constantly reference past stories in every piece of new material written. That's just plain daft. There are plenty of occasions where the past must be referenced, just in terms of logic, but often it simply isn't relevant to reference decade’s old stories when writing new ones. In real life, when I am experiencing something I don't decide to externally monologue every previous experience in my past, to my girlfriend or to random passers by, which was similar to it. Why should a comic book character?

As far as I'm concerned what is more important is the quality of the story itself - how it is constructed, where it leads the characters, what it says to the reader about them and their world, and what impact it might have upon them and the others around them. That's storytelling.

However, that said, there are certain past stories for every character which will always be incredibly important to them. Sometimes these are individual stories which really show us the essence of the character; sometimes they are events which have changed the character's perspective, forever. Sometimes they are even stories which bring loose-end plots and concepts to a close, from years ago, in a manner which makes them into a much larger, closed story. And often that kind of story can change everything the reader thought that they knew about the character.

Those kinds of story really do need to be respected by any new writer, because they are the stories which people will always remember and associate with the character ahead of any new material. It's a very tricky balance to have to strike.

I'm not going to pretend, however, that Captain Britain was ever intended to be high-brow literature. The character as he is now has changed a hell of a lot since his beginnings in the 70s, and suggesting that there was some kind of overall plan of a long running story for the character, from the very beginning would be a little bit laughable. That has of course changed over time, but that's the wonder of adding new concepts in to later continuity...

While costumes and haircuts may have changed the root story of Captain Britain has remained the same - a man plucked from obscurity at the hour of his death by Celtic Gods, and offered the chance to be reborn as a champion for nation of Britain. He is asked to make a choice between two sacred symbols - the Sword of Might and Amulet of Right - which will define which path his life will take. He is then given the powers necessary to do the job.

This story has been retold several times, but the basics have always remained true. Of course, Captain Britain as he was conceived by Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe was very different to the character we know today. The original Cap had a hell of a lot more in common with Spider-man than he did with the Superman-esque powerhouse we have these days. Brian Braddock could not fly, for one. In the later days of his original incarnation he was given a magic sceptre - which allowed him a limited ability to hover, but that was about it. Instead he had a staff, with which he could pole vault from building top to building top. Brian Braddock's original superhuman athletic build allowed for that, and made for a very natural pairing with Peter Parker in Brian's US debut, in Marvel Team-Up #65.

He did still have access to a force-field, with which he could protect himself - but that was activated by a button on his staff, and then projected from it. He also wore the Amulet of Right, at all times, with which he was able to spark his metamorphosis from civvies to full costume, with a simple touch.

These were simpler times.

But while the initial Claremont and Trimpe issues of Captain Britain may have set up the basics of the character, his environment and supporting cast (The family estate of Braddock Manor, siblings Jamie and Betsy, nemesis police officer Dai Thomas) they are in many ways about as representative of the bigger picture of Captain Britain as, I dunno, summing up Captain America as a 'Superhero from World War 2'. It's only part of the picture.

The Captain Britain mythos has become a much bigger entity - Something which is actually of a greater importance not just to Marvel UK (not even to Marvel US) but to the whole Marvel Omniverse. And this is perhaps where people start to get a little confused. It all really began when Brian found out that he was not the only Captain Britain.

After the classic Steve Parkhouse/Steve Dillon Captain Britain and the Black Knight strips in the UK Hulk Comic (Probably the most regrettable never reprinted material) Cap was passed into the creative hands of Dave Thorpe and Alan Davis, which was the beginning of the transformation into the character we see in Marvel comics today.

The Davis redesign removed the Amulet and the Sceptre, and amalgamated them into the masked, gloved and booted costume which has survived the passage time - with some subtle adjustments - to the present day. Cap was now capable of unaided flight, and that force-field was now a natural automated quality of the costume itself. No more buttons, no more implausible staff projections.

This costume change happened literally in the first panels of the new creative reign (Which would shortly pass out of Thorpe's hands and into those of Alan Moore) as Merlyn and Arthur sent Cap away from Otherworld and back to Earth. Only, as Brian and his companion Jackdaw (An Otherworld native and Elf), quickly discovered this was not their Earth. It was an alternate dimension's planet Earth which became colloquially referred to as 'The Crooked Earth' - or for the pedants out there who prefer the Marvel Omniverse numbering 'Earth 238'. It was here that Cap first encountered one Opal Luna Saturnyne of the Dimensional Development Court.

The Dimensional Development Court's job was basically to keep an eye on every conceivable alternate universe and check that the Earth of that world was ticking over properly, evolving correctly, and generally not getting above (or below) its station. Earth 238 had been underperforming, and therefore they had come to give it a little evolutionary 'push' towards where it could be.

Of course, they had kind of underestimated that Earth. While many species were underperforming, by their criteria, there was one human mutant there who was very definitely over performing - one 'Mad' Jim Jaspers. That costly mistake resulted in the termination of the whole dimension, in Alan Moore's 'The Jaspers Warp' storyline. But I'll come back to that in a later part.

Anyway, after encountering Saturnyne Brian began to find out all sorts of thing which he didn't know. For one, Earth 238 may have had most of its heroes put to death by a totalitarian government. But they did have their own Captain Britain. Her name was Linda McQuillan, ad she went by the moniker of Captain UK. She too had been offered the same choice Brian had (Sword or Amulet).

And she wasn't the only one. There were a whole Corps of Captains - one for every conceivable Britain in Multiverse. And so began the reshaping of the whole of Captain Britain's mythos.

I know it might sound a little daunting, but I thought I'd sign off from this first entry on the Captain, by breaking down way things work into an easy to understand form.

So, there's this place called 'Otherworld'. Cap and the Black Knight spent a fair bit of time working around it in Hulk Comic, and it's the place from which Merlyn, Roma and even Brian's father (Sir James Braddock) come from. But what is it?

Well, Otherworld is kind of like a strange bubble of logic, floating on the edge of every alternate dimension in the Marvel Omniverse. It's a dimension within its own right, but it borders reality with every other universe which exists in Marvel Comics. And it just so happens that the point on the physical map, at which it intersects with each world, is right on top of the Country of Great Britain.

Otherworld is strange place to visit. It's a transient place, a creative dreamscape, physically shaped through the collective consciousness of every man, woman and child of every Britain it borders with. They influence it, and in return it influences them - through myths, legends, and magic. Imagine a realm where every conceivable folk tale is 100% real. That's the landscape of Otherworld. It's a strange symbiotic kind of arrangement, in which nobody is quite sure which is influencing which the most, or which came first; a real Chicken or Egg style paradox.

Otherworld is also the home of the Omniversal Guardian. It is their job to oversee every universe in the Omniverse, to watch them grow and to keep them in order. They are effectively the overseer of everything Marvel (Even though many people do not acknowledge them as such, these days).

We cannot be 100% certain that he was the first Guardian, but certainly at the earliest point we know of, the 'God-Wizard' Merlyn was the Guardian, assisted by his daughter Roma - Lady of the Northern Skies. It was established that this is the same Merlyn which appeared in the Court of King Arthur, and in fact any Merlyn to have ever appeared in Marvel Comics. They are all one and the same. Merlyn liked to dabble in mankind’s affairs in multiple dimensions.

Both Merlyn and Roma are basically Gods, as far as most matters are concerned - with pretty much all of the related options which that presents. It doesn't mean they are kind or forgiving Gods, of course. Merlyn, for example, was frequently cruel. But there was always (At least until recently, anyway.) some kind of method behind his madness. To him mankind were, at many times, little more than elaborate lab mice, to him. But it is important to understand that while both father and daughter sometimes seemed unreasonable neither ever underestimated the importance of mankind, or any life, in the grand scheme of things. They were essential to the makeup of the Omniverse. And maintaining the balance of that was of imperative importance.

And to that end, they had two chief weapons.

Firstly, the Dimensional Development Court.

Led by Omniversal Majestrix, Opal Luna Saturnyne the Court's role is basically to ensure that all dimensions are stable, evolving at their correct rate for that point in their history, and that everything is moving along comfortably. Saturnyne is assisted by her crack team of foot soldiers The Avant Guard, who are there to help in case any muscle is required.

In extreme cases, should a universe become unstable, it is up to the Court to decide its future. Is it tenable to keep it attached to the rest of the Omniverse? Or is its instability too likely to knock on to other dimensions? In that case of the latter, as with Earth 238, the only solution there is to totally remove the universe and cast it into the abyss.

Saturnyne reports directly to the Guardian, but is allowed by them to make such decisions off her own back.

The second is The Captain Britain Corps.

And this is the one that many people find most confusing. As mentioned above, Brian Braddock is far from being the only active Captain. There are as many Captains as there are alternate Earths for them. Some of them are literally alternate versions of Brian Braddock, others are totally different people. But all of them share the same basic formula. At some moment in their lives, the Guardian of the Omniverse (Be that Merlyn, be that Roma, whoever was in charge at the time) and offered them the same choice that was offered to Brian - Choose the Sword or the Amulet, and become Captain Britain.

Only the Omniversal Guardian is capable of truly making new Captains (Something Chris Claremont kind of forgot about during the original Excalibur). Because after giving them the choice they literally filter power from the very fabric of the Marvel Omniverse into them, joining the individual in question into a synchronous bonding between themselves, the collective consciousness of their Britain and Otherworld.

Their power is great, never doubt that. But there are of course downsides. For one, that synchronous relationship is a double edged sword. On the one hand, by rights, in a full out televised dogfight in a UK city, with the whole of Britain behind him, a Captain should be near impossible to be put down. However, on the flip side, what happens to a Captain if his people start to lose faith in him? How weak might he become? And of course, if you beat up a Captain you also kick the frap out of Britain itself - as seen in the pages of The Avengers, when Kelsey Leigh became Captain Britain. Morgan LeFey kicked the hell out of her, and Britain in the process. So that is not always a good arrangement...

And secondly, there's this little kink in a Captain's powers that their powers are effected by distance from the physical point at which Otherworld meets with each respective Britain. The closer they are to that point on the coast of England the stronger their powers become, but the further away they get has the adverse effect of weakening the self-same powers. And it is for that reason that a Captain's costume is able to work as an artificial amplifier for their powers. This allows them to operate elsewhere on Earth, without becoming powerless. Sure, they're not at the peak of their powers - far reduced in fact - but should they be needed abroad, or even off-world, it does still make fighting the good fight possible.

It is also worth noting that the costumes themselves are powerful enough that they can actually give ordinary people somewhat limited superhuman abilities - such as strength, and the ability to fly. Certainly not to anywhere near the levels of a genuine Captain, but something more than human nonetheless. It was via these means that Albion created his own army of 'Foot soldier Captains', in New Excalibur, or how Besty 'Psylocke' Braddock was able to take her brother's place as Captain Britain, during Brian's brief retirement in the Delano/Davis period of Captain Britain.

Each one of these Captains is charged with protecting their own world. But in situations where there is a far greater thread to the Omniverse the Guardian can call together the whole Captain Britain Corps to sort it. Think of them as being, in some ways, similar to DC Comics' Green Lantern Corps. But rather than protecting worlds they protect entire alternate universes.

There have been relatively few instances where the calling together of the whole Corps has been required, but throughout the latter end of Brian's solo adventures, and well into Excalibur, there were frequent encounters with other Corpsmen - in particular during The Cross-time Caper. Their membership is infinite, and very few members are actually named compared to the numbers we see in panel. But it is worth noting that Brian's own father, Sir James Braddock was a former member.

So anyway, that's how it works. Those are the very basics to understanding how Captain Britain works. A set of rules, which have been formed over a period of over 30 years.

However, rules or not, that doesn't mean that everybody has always played by them...

End of Part One.

Picture references:
Images 1 and 2 from Captain Britain vol. 1 #2, Oct 1976. Art by Herb Trimpe.
Image 3 re-coloured reprint of Marvel Superheroes #377, from X-Men Archives Featuring Captain Britain #1, July 1995. Art by Alan Davis.
Image 4 from Wisdom #1, January 2007. Art by Trevor Hairsine.
Image 5 from the cover of X-Men Archives Featuring Captain Britain #2, August 1995. Art by Alan Davis.
Image 6 re-coloured reprint of The Daredevils #7, from X-Men Archives Featuring Captain Britain #4, Oct 1995. Art by Alan Davis.
Image 7 from Avengers vol. 3 #80, May 2004. Art by Oliver Coipel
Image 8 from X-Men: Die by the Sword #3, Jan 2008. At by Juan Santacruz & CAFU.

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