by The Masked Bookwyrm

Captain Britain (and MI 13) reviews ~ page two

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Captain Britain and MI 13: Hell Comes to Birmingham 2009 (SC TPB) 128 pgs.

coverWritten by Paul Cornell. Pencils by Leonard Kirk, with Pat Olliffe, and Mike Collins. Inks by various.
Colours: Brian Reber, others. Letters: Joe Caramagna. Editor: Nick Lowe.

Reprinting: Captain Britain and MI 13 #5-9 (2008-2009)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

Published by Marvel Comics

Paul Cornell's Captain Britain and MI 13 series was cancelled after a little more than a dozen issues, but though sales must've been tepid, the critical acclaim was high. I found myself less impressed when I tried the first TPB collection (reviewed lower on this page)...but was still, grudgingly, willing to give it another try. So I picked up the second story arc.

And I remain mixed on it all. I even read this twice through (later three times).

And the thing is, some of its virtues...are also its vices, and vice versa.

The story begins slowly, looking in on the various super heroes who comprise MI 13 (the British ministry that deals with supernatural threats), including adding to the team old time Marvel character, Blade The Vampire Hunter (decked out in his post-Wesley Snipes appearance). Then they are summoned to Birmingham where an apartment complex seems to be surrounded by supernatural fire. When they arrive, they discover the tenants are under the sway of Plokta, a demon who offers them their hearts desire. The team enters the building and gets split up, leading to cutting between various groupings, variously struggling to resist their own inner desires that Plokta tempts them with, fighting monsters...even fighting each other (turns out Blade really joined the take a whack at Spitfire, the lady vampire of the team).

On the plus side, it's fast paced, never slowing down or getting turgid. Cornell writes some clever dialogue, some cute quips. Leonard Kirk is a strong artist, delivering some well rendered, realist faces and figures. There's a neat conceit about setting an entire story arc within a limited environment like an apartment building.

And I think I liked it better, not just after a second reading, but after re-reading the previous story arc first as well, getting fully immersed in the characters and milieu. And, hey, there must be something good about a comic where I say I'm ambivalent...but was able to re-read 9 issues in a row.

But the comics still suffer from the problems I noted earlier. For one, Cornell does a poor job of really letting a new reader in. It's full of characters making oblique and cryptic references -- some off the cuff quips, some more crucial to the story -- that won't make much sense. Sometimes you aren't even sure what you're supposed to know and what you aren't, such as when a barely defined supporting character suddenly reveals hitherto unhinted at powers. There's also a sequence involving the Black Knight's sword where it's not really clear what's going on (as a character announces something as though a revelation...then later a character says, "didn't I already know that?"). The sword is crucial to the climax, still with little explanation for what it is or how it did what it did. To be fair, the final epilogue, pushing us into the next story arc, implies revelations are to come. But still...

This is a "new" team comprised of pre-existing characters, and they bring their backstories with them. But Cornell could do a better job of explaining things.

Admittedly, I might fixate on some things more than needed. After all, does the reader need to know that the unstoppable "mindless ones" that prove a significant threat throughout part of the story were first introduced in old Doctor Strange comics?

As well, the problem with doing a series revolving around magic is that it kind of allows Cornell to shoot logic out the window whenever he wants, or when the plot is getting too tricky. Even some of the heroes have abilities that remain...ill-defined. At one point, when the villain exclaims incredulity at his actions, Captain Britain simply shouts: "I can do anything!"

Man...I miss the days of kryptonite and yellow impurities. You know: rules.

And I still never really found myself fully grooving to the characters. The fact the story is fast paced, is good, keeping it moving along (well...not geographically, of course) -- though like a lot of modern story arcs, despite five issues, it's not really an epic, per se. But as well, the nature of Plokta's temptations means it also has room for character exploration. But I still came away, not so much disliking the characters, but just finding them somewhat vague and unriveting. (And I still say the title was a poor choice, as Cornell treats "Captain Britain" more as one of the team, rather than the star, though I guess the Marvel brass thought "Peter Wisdom and MI 13" was less marketable.) The attempt at character development and a lack of fully explained background kind of collide in a sequence where CB is tempted with his long gone wife, Meggan -- yet prior to her appearance here, a reader had no indication CB was pining for a lost wife (even in the issues in Secret Invasion) nor is it explained what happened to her as another character comforts CB by saying "we will find her one day." (And it's a dangling thread as CB rejects Meggan as an illusion...even though we are left to infer she wasn't, and so is still trapped in limbo).

Cornell's dialogue can be cute and amusing...but it can also be kind of muddled and oblique. Cornell, who also writes TV scripts, sometimes offers up lines that would be funny if an actor said it, giving it the right delivery...but in a comic, can seem awkward, where you have to read it a couple of times to get the which point the "humour" has been rendered more intellectual than visceral. And once upon a time, a team might be comprised of a variety of character types...including the wisecracker; here, everyone seems to make the exact same type of quips.

There are also awkward character bits, as though Cornell doesn't quite grasp the themes he's dealing with. He had introduced to the team as a junior member Faiza, a British Muslim wearing a hijab -- yet then has her father say he's "not a particularly religious man". So, um, are the hijabs just a stylish fashion statement? Or is Cornell suggesting Faiza and her mother are more devout than her father? I suspect neither...he just didn't really think about it, focusing too much on the dialogue, and not on the character saying it.

Leonard Kirk's art also leaves me mixed. It's quite stunning at times, with a gorgeous realism to the faces and figures (love his hands!) and to the backgrounds. But his storytelling is more muddled. A lot of the scenes you can enjoy for their visuals...when you should be "reading" them for their storytelling. His panels can be cluttered, making it hard to focus on the "key" element, his character designs not always that distinct (a supporting character named Alistair never really made much visual impression on me). And though he can draw great people, and great environments, he's not always great at contextualizing the scenes. So people will stand around...and you're not quite sure where they are, or what they are supposed to be looking at. At one point the Black Knight leads his team crashing through a window...when you hadn't realized he was even near the building! There are also a couple of pinch hitters -- Pat Oliffe, whose style doesn't jar with Kirk's, and Michael Collins, whose style is simpler, a little cartoonier. Though, in a clever way of meeting deadlines, when Collins pinches in, it's to draw alternate scenes with Kirk, so the issue still has a consistency with the whole as Kirk still draws much of the issue.

Another example of confusion, though whether the fault is the artists' visuals or Cornell's script, is that Spitfire ends up injured and running about much of the issue with her left arm reduced to a skeleton (eew!) -- yet I'm darned if I can figure out how or why that happened!

And so I remain...strangely mixed. There's stuff to like about this, in writing and art, even as there's a sense that it misses the mark in rather crucial areas, from emotional connection, to simply knowing what happened or why. Yet after a second reading, I find myself nudging it up a bit in my estimation...even though I kind of wonder, is that more because, well, I've paid for it, so I'm looking for the glass half full?

Ironically, because the series was cancelled at the end of the next story arc, and so knowing it doesn't ramble on indefinitely, there's a strange, weird part of me that's willing to try it, just to complete my "collection"...even as another part of me thinks, um, why?


Cover price: $ __ CDN/ $15.99 USA 

Captain Britain and MI 13: Secret Invasion  2009 (SC TPB) 128 pgs.

coverWritten by Paul Cornell, with Chris Claremont. Pencils by Leonard Kirk, with John Byrne. Inks by Jesse Delperdang, Scott Hanna, Dave Hunt.

Colours: Brian Reber, Dave Hunt. Letters: Joe Caramagna, Bruce Patterson, Tom Orzechowski. Editor: Nick Lowe, Archie Goodwin.

Reprinting: Captain Britain and MI 13 #1-4, Marvel Team-Up #65, 66 (2008, 1978)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Additional notes: interview with Paul Cornell; covers.

Suggested for mature readers

Number of readings: 3

Published by Marvel Comics

Ironically, I only started to think about this new Captain Britain series after Marvel announced it was cancelling it after less than two years, and the accolades started being plastered across the internet, saying how it was one of the best mainstream comics around. I also had a sneaking affection for the titular hero based, not on Excalibur, the long running team series he fronted, but from earlier stories by Alan Moore and Alan Davis. So I decided to pick up this TPB collecting the new series' first story arc (dubbed "The Guns of Avalon" inside).

It ties into Marvel's Secret Invasion crossover which featured in most comics in its line. Long time evil aliens, the Skrulls, attempt a full scale invasion of earth. It's an awkward way to begin a "new" series, the story essentially already in full swing...but it provides a ready made conflict so writer Paul Cornell doesn't have to spend time establishing a scenario (though the "secret" part of the title might seem like a misnomer, since we're long past the covert stuff). And though Captain Britain gets the title, it's actually a teaming of various British Marvel characters, including Peter Wisdom, the Black Knight, and Spitfire all as part of MI 13, a branch of British intelligence that deals with supernatural threats. (Funnily enough, the idea of having a British ministry that deals with the supernatural called MI 13 -- inspired by real life secret service departments MI 5, MI 6 -- has been used by a number of storytellers over the years, including in the highly entertaining audio plays, The Scarifyers).

Anyway, Captain Britain himself is killed in the first issue! He's resurrected before the end, but it still means a good chunk of the story is missing its star!

And for a series basking in so much critical adulation -- it struck me as somewhat disappointing, even dull. It's chock full of action, true...but at times barely seems to be more than a succession of generic fight scenes stretched over four issues. This can even be confusing, as some sequences were just cutting between different heroes in different battles...and it's hard to remember they aren't at the same location!

For a "new" series, it carries an awful lot of continuity baggage. Not only is there the Skrull invasion crossover (at one point a Skrull refers vaguely to a "Richards" -- who? Maybe Reed Richards of The Fantastic Four?), but the heroes have a lot of history, too. In an interview at the end of this collection, Cornell says a reader need know "nothing" previously. I'm not sure I agree. You can tell, more or less, what's going on...but you might not grasp why, or how, or whether you should care and Cornell doesn't bother to explain things much. I mean, Spitfire was a WW II heroine from The Invaders, long since depicted as middle-aged and without powers -- but here is once more young, empowered....and now with vampiric tendencies. One could argue that a new reader has no need to reconcile her depiction here with her Invaders appearances, but then all we get is a super fast woman who bites people with no explanation...and little personality.

Likewise, Peter Wisdom -- a character with whom I was unfamiliar -- comes across as a slightly softer versioon of John Constantine. Whether that's fair or not, I dunno. But the fact that I'm not sure says a lot about how un-vividly established the characters were. Wisdom seems more of a main character here than Captain Britain, as if CB got the title because he's the more familiar icon, but Cornell was really thinking of it as "Peter Wisdom & MI 13" (I think Cornell had previously been writing for Wisdom in his own, self-titled, series).

And Captain Britain, as mentioned, spends the middle part of the story, um, dead. Nor is CB given much personality (and I say that, remember, as a guy who has liked earlier Captain Britain stories). And isn't there a problem with a character who we are supposed to see as iconic...when his costume and powers frequently get overhauled, and more than once he has been, literally, reborn, as if each successive writer likes the idea of a Captain Britain...even as they are dismissive of past incarnations of the character? And the new costume he ends up with here is a tad...dull. Though that may reflect an overall trend of non-costumed super-heroes (the Black Knight has a medieval helmet, but otherwise wears street clothes in these issues) since Captain Britain's new costume can, at first glance, look like barely more than that he's wearing a colourful sweater -- or is dressed for the British luge team.

I came across a more favourable review of Cornell's run that, nonetheless, also commented Cornell wasn't explaining these characters for those unfamiliar with them. Were I more familiar with these characters, I might respond to them better. But I can only review this by saying: I picked it up as a first issue/introductory volume. And the problem isn't so much that the characters aren't that interesting, as they don't do much to make me even want to be interested in them. Even after four issues none really intrigued me.

A newly introduced character is Faiza Hussain, a lady doctor who is supposed to give the series a bit of a pluralistic spin by being a British Muslim, and seems modelled a bit after Martha Jones from the new Doctor Who TV series (ie: a perky young female doctor who acts as a kind of fanboy avatar). But what worked on TV, with a beautiful actress like Freema Ageyman in the part, can be a bit cloying on the printed page as Faiza self-reflectively oohs and aws over the super heroes.

The plot involves the Skrulls (depicted entirely as one-note, personality-less baddies) invading England, and also trying to invade the fairy dimension (part of past CB mythology). But Cornell and company mainly go for the high testosterone action over a complex or provocative plot. Cornell wrote a two-part episode of the new Doctor Who TV series -- one of the best of the series! -- in which a thematic undercurrent was all about the horrors of war. But here, other than a character remarking he "loathes" killing, Cornell and artist Leonard Kirk seem to revel in the carnage and the gung ho jingoism. (Of course, Doctor Who was always a contradictory series in that it features a hero who never carries weapons...even as he rarely finds a situation that he can't resolve by blowing up the bad guys!)

The level of gore and violence leads me to suggest this might be viewed as a "mature readers" comic...even though Marvel didn't market it that way!

Kirk delivers solid work, well proportioned figures, energetic scenes. But a lot of the big, splashy action scenes are just big and splashy and hard to instantly settle on what you're looking at. His composition rarely brings out any extra nuance to a moment. And he maybe doesn't really create a particular feel for each character, the way some artists can depict a roomful of heroes and make how each one stands speak to the character. I noticed this problem most with Kirk's Captain Britain, who as the nominal "star" should really stand out from the other characters...but doesn't.

Though I'm not English, I do have an affection for non-American super heroes, and series somewhat isolated from the rest of Marvel's cluttered pantheon. But Cornell just seems to replace American jingoism with British jingoism, as these decidedly second string heroes are treated as if they are iconic champions. I mean, when a character acts in awe of the Black Knight...?!? And it can be an almost uncomfortable jingoism, of the kneejerk variety, as though Cornell wants to stir the (British) blood with his chest beating patriotism...without entirely wrapping it around any particular ideology or philosophy. At least Captain America, whatever his smugness, can seem sincere in his dedication to "freedom" and "democracy".

And Cornell even fudges British mythology a bit -- I'm pretty sure the sword in the stone in Arthurian legend wasn't Excalibur!

Filling out this TPB is a two-part vintage reprint teaming Captain Britan, in an earlier costume, with Spider-Man -- in what was the former's first American comics appearance (having been created for Marvel's U.K. branch). It's a weird reflection on how the medium has evolved, because it's by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, a combo that practically defines "classic" (albeit prior to their legendary X-Men issues) yet looks rather quaint next to the modern issues, Claremont's dialogue is kind of clunky and obvious, Byrne's art a bit stiff with bland composition (and of course, the simpler colouring)...and a pretty minor story, as the first half involves the two heroes duking it out in a misunderstanding, then the second half has them trying to escape a ridiculously implausible death trap laid by villain Arcade (in his first appearance). Yet for all actually emerges as maybe more entertaining.

Reading Cornell's story left me ambivalent about reading subsequent CB & MI 13 issues...reading Claremont's issues kind of made me interested in finding old (pre-Moore/Davis) Captain Britain stories, and in digging out some Spider-Man comics to re-read.

"The Guns of Avalon" isn't especially bad. The art is more than decent, and the script boasts some cute quips, and it all moves along briskly. But it never really does much to distinguish itself, either. Still, some reviews suggested the series improved as it went and, ironically, knowing it produced only a finite number of issues...I was willing to try the next story arc -- "Hell Comes to Birmingham" (reviewed above).

Cover price: $ __ CDN/ $15.99 USA

Captain Britain and MI 13: Vampire State  2009 (SC TPB) 168 pgs.

coverWritten by Paul Cornell. Pencils by Leonard Kirk, with Mike Collins, Adrian Syaf, Adrian Alphona. Inks by Jay Leisten, others.
Colours: various. Letters: Joe Caramagna. Editor: Nick Lowe.

Reprinting: Captain Britain and MI 13 #10-15, Annual #1 (2008-2009)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Suggested for mature readers

Number of readings: 2

Published by Marvel Comics

Reviewed March 5, 2010

Though I tried the first two Captain Britain & MI 13 TPB collections...I was decidedly less impressed with them than the accolades heaped upon the series by others had led me to expect. Still, knowing cancellation meant it had a finite number of issues, I decided to pick up the third and final TPB collection. Which makes me a bit obsessive compulsive. I mean, who buys a third TPB still undecided if you even like a series?

Vampire State is the longest of the MI 13 arcs (the whole series comprising a meagre three sagas), involving six regular issues plus the series' sole annual which was a related interlude/sidebar. Dracula, Lord of the Vampires, is planning a major assault and invasion of England, to claim it as a vampire nation. Of course, MI 13 is specifically set up to counter supernatural threats, and many have had experience with vampires previously -- notably Blade, the vampire slayer, and Spitfire, herself part vampire.

I have affection for a super hero comic that can exist slightly isolated from the convoluted "universes" of Marvel and DC. Unfortunately, this ain't isolated. In fact, it's almost disorientingly intertwined with Marvel lore. All these heroes have appeared before in other comics (some with their own past series), and Dracula himself (though created by novelist Bram Stoker) is a recurring Marvel villain -- even fronting his own series in the 1970s! And none of this would be a problem, but writer Paul Cornell is poor at explaining it to you as he goes. Like a lot of modern comics scribes, he seems an obsessive fanboy, with an encyclopedia of minutia at his fingertips, and he just assumes the reader does, too. I've read -- literally -- thousands of comics, representing decades...and I still found it muddled at times!

Sure, when a minor character is identified as a "Clive Reston" is it important to know Reston was a supporting character in the 1970s comic, Master of Kung Fu? No -- nt really. But when later, a U.S. sheriff named Daltry appears out of nowhere for a panel or two, you can find yourself going -- uh, who? what? why? And I say that knowing he was, presumably, the sheriff Daltry from the 1979-1981 revival of the The Man-Thing...but I still had no idea why he appears here. Though the fact that one of Dracula's colleagues is Captain Fate, who also appeared long ago in Man-Thing, presumably relates -- not that Cornell explains that, either.

Admittedly, there were times when I did recognize a character, but still knew it would be incomprehensible to anyone with less knowledge than I. In one scene, an angry fellow is identified as both "Joe" and "Chapman", so I realized he was Joey Champman a.k.a. Union Jack -- but another reader might not (nor even realize the "Joe" and the "Chapman" referred to the same guy!). Still later, Union Jack does appear -- briefly -- in costume. But it all could've been explained, and integrated, better into the narrative.

There were plenty of spots which left me scratching my head, with cryptic lines or characters who we were presumably supposed to recognize.

And all this just relates to the nature of story telling, of how things should be laid out, foreshadowed, and brought to their denouement. If Cornell is counting on scenes to have resonance based on things that not only hadn't occurred in this arc, but weren't even really foreshadowed in any previous issue of this particular series -- I dunno. What can I say? (At one point the heroes call upon a character that had appeared in the previous story arc -- Hell Comes to Birmingham -- which still isn't well explained here, but at least you'd understand if you had been following this series...unlike other things that expect you to draw upon knowledge from other series).

The further irony with modern comics is how, just as writers will be obsessed with continuity, they will equally ignore things. Dracula himself doesn't entirely seem like the feral force of nature depicted long ago in The Tomb of Dracula comics. Or the fact here we are told no nation will intercept a space launched missile because space combat is a political hot topic -- while in a zillion other comics, characters will blast things out of the sky without blinking. But, hey, I recognize you have to let a writer have some leeway to tell his story, divorced from others. Indeed, Cornell even seems to deliberately take issue with another writer. Ubiquitous villain Dr. Doom has a minor cameo, and just a year or two before, the then writer of the Black Panther comic explicitly portrayed Doom as a racist -- something a lot of fans took umbrage at. Here, Cornell seems to take their side, as his Doom specifically mocks Dracula for being racist.

Because the series deals with supernatural themes, Cornell kind of uses that as an excuse to not always worry about any inherent logic.

And yet...

Once you get into the tale, it does have its strengths. The very concept of the vampire "diaspora" seeking to create a vampire state of the title is intriguing -- a theme rife with all sorts of metaphorical minefields if we see in the vampires a parallel to any of a number of real world movements and terrorists. Cornell even offers a little profundity when a character asks a vampire if his claim to a vampire culture and civilization isn't just him trying to make the best of things? To which he replies: "What civilization isn't?" Yet Cornell never really goes far enough with it, never really making the vampires seem more complex than, well, vampires.

Still, there is a suitably apocalyptic air to things -- a grandeur. No small feat given this comes just shortly after the opening arc (Secret Invasion) which was also about an invasion, and so it starts out seeming a bit "been there, done that".

Cornell throws some nice twists and turns at us in the second half, as we realize the MI 13 team was not caught with their britches as far down as Dracula (and the reader) assumed. Though even here, some of the twists can threaten to seem like cheats. It's not always articulated how they are brought about. Vampire State also successfully seems like the most grandiose of the series' three arcs. Partly that's its length, but it's also because Cornell does a slightly better job of making it feel like, well, a comic book saga, broken into chapters, and so letting the story unfold and build. Whereas his other two arcs kind of just seemed like one extended action scene(s) stretched out over multiple issues.

But another problem with the series, I'll admit, is just the characters. Despite most having existed previously, they seem a rather bland bunch. Part of that is maybe 'cause they always were a bit dull, part of that is because of how Cornell presents them. Part of that is how he handles the character interaction, which, after all, is surely at the root of a team series -- the friendships, the tensions, the compatibility/incompatibility of the members. Even with some blossoming romances, the team remains rather bland and non-descript. And when he does take time out for character bits, they can seem kind of odd -- I mean, CB and Wisdom pub crawling, picking up (what we infer) are college students? This is Britain's champion?

Marvel presumably told Cornell to call it "Captain Britain and ..." because CB was the biggest name, but one doesn't get the impression Cornell had that much interest in him, with Peter Wisdom emerging more as the mover and shaker of the team.

Still, to Cornell's (and the series') credit, knowing cancellation was looming, they face it with class. The Vampire State story resolve, and Cornell brings satisfaction to some of the character and romantic plots. Marvel could've easily revived the series two months later, but he turns out the lights in a way that respects the characters and the readers who were following them. He even reunites CB with his long lost wife Meggan (an example about what I mean about a muddled backstory, because it was only in the previous TPB that there was first even an allusion to his missing wife -- and here, even with the Annual devoted to explaining -- confusingly -- her backstory, Cornell still never explains how they became separated!)

Most of the issues are drawn by Leonard Kirk, and like the series itself, he leaves me of mixed feelings. On one hand, it's nice work, with Kirk having a realist style of faces and figures that look like faces and figures (though gets more stylized as it goes). But I tend to emerge more down on it than for it. Part of my complaints about Cornell's characterization, and cryptic lines, could be partly attributed to Kirk not maybe doing that great at milking subtle nuances from the figures. This can also relate to his composition, on how he presents scenes, the angles and close ups he chooses to employ. And it can take a moment to figure out who's who in a scene when they aren't wearing their signature costumes.

Look, I'm the first to say Kirk does solid work. But in this case, I'm not sure solid is enough. It can also be occasionally gory, pushing me to give this a "mature readers" caution.

After 15 issues and one annual -- I remain mixed. Vampire State starts out uneven but becomes more exciting and thrilling in the second half, making for an agreeable page turner and probably the best of the three arcs. And by gracefully wrapping things up, Cornell makes it a more satisfying read, in perpetuity. I may not be fully sold on the series, but at least Cornell has insured that it will hold up for re-readings.

Cover price: $ __ CDN/ $19.99 USA 



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