X-Men Archives featuring Captain Britain
(1995-1996 - seven (double-sized) issues, Marvel Comics)
Written by Alan Moore, David Thorpe. Art: Alan Davis.
These Captain Britain adventures were originally serialized in various British anthology comics in the early 1980s, then collected in this mid-1990s U.S. mini-series after the character had gained greater American notice as leader of the X-Men spin-off team, Excalibur (hence why this is The X-Men Archives, when the X-Men have nothing to do with it!) Still, later, Marvel collected just the Alan Moore scripted chapters -- the lion's share -- in the TPB Captain Britain. Enough is eexplained and recapped for you to be able to follow the story arc, but I'm reviewing this in my mini-series section because, ideally, the story benefits best beginning with the David Thorpe-scripted chapters.
Alan Moore has become one of the most respected -- nay, revered -- writers in comics history, thanks to his seminal sagas like The Watchmen, and various other projects that often get jumped to the front of the que when people make lists of the great comic stories. For all that, I tend to be more restrained in my view of Moore -- I like some of his stiff, some of his ideas and ambitions, but it often leaves me feeling cold, feeling that it's more stylistic showmanship than intelligent storytelling. And to my mind the best stuff Moore wrote were these Captain Britain tales from the very earliest days of his career!
And the reason is because, I would argue, Moore seems less self-conscious. These tales are full of grand, cosmic ideas (involving multiverses and the like), yet also some (seeming) textured and heartfelt characterization; dark and grim seriousness, with quirky ideas and witty dialogue. Yet what's missing is a sense of hubris that can mar Moore's later stuff -- this seems the work of a talented man before he became aware of his talent. And this is a Moore who seems content to push and challenge and be creative while still respecting the genre (super heroes) rather than the later Moore who seemed more interested in deconstructing, denouncing, and otherwise proclaiming his contempt for super heroes. Annd it's a Moore who seems to treat his characters as characters -- people we're meant to care about -- rather than intellectual abstractions as I would argue is the case in much of his other writings.
Of course, Moore isn't the only talent on display here. These run of stories are begat by David Thorpe, and if his contribution maybe lacks some of the depth and subtlety of Moore's, nonetheless he sets the bar for wild and weird ideas (and, of course, the early chapters are only five pages long, kind of restricting the storytelling -- Moore later gets to play around with 8, 10, even 20 page chapters). In fact, one wonders how much each writer (or their editors) contributed to the overall saga. On one hand, when Moore takes over, there's a clear shift in tone, and he instantly introduces a new threat that will be relevant throughout the saga -- yet he's also building on ideas and characters Thorpe introduced. So was this what Thorpe intended the saga to be, or was Moore merely trying (admirably) to make it seem like a consistent whole by extrapolating his ideas from Thorpe's?
And before I get into the content, one final creator worth mentioning is artist Alan Davis -- like Moore, this is very early work from a man destined to become a fan favourite. The very earliest chapters show a fledgling talent -- though still a notable talent, delivering work better than many veterans -- but definitely a guy still learning his craft (and, like Thorpe, struggling to squeeze an awful lot into five pages, making for a lot of crammed panels). But his style evolves quickly. Indeed, I'd actually say I like his work here more than his later work. Davis is a great artist, but his stuff can be a little too polished, a little too slick, lacking a certain vibrancy. But here, particularly in the middle chapters, there's a real passion and drama to his art and composition that helps sell the story -- and matches the shifting moods of whimsy and pathos, action and introspection.
This run of stories begins a new story arc, even as it kind of segues from the last one -- but you can quickly pick up on the pertinent aspects, even if you were wholly unfamiliar with the super hero Captain Britain -- like me. In fact, over the course of thhese stories, Britain's origin and background is handily recapped and, indeed, the character has been largely revamped anyway (changing his costume and powers).
This also reflects the way comics can build a single epic out of disparate threads (something that actually seems to be a fading art form in comics). The story involves alternate earths, old foes, intergalactic tribunals, reality warping mutants, and an unstoppable killer cyborg that makes the later Superman foe, Doomsday, look like the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man, plus the popular idea of a dystopia future where super heroes are hunted and imprisoned. A pretty bizarre and eclectic mix of elements, where we segue from one idea to the next, thinking we've left a certain plot thread behind and moved on to the next story...only to have it crop up again, forming an epic "graphic novel". And anchoring it all is Brian Braddock, Captain Britain, who emerges as a compelling figure -- like most "flag"-theme heroes, he has to reflect a certain heroic grandeur and idealism, even as he is given vulnerabilities and humanity.
Perhaps best of all, by setting the story in England, it remains largely isolated from Marvel continuity. It's meant to take place in the Marvel Universe, but ultimately, it's its own super hero world. There's no (significant) guest appearances, no Captain America showing up in the climax to save the day. Captain Britain is our hero -- not an also ran compared to his American compatriots. In fact as a non-American (a Canadian) I can kind of appreciate stories which are unapologetically -- even proudly -- set in non-American settings.
In fact, for much of this saga, this emerges as one of my favourite runs of stories -- really. Made so precisely by the variety and scope of ideas, the way it mixes innovation, with familiar archetypal themes common to comics (ie: super heroes as persecuted minority), and by the fact it ultimately is a story, building to a climax, with few glaring plot threads left dangling (even if some of the ideas end up seeming a bit half formed, character arcs left not full realized, and the wild ideas often rushed through in order to get to the next bizarre twist and turn).
Put I do say, for "much" of this saga, because it starts to lose its momentum a bit. And, if I were hyper critical, I might blame it on the fact that the Moore-to-come starts wresting the story away from the Moore-who-was. As mentioned, there are a lot of disparate ideas and plot threads that converge, as such we end up with a climax that, in many ways, becomes a showdown between two villains, with the heroes sidelined -- and villains who aren't exactly complex, well realized personalities. (One's insane) And the reason I say it's the Moore-to-come is because it smacks of being an intellectual idea, rather than an emotional one, as if Moore said, "Oh, wouldn't it be clever to match these two monsters against each other" when he should've been saying "this is Captain Britain's story, this is his climax". When you can go for something like twenty pages and your titular hero barely has a line, your losing sight of the human drama aspect of your saga.
Though the saga is dark and grim throughout (leavened with humour and wit) it succeeds in making it a more emotional, more dramatic story, full of real people, with real angst and emotion. Ironically, Captain Britain would achieve his greatest profile in the X-Men spin-off comic, Excalibur, which was known as a light-hearted comic -- there's certainly aspects of that here, but it's generally a serious saga. But towards the end, Moore's penchant for the violence for the sake of violence, brutality for the sake of brutality, starts to intrude. Not overly so, but a bit. As mentioned, for such a colourfully plotted, character based saga, the climax ends up being a rather long fight between two one-dimensional personalities, and there's a scene where a supporting character, Saturnye, gets her revenge on an enemy in a scene that is pure Moore -- and I don't mean that in a good way.
The result is that for such a wonderful, engrossing saga, the climax is a bit anti-climactic.
Still, the strengths, the -- dare I say it? -- brilliance, generally out shines the weaknesses. One can enjoy Thorpe's initial wild imaginings, savour Moore's middle saga textured characters and clever story telling, and kind of breeze through the overlong climax, all attractively presented by Davis' art. A keeper.