Captain Britain Reading Diary 4: Napping on Your Cousin’s Sofa

Captain Britain Reading Diary 4: Napping on Your Cousin’s Sofa

After he left Peter Parker, Brian Braddock wasn’t seen for the next year and a half. His name didn’t appear on a masthead for the next four. In March 1979, under new Editor in Chief (and Stan-style editorial MC) Dez Skinn, Marvel UK chanced a new superhero weekly magazine: HULK COMIC. HULK COMIC, which I

After he left Peter Parker, Brian Braddock wasn’t seen for the next year and a half. His name didn’t appear on a masthead for the next four.

HULK COMIC intro page, 1979, Marvel UK, designed & edited by Dez Skinn

In March 1979, under new Editor in Chief (and Stan-style editorial MC) Dez Skinn, Marvel UK chanced a new superhero weekly magazine: HULK COMIC. HULK COMIC, which I find appropriate to write always in all-caps, debuted in support of the very successful Incredible Hulk TV programme. Perhaps more truthfully, it debuted in hope of being supported by that show. There are many letters in HULK COMIC from girls (notably, girls) asking if the Hulk strip would please show less of the Hulk, and more of Banner? It’s very satisfying stuff, this evidence of reader tastes past. But Captain Britain saw his chance and slipped into this new magazine, though he had no strip of his own. The Black Knight, an Avenger and a legacy character (his uncle was actually a villain of the same name, who repented on his death-bed and begged nephew Dane Whitman to use the kit, flying horse, and name for good), came over to old England. His three-page-per-issue strip, by Steve Parkhouse and John Stokes, is immediately atmospheric; mistful, wistful, doomy and gloomy.

John Stokes & Steve Parkhurst for HULK COMIC, Marvel UK, under Dez Skinn, 1979

A winged horse causes a helicopter to crash— immediately, Black Knight evinces the marriage of magic and technology, tradition and progress. The helicopter is ferrying blood to a hospital, and the Black Knight knows his duty is to deliver it. A strange, tired man stands on a cliff. An old woman watches him suspiciously. And a wizard calls down his creatures on our hero as a fighter plane launches its rockets. Exciting!

The Black Knight speaks of Merlyn (with a Y) and wields “the ebony blade.” He, like Captain Britain, has an Arthurian bent to his aesthetic but textually everything about him is unexplained, unless you’re an Avengers reader— and if you are, there’s plenty to make you come asking as well, as he was last seen turned to stone. (Many, many letters about that). The creatures that the wizard sent attack the RAF jet as well as the Black Knight, and its pilot begins the second set of three page strips—it seems important to emphasise just how little space this story had per issue, because they made so much of it— eject into the sea. He’s helped to safety by the mysterious man of part one; an unshaven, grim chap who leaves as soon as he’s helped. By the end of this chapter (still—seriously, still just three pages) the Black Knight has found a strange staff wrapped in fabric in a cave that’s clearly housing a vagrant… and been set upon by that same stranger. Who could it be?

Well, who’s been missing? Who carries a staff? A star-sceptre? Brian Braddock doesn’t know who he is, or that he’s Captain Britain. He doesn’t know where he belongs, and he doesn’t feel like a hero. (So what’s new, you might say, but remember that Friedrich’s Brian Braddock see-sawed between insecurity and intense desire to be only a hero, never a fallible man.) But the Black Knight has been sent by Merlyn to find “a hero” who wears an amulet just like the one around the stranger’s neck. And then there are the visions of standing stones this stranger keeps having, of course.

John Stokes with paul Neary & Steve Parkhurst for HULK COMIC, Marvel UK, under Dez Skinn, 1979

Excalibur! Principles! Elves!

Steve Parkhouse, John Stokes, and their sometime-collaborator Paul Neary (layouts) told the story of how the Black Knight and Captain Britain weathered wizards’ attacks, lost an ally, met the seven proud walkers, walked amongst elves (which are short, furry, and have pointed ears), followed Merlyn to Otherworld (where folklore is strong and legends rarely die), fought dragons, demons and death, defended Camelot and raised King Arthur from his long rest… over just sixty issues of HULK COMIC. One hundred and eighty pages— really just a couple of skinny trade collections. Brian spends most of it in a pretty bad way; he’s amnesiac, scared, flighty and ill. Eventually it’s revealed that, as he flew back from America (continuity is king!) he felt a psychic attack from a demonic force who becomes a primary villain of this Otherworld saga.

Choosing to fall to his potential death rather than endanger his fellow air passengers, Brian washed up on a small, mystically concealed island— the one where Arthur was lying under yet another circle of standing stones. Eventually (memories are hazy) Brian went back into the sea and turned up later on the coast of Cornwall, where he met Dane, the Black Knight, at the beginning of this story. Captain Britain’s Marvel UK appearances were really aiming to keep all his life accounted for, and for in-comic time to move with the same basic pace as real time. Captain Britain didn’t have a comic on the shelves since ‘77 because he was lost at sea, actually.

John Stokes with paul Neary & Steve Parkhurst for HULK COMIC, Marvel UK, under Dez Skinn, 1979

Parkhouse, Stokes and Neary used their story to give Brian Braddock another symbolic death and resurrection. As he aids Dane in a battle with a very creepy pale rider, CB is struck down— stabbed clean through. His spirit must be fetched back by Merlin, I mean Merlyn, I mean dang man it’s just spelling, they’re the same darn guy, who chases Brian’s prone form down a space-hung river to haul him literally from the jaws of cosmic death. Acknowledging the insecurity and stress of being Captain Britain that had been evident in previous stories and using the mythic, allegorical nature of Arthurian-adjacent fiction to burn the fever out. He’s tended by his mentor and forms a strong peer bond with Dane, and in the end Captain Britain is returned to earth by King Arthur, who knows he has work to do there. In context there’s really no greater affirmation than that. For Captain Britain, this seemed like the establishment of newly solid heroic ground. This was CB’s first all-British production period, and it shows— though it feels appropriately “Marvel,” this does not read like American superhero comics. Many contemporary and latter-year reviews call the story Tolkeinesque, but I disagree: its magic is far more comparable to that which is Narnian. It’s also unimaginable in colour, with quite enough texture and tonal evocation in the linework. The Black Knight is a really great serial comics experience.

During a break in the narrative (repeated references to Stokes needing a holiday are made in editorial pages) HULK COMIC got readers up to speed with the origin stories of both Dane and Brian, which they had been asking for in droves. It’s very easy to forget that these ephemeral issues weren’t stocked for more than a week, didn’t exist in commercial archive, and wasn’t available in summary on Wikipedia. Maybe for the lucky ones it was possible to read a synopsis in a fanzine, or swap an issue with a fellow reader, or know someone who keeps their old magazines. But on the whole it was now or never— and somehow canon was still a concept that people valued! I don’t question why, really. The draw of stories that are out there somewhere is delicious. The Captain Britain catch-up was an abridged patchwork of existing artwork, while the Black Knight’s origin was adjusted reprints of Marvel Superheroes #17 and Avengers #47/48.

Black Knight's first cover, Avengers #48, George Tuska and Sam Rosen, Marvel COmics, 1968

Dane Whitman’s first Avengers cover, the issue after his debut (1968)

On the subject of canon, Black Knight delivered a merry mix-up. The wizard who first menaced Brian and Dane introduced himself as Mordred, which was “corrected” swiftly to Modred in the next issue. Mordred is (depending on your legend, because canon has always been a devil’s trick) King Arthur’s nephew-son and murderer: the man who brought the idyllic court of Camelot down and doomed Britain to… well, as you see us today. Modred the Mystic is a marvel character of derivative origin, whose appearances elsewhere included talk of Merlin. Marvel UK, being an imprint with a remote office, and not a part of the primary bullpen, was not in perfect concert with the rest of the Marvel Universe and there were inconsistencies between Merlin, Merlyn, Modred and Mordred. Editorial kept promising these would be cleared up, and indeed, before the end (in a summer special), Dez Skinn went the extra mile and wrote a text story that did its best to set everything at approximate balance. It was almost immediately upset by further events within the wider MU, and the “truth” about these characters remains in fairly consistent flux to this day.

HULK COMIC ended its title run in May 1980 (having lasted a year and two months, which is the longest run so far so raise a glass to the memory), merging with Spider-Man Comics Weekly (which became Spider-Man and Hulk Weekly, without the Black Knight). Captain Britain went into limbo again, lost in the journey back from Otherworld…

NEXT WEEK: Booyaka booyaka, six-one-what? Or, the other wizard who invited himself to lunch

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Series Navigation<< Captain Britain Reading Diary 3: Enemy in the Front RoomCaptain Britain Reading Diary 5: No More Eggs or Sunshine >>