Captain Britain went into limbo again, lost in the journey back from Otherworld…
…Which we caught back up with in 1981.
Marvel Superheroes, issue #377. Another reprints weekly with a storied history of titles, and another Editor in Chief. In the 1980s the Captain Britain publication timeline got even bittier than it had been: ten issues of Marvel Superheroes; eleven issues of The Daredevils; ten issues of Mighty World of Marvel; fourteen issues of Captain Britain. Superheroes was the last appearance of CB in a weekly, as The Daredevils and Captain Britain (volume two, technically) were both monthly magazines. These were aimed at the slightly older reader, with the staying power to stand a whole month’s wait between chapters. As can be seen from the regular change of title, Marvel UK wasn’t doing as well as it might—a matter pored over beautifully by Michael Owen Carroll here, for those with an interest.
In fact in the foreword to a 1995 reissue Alan Davis, who as mentioned was the primary Captain Britain artist for the full number of Marvel Superheroes/Daredevils/MWOM/Captain Britain issues as well as following CB over to his American monthlies appearances in Excalibur, recalls how he got the job in the first place: the Marvel UK budget was so small that Paul Neary—of Black Knight layouts fame, now MUK EiC—could only afford to use amateur artists, pulling in a promising talent from the fan pile. That at least explains why CB made it back into the weeklies at all: Neary, having been a creative part of the Black Knight saga, was fully up to speed on the Captain’s status, availability and canon. Very handy in an editor. What’s not so handy (depending on your point of view) is the neglect he apparently showed to the matter of contracts… but that’s a discussion for a later chapter.
This sum incarnation, what can be called the Davis UK era, is the one where people (Americans, paid journalists, subsequent comic scripting professionals, etc) begin to care about Captain Britain, on the whole— Alan Davis and Dave Thorpe relaunched CB in a new costume, and when Thorpe left due to what are intriguingly referred to as “political reasons” Alan Moore wrote a few strips. CB is naturally devoured by his fame monster. Somewhere between Thorpe and Moore the “616” designation was coined for “our” reality (that is, the “regular” Marvel “universe,” where all, or at least most of, the shared adventures of Spider-Man, the X-Men, Ghost Rider, etc, take place). Earth-616 and the numbering of alternate realities became a trademark of Marvel canon, right across the board, and is Marvel UK’s most notable contribution to Marvel proper. This era, which I call the Davis UK era as it covers all* 1981-onward CB content prior to Claremont’s second reclamation of his British baby with their work on Marvel US’ Excalibur, was published for the home market in black and white but newly and beautifully coloured by Helen Nally (her colours are used for excerpts in this article, as they’re much easier to find than originals) when it was reprinted a decade later for the American market. This was in 1995, and as X-Men Archives Featuring Captain Britain, for whatever rea$on, and it’s since been made available in various lines and collection formats. (Actually, the reason is Paul Neary again. By 1995 he was Reprint Group Editor for Marvel proper, and oversaw this rerelease in the canniest way possible: by playing up the Braddocks’ X-Men connexions. Maybe most people don’t care about Britain, but even in 1995 people still cared a lot about mutants.)
Unfortunately—though I’m sure we will enjoy discussion on this topic during the afterparty—Neary was also apparently keen to get rid of the existing costume, as (this element is given a lot of emphasis in retelling, and I suspect perhaps more than it’s worth) the lion rampant—standing vertically on two legs—on his chest is similar to the lion passant—standing horizontally on three legs—used by the British Lion Egg scheme, a food safety measure that largely eradicated salmonella in our egg industry. Want to eat a runny egg? Come to Britain; look for the lion. Seems like a daft reason to change iconography to me—can we not take pride in our healthy chickens as well as our superheroic figurehead?—but here I am in the future largely safe from egg-based ridicule. The costume changed, for the association between lions. What’s done is done.
The execution of the change is not especially good. It merely happens, because it was decided it would happen: Captain Britain and his elf buddy Jackdaw (a jaunty companion picked up in the later Black Knight strips) fall through nothingness, and Brian finds his costume morphing from the old version to the new as his star-sceptre vanishes. They land upon a pile of money and discover they’ve been dropped into the foiling of a bank robbery, apparently back in regular modern England. There’s no explanation, no mysticism, no weight given to the change at all. Just— boop! Different.
I’m not an especial fan of the Davis Captain Britain uniform, and this abrupt, because-I-said-so switch doesn’t help matters. His military dress uniform-based design looks aggressive and reserved— his forehead merging straight into his nose, his eyes mostly obscured. There’s no more access to his hair, either for pleasantness of view or impression of impact upon him by movement and violence. His ears are specifically closed off, instead of just covered, and where Trimpe and Buscema and Neary and Stokes drew Brian’s lip and buttock shapes with some appreciable care, Davis, at this point, does not. He’s huger than he was, though this may be through implication rather than fact. 1981’s Captain Britain appears harsh, not rejuvenated— to recycle a description I’ve used before, he looks half a sentence away from headbutting someone. There’s no room in this outfit for Brian Braddock’s inability to suffer foolishness or impatience; any behavioural lack of softness goes through that skinhead silhouette, amped up body beef and removed sensuality to land directly at aggro. He’s threatening. One easily suspects that this could be called a comment on Britain or on nationalism, but both prior and subsequent stories (and, alright, personal preference), as well as a basic familiarity with Captain America tell me this is the opposite of “the point” of Captain Britain. Is he here to embody our worst? Why would that be desirable? Why would it be tenable?
Anyway: I just like looking at him less, now.
Relief is tendered for a hot minute in the form of cute sidekick Jackdaw (again, a Black Knight holdover, which Davis expressly credits to Neary’s involvement) and new enemy set the Crazy Gang. Davis is a very inventive visual thinker and Thorpe had a degree in DADA and surrealism—there is still levity, of a sort, to be found in Captain Britain’s limited weekly pagecount. Which is a spot of luck, because Brian hasn’t landed back in his own world… he’s fallen into an alternate (as-yet unnumbered) Britain where the British National Party has been in power for years already. This is notable indeed, because in the real world, and I mean literally in this reality you and I inhabit, the BNP wasn’t in existence. Evil views abounded, for sure, but John Bean’s racists had been sunk in 1967 and John Tyndall didn’t register his party of fascists until April ’82. In 2009 Thorpe wrote of how only fascists use the Union Flag as a patriotic symbol and how Captain Britain could never be Captain America. Could his vision of the Davis uniform have been one fitting for the alternate reality, essentially borrowed from the local CB, and not meant, in his mind, to remain? Probably not, but everybody has a headcanon, and I guess this is mine.
What did Dave Thorpe plan to have Captain Britain resist? What was “too political” for Marvel UK in 1981? It’s very easy to form some basic assumptions, from the germ provided in his early scripts and from scraps of gossip here and there. But the answer lies in that same 2009 collection introduction: he wanted to write about the lives of kids during the Troubles, and there both Davis and editorial feared to tread. Thorpe calls it censorship and invokes 1984 (though it was 1982, ha ha (his joke)); one can see that Captain Britain might be the most painful insertion a comic book could make into the subject.
If his attempt to engage with Britain’s poisonous relationship with Ireland wasn’t given full range (the story was published, but adjusted to such degree that it reads as a gang-territory story set nowhere), Thorpe’s contributions to CB and Marvel UK, and even Marvel in general can be said to have been gamechangers. He and Davis indulged in surrealism and absurdism and the glories of creative design, and invented Saturnyne, who went so far as to have an evil alternate version of herself feed teenaged Kitty Pryde birthday cake icing off her finger. (What a legacy!) His scripts set the tone that allowed Alan bloody Moore to take over, for Jamie Delano to succeed him, and for Davis to eventually, twice, take full rein of the character. But those, those, we’ll talk about—
* In 1982 the long-delayed Contest of Champions, an intended Olympics tie-in, showed CB and several other, made-for-purpose “international” heroes (guess where Shamrock is from) competed alongside and against more regular Marvel faces because of some cosmic nonsense. Brian wears his first costume and carries his first staff, which he calls by its second name, making it hard to square with canon at large. As Captain Britain hews so close to “real time” and various other involved characters can be triangulated in their own personal timestreams by whatever detail here or there, and because it was a hangover publication trying not to be a waste, Contest of Champions‘s story is better taken as the nothingy gimmick it was & confined to the mental bench. Sorry Bob Layton! I respect that you did your best. As a piece of history, though, it stands as a shitty trial run for Shooter’s first successful crossover mini (see: Secret Wars). Captain Britain was there at the genesis of Marvel crossover events! Really something to show off about.