Captain Britain Reading Diary 9: He’s Union Jack But He’s Never at Sea

Captain Britain Reading Diary 9: He’s Union Jack But He’s Never at Sea

After Captain Britain lost his own-titled Marvel UK book, he moved over to Marvel Bigpants and, back under the covetous wings of his original co-creator Chris Claremont and his most earnest stepfather Alan Davis, became Pillar One of the "I had too many X-Men and couldn't fit them all in one book" monthly title Excalibur.

After Captain Britain lost his own-titled Marvel UK book, he moved over to Marvel Bigpants and, back under the covetous wings of his original co-creator Chris Claremont and his most earnest stepfather Alan Davis, became Pillar One of the “I had too many X-Men and couldn’t fit them all in one book” monthly title Excalibur. I do not care to read Excalibur, and I don’t believe it’s a hard book to find if you’d like to seek it out yourself. Therefore I shall not be covering this period in my reading diary. Instead, while we wait for MUK to return in 1990 under the mighty, blood-red banner of returning EiC Paul Neary, let us consider a co-star of that period, and another of a later set of issues. Let us consider stories of Union Jack, and of Spitfire. [Poor, neglected Linda McQuillan. – Ed.]

Union Jack was a perfectly normal man who became a costumed hero in World War I; a Captain America for the English (I say this wryly) without the need for super serum. He was fit and daring and he put on an all-body mask and carried a webley and a dagger to run dangerous missions, presumably stab and shoot people, and work wonders for the soldiers’ morale. He was perfectly normal if you don’t mean by class, but if you do then he was something of a rare bird. His name was Falsworth and he was a Lord.

Kirby's cover for Invaders #8, Marvel 1976

The Invaders #8, Marvel 1976

Lord Falsworth, Union Jack of Freedom’s Five did not exist until 1976, and he was made in America. Scant months before Captain Britain debuted via Claremont and Trimpe at Marvel UK, Britain’s “first superhero” was established at Marvel proper in the pages of The Invaders #7. Roy Thomas and Frank Robbins defined Union Jack in retrospect, dashing off memories of the glory days through an aged hero. As the Invaders meet him, Union Jack is living through World War II as a civilian but keen to get back into things when the opportunity to join a superteam rearises. UJ came into contact with Cap America’s Axis-smashing team of Namor, the first Human Torch (aka, at the time, the original form of the Vision), and two boy-mascots Bucky and Toro by way of his daughter Jacqueline being rescued from a vampire attack by the lovestruck upon sight Human Torch. That vampire turns out to be Baron Blood, Union Jack’s nemesis during the Great War. (They fought once.) Baron Blood for his part turns out to be Falsworth’s nephew… who turns out to be his brother, turned to the night by Dracula himself as the younger son of a landed family sought power upon big brother’s ascension to the title. Baron Blood chooses an allyship with the nazis simply to further upset Lord Falsworth. This first story is unmissable by my measure, Robbins’ talents best being given to terrific melodrama and absolutely perfect asses. The nephew-disguise includes false “English” teeth to hide his fangs and petty swannery to rival any given Disney villain.

An ass by Frank Robbins & Frank Springer

During a climax (of which there are many—as a writer of sequentials, Thomas was old school deluxe) the aging UJ suffers a drastic break of his legs, and Jacqueline the loss of a great deal of blood to her nasty uncle. Following a highly strung hospital stay, the status quo is changed forever! Lord Falsworth can no longer walk and feels he must give up the identity of Union Jack; Jacqueline has gained speed and resilience powers from the Human Torch’s android blood transfusion and takes the name Spitfire. Where previously she begged her father, a widower, to abandon combat and flew at Cap A with fingers clawed when he allowed the old man to join his team, now she delights in her own ability to join in and becomes a member of the Invaders in her father’s place.

Jack Kirby's cover of The Invaders #8, Marvel Comics, 1976

The Invaders #12, Marvel Comics, 1976

(Letters pages discuss the almost-was name of Union Jaq—a lucky escape, I think. Spitfire is named for the planes of which wartime Britain was very proud. Delightfully her own costume was developed in place of borrowing her father’s because her father’s is, or appears to be, a red harness over a belt over a zentai suit—it thongs his cheeks, my darlings. Frank Robbins! Blessings on thy name.)

Frank Robbins, Frank Springer, Roy Thomas ,G Roussos, The Invaders #7, Marvel 1976

The Invaders #7, Marvel 1976

The Invaders is a very exciting title and a great deal of things happen. Thomas is careful, during his original run as writer, to blend nuance and contradiction into every scene, making sure to reckon mildly with imperialism even as he tally-hos through his war story romps. During various events, Jacqueline’s brother’s best friend is discovered with amnesia— wait, her brother? Yes, her brother, who has never before been mentioned because Lord Falsworth cast out his only son years before, when he took ideals of pacifism to insulting extremes, being photographed with nazis to prove that appeasement was a political plus. This son, Brian (Brian?? Again?? This was months after the debut of B Braddock), discovered his centrist mistake too late and has been hiding in a cave in Germany and in disgrace, emerging only to fight nazis in the guise of the Destroyer (a Timely comics hero, like Cap A, Namor, and the Torch, repurposed via metanarrative along the lines of “The comics you’ve no doubt read, Cap, say x happened, but what’s really the truth is—”). Luckily everybody meets up and all is forgiven because every one of us is much more sensible these days, and has tried hard to atone. Brian Falsworth gives up his Destroyer stripes and purple to graduate to being the second Union Jack, and joins the Invaders alongside his sister.

Union Jack 2, Roy Thomas, Frank Robbins, Frank Springer, Don DIckens, Tom Orzechowski, Marvel 1977

UJ2 swings into anti-nazi action

Oddly enough, in one of his later appearances as Union Jack 2, Brian Falsworth is killed, revived, and given reparative electricity powers by Thor when Hitler wakes him up for sinister purposes. UJ is, for a reason given but apologetically forgotten, disguised as Josef Stalin during this sequence. When Thor realises Hitler is no good and takes himself off again until earth is ready for a god to walk among men, he erases everyone’s memories of the encounter—so Union Jack presumably just suddenly had the ability to throw lightning from his hands, and no idea why.

He was not given the opportunity to make much of it. The Invaders ran for forty-one issues, getting rather spotty after Robbins and his artistic collaborator Frank Springer left after #28 (post-Thomas scripts, unfortunately, devolve into use of wartime slurs even by the heroes, and Thomas’ returning issues just keep at it). Brian, Jacqueline and Lord F appear in a good smattering of issues but have been absent for some time and are given little send-off in the final issue (set in 1942 or 3). The general impression is that they will continue to serve the war effort, which Thomas originally tried to make as ethically examined as his sense of fun would allow, and help those who need it as independent superheroes. It’s an imperfect ethical diorama, but a pretty great read until it starts to skid around in casual racism.

When the English Invaders next saw page it was with Captain America once again, but the frozen/awoken version, the man adrift in the 80s. Issues #253 and #254 of Stern & Byrne’s Captain America see Cap hopping on a plane to London at the drop of a coded telegram (leaving his “just friends” girlfriend to… clean his apartment? He doesn’t ask her to… she just does it. What the hecky?), which he also does in a very similar circumstance in his 1980s reunion with CB. Baron Blood is afoot once more, Lord Falsworth is sure of it, and nobody else believes him. The first UJ is now old, very old, and Spitfire herself has grown half-grey and mumsy. Literally mumsy: she has a son at art college who’s going around making best friends with rough’n’ready “wrestling team” (very American) commoners.

"Blood on the Moors" Information-silkWriters Roger Stern John Byrne Information-silkPencilers John Byrne Information-silkInkers Josef Rubinstein Information-silkColourists Bob Sharen Information-silkLetterers Jim Novak Information-silkEditors Jim Salicrup Bob Budiansky, Captain America 254, Marvel 1981

Captain America 254, Marvel 1981

It’s a little miserable to see the only English superheroine embrace class snobbery and a little false to see her make a claim to it in front of the man in question. Certainly many Ladies would prefer their sons not associate with people they disapprove of, but we don’t have to choose to apply that nature to our what-ifs. It strikes me as defeatist and discouraging of self-demand. When Jacqueline and Brian are aghast at an Egyptian superhero refusing to further aid the British forces against the nazis (he has just fought with them, circumstantially, against the nazis) just because he refuses to forgive British colonialism, Thomas gave their hubris space on the page and page their reactive ignorance ugly enough to appear as something that must wither and die in the continuing presence of the decisive and democratic nobility of the team they’re a part of, and the anti-fascist cause they represent. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an example of personal and even social faults being something that public heroism exists to help us with. In this story her prejudice and rudeness are part of a fast-moving sequence of introductions and quarrels and are never ideologically countered—she’s just allowed to act disgracefully and remain otherwise gilded. It’s especially uncomfortable as the final page of this two-issue story is given over to narrative captions about “a mighty empire,” making much of the will that forged it.

It turns out that Baron Blood is up to his old tricks, of course, and with a group effort and the actions of a new body inside the Union Jack costume he’s thwarted again.

Captain America’s British Invaders flashback story updates us like so:

Lord Falsworth, the first Union Jack: very old, very frail, wishes he could ride again as Union Jack but cannot. In the end, with the “final” defeat of his wayward brother Baron Blood, he unremarkably dies.

"Blood on the Moors" Information-silkWriters Roger Stern John Byrne Information-silkPencilers John Byrne Information-silkInkers Josef Rubinstein Information-silkColourists Bob Sharen Information-silkLetterers Jim Novak Information-silkEditors Jim Salicrup Bob Budiansky, Captain America 254, Marvel 1981

Captain America 254, Marvel 1981

Jacqueline “Spitfire” Falsworth: Married in the fifties, widowed three years prior to this story, and through this marriage to Lord Crichton having become Lady Crichton (pronounced like “Kryten”). She has a son, Kenneth, who is presumably, from details given here and there, in his late teens.

Writers Roger Stern John Byrne Information-silkPencilers John Byrne Information-silkInkers Josef Rubinstein Information-silkColourists Bob Sharen Information-silkLetterers Jim Novak Information-silkEditors Jim Salicrup Bob Budiansky, Captain America 253, Marvel 1981

Captain America 253, Marvel 1981

Brian Falsworth, the second Union Jack: died in a car crash in 1953, but until that point was still “semi-active” as a hero.

Kenneth Crichton: not given to heroics, an art student and looks it, a… hobby wrestler? Happy to argue about class in public.

Joe Chapman: vest-wearing art student hunk with a mullet. Also hobby wrestler; given to outbursts against perceived slights but humble when circumstances (such as “Captain America shuted at you because he’s been up all night looking for a vampire”) are explained. A lot of the “Sean Bean at Chatterley” about him. Joe stands in for Lord Falsworth on his sickbed, despite being about three times as wide, in order to catch and kill Baron Blood. During this altercation (the defeat of the vampire ultimately goes to Captain America, who severs his neck with his shield as the cleaver) Joe is wearing the UJ costume. No indication is given here of any extended bequeathment of the mantle.

Commentaries often mention queer allusion in both Brian Falsworth and Kenneth Crichton/Joe Chapman’s early stories. Neither are really tenable as statements—both are, narratively, just teenaged boys with best friends, neither “end up” with their companions within these appearances, and Kenneth in particular visits a barmaid he says he’s going to marry (she responds it wouldn’t be allowed because she’s not of his class, giving some weight to the idea that he’s talking without humour)—but both have scenes early in their appearances that might be called “robustly coded” if nothing came to contradict it came later. Brain Falsworth’s relationship with Roger Aubrey, an Invaders character who was first known as the amnesiac Dyna-Mite (because he was only around a foot high due to Nazi experimentation) and later as another incarnation of the Destroyer (when he took Brian’s cast-off identity to return to Germany after regaining his full size and memories, in scenes set in 1942), was retroactively defined as a romance in 2005’s New Invaders, and the 2016 app game Avengers Academy’s Union Jack is gay; undeniably, textually gay (he says “I’m telling you I’m gay”). If these scenes from the comics code-bound seventies and eighties gave the creators behind that depiction something to run with then, hopefully, those original creative teams might feel some solid satisfaction.

Avengers Academy: UJ is gay

Marvel Avengers Academy, 2016

Marvel Comics Presents, in 1990, gave Joe Chapman his second outing as UJ. An eight-page story by Nicieza, Kieron Dwyer and Diana Albers puts pretty rotten cockney phonetics on him but also engages directly with the politics of the role. Contrary to that last page of Captain America #254, class war and interpersonal responsibility are considered by our now-guilty hero, who manages to keep his civilian identity a secret from his muscle punk graffito friends even as they plan to vandalise the Falsworths’ family home. For a tiny story it makes a big grasp at the problem of legacy and the rough nature of being a country-branded superhero (or even a superhero at all) under a Tory government. It’s probably the most honest attempt at reckoning with the dilemma since Marvel began publishing British supers, using no metaphor and no kaleidoscope exaggeration, and making respectful room for the imperfections of other people’s efforts. “They tried and, having the benefit of their failures, I’ve got to try better” is a very workable attitude. The next time Joey Chapman popped up in comics was the very next year, in Marvel UK’s triumphant Knights of Pendragon volume 1—where he stood mask to mask with Captain Britain, among others. And so—

NEXT WEEK: The once and future ongoing~

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