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Comic Corner: Captain Britain by Alan Moore and Alan Davis

Towards an Earth that is not Earth. Alternate realities - don't you just love them.

Written in the early 1980s, this series, along with The Ballad of Halo Jones and especially the Saga of the Swamp Thing, propelled Alan Moore to cult status.

Captain Britain first appeared in a format that would be unusual for typical superhero serials; instead of the more usual 30-32 pages we’re familiar with from the American-produced comics, Captain Britain had just 8. This was more typical of British comics, and it required a very tight focus on plotting. Each episode usually consists of a single aspect of the story, and it was possible to run an episode from an alternate point of view.

One episode, The Candlelight Dialogues, consists entirely of two peripheral characters (one of whom never reappears, and the other only reappears after the plot is long over) are talking about Captain Britain and how he will save the day. That’s the episode. It is unashamed worldbuilding, and it works in terms of setting an atmosphere. It sets the tone for what is to come and it is, in its own way, delightful.

The authors are clearly having fun writing this. They introduce little visual jokes. For example, they introduce Terry Wogan (called Bob in the comic) as one of the two presenters for a televised trial on an alien planet. The other presenter even gets the line, when explaining how the trial will be conducted: “As you know, Bob...”

The basic plot is quite simple. There’s an all-powerful villain – Jaspers – who can alter reality on a whim. He is also quite utterly insane. There’s also an unstoppable villain – the Fury. The catchphrase describing the Fury is: “It never gives up.”

By contrast, Captain Britain’s superpowers are that he can fly and punch things. To describe him as outpowered is something of an understatement. And, like the Fury, Captain Britain never gives up (usually phrased as “Never learns”). He does, however, get beaten. A lot.

Alan Moore and Alan Davis introduce parallel universes as a central feature of the plot. In each of them, there is a Captain Britain going by a different name in a universe which clearly has a different history. We meet Captain UK, Captain England, Captain Albion, Captain Commonwealth, Captain Empire, Captain Angleterre, Kommandant Englander, Captain Airstrip One...

You get the picture. Each of them has variations on the theme of Captain Britain’s costume.

Assorted Captains Britain.

The authors clearly had fun doing these. They also had fun with crowd scenes. Always check the crowd scenes, because Alan Davis loved putting recognisable faces in there. I saw Dangermouse, the Mekon, Marvelman, Captain Canuck, and a Cyberman scattered in the crowd scenes.

How many can you spot?

And, despite the fun, both Jaspers and The Fury – especially The Fury – are clearly a threat, far beyond the standard “Villain of the Month” so typical of comics. The Fury is genuinely scary, and is – in my opinion – one of the great villains of comic book history.

Alan Moore demonstrates how to put into practise the advice: “Show, don’t tell” when indicating just how deadly The Fury is. One memorable sequence is when it wipes out the heroes from Captain UK’s universe. It parodies the heroes from British comics of the 1960s: Android Andy (originally Robot Archie), Talon (Steel Claw), Miracleman (Marvelman), Colonel Tusker (General Jumbo). And The Fury is shown simply blowing them away.

Without effort.

And the aftermath.

Show, don’t tell.

The concept of the total annihilation and reconstruction of the central character is now rather passé, but was less so back in the 1980s. It enabled tweaks to the Captain Britain persona, which resulted in his essentially becoming a rather brilliant for the craziness going on around him.

The Recreation of a Hero.

And with Jaspers involved, there’s plenty of crazy to go around. To say nothing of the super-team that arrives relatively briefly, the Special Executive. Or the other superteam, the aptly named Crazy Gang.

The plot is straightforward. Mad Jim Jaspers is a super-powered being who can shape reality at will. So far, so standard. Jaspers, being able to create anything, creates a creature – The Fury – to destroy every super-powered being apart from himself. Which it then proceeds to do, ruthlessly and brutally. Eventually, an Interdimensional Court decides that both The Fury and Jaspers pose a threat to other parallel universes, and orders the universe they are in to be destroyed, to prevent the madness infecting other universes. That universe is destroyed.

Only The Fury escapes to another universe. Captain Britain’s home universe. The Jaspers of this universe becomes Prime Minister of the UK (winning elections is easy when you can alter reality at will. I’m surprised Boris Johnson didn’t try that), and things in this universe are starting to get strange. We start with low-grade “ordinary” assassinations of minor super-powered beings. Things quickly escalate, and the world starts to fall apart.

That’s it. That’s the basic plot. And Moore and Davis make it a gripping ride. Sometimes subtle themes and great characters can be better served by a simple plot.

In the first couple of episodes, Moore and Davis are still getting familiar with the material: the writing in the first episodes is stodgy and the artwork and layouts clunky. However, by A Rag, A Bone, A Hank of Hair, it has hit its stride. The layout and art became assured and the writing at times was elegaic. Sometimes the prose edges into a purple hue, but it is always vivid.

For example, some dialogue between Wardog and Cobweb, members of the alternate universe travelling mercenary superpowered group The Special Executive.

“Cobweb... You’re the Special Executive’s precog. Why didn’t you tell us he was going to wake up and go berserk?”

“No point. It would have happened anyway.”

“But we might have...”

“...Stopped it happening? Ridiculous.”

“... Stopped it happening. Yeah. Cobweb, will you stop...”

“...Predicting what you’re going to say?”

“Predicting what I’m going to say. Aarrgh.”

A second, longer example comes from A Rag, A Bone, A Hank Of Hair; Merlin is reconstructing Captain Britain after his death.

In the end, the darkness swallows everything. Space vanishes. Time is no longer even a memory. All is lost in the numb and silent depths of forever.

Captain Britain is dead.

And what then? When the flesh is discarded, is anything left? Is there a light that pierces that terrible final shadow? Some say yes. Some say no.

Some pretend not to care, but they do. We all do. All of us fragile and temporary things.

Are there cities in the wilderness beyond the fields of life? Are there soaring immortal spires that shine with a pure and heartbreaking beauty?

Alone on our tiny ball of mud, we stand shouting questions at a deaf sky. Where will we be when the lights go out? Where do we go when we die?

And there is no answer and so we busy ourselves with the task of ignoring our mortality. We make glorious war. We make angry gods. We make sad and bitter love.

But between our frantic labours, there are chinks of silence. Moments when we hear the small and frightened voice that whispers in the long night.

Where? Where do we go when we die?

Will there be vast palaces alive with light and laughter? Will there be people there, waiting beyond that last grey curtain?

And if there are, what manner of creature will they be?

And if there are, what, oh what, will they think of us?

An extensive piece, phenomenally so for 1980s comics, drifting into purple prose. But the whole of the series compares favourably to the other big name comics being produced at the time. Moore would go on to do more significant work (Saga of the Swamp Thing, Watchmen), but this and The Ballad of Halo Jones are, for me, his best work.

Next time I write in this series, I will cover another branch of insanity. Not from the characters, but from the writer. I refer to Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck.

David Flin has scribbled a few things in his time: Six East End Boys, Christmas With Sergeant Frosty, Green and Pleasant Land, and he's edited two anthologies for the Ukraine appeal, Building a Better Future and Ten Years Later. Sergeant Frosty hopes you'll buy the latter two.

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