Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Lion & the Spider

It's the late 1970s. I'd spent the decade absorbing Marvel's back catalogue of reprints, learning to read along the way from the day my aunt handed the four year old me my first Spider-man issue. Okay - four year old me got my dad to do the reading initially but you get the idea. I reread those early Lee/Ditko & the Lee/Kirby (back-up strip was The Mighty Thor) stories time and time again. Not too long after - 1976 to be exact - I fell in love with Marvel UK's new hero: Captain Britain was born.
Unfortunately, most of the other kids were more impressed with The Beano, TV Comic, Look-in or all those war comics. Captain Britain was dead. After 39 weekly issues Marvel UK's British experiment was laid to rest. The UK just wasn't in tune with America's love of the super-hero comic genre. At this time Marvel had got used to canceling comics after the shine had worn off the launch glitz. These titles usually ended with just a small loyal following which the publishers would try to tempt over to another title by merging the defunct title with one of the more viable titles. In this case Captain Britain's loyal die-hards would have to start collecting Marvel's flagship unsinkable British reprint title: Super Spider-man. The 11 year old me was a big fan of both. This archive volume begins with those post cancellation stories.The Captain Britain series was already deeply flawed even before the merger. It inhabited a Britain that only existed in the lampoon influenced American psyche. The first installment is pretty eye-watering as the writer tries to fit every perceived Brit cliche and mannerism into that first 5 page segment. I'm guessing there were some editorial memos on the fly following this as they did attempt to tone it down a bit in following installments. Two arcs of fairly lacklustre story-telling followed, getting wackier by the week, which seemed to have more in common with vintage titles like Batman from a decade or two earlier. The entirety of Claremont's Captain Britain/Spider-man Team-Up with the original splash pages (included here) would complete the phase-out for our hero. This team-up is quite decent, even considering it features Marvel's 'filler' villain - Arcade.
Captain Britain was dead. Or was he? In 1978 the new Hulk Weekly, designed to cash-in on the popular tv-series but without the use of Marvel's Hulk back catalogue, was looking for British produced back-up titles. One of these was the Steve Parkhouse written Black Knight series that would feature a mysterious stranger who would turn out to be an amnesiac Brian Braddock. The brief was to write a Tolkienesque quest, while drawing on British mythology. It would be packed with mythical creatures and magic, most notably the diminutive feral looking elves commanded by master archer Moondog. At this stage there is no sign of Jackdaw (Captain Britain's future fated side-kick) though I guess we should assume he is one of Moondog's troop. Paul Neary would provide the startling and distinctive black and white art, ably assisted in inks by John Stokes. Sometimes something astounding just comes together by people coming together at just the right moment in time. It was destiny I suppose. For the first time since his launch Captain Britain gained an identity that wasn't just an amalgam of successful American comic book characters. The first 29 installments are included here for the first time in over 30 years. It's a shame the series has been split up with the concluding parts kicking off the next volume. Early concept art closes the book as well as some memos from Stan Lee and bizarrely Neil Tennant (the then Marvel UK London editor of latterly Pet Shop Boys fame).
For British comic book nostalgists this book is a dream and for those who know Captain Britain's history they'll know this was to be the stepping stone that would bring our hero under the triumphant pen of the master himself - Alan Moore. The Best was yet to come.
Captain Britain was alive.

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