The Captain Britain Omnibus

Captain Britain Omnibus

Woo!  First entry from the “New Blood” section of the reading list!

Now, I preface this by saying that I can’t think about Captain Britain without thinking about the title’s sequel title, Excalibur.

Growing up, one of my favourite series was Excalibur, a title which had a large-ish cast of weird characters including Nightcrawler (my fave X-Man who wasn’t Colossus), Meggan, Phoenix, Kitty Pryde and Captain Britain.

Excalibur is, in my mind, one of the best parts of the superhero genre being in turns funny and heavy and generally being X-Men writer Chris Claremont at his best.  That he often (not always, sadly, but very often) had the ever-amazing Alan Davis doing the art was just icing on the cake.

But I’d never read the stuff that came before it.

This was the heady days before the internet and because very few of the Captain Britain stories made it stateside at the time, I just didn’t know where a lot of the stuff getting mentioned was coming from or where I’d find it.  Who was Saturnyne?  What’s up with the multiple universes?  Who is this Captain Britain guy, anyway?

But they’re also questions I got used to not knowing the answer to.  My local stores didn’t have an extensive collection of Excalibur and I didn’t want to pay the markup and shipping for places like Mile High so I largely just got used to having big chunks of things never quite filled in.  But then my fiancee picked up the Captain Britain Omnibus and I set about to going through it.

So; does it work?

Yes and no.

Now, the bit that doesn’t work for me is largely the format and how the format in which I read a thing affects my own very subjective relationship to that thing.  The Omnibus edition, while printed on lovely paper, lovingly touched up and full of interesting pre-Excalibur Captain Britain stories, suffers from the fact that the work of differing writers and, later, artists telling different stories are all slammed into one volume.  The Alan Moore section flows well enough into the Delano but would feel better as a separate trade on its own, just as the Delano would benefit from having a remove from the bits where Alan Davis takes over writing as well as his normally stellar art duties.

It is, perhaps, a silly concern, but a lot of the works on my reading list have been relatively self-contained and the serial nature of each creative team’s works flowing into one another seems to take the punch out of some of the series’ highs.

That said…

Holy wow those highs.

The Moore part is the one most often spoken of around these parts and, I think, with good reason.  Besides being kind of a stealth sequel to Moore’s unfinished symphony, Miracleman (or Marvelman), Moore just lets his freakiest imagination take over, weaving a story of multiple worlds and reality gone crooked.

Is it deep?  No, not really.  It’s not standard superhero fare (a shame) and full of big ideas but its format of being short, punchy explosions of story served it well enough because for all it’s not anything like the highs he would hit with later works that were more his own, it’s just a masterful execution.  Extra love must be given to everything directly to do with Mad Jim Jaspers (which was, admittedly, most of it) because there has not been a finer antagonist in cape comics in a goodly while.

No lie, it was my favourite part of the book.  It’s short and sweet and intense and packs an awful lot of humanity (at its best and its worst) into some tiny-tiny-tiny spaces and had the whole thing ended there, I think it’d be counted as one of his funnest stories told in the superhero genre.

Jamie Delano’s section was a different animal.  Not better or worse but certainly different.

This is because Delano’s scripts had a bit more room to breathe given that his issues felt closer to modern-sized ones and felt considerably more introspective than what had come before and also fleshed out the supporting cast who had been largely off-page for Moore’s run.  Captain Britain’s alter ego Brian Braddock was brought to the fore as well and there was a lot of exploring about what it meant to be a superhero, what responsibilities it entailed and whether or not they could be laid down, even for a little. The government makes itself known in the form of the RCX agency which wants to care for some children mutated by the Jim Jaspers story.  Brian’s twin sister, Betsy  (Psylocke of the X-Men before she was made into a sexy asian lady—COMICS, everyone!), becomes a regular.  The mutant Meggan becomes her more attractive elfin self (the one I knew before) and when she and Brian hook up, they just sort of wander around, leaving Captain UK (the Captain Britain from another universe) and Betsy, taking on the mantle of a new Captain Britain before, inevitably, Brian returns, leading into the final bit of the Marvel UK Captain Britain, which were the handful of Alan Davis issues…

There’s nothing much I really want to say about them.  They were quite good but nothing really to comment on seeing as they often felt quite concerned with wrapping up the status quo in advance of the series being cancelled.

The bits that come after the main Captain Britain stories, the New Mutants and X-Men annuals by Chris Claremont, have an effect but mostly to make me sad that these characters I’ve come to like were reduced to being also-rans in someone else’s book.  Though the New Mutants appearance did help fold Betsy into the proper X-verse.

It really did make me so happy to know that Excalibur, weird wonderful Excalibur, wasn’t far off from the end of the book.

It’s really a pity that the book was structured this way because while the Delano and Davis-written sections were fine and engaging superhero comics, they really do suffer from following on from Moore’s weird reality-warping strangeness.  The overall effect is less coming to grips with weirdness and trauma before settling into a new life and more like a whoopee cushion a few seconds after its been sat on.

There are lows throughout and a couple bits that felt absurdly problematic to me (the uncomfortable racial dynamics of Saturnyne and Mandragon’s antagonism being one and the attempted rape of Betsy by an alternate Nazi-reality version of her brother because HEY KIDS, COMICS!) and I couldn’t just not mention them.  And that’s to say nothing of super-naive Meggan’s whole deal of her powers making her into what other people fear her to be and the weird power dynamic between her and Brian… well, it’s there and I could see a lot of those being dealbreakers for someone.

Except for the Jim Jaspers part, honestly, I was mostly happy to read it as a prequel to something I enjoyed in a very different way.  After Moore’s contribution ends, it goes from cracked-out great to merely very good and just sort of runs out of steam from there.

That said, I think the stories succeeds more than they fail and the more problematic elements exist in relative isolation.  As a collection… well, again, I’m not sure.  Buying those Moore/Delano bits on their own, though, would probably do a lot better for it and I wish there could have been a bit more sense of completion to it as opposed to a petering out.

It’s a frustrating collection (I keep trying to think of it as a single work but it’s not that; not in the slightest) but one I’m glad I read.

PS: There have been times where Alan Davis has not been working.  Those are sad, sad times.

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