Thursday, January 3, 2013
More Moore part 6: Captain Britain
The very first thing to keep in mind when you crack open Captain Britain is that it's Alan Moore's first time taking over a pre-existing series from another writer (not counting Marvelman, but since no one had touched that property in 20 years when Moore got to it, I give it a pass). Captain Britain was created by writer Chris Claremont and artist Herb Trimpe back in 1976, and thus Moore had six years of character development and plot arc ahead of him when he took the reins in 1982. This may explain the disorienting feeling you get reading the first couple issues, where things are happening at a rapid-fire pace and someone who hasn't read the previous work might be totally overwhelmed. Characters are introduced and you get the distinct feeling you should really know who they are, but Moore is too busy moving forward to make any concessions for those of us who feel lost, and by the time you realize that this breakneck pacing isn't going to let up, it's too late.
Moore's time on Captain Britain focused the good Captain and his friends hopping through parallel dimensions, and the threat posed by two villains who are really the draw of this whole story: reality-warping mutant (a la X-Men) Mad Jim Jaspers, and his pet 'cybiote' robot/killing machine, The Fury. The story starts up on Earth-238, far away from Eath-616, the dimension where the Marvel stories usually take place. The problem is that you would never know that if you weren't already reading Captain Britain because the story never tells you. Moore's writing is as strong as ever (his captions regarding The Fury's unstoppable quest to kill all superheroes are especially well-done) but there's no substance at the beginning. Mad Jim shows up and it's heavily implied that the reader should be shocked that the evil mutant is behind Earth-238 warping and breaking down, but I didn't even know who the guy was, and so the meaning was lost. Luckily Moore does pick up right at the end of the Earth-238 arc, when The Fury, who had previously killed several of Captain Britain's companions, shows up (in a graveyard, no less!) and vaporizes the good Captain himself. Two issues in and the title character is dead.
Shocking as Captain Britain's death is, Alan Moore proves he really DOES lead the comics industry by predicting the whole kill-off-a-character-and-then-bring-him-back song and dance that DC does every six months now, by having the shapeshifting alien Merlyn (again, not introduced before this scene) literally rebuild the Captain from his component molecules, sending him back to Earth-616. A verbose and surprisingly well-done issue, even though I was clueless about Merlyn and his daughter Roma, Moore managed to get his point across in a way that made me think maybe I was being too hard on Captain Britain. And after all that, right on cue, Moore tosses a bunch of unconnected one-shot superhero fights for about 3 issues. In a book where space for scenes and characters that could use exposition are at a premium, this feels unforgivable to me; the time that Captain Britain spent fighting Slaymaster could have been used to explain just who the hell Jim Jaspers or Saturnyne or any of the relevant characters were.
The story does pick up eventually, but by then it's too little, too late. Jaspers' descent into madness happens off-panel: you expect to watch his mind coming unhinged slowly, but instead we go from Lord James Jaspers to a goofy lunatic in-between issues. There are too many heroes jockeying for pagetime in a story that already feels rushed; why kill off Captain Britain's erstwhile buddies in the first issue if you're just going to clog the pages with Wardog, Fascination, Captain Britain's sister, Legion, and a bunch of others? Moore seems like he's on the right track by introducing a bunch of alternate Captain Britains from the parallel universes (with punny names like Captain England, Captain Albion, Captain Airstrip-One, Captain Commonwealth) which would have made a GREAT team to take down Jaspers and The Fury, but then they get action for maybe 2 or 3 panels, tops. The story does end with a bang once Jaspers finally makes his move and starts warping reality, the effects are a ton of fun and artist Alan Davis is allowed to cut loose and make some gorgeous psychedelic splash pages, but by that point the story's already 3/4 of the way finished. The climactic final battle is even better, with The Fury turning on his creator (because the Mad Jim who built him is Earth-238 Jim, not Earth-616 Jim, and so he's a superhero that needs to be exterminated and...eh, just go read it) in an 8-page brawl which has Jaspers warping everything into strange weapons and animals to destroy the indestructible Fury...but again, it doesn't even take up a whole issue.
In the end, perhaps Captain Britain would have been more tolerable if it were 100 pages longer, bringing it in line pagecount-wise with Watchmen, but what we're left with is a book fertile with great ideas and not enough time to execute them. Read it for Lord Jim (the final battle is everything Marvelman vs. Gargunza should've been) but don't be surprised if Moore's breakneck storytelling leaves you confused.
Best quote: "Fury. Cybiote. Mechanical half-steel, half sinew. Logic of a computer, intuition of a dog/It looks at the grave. Logic says Captain Britain is dead. Intuition says otherwise/It will have to think about this, and when it has thought, it will have to do something/It never gives up/Never."
Up next: Swamp Thing, Alan Moore taking over yet another pre-existing series...uh oh.