Superhero Top 10 - Captain Britain


Created by: Chris Claremont, Herb Trimpe
For: Marvel Comics
Currently owned by: Marvel Comics
First appearance: Captain Britain Weekly #1
Real identity: Brian Braddock

“It had to happen! Even though Marvel’s heroes are the world’s most popular comic book characters, the time has come for a new superhero – one who will be Britain’s own!’

The hyperbolic words, there, of Stan Lee, announcing the arrival of Captain Britain in 1976.

In contrast to the company’s self-dubbed nickname, it had taken The House Of Ideas considerable time to come up with the notion of a comic-book specifically created for the UK. Following the huge success of DC Thomson’s Warlord (launched 1974) and IPC’s superior response Battle Picture Weekly (1975), Marvel realised there was money to be made in the weekly market. Hence our home-grown hero was conceived. But who’d look after him?

Step forward Chris Claremont. An up and coming writer, he was then 12 months into what would become a 17-year stint on The Uncanny X-Men.

“I was tapped to create the character,” he recalled in 1988. “I’m a Londoner by birth, they figured that must count for something, right?”

The art was handled by fellow American Herb Trimpe. “He was chosen to pencil it,” explains Claremont. Why? “At the time he was living in Cornwall.”

The character of Captain Britain was created in the mould of Captain America – except rather than a super serum, Blighty’s own battler had Albion magic to thank for his powers. That first ever issue took up the story…

Physicist Brian Braddock is working at the Darkmoor Research Centre until a new term starts at Thames University. When the place is attacked by criminal mastermind The Reaver, Braddock escapes on a motorbike… but ends up careering over a cliff. Rather than losing his life, he’s confronted with a vision of Merlin and The Lady Of The Northern Skies (later retconned as the wizard’s daughter, Roma).

“Thou must choose either the amulet or the sword,” they tell him. “Life or death for thee… and mayhap for thy world as well!” (Claremont having a whale of a time with ye olde worlde dictionary, there).

Braddock snatches the amulet – right choice – and is transformed into a scarlet-clad superhero emblazoned with a roaring yellow lion and the silliest mask in the business. A legend was born.

As the weeks rolled by, police man Dai Thomas embarked on a J Jonah Jameson-esque campaign to unmask Cap as a menace and readers became familiar with a curious take on Great Britain, via 5th Avenue. There were vague approximations of red London buses driving the wrong way down roads and Dick Van Dyke dialogue aplenty (“He looks like some bleedin’ knight in shining armour!”/“I won’t think of battles today! It’s Sunday!”/“Coppers from Scotland Yard no less!”).

The comic didn’t find favour with British readers or the press.

“I lasted 10 issues,” says Claremont. “Herb not much longer. My favourite memory of the whole experience was a review in the Financial Times which described the premiere issue as a ‘farrago of illiterate SF nonsense’.”

Nine months after launch, poor sales forced the UK’s own superhero into partnership with Spidey’s British reprint comic to form Super Spider-Man And Captain Britain. Nonetheless, Cap was making in-roads into the USA, turning up in New York in January 1978 – again alongside Spidey – for two issues of Claremont and John Byrne’s Marvel Team-Up (“At last! Marvel’s British super-hero sensation explodes on the Stateside scene!”) and later scoring a small role in the company’s first-ever limited series, Contest Of Champions (1982).

Back in the UK, Cap was on the move again popping up in the Black Knight’s strip, running in reprint title Hulk Comic (launched in 1979 to capitalise on the success of the TV show). Written by Steve Parkhouse and illustrated by John Stokes, the elegant sword and sorcery adventures lent a mythic dimension to Briton’s protector; Merlin packing the duo off to Otherworld to assist in the revival of King Arthur.

As Cap jumped to yet another publication, this time Dez Skinn’s revitalised Mighty World Of Marvel, now a monthly trading under the name Marvel Superheroes. He was returned to a parallel Earth (Earth-238) under the fascist thrall of the reality-warping Sir James Jaspers for a series of tales penned by Dave Thorpe.

It was at this point relative newcomer, artist Alan Davis, got his hands on Cap. His first job was to redesign the costume.

“Cap’s lion rampant insignia was a real joke in the UK,” he chuckled in 2003. “Although it was a heraldic symbol, it was best known as a sign to denote the quality and freshness of eggs!”

Basing the new look in part on the Daily Mirror’s sci-fi hero Garth, Davis says: “I was trying to be as different from Captain America as possible. They’re both patriotic heroes, but that’s where the similarity ends”.

After nine issues, Thorpe was removed from the title following an ill-judged script which sent Cap to Northern Ireland to sort out The Troubles. In came Alan Moore and a series of Eagle Award-winning instalments which saw our hero’s short-lived sidekick, Jackdaw, ruthless exterminated, before Cap himself was obliterated by the “unstoppable amalgam of flash and metal”, The Fury. From just a rag, a bone and a hank of hair, he was resurrected by Merlin and Roma, and the character’s origins retold in suitably mythic form.

Along the way, he was reunited with sister Betsy (future X-Men member Psylocke) and nemesis Slaymaster, whisked around the universe, and met an eccentric band of villains, including Vixen, The Special Executive an invigorated Crazy Gang (originally introduced under Thorpe). For the first time Captain Britain felt British. Alas, some equally eccentric publishing accompanied these adventures, Cap moving from Marvel Superheroes to The Daredevils and then Mighty World Of Marvel over a two-year stint.

When Moore left the strip in 1984 – prompted by an argument over payment with Marvel UK – Davis stepped in to write a couple of filler stories, in which he fleshed out the character of shape-shifter Meggan, first glimpsed a few issues previously.

And then, “exploding from the Mighty World Of Marvel” came Captain Britain Monthly in 1985. “Britain’s only active super-hero has finally made it back to his own title,” ran the editorial in issue one.

At the recommendation of Moore, relative newcomer and fellow Northampton resident Jamie Delano was brought in to write the character. His approach, to quote Davis, was “more Clive Barker than Roy Thomas”. With further jaunts around the multiverse, and a stop-over in fourteenth century Peru, there was weird and wonder in abundance… and a particularly British sense of 1980s realism that would see our hero squabbling with his sibling over their elevenses.

It couldn’t last, and 13 months after launch, editor Ian Rimmer was bringing the curtain down. “If it’s hard to be a hero, it’s even harder to keep your mag,” he wrote in his final editorial. “According to the experts, superheroes are just not saleable in this country.” Perversely, the title had done well in the US, it was the domestic market which had let the side down.

This didn’t go unnoticed, and in 1987 – more than a decade since his creation – Cap returned to original writer Chris Claremont to headline Excalibur, an X-Men spin-off title which rewarded the character with his longest run in comics. With Alan Davies continuing on art duties, Cap and his now girlfriend Meggan were joined by Nightcrawler, Phoenix, Shadowcast, Lockheed and Widget for a series of light-hearted cross-dimensional capers.

In 1990, he also spearheaded a UK team book mini-series, The Knights Of Pendragon, written by Dan Abnett and John Tomlinson with art by Gary Erskine.

However, back in the USA, Brian Braddock’s fortunes were once more on the wane. Having been depicted as a drunkard, he was then quietly – but temporarily – written out of Excalibur following Claremont and Davis’ exit. The character briefly dabbled with a new persona – Britannic – after a visit to the far future, before marrying Meggan and claiming his birthright as ruler of Otherworld… and then losing his missus in a dimensional rift following Marvel’s House Of M event.

By 2005, Captain Britain was in poor shape; he’d been reformatted several times and headed up varying incarnations of Excalibur, but seemed unable to nail a regular gig. Once again, Claremont was back, positioning Cap at the centre of New Excalibur, working alongside Brit secret agent Pete Wisdom, and operating out of London.

This paved the way for a return to glory every bit as impressive as the Alan Moore years. Captain Britain and MI-13 was a new team book, written by Paul Cornell and illustrated by Leonard Kirk.

“Cap had been seen almost as a comedy character sometimes,’ Cornell told SFX, “regarded as (though never actually shown as) an alcoholic, verging on being a buffoon. That would never have been allowed to happen with Captain America, and needed fixing.’

The first few issues saw Cap and his very British team – Pete Wisdom, The Black Knight, John the Skrull, Spitfire and Faiza Hussain – repel a Skrull invasion of Britain. In the process, our hero gained a new costume.

“The previous one had contributed to Cap’s perceived buffoonish image,’ explains Cornell. ‘It was so limiting on facial expression, with the eyes and most of the face blanked out, that you needed to draw him in an exaggerated, cartoonish way to get any emotion out of him. So I wanted to make him more real, serious, and while not free of doubt, not ruled by it.”

The story inadvertently landed the comic huge press in the UK thanks to its cameo appearance from PM Gordon Brown.

“I loved all that,” chuckles Cornell. “It's one of the joys of working in comics, how the iconic characters can attract the media.”

In addition to pitching the team against magical adversaries and the combined might of Dracula and Dr Doom, Cornell also used it to examine notions of national pride.

“The conflict between patriotism and jingoism is something I've always been fascinated by, and I touched on it in several places, notably where Cap addressed the Skrull on the subject of what he stands for [Cap explains what makes us British: ‘We just don’t like to make a fuss’].”

Nonetheless, Cornell was determined not to muddy national pride with jingoism.

“I think that featuring [British Muslim] Faiza Hussain so centrally, and giving her the sword Excalibur because she's worthy of it, was a good answer to that.”

Despite the publicity and critical plaudits, in May 2009, Marvel announced issue 12 would be the last. Yet again, Britain’s own hero was homeless.

“Well, would you buy the adventures of Captain Italy?” reasons Cornell. “It's understandable he doesn't sell so well in the US. We did really well in Britain, but that's to be expected to an extent.”

So what next for Cap? “I don’t know,” says Cornell. “But I only hope I can be part of it”.

Variable! Your standard flight, super strength and endurance, plus quirks such as a personal force field which has had differing applications over the years (from protection, to extending his reach) and the ability to absorb extradimensional energy.

The final issue of Cap’s weekly in 1977 saw our hero in a trance-like state launching an attack on HRH Queen Elizabeth (“Down with the female tyrant who misrules our British realm!”).

As an in-joke, Alan Davis depicted Marvel UK editor Paul Neary on fascist posters appearing on parallel Earth-238. This was hastily changed to an image of Sir Jaspers just before publication.

Hurricane, The Fury, Slaymaster, Sir James Jaspers, The Crazy Gang, Vixen, Juggernaut

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