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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Panel Vision - Captain Britain: Crooked World

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Alan Moore is one of those unique authors in the realm of comics that most people are aware of without really experiencing his full volume of work.  Most folks know Moore for Watchmen, V for Vendetta, or The Killing Joke, maybe League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Marvelman if they’re particularly comic book minded.  I understand this impetus to an extent as the thin shaft of Moore’s work that’s widely known comes without the continuity baggage of his early work or the uncomfortable lewdness of his recent endeavors.  However this has left a ton of his great stuff unknown to a lot of readers, one such comic is his excellent Captain Britain stuff. 
In this review I’ll only be focusing on one key story that Moore wrote ‘Crooked World,’ but there are a ton of other great Captain Britain stories by him to check out.  Captain Britain- Crooked World just came to mind because a lot of its key elements have been popping up recently between Marvel’s Secret War comic, the recent Captain Britain and the Mighty Defenders mini-series, and the oncoming Captain America 3: Civil War.  All of these trends flow from the same source that is this comic.

If you’re not that into Captain Britain this is actually a pretty solid place to start, it’s where I started with the character anyway and I’m one of the biggest Captain Britain fans there is.  Captain Britain has always been an odd duck among the hero communities, that’s what happens when you're the in name only derivative of a more popular superhero.  Despite the similarities Captain Britain really doesn’t have anything to do with Captain America other than that he’s the UK’s premiere superhero.  Most of his origin isn’t that important to understanding the plot of ‘Crooked World,’ just that he’s sort of like a less powerful Superman.  He can fly, is super strong, has enhanced speed and reflex, and is protected by a personal force field. 
What I actually really like about his character is that despite being cut from the same stencil kit as mega-men like Superman or Namor he’s actually not that powerful.  He can hold his own in a fight but there’s always been a driving sense that Captain Britain isn’t an unstoppable ubermench, just a fairly competent hero.  It’s a neat dynamic that actually helps make a lot of villains more threatening without needing to blow up the planet to pose a legitimate danger to the hero.  He’s never really developed a following in America but he is quite popular in Britain, which is why Alan Moore was attracted to the character in the first place.  He’s also fairly removed from the overall Marvel universe.  He’s part of it to be sure but rarely do we see Thor or Spider-man swing into a Captain Britain adventure, even if he is facing the end of the world.  His central connection to Marvel proper is through his sister, Psylocke of the X-Men, so whenever he does pop up in mainstream Marvel events it’s usually through the X-men mythos and the mutant team Excalibur that he sometimes runs. 

Captain Britain was pretty much always the perfect hero for authors like Moore: a character with a relatively loose mythos and just enough weirdness and distinctness to be memorable without actually being very rich or deep in his classic stories.  Captain Britain – Crooked World is the perfect example of this, a comic full of out there insanity and unbridled creativity basically using Captain Britain as a durable protagonist.  It’s similar to Moore’s Swampthing in that respect only that Captain Britain is a less introspective protagonist.  He’s someone these events happen to and he struggles against them, there’s less exploration of his own identity and more about one of Moore’s other favorite subjects: the idea that silver age creativity when applied realistically is straight up nightmare fuel. 
The central plot of the series is the kind of reality jumping madness that was par for the course in the classic age of comics and wouldn’t reappear in the medium till recently in all honesty.  It opens with Captain Britain having been somehow embroiled in a bizarre and dystopian alternate reality.  In this world all of the world’s superheroes have been murdered by the nightmarish cybiot known as the Fury and reality has become the warped toy of Mad Jim Jaspers, a mutant with the power to alter the universe with a thought.  Though Captain Britain eventually escapes it becomes increasingly clear that the crooked world was something of a premonition for the main Marvel universe and it’s up to Captain Britain and whatever few allies he can scrape together to keep it from coming to pass.  

 Fair warning this is a very dense comic book and there are a few story tangents I didn’t really touch on involving inter-dimensional outlaws and the Captain Britain corp but the real center of the story is on the encroaching terror of Captain Britain’s reality slipping into the same fate as the Crooked World.  This has the curious effect of making the story essentially the earlier and superior version of a lot of recent major events.  For instance the Jim Jaspers of Captain Britain’s universe first takes over England by enforcing superhero legislation that honestly reads like an early draft of Marvel’s divisive Civil War comic event.  The inter-dimensional bounty hunters play like a rough draft of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Jasper, the reality-warping mutant, is a pretty key progenitor to Scarlet Witch’s persona in House of M. 
What really elevates Captain Britain – Crooked World beyond just a unique curiosity that happened to be shockingly predictive is something I’ve often found sorely missing from Moore’s more acclaimed work: a sense of emotion.  I like comics like Watchmen or V for Vendetta but they’ve always felt very cold and sterile as far as an emotional resonance.  To be sure this doesn’t take away from their position as masterpieces of the comic book medium, it’s just that they’re emphasis is in a different place.  The central focus of Watchmen wasn’t to necessarily tell a deeply emotional and moving story, it was to tell a story that could only be told with comic books.  In the case of Captain Britain however Moore is trying to tell a story with an emotional core, with a major emphasis on personal fear and inevitability.  Underneath all the artifice of Moore’s deconstructionist obsession with silver age comic madness this is a story about fear and how it can destroy and define us.  

The book really finds the heart of this idea in the character of Captain UK, the Captain Britain analog of the crooked world.  She was the only superhuman to escape her reality, with her team members giving their lives to help her escape.  Even though Captain Britain is our protagonist Captain UK is much closer to a main character for the comic.  She’s been hiding out on our world and she’s the first person to realize the impending doom and tyranny that awaits our reality.  More than that she’s paralyzed in fear of that future, of the horrors she feels it inevitably holds for her.  It forces us very much into a passive seat for the end of the world and, while in a lesser story that might’ve neutered the audience’s sense of urgency, here it’s a potent emotional trigger.  We’re basically forced into the position of an average citizen forced to watch as the world disintegrates, unable to mount any kind of resistance.  It’s terrifying because of how real England’s slide into despotism feels, very much in the same vein of Memetic or the Doctor Who episode ‘Turn Left.’
A big source of this affect is the structure of the story.  Alan Davis’ is in top form on art duty, really stretching the limits on panel design, especially when he’s called upon to embody the madness of the comic.  What’s more though Davis perfectly captures the intensity and emotion of scenes, his panels range from a relentless onslaught of claustrophobic passion to gloriously wide release free from even panel borders.  Moore complements Davis’ art with some truly amazing prose work.  People often gloss over this point but part of what actually elevates Watchmen is Moore’s skill at writing brief but evocative snippets of internal monologue and he brings that style to Captain Britain with a vengeance.  The narration is grand but impeccably well written, there’s a real emphasis on emotional evocation rather than conveying exposition.  Narratively speaking all of this emotional and atmospheric energy is packed into these very brief chapters, like little tableaus that form a broader story mosaic.  It allows the comic to switch between broad focus heroics or zero in on small scenes of genuine closeness and emotion. 
Captain Britain – Crooked World is an absolute masterpiece of the comic art form that really shows just what can be done when artist and author work in tandem.  It’s easy to see how both Moore and Davis went on to serious acclaim after this work as the seeds of greatness pepper the whole production.  Everything is tightly written and well told, there’s never a wasted panel or misprinted dialogue box.  It’s a great comic that’s begging for a larger audience, highly recommended. 

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