A Country That Instinctively Hates The Foreign (The Last War in Albion Part 44: Dave Thorpe's Captain Britain)

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The Kickstarter to fund The Last War in Albion is just $1500 away from committing the blog to running through Volume 4 of the project, focusing on Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Also, Last War in Albion will be running on Thursdays for this and the next two installments. 

This is the fourth of ten parts of Chapter Seven of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's work on Captain Britain for Marvel UK. An omnibus of the entire is available for the ereader of your choice here. You can also get an omnibus of all seven existent chapters of the project here or on Amazon (UK).

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently out of print in the US with this being the most affordable collection. For UK audiences, they are still in print in these two collections. 


Previously in The Last War in Albion: Dez Skinn oversaw a successful revival of Captain Britain as a supporting character to the Black Knight in Hulk Comic, the first Marvel UK comic consisting primarily of material created originally for the UK market. But a little over a year after taking over at Marvel UK Skinn left the company, eventually creating his own company, Quality Communications, where he would publish Warrior, an anthology comic featuring two well-received strips by Alan Moore...

"We're not supposed to be a country that instinctively hates the foreign and spies on itself." -Warren Ellis, Jack Cross

Figure 327: Alan Davis's first published
comics page features a memorable
Z-shaped panel layout as Captain Britain
and Jackdaw travel from dimension to
dimension. (From Marvel Super-Heroes
#377, 1981. Click to enlarge.)
Meanwhile, during the nine months in which Warrior was under development, Marvel had decided to try again with Captain Britain, picking up where Steve Parkhouse had left the character in his Black Knight serial, namely being sent back to Earth accompanied by the elf Jackdaw. Helming the strip were a pair of fresh faces - Dave Thorpe, who had mulled around Marvel UK’s editorial staff for a year and change waiting for a writing gig to open, and Alan Davis, making his artistic debut. Like many British comics creators of the time, Davis was a part-timer who came to comics as a second job, in Davis’s case alongside driving forklifts for a warehouse. Famously, Davis was unaware that comics pages were typically drawn on oversized sheets and shrunk down for reproduction and so drew the art for his first issue at print size, resulting in there not being enough room for the dialogue and in the strip having to be printed in six pages instead of the intended five. 

Nevertheless, Davis’s style is recognizable and distinctive from the start. with the cartooning influence that would characterize his later D.R. & Quinch work already in evidence. He’s immediately adept at character design, managing to introduce the strip’s villains, Mad Jim Jaspers’s Crazy Gang, in crisp detail. He shows an immediate aptitude for drawing expressive faces and particularly fluid action - in his first page he manages a visual gag in which Captain Britain and Jackdaw land on what appears to be Earth, with Jackdaw, who lays back as though reclining, crashing onto the ground while Captain Britain lands in a dynamic pose, already prepared to fight. 

Figure 328: The panel featuring the Queen of Hearts
shouting "Orf wiv 'is 'ead" proved a memorable one, with
both Moore and Jamie Delano later contriving to get Davis
to draw variations on it. (Written by Dave Thorpe, art by
Alan Davis, from Marvel Super-Heroes #377 1981)
This is a common element of Davis’s work - he draws less ostentatiously muscular heroes than many artists, and instead focuses on drawing the whole figure, thinking clearly about the overall shape of the body. Moore, in one interview, describes watching Davis doing character design, recalling him thinking about her on an anatomical level, concluding that “she’ll have a build like some of those older Russian athletes, and that means that her torso is pushed up and the rib-cage is really thick, and there’ll be a little extra muscle there, and that means she’ll probably stand like this,” characterizing this as Davis getting to the point where “he was inside the character from the bone outwards” such that he drew “the character inside out.” 

Figure 329: The "Go to Work on an Egg"
campaign used the same lion rampant
image that featured in Captain Britain's
original Herb Trimpe-designed costume.
This skill at character design was put to immediate work by Marvel, who made a redesign of Captain Britain’s costume one of Davis’s first priorities. As Davis drolly puts it, the costume redesign was “generally accepted as a priority by everyone at Marvel UK, if not all of British fandom,” as the lion rampant that formed Captain Britain’s original insignia was primarily associated with an ad campaign for the Egg Marketing Board designed by author Fay Weldon, which led to Captain Britain being the subject of a number of terrible puns involving eggs. More broadly, Davis complained that the costume was “a pastiche of costume cliches, with a lion rampant and flag thrown in for cultural relevance.” Davis, for his part, began the design from the perspective of military regalia, basing it on the Horse Guards of Buckingham Palace, only with a coat and helmet modeled off of the Union Jack. 

Thorpe, meanwhile, was a longtime comics fan who had written into Captain Britain back in 1977, a letter which appeared in issue #17. In it, Thorpe at least partially tipped his hand about where he intended to go with the character, complaining that Captain Britain was overly formulaic, but also noting the banality inherent in the idea and suggesting that the character be shown to be “thinking about what it means to be a ‘Captain Britain,’” paralleling this with the way in which Captain America was handled in US comics. (Captain America had recently gone through a storyline in which, his faith in America shaken by the Marvel equivalent of Watergate, he abandoned the name Captain America and instead became Nomad for several issues before resuming the name Captain America having decided that his duty is to face “any and all threats to the American dream,” and that this dream, not the government, is where his loyalties lie.)

Figure 330: Alan Davis's redesign of Captain
Britain's costume put the Union Jack front
and center at the exact same time that writer
David Thorpe was reacting against the political
implications of treating the character as a
patriotic symbol
Thorpe’s letter gives a reasonably strong sense of where he would end up going with the comic. Thorpe was adamant in writing the comic that “nationalism had to be avoided,” and viewed Captain Britain as “a muscle-bound upper class twit with a brain the size of a pea draped in a Union Jack,” both views that are clearly anticipated in his view four years earlier that the idea of a Captain Britain was fundamentally flawed. In a particularly damning claim, he noted that Captain Britain had to be starkly different from Captain America, claiming that “Americans are generally prepared to be much more nationalistic than us and use their flag patriotically. over here only fascists do that with the Union Jack,” a viewpoint that seemingly puts him at odds with his artist’s ideas in redesigning Captain Britain’s costume. And, in a view that would come back to haunt him in a big way, he expressed in his letter that “the intriguing questions I keep asking myself are ‘where would Captain Britain stand on the Northern Ireland question?’.” 

Figure 331: Captain Britain takes a poor black girl
away from this mess for a panel, before abandoning
her to never appear in the comic again. (Written by
Dave Thorpe, art by Alan Davis, from Marvel Super-Heroes
#383
, 1982)
But it would be a mistake to characterize Thorpe’s take on Captain Britain as being exclusively defined by the political. Thorpe’s background included a degree studying Dada and Surrealism, and his attempt to make the character something other than an off-brand Captain America were, in his words, based on the “British surreality” of “Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, HG Wells, John Wyndham, and Doctor Who.” This connected well with editor Paul Neary’s idea to put Captain Britain in an alternate universe Britain. Thorpe developed a supporting cast, starting with the editorially imposed Jackdaw, who was set as a comedic sidekick. He introduced a set of villains in his first installment: Mad Jim Jaspers and his Crazy Gang, and subsequently introduced Saturnyne, a mysterious figure from another dimension. But alongside this cosmic weirdness and surreal kick was an ever-present political theme. The first real clue that Captain Britain has landed on an alternate world is the revelation that the British National Party (an extreme right-wing party that was what Thorpe was clearly referring to when he talked about fascists draping themselves in the Union Jack) now run Britain, and the monarch is now Queen Margaret I. (This is particularly cheeky, managing to ambiguously split the difference between the idea that Thatcher has become the Queen or that Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret, has somehow assumed the throne.) His third story, “The Junkheap That Walked Like a Man,” was, in his description, an exploration of “an environmental theme,” and he also prided himself on a story with “a multicultural flavour” that would involve “Captain Britain taking a young afro-Carribean girl fro a fly-around, to convey a sense of wonder.” (In practice, this story includes the rather unnerving scene of Captain Britain cradling a grinning black girl who tells her white saviour that “I always knew that someone ‘ad… that someone like you’d come and take me and me dad away from this mess.” The comic gives no indication that Captain Britain actually does so.) 

More intriguing (and disturbing) is the plot thread explaining Saturnyne and her goals. Saturnyne’s job is to forcibly improve the fascist world Captain Britain has landed in, which is “the most primitive of all the series of alternate earths” so that the entire set of earths can enter “an era of reason, peace, and enlightenment.” The conservative dystopia that Captain Britain is stuck on is “retarding the whole series,” and so she has developed a potion that will give the entire planet an evolutionary push so that it is redeemed into a more progressive and pleasant place. For better or for worse, however, this never panned out due to Thorpe being removed from the series after only nine installments.

Figure 332: This sequence, in which Jackdaw the Elf
uses magic powers to make everybody drink tea that
civilizes them, was apparently Dave Thorpe's intended
resolution to a story involving the Irish Troubles.
(Writing credited to Dave Thorpe, art by Alan Davis,
in Marvel Super-Heroes #386, 1982)
The exact sequence of events at this point is murky. Bernie Jaye, the editor on the book, suggests that “the managing editor was concerned about the political content of Captain Britain and read the riot act,” and that Thorpe, unwilling to make changes, walked off the book. Davis, however, suggests that he instigated the split over a story in which Captain Britain was to go to Northern Ireland, which Davis objected to. Thorpe describes the story as having been based on “a sad, true story, which seemed to epitomise the tragedy of the province, of two children who had met and become friends while away on holiday. But when they returned home to Belfast they realised that they came from opposite sides of the divide,” leading to one child being attacked while visiting the other’s neighborhood. In Thorpe’s story, Captain Britain would see this fight break out and intervene. Thorpe stressed that the story was “even-handed” and did not take sides, but neither Jaye nor Davis were OK with the strip. As Davis tells it, Thorpe rewrote the script such that “Belfast became Fablest, Protestants became Rottenpasts and the Catholics became Coalitch. The Rottenpasts were orange growers and Coalitch were potato growers. This is when I got angry because I was insulted that anyone might think I couldn’t see through something so transparent,” and so he threatened to walk from the strip (which was at the time a side job for him, with his main income coming from working in a warehouse driving forklifts) only to have Marvel UK side with him and sack Thorpe instead. (Thorpe, for his part, not-so-subtly implies that this was because Davis was heavily invested in the conflict, noting in two separate interviews that Davis lived in an area with a significant number of Ulster loyalists.) This overstates it - both Thorpe and Jaye note that she had objections as well, and in Thorpe’s account he was not fired so much as politely driven out by an editorial staff that repeatedly declined to approve any of Thorpe’s story ideas. 

Figure 333: Although credited to Dave Thorpe,
this page in fact marks Alan Moore's arrival
on Captain Britain. (Art by Alan Davis,
from Marvel Super-Heroes #386, 1982)
The result was that Marvel Super-Heroes #385 was turned over to a Paul Neary-penned story set while Captain Britain was traveling from Otherworld to the alternate universe Thorpe set his stories in, and issue #386 contained a neutered version of Thorpe’s Northern Ireland story in which Captain Britain breaks up a random gang fight, with the issue finally being resolved by Jackdaw “using his mental powers harder than ever before” to get everybody to drink tea laced with Saturnyne’s enhancing fluid, causing everybody to magically start getting along. Captain Britain and Jackdaw return to celebrate the successful push, only to have Alan Moore take over the strip and bring back the thoroughly minor character of Mad Jim Jaspers from Thorpe’s first strip, who in a “mistake of terrible consequence” attacks the Push so that “the insanity within” Jaspers’s mind comes “sluicing outwards… it ripples outwards across the city, across the nation, a tidal wave of writhing lunacy.” 

Some ambiguity exists over how exactly Alan Moore was hired. Jaye suggests that Paul Neary and Alan Davis each independently vouched for Moore, but in Davis’s telling he only “had met Alan a week or so earlier, when Des [sic] Skinn asked me to help Garry Leach on the Marvelman art.” Dez Skinn remembers things in the exact opposite order, claiming that Moore suggested Davis as Leach’s replacement on Marvelman, much to Skinn’s consternation, as he thought that “there are only two super-heroes strips in one country of 55 million people. You can’t have the same pair of guys doing both.” Moore, for his part, openly admits to not remembering the order of events. Any of these orders are possible, ultimately - Davis’s first Marvelman art appeared in the Warrior Summer Special for 1982, Moore’s first Captain Britain in July of that year, and he took over the art full time in October. 

Regardless of how he got the job, however, it’s important to note that Moore’s work on Marvelman predates his Captain Britain work. His basic approach in both comics is, after all, the same - a swift reconceptualization of the character created by examining and cherry picking aspects from a chaotic and only hazily remembered past. [continued]

Comments

Iain Coleman 3 years, 5 months ago

noting in two separate interviews that Davis lived in an area with a significant number of Northern Ireland supporters.

What's a "Northern Ireland supporter?"

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 5 months ago

Sloppy phrasing on my part. Dead tired and posting this from bed, but will fix it when I get up. My sincere apologies - the phrasing is outright shit.

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Jordan Murphy 3 years, 5 months ago

Reading these things in later reprints, I guess I never realized MM predated Moore's Captain Britain work. In fact I had always assumed the latter was a kind of testing ground to try things out before commencing with the real heavy weirdness.

The lion stamped on the side of an egg is the basis for a throwaway line in the first episode of the Young Ones. At the time I first saw it (in the pre-internet days), it made little sense to me, though I was able to guess at it's meaning through context.

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Anton B 3 years, 5 months ago

Anton B May 4, 2014 at 1:50 AM
I'm afraid that as far as Captain Britain is concerned I can never get beyond the fact that wrapping yourself in the union flag has imperialist and far right connotations in the UK that perhaps it doesn't in the US. For historical reasons on this side of the pond we tend to view outward demonstrations of British and English (not Scots, Irish or Welsh though) patriotism rather suspiciously. Could this fundamental attitude difference in our separate cultures be the reason why Marvel style nationalistic based super heroes never quite translate to British comics...Could anyone confirm, I wonder, if this has ever been addressed within the Captain Britain comics themselves?

Thursday, May 15, 2014
A Country That Instinctively Hates The Foreign (The Last War in Albion Part 44: Dave Thorpe's Captain Britain)
Thorpe was adamant in writing the comic that “nationalism had to be avoided,” and viewed Captain Britain as “a muscle-bound upper class twit with a brain the size of a pea draped in a Union Jack,” both views that are clearly anticipated in his view four years earlier that the idea of a Captain Britain was fundamentally flawed. In a particularly damning claim, he noted that Captain Britain had to be starkly different from Captain America, claiming that “Americans are generally prepared to be much more nationalistic than us and use their flag patriotically. over here only fascists do that with the Union Jack

That answers that then. I guess I should try to track some of these issues down. I was following Warrior avidly at the time but had no idea this stuff was going on elsewhere.

Also I miss the little lions on my eggs. Marmite soldiers just don't taste the same dipped in eggs without them.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 5 months ago

Northern Ireland rides on the back of a giant space whale. Which, y'know, supports it.

Glad I could help.

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Heath 3 years, 5 months ago

As a long-time Cap Britain fan, I am eminently intrigued by this history lesson. I new Moore was key to redesigning the characters motivations and early treatment, but I had no idea the role that Dave Thorpe had in really creating Cap's trademark 'otherworlds' connections, Mad Jim Jaspers, and even Saturnyne!

And thank you for including that early Alan Davis art. I'm amazed that a lot of his signature style is so apparent even in these earliest publications.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 5 months ago

wrapping yourself in the union flag has imperialist and far right connotations in the UK that perhaps it doesn't in the US

Here too, I think. The only major superheroes I can think of offhand whose costumes are based on the American flag are Captain America, Wonder Woman, and the Star-Spangled Kid, all of whom have their origins in the World War II period. But more recently, characters with costumes based on the American flag tend to be villains: Iron Patriot in "Dark Reign," Patriot in "Rising Stars," etc.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 5 months ago

Yeah, it's interesting that someone who wanted to avert "Britain, gosh yeah!" sensibilities ended up writing a story where the fact Britain is horrible is evidence an entire universe is broken. Which is a) a bit "Britian is the centre of reality" and b) implies that UK-616 in the late seventies is pretty cool, really.

Paul Cornell is the only writer who ever really made "This guy is unironically wrapped in Union flags, and isn't a BNP sympathiser" work for me, but we won't be getting to that for a long time yet.

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Abigail Brady 3 years, 5 months ago

The Green and White Army, obv.

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Dan Abel 3 years, 5 months ago

If you want to enjoy these issues fairly cheaply, take a look for old issues of X-men archives in the states, or look for the Panini collections in the UK

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Aylwin 3 years, 5 months ago

Non-devotees of staggeringly pointless pedantry please look away now.

The lion on the egg isn't rampant, it's passant guardant.

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Aylwin 3 years, 5 months ago

Which thinking about it is an ever (ever) so slightly interesting point. The CB lion is in the Scottish posture with the English colour scheme, which makes a kind of sense. I'm not a comic fan, so I have no way of knowing how hackneyed that observation is.

Mind you, having looked at some pictures, it looks like a pretty iffy sort of creature. Like one of those medieval statues by sculptors who had obviously never seen a real lion.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 5 months ago

Curses!

I got "rampant" from Davis's introduction to Marvel's Captain Britain Omnibus, where I pulled the quote earlier in the paragraph from. Indeed, the second use of "lion rampant" in the paragraph is straight out of a Davis quote. But when I was putting the image in, I remember thinking "is rampant the right heraldic term there? I don't think it is..." before just going with what Davis said.

I may well pedantically correct Davis for the book version. :)

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 5 months ago

Ah, as I research it more the error is actually in Davis connecting the lion to the egg campaign, as one is rampant and the other is passant.

Wait, no, further research reveals that rampant only has one paw on the ground, and the Captain Britain costume is in fact a lion salient, specifically "gules a lion salient or," while the egg logo is either "argent a lion passant guardant sable" or "tawny a lion passant guardant sable," depending on whether you buy white or brown eggs.

Yeah, that correction is going in the book.

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Anton B 3 years, 5 months ago

All I know is that, as a kid, I thought it was pretty darn cool to be able to stamp every egg with a lion without breaking any.

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Alex 3 years, 5 months ago

"Like many British comics creators of the time, Davis was a part-timer who came to comics as a second job, in Davis’s case alongside driving forklifts for a warehouse. "

As I said a few threads ago, for all that a modern audience might decry the 'straight' 'white' nature of the main protagonists in the war, it shouldn't be forgotten that, for the most part, they were from the working class. Particularly relevant, I feel, given the dwindling representation of working class people both in the media and also as creatiors of said media, over the last couple of decades.

(To the point where an actor like Benedict Cumberpatch can complain that he's been victimised for being posh and privileged. Imagine!)

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Daibhid Ceannaideach 1 year, 1 month ago

“a muscle-bound upper class twit with a brain the size of a pea draped in a Union Jack,”

I just heard a truly epic extension of this point by Al Kennedy on the most recent House to Astonish podcast, portraying "good old Brian" as a well-meaning rugger bugger, who's holding a stag night in your pub (he's not drinking himself, though, because he drives the coach and everyone depends on him). And somehow he drags you to an Indian restaurant even though you weren't even on the stag do, and cheerfully pressurises you into having the hottest thing on the menu, and then sticks a tenner in your pocket and says "Get yourself a cab" without bothering to find out where you live.

(Al's co-host Paul O'Brien merely noted that Brian's university days probably involved thinking he was a Man of the People because two of the students in his drama group came from comprehensives.)

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