Past Legislation's Newgate Reach (The Last War in Albion Part 45: Captain Britain in Marvel Super-Heroes, William Blake)

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In an effort to keep momentum in the final week of the Kickstarter, I have compressed the stretch goal schedule. Volume 4, on Neil Gaiman's Sandman, is now unlocked at $7000, which, at the time of writing this, we're only $53 away from. Volume 5 is now at $8000, Volume 6 at $9000, and so on. Thrice weekly posting of Torchwood: Miracle Day is still at $8000. Also, there are two new rewards offering James Taylor's the original art from the Kickstarter banner. 

This is the fifth 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: After a short-lived run by Dave Thorpe that ended when editor Bernie Jaye and artist Alan Davis balked at a planned story about the Irish Troubles, Alan Moore was given the opportunity to write Captain Britain

"Uncharted pantheons, past legislation's Newgate reach, in cryptic masks to sing his teeming mind behind." - Alan Moore, Angel Passage

Figure 334: Alan Davis's first page
of Marvelman art featured a reworking
of Garry Leach's iconic panel. (See Figure
326
. Written by Alan Moore. From "The
Yesterday Gambit," in Warrior Summer
Special
, 1982)
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, and he took over the art full time in October. Moore’s first Captain Britain came out in between the two, in July. 

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. With Marvelman, however, Moore had the marked advantage of starting his story with a more or less blank slate. Indeed, Skinn openly recycled the trick from Hulk Comic’s Black Knight strip of holding the reveal of the character back, instead teasing a silhouetted figure as “a hero reborn” on the cover and avoiding mentioning the character in the table of contents, even though the revelation of the character’s identity is spilled on the sixth page. The result was that Marvelman started, in effect, with a tabula rasa. At the outset of the first installment of that strip, “A Dream of Flying,” Michael Moran has grown up and forgotten how to turn into Marvelman and indeed that he ever was Marvelman, allowing Moore to rebuild the character with considerable leeway. 

Figure 335: The grimly funny death of Jackdaw. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Alan Davis, from "The Twisted World," in Marvel Super-
Heroes
#387, 1982)
With Captain Britain, however, Moore found himself taking over just ten strips after Captain Britain had already been rebooted and reimagined by Dave Thorpe and Alan Davis. Indeed, the circumstances of Thorpe’s departure meant that Moore was taking over the strip midway through a storyline - one that, in his own words, “he’d neither inaugurated nor completely understood.” In practice, however, he does not particularly follow that storyline, appropriating its iconography for his own purposes. The idea of the Push is quickly abandoned in favor of Jaspers’s reality-warping attack, and at the start of his first proper strip in Marvel Super-Heroes #387, Moore introduces a new element, the Fury, described as “an unstoppable amalgam of flesh and metal” designed to kill superheroes (and responsible for the extermination of them on the alternate Earth where Thorpe’s stories took place). Moore has the Fury attack Saturnyne and Captain Britain, leading Saturnyne to abandon Captain Britain and Jackdaw. Moore goes on to slaughter the rest of Thorpe’s supporting cast, most notably Jackdaw, who dies in a sequence in which the Fury atomizes his legs and he dies in Captain Britain’s arms insisting that “any minute now Merlin will fix everything up,” which would be heartrendingly bleak if it weren’t an annoying elf sidekick with a bright yellow J on his chest that was dying. 

Figure 336: As he is wont to do, Moore opened his run
on Captain Britain by killing him. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Alan Davis. From "Graveyard Shift," in
Marvel Super-Heroes #388, 1982)
Moore’s second Captain Britain strip was also the last one to appear in Marvel Super-Heroes, and provided a particularly impressive denouement to the strip’s run in that magazine. After a few pages of Jaspers explaining the plot (he’s a reality-warping mutant who had the Fury built to kill all the other superheroes so nobody could stop him) Moore has Jaspers drop Captain Britain in a graveyard full of the graves of the world’s dead superheroes, where the Fury walks up behind him and obliterates him as he cries out to Merlin demanding to know why he’s been abandoned to die.

Having efficiently engineered the complete destruction of Captain Britain in just ten pages and two strips, Moore was now faced with the business of definitively reinventing him for his first appearance in the newly launched title The Daredevils. On the one hand, Moore’s career is full of tasks along these lines, whether literal reimaginings of existing characters as with Captain Britain, Marvelman, and Swamp Thing, or with more indirect reworkings such as V for Vendetta, Watchmen, and Promethea. Indeed, Moore’s specific approach to Captain Britain is one that he would hew to closely in his next major attempt at a character reinvention - as he put it, “I tend to kill off characters I take over,” explaining that “I feel I can’t do anything with a character until I’ve destroyed and rebuilt him from the ground up.” On the other hand, however, revamping Captain Britain meant that Moore would have to engage with what it meant to be Captain Britain - a question that entails not only having a clear vision of what Britain is, but also of what it means to be the Captain of this vision Britain. In this regard, Moore found himself pondering a question previously explored, under a different phrasing, by Blake. 

But Blake’s engagement with the question of how to define and depict Britain came from the position of an artist and printmaker trying desperately (and not entirely successfully) to make a living. The material Britain Blake depicted in his work was the same Britain that had to at least partially support and desire his work. Instead he was largely dismissed - one of the few contemporary reviews of his work callously dismissed him as “an unfortunate lunatic,” while another described his work as “the ebullitions of a distempered brain,” and he spent his life at best barely avoiding poverty and at worst failing utterly to do so.

By this point this is a marked contrast to Moore, who seems to have found his career at this juncture nothing short of exuberant. In the 1981 interview in which he longed to get the chance to write Marvelman he claimed that he was “grossly overpaid,” noting that he “can turn out a four-or-five page script in a single day and get a return of somewhere between sixty and ninety quid for my efforts.” It was to be sure a modest life, but it was one Moore earned entirely on his own terms, and by the time he took over Captain Britain a year later he was doing even better, contributing regularly to three separate titles. He had a head full of ambition, certainly, but clearly a sense of satisfaction. In this regard at least he could have stopped. Had his career peaked at this point, so long as he could keep selling material he could have been basically successful. It is essentially the point at which Steve Moore’s career plateaued, indeed, at which most writing careers plateau. There would have been no War.

Figure 337: The Songs of Innocence version
of "The Chimney Sweeper." (By William
Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience
Copy Z, written 1789, printed 1826)
Blake never had that choice. Raging against his poverty, determined to show the world that he could be a functional artist, he made his one fleeting attempt at a commercial work: Songs of Innocence, a sort of children’s primer. Much of it consisted of liltingly pastoral material, most famously “The Lamb,” a poem addressed to a sheep, asking “little lamb, who made thee? Does thou know who made thee,” and then concluding that it is Christ, who “calls Himself a lamb. He is meek, and He is mild, He became a little child.” But Songs of Innocence was not entirely innocent itself, hiding more than a few barbs and stings from a man who was a year out from marrying Heaven and Hell. “The Chimney Sweeper,” for instance, is positively cutting, telling the tale of chimney sweepers literally working themselves to death. The pastoral imagery characteristic of most of Songs of Innocence only appears after the arrival of “an angel who had a bright key, and he opened the coffins and set them all free; Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run, And wash in a river, and shine in the sun. Then naked and white, all their bags left behind, They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind.” The poem ends with the chimney sweepers rising before dawn and heading off to work in the cold morning, warmed by the knowledge that when they die early deaths they will get to play in a pretty field with god.

“Of course I was angry,” Blake says in a 2014 seance. “I didn’t understand how anybody could look at the world and not be angry. I still don’t.” Blake explains that he “envied the children in the poems.” And it was only a few years later that Blake had transformed Songs of Innocence, binding it in combination with the monstrous and furious Songs of Experience. Blake created the plates for Songs of Experience on the reverse sides of the plates for Songs of Innocence, at once a necessary money-saving move (“Copper’s not cheap,” he is quick to point out) and a symbolic gesture that is paralleled in the way in which Songs of Experience serves as a reply and corruption of Songs of Innocence. Multiple poems in each volume have matching titles - “Nurse’s Song,” “The Little Boy Lost,” and “Holy Thursday” appear in both, while others, such as Songs of Experience’s “Infant Sorrow” are clear sequels to poems in Songs of Innocence. Most famous is “The Tyger,” a revisiting of “The Lamb” that asks not who made the lamb with its “clothing of delight, Softest clothing, wooly, bright,” but rather who made the “Tyger, burning bright In the forests of the night.” Songs of Experience is a savage, bitter pill, taking every drop of joy from Songs of Innocence and turning it to ash, reflected back at the reader, daring them to look away. It was, in practice, a dare far too many of Blake’s contemporaries were willing to take.

Figure 338: The Songs of Experience version
of "The Chimney Sweeper." (By William Blake,
Songs of Innocence and Experience Copy Z,
written 1789, printed 1826)
Both books contain a poem entitled “The Chimney Sweeper,” but in Songs of Experience the poem is a full throated attack on the material world in which the exploitation depicted in the Songs of Innocence version takes place. “Because I am happy and dance and sing,” the poem snarls, “They think they have done me no injury, And are gone to praise God and his priest and king, Who make up a heaven of our misery.” But within this response is a more complicated engagement. It is not, after all, that Songs of Innocence is unaware of the issues of material exploitation that animate Songs of Experience. The Songs of Innocence iteration of “The Chimney Sweeper” is acutely aware of the abject material conditions of its child laborers - it heartbreakingly describes “little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head, That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said, ‘Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare, You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair,” and the irony implicit in its bucolic afterlife is cutting.  Indeed, by any reasonable definition it is the Songs of Innocence version of “The Chimney Sweeper” that seems the more nuanced and developed poem, framing its anger in ironies and ambiguities that the Songs of Experience version eschews in favor of a direct and furious attack. In this regard, the relationship between the two books grows more complicated, with each book seemingly a response to the other so that Innocence is not a lost state replaced by Experience, but rather a condition into which Experience can be redeemed.

Figure 339: The Songs of Experience poem "A
Little Boy Lost" marks Blake's earliest
usage of the term "Albion." (From Songs
of Innocence and Experience
 Copy Z,
written 1789, printed 1826)
In another of the Songs of Experience, “A Little Boy Lost,” Blake makes the target of his condemnation clear, describing the horrific fate of a child cruelly accused of blasphemy and burnt “in a holy place Where many had been burned before” before concluding, icily, “Are such things done on Albion’s shore?” Albion, here, is a stand-in for Britain as a whole, the name dating back to the 4th or 6th century BC. Its use in the context of a politically aggressive poem is thus nuanced. On the one hand, it puts things at a slight remove. “A Little Boy Lost” becomes at least partially allegorical, taking place not in the contemporary England in which Blake lived but in a displaced past. As is appropriate - it is not as though British children were being burnt alive for blasphemy on a regular basis in 1794, after all. And yet in the context of Songs of Experience’s furious anger, it cannot be taken as some defanged hypothetical either. Rather it is another instance of embittered irony. Albion on the one hand invokes an idealized and mythic version of Britain and on the other hints at a fundamental sickness that is not merely an instance of venal corruption but something that is inherently and deeply wrong with the world - a sense that is only heightened by the outsized moral obscenity of setting fire to small children. 

The year before he finished adding Songs of Experience to Songs of Innocence Blake published two further works using the word “Albion.” First was America a Prophecy, which was followed up in 1794 by Europe a Prophecy. These “continental prophecies” adapted and repurposed American and European history to talk about revolution in a more absolute sense, exploring Blake’s character of Orc, the furious spirit of revolution who is both the eldest son of Los and Enitharmon and the fallen form of Luvah. [continued]

Comments

Jarl 3 years, 1 month ago

Brief editorial note, the parenthesis that starts with "(and responsible for the extermination of them on the alternate Earth where Thorpe’s stories took place." never closes. Unless of course that's one of those intentional things.

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storiteller 3 years, 1 month ago

I noticed the same thing and wondered if I was missing something!

Also, thanks for the fascinating discussions of Blake. He's one of those authors that I've heard of off-hand, but never really looked into. The overall context of his work is really essential to understanding him, I think; the poems lose most of their bite and depth without it. I especially like the Infant's Joy / Infant's Sorrow duo, which seem like some of the least dark. I have a small baby and most people don't realize how overwhelming and difficult the world is for them.

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storiteller 3 years, 1 month ago

Also, I meant to mention - a seance? Was it perhaps done by Alan Moore?

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IG 3 years, 1 month ago

No, it was Adrian Riglesford ;)

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 1 month ago

Thank you. I worry that the Blake bits are possibly a mite self-indulgent, but I do so enjoy said indulgence.

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jane 3 years, 1 month ago

It doesn't matter if the Blake bits are self-indulgent, because they are, I think, fascinating and compelling in their own right, not to mention (I suspect) absolutely essential to understanding the last war in Albion.

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Daru 2 years, 5 months ago

As with the others above Phil, I am really appreciating the Blake sections - they both give a real context to understanding the War and its battlefield, as well as giving me a deeper perspective on his work. I love the way they are threaded through the work, coming in as a parallel commentary, yes I love the transitions and the seances!

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