Silky, Luminous Cobwebs (The Last War in Albion Part 47: Captain Britain in The Daredevils, Psychedelia and Marvel Comics)

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This is the seventh 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 killing and resurrecting Captain Britain, Moore did a series of stories engaging with various points regarding the character's past.

"These strands... you're made of them too... everything's made of them... silky, luminous cobwebs..." - Alan Moore, Swamp Thing #34

Figure 347: Wardog and Zeitgeist, of the
Special Executive, made their first
appearance in an early Moore strip for
Doctor Who Monthly (From "Black Sun
Rising," written by Alan Moore, art by
David Lloyd, in Doctor Who Monthly
#57, 1981)
This, however, is just an extreme case of a tendency that Moore displays throughout his Captain Britain run. It is not that he doesn’t introduce new characters. But all of them are clear extensions of characters that predated his run. The Fury is a solid enough villain, but he’s also created to explain where the superheroes of the alternate earth went. Captain UK, one of those superheroes, was mentioned in passing by Dave Thorpe back in Marvel Super-Heroes #379, and her husband, Miracleman, is a barely veiled Marvelman. Vixen herself may be an original character, but Vixen’s gang appeared all the way back in Captain Britain #3. Even the Special Executive are borrowed from Moore’s earlier Doctor Who work. Moore’s Captain Britain is populated entirely out of the existing comic book world of Captain Britain. In this regard, Moore manages to largely sidestep the question of what Britain is. Britain isn’t even depicted in this comic - certainly it takes several steps backwards from the overt political content of the Thorpe era. The Britain of which Braddock is Captain is, in other words, firmly a comic book realm and not a real one. As Moore puts it, “he’s pure Marvel! He’s there in the Marvel Universe with a billion other super characters all around him. You can’t get that same realism.”

In many ways, then, Alan Davis’s account of things is correct in the broad strokes, but incomplete. Moore ramps down the politics and up the cosmic weirdness, yes, but only as part of ramping up the general superheroishness of the strip. In this regard he is closer to Thorpe’s approach than he lets on: where Thorpe attempted to ramp up both politics and his “peculiarly British surrealty,” Moore opts only for the latter. It is tempting to accuse this approach of being apolitical - a dangerous accusation when dealing with an intrinsically nationalist symbol like Captain Britain. But the British surrealism suggested would almost necessarily carry a more politicized edge to someone kicked out of school and effectively forced to work in a tannery for selling acid, and who has said that “it’s difficult to overstate the impact of psychedelic drugs upon my life and work.” Whimsy is not inherently apolitical, and certainly not in this context.

Figure 348: Betsy Braddock falls under
the psychedelic spell of Cobweb. (From
"Executive Action," written by Alan Moore,
art by Alan Davis, in The Daredevils #5, 1983)
Indeed, it is when the “cosmic weirdness” starts to kick up in The Daredevils #5 that the influence of psychedelia becomes clear. That issue’s Captain Britain strip, “Executive Action,” introduces the Special Executive, minor characters from Moore’s aborted “4-D War” arc for Doctor Who Monthly, who proceed to kidnap Captain Britain so that he can testify at the trial of Saturnyne. The Special Executive includes Wardog and Zeitgeist, and Cobweb, all from the Doctor Who strips, as well as new characters like Fascination and Legion. Cobweb and Fascination are particularly notable, as they have overtly psychedelic powers. Cobweb “is in constant psychic contact with a number of past and future selves,” which gives her the ability to seethe future and past, and also means that within her mind “time has no meaning” and “past, present and future melt into a terrifying kaleidoscope.” This is a return to the familiar image of time as a structure in which all events happen simultaneously, an idea that fits well within the psychedelic aesthetic. Similarly, Fascination’s ability is described as making it so “time distorts around her. Motion breaks down into juddering stroboscopic images… seconds stretch into centuries. Aeons condense into instants.” Or, in other words, she gets people really high. In both cases, there are clear echoes of Moore’s explanation of the value of LSD in his work: “it hammered home to me that reality was not a fixed thing.”

Figure 349: Loki's scheme results in a psychedelically whimsical
transformation of the world. (Written by Stan Lee, Larry
Lieber, and Jack Kirby, art by Jack Kirby, from Journey
into Mystery
 #88, 1963)
But Moore is hardly the one to introduce a psychedelic aesthetic to Marvel comics. Indeed, it’s more accurate to say that the psychedelic weirdness that the Special Executive’s arrival augurs is Moore paying tribute to a rich history of psychedelia within Marvel comics. From the start, Jack Kirby’s artistic style had a visionary quality to it that would only increase over the course of his career. His work drawing Thor for Journey into Mystery is indicative, with the Norse Gods ensconced in a gleaming sci-fi city at the end of a rainbow that perfectly fused the mythological underpinnings of the character to a hyper-modern sci-fi aesthetic. But equally important are the stories by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber, with plots like that of the January 1963 issue of Journey Into Mystery, in which Loki escapes from Asgard to bring mischief to Earth and does things like turn people “into blank beings” such that an entire city street becomes occupied by white outlines of people screaming bout how “we - we’re turning into nothings!! It’s madness! Impossible!” or turns all the objects on a street into candy and ice cream, so the whole street is a kaleidoscope of colors slowly melting and sluicing away to nothing. If psychedelia is to be framed in terms of Moore’s claim that it reveals reality as something other than a fixed thing, then this story, with its threat of an otherworldly being coming to earth and deforming reality, is a clear enough example.

Figure 350: Reed Richards awash in
Kirby Krackle. (Written by Stan Lee
and Jack Kirby, art by Jack Kirby,
from Fantastic Four #51, 1966)
But it is not just when dealing with the overtly mythological and fantastic that Kirby’s style tends towards the psychedelic. Many of the iconic and defining aspects of Kirby’s art are ones that resonate with the aesthetics of psychedelia, whether it be his twisting, fractal-like designs for giant machines, his tendency to use clusters of solid black dots to convey massive amounts of energy, a technique that’s come to be known as Kirby Krackle, or his experiments with collage and montage, Kirby’s art takes the four color action aesthetic that originally defined superhero comics and expands it to a lurid world comprised of sheer kineticism. The pinnacle of this, at least in Marvel’s early days, is the three issue run from Fantastic Four #48 through 50, in which Lee and Kirby introduce the planet eating Galactus and his servant, the Silver Surfer. The story culminates with the Human Torch being sent to explore outside of time itself and past “the celestial barriers known as Un-Life” and “the final dimension curtain” in order to retrieve a weapon powerful enough to stop Galactus. When he returns he is shaken by the experience, explaining that he “traveled through worlds… so big… so big… there… there aren’t words..! We’re like ants… just ants.. ants!!”

Figure 351: For all the cosmic weirdness
going on in the page, Ditko centers the
action on Dr. Strange and his experience
of the psychedelic strangeness. (Written
by Dennis O'Neil and Steve Ditko,
art by Steve Ditko, from Strange Tales
#146, 1966)
Nor was Kirby the only Marvel artist with a psychedelic bent. Steve Ditko’s run of stories featuring Doctor Strange in Strange Tales was just as soaked in psychedelia. Where Kirby presented a world brimming endlessly with ever stranger and more outlandish concepts, Ditko’s work is based much more on a moody, shadowy space that bristles with tension and anxiety. The surreal mystic spaces that Doctor Strange explores are just as weird as the products of Kirby’s imagination, but under Ditko’s pen the focus is not on the mystic vastness as such, but on Doctor Strange’s experience of it. Ditko doesn’t just draw weird spaces, he draws Doctor Strange looking at weird spaces, framing the psychedelic weirdness in the act of individual vision, and in doing so coming closer to the ideology of psychedelia than even Kirby (even if the focus on individual vision is, for Ditko, more a product of his fascination with Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism than a product of psychedelia), and it is no surprise that Ditko’s Doctor Strange was a favorite of Ken Kesey.

By 1968 Marvel, always adept at chasing trends, was actively catering towards the psychedelic aesthetic, launching a solo Silver Surfer series along with the similarly cosmic (and more importantly trademark protecting) Captain Marvel, and as the 1970s dawned, the psychedelic tendencies only increased. By this point Marvel had moved to its second generation of writers and artists, with both Ditko and Kirby having left the company, and their successors concerned largely with somewhat cleaner and less edgy imitations of their styles. It is one of these heirs to Kirby and Ditko, Jim Starlin, who ended up perfecting the psychedelic style within Marvel with a pair of iconic runs as a writer-artist on Captain Marvel and, subsequently, Warlock. Both of the series were based in outer space, and featured an inventiveness comparable to that of Kirby or Ditko’s work, spinning vast cosmic epics of mad tyrants wanting to become gods and weird, twisted pocket universes. 

Figure 352: Jim Starlin's combination
of clean linework and psychedelic imagery
established him as one of the most influential
creative figures at Marvel in the 1970s.
(By Jim Starlin, from Captain Marvel #28,
1973)
Starlin’s style, by his own admission, owes a lot to both artists, but with a more disciplined, intricate line than either. This was common among the second generation of Marvel artists, who copied Kirby’s style, dutifully adding large patches of Krackle to their panels, but with a cleaner line that smooths away the rough edges that made Kirby’s art so groundbreaking. But Starlin combined his cleaner line work with writing that was as mad an inventive as anything Lee or Kirby ever cooked up, and used his role as a writer/artist to work out intricate page layouts beyond anything Kirby would ever attempt. Moore, by this time, had already done several imitations of Starlin’s style, and particularly his panel layouts in The Stars My Degradation.

So Moore’s expansion into vast cosmic weirdness, like everything else in his Captain Britain run, extends out of the larger history of Marvel comics. But in this case it ties further into the question of who Captain Britain is and what he signifies. The psychedelic phase of Moore’s Captain Britain focuses on the idea of multiple earths that he inherited from Dave Thorpe, and specifically on the idea, implicit in Thorpe’s work, that there’s an equivalent of Captain Britain in every one of these universes. This has the effect of changing Captain Britain from a seemingly patriotic hero to one based in the idea of multiplicity and the idea that there are a potentially infinite number of visions of what Britain could be. This, of course, extends straightforwardly from Moore’s fascination with psychedelia: reality is not a fixed thing, and thus neither is Britain.

This is a major theme for Moore, who begins setting it up early on in his run when he reveals that Merlin, the mystical figure upon which this entire mythologized Britain rests, is not one person but a succession of identities and figures such that Captain Britain would not even truly know Merlin if he met him. This changes the nature of the mystical source of Captain Britain’s power, making it not a single authority but a nexus of signifiers and concepts with no central or definable authority. For all that Captain Britain, with his militaristic uniform and upper class dignity, seems to extend out of a sense of noble authority, this stands in marked contrast to the world he finds himself in, and it is this contrast that Moore focuses on. Or, as he puts it, “the English stiffness and jut-jawed pompousness which Alan Davis quite intentionally instilled in Captain Britain and Brian Braddock makes him a near-perfect straight man for the chaos and absurdity exploding all around him.” 

This is a heady message, and a far cry from the banal political points that Thorpe was attempting to score. But by this point Moore was writing the strip for The Daredevils, and The Daredevils was, from the start, designed as a different sort of comics magazine. For one thing, it’s a lot less of a comics magazine. Its first issue uses only thirty-two of its fifty-six pages for comics, or a bit shy of 60% of the magazine. In contrast, Marvel Super-Heroes #377, where Davis’s run on Captain Britain began, uses forty-one of its fifty-two pages for comics, or nearly 80%. And the final issue of The Incredible Hulk Weekly used twenty-nine of thirty-two pages, or just over 90% of its page count, for comics. By the end of The Daredevils there were only two actual comic strips running in it - Captain Britain and the eponymous Daredevil strip, although both were relatively long (the comic was reprinting full issues of Daredevil alongside twelve-page original Captain Britain strips. But what is significant about The Daredevils is not merely the unusually large amount of non-comic material but the sort of it.

Figure 353: A page from The Daredevils
#7 showing Steve Dillon's early artwork,
one of many non-comics features in the
magazine.
To pick an issue more or less at random, The Daredevils #7 featured eleven pages of Captain Britain, a three page overview of Japanese comics by Steve Moore, a two-page letter column, two pages of fanzine reviews, a four-page illustrated story featuring Night Raven, a page of broader news about the comics industry (looking at both Marvel and DC), a page of Steve Dillon’s childhood artwork, seventeen pages of Daredevil, a four-page reprint of a strip from Doctor Who Monthly, and a few pages of house ads, back issue sales, classifieds, and the like. What jumps out about this list is the audience at which a lot of it is aimed. The piece on Japanese comics, the fanzine reviews, and even the look at the early work of a major British artist (a recurring feature that in other issues covered Dave Gibbons, Alan Davis, and Garry Leach, among others) are all clearly aimed not just at comics readers, but at dedicated fans of the medium. 

In this regard it is perhaps easiest to think of The Daredevils as Marvel UK’s conscious response to Dez Skinn’s success with targeting Warrior at an older audience of comic fans. While Warrior was always a mess in terms of its finances, the buzz and attention it drew turned plenty of heads. The problem was that Warrior made its name off of original content, whereas Marvel UK was still first and foremost a company that existed to publish reprints of American comic books. [continued]

Comments

Heath 2 years, 9 months ago

This analysis is really coming together. I admit, I was really thrown by the Blake chapter, but the tie-in to the Marvel house-style (being far more psychedelic than I had ever credited) is really on point.

I am particularly struck by the notion that the representation of Britain is more diffuse than a single authority defining 'Britishness.' But this seems to follow a very Whovian tradition of regeneration or basically different blokes representing similar concepts over time.

Finally, and I'm sure you'll mention this at some point, but the Brian Braddock Cap. Britain, as the stiff straight man serves as our point of view character, but eventually seems to completely become irrelevant to the narrative, with the colorful cast hogging far more of the spotlight (and important plot points) while an alternate universe Cap eventually becomes the real hero of the run.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 9 months ago

use clusters of solid black dots to convey massive amounts of energy

Slight quibble, and maybe not even a quibble: what you say is perfectly accurate as stated, but it might give the impression that the black dots themselves represent the energy -- whereas I take it that the energy is represented by where the black dots aren't, the dots instead being holes in or along the edges of the energy.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 9 months ago

Interesting. I think most subsequent uses of Kirby Krackle - i.e. not by Kirby - have gone in the "the dots are the energy."

I would suggest that in Kirby himself it's not so much a literal representation of energy in the first place as it is a successful depiction of uncanniness.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 9 months ago

Thank you. The Blake sections are in some ways designed to throw people. They're definitely part of the long game of the blog. :)

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Alan 2 years, 9 months ago

This is the first time I noticed Betsy Braddock, though I may have missed her introduction in an earlier Albion post. At some point, will you reference the subsequent (and, on paper, bizarre) decision to reconfigure her from a British telepath to an Asian stripper-ninja telepath?

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BerserkRL 2 years, 9 months ago

Right, but if you look at how it evolved it seems clear that it began as holes or gaps in an energy field.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 9 months ago

I have in mind e.g. this early example.

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