The Old Straight Tracks and the Sacred Stones (The Last War in Albion Part 43: Hulk Comic)

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The Kickstarter to fund The Last War in Albion has made it to its first stretch goal! Next up is a commitment to blogging through Volume 4 of the project, focusing on Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

This is the second 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: The 1976 launch of Captain Britain, Marvel's first comic created for exclusive UK release, was filled with a lot of fanfare, but under the hood the fact that it was blatantly created by Americans was altogether obvious...


"I am Elen, Goddess of the old straight tracks and the standing stones! Once only in seven times seven score years can mortal man gain the powers of Earth and Fire from the stones of this place." - Grant Morrison, Captain Clyde

The fact that only sixteen issues into his own series Captain Britain not only needed to be propped up with a high profile guest star, but had to be propped up by the exact character he was demonstrably designed as an imitation of speaks volumes about the problems the series was facing. And these problems can hardly be called a surprise - of course a series with a hook of “Britain’s very own superhero” is going to be lackluster when it’s produced by a bunch of Americans with a minimal-at-best connection with Britain. At least Claremont was born in the UK, even if he moved away too young to have any meaningful memories of it - but Herb Trimpe’s UK bona fides consisted of having vacationed there once, an experience that seems to have mostly left him with the view that he “didn’t believe that a superhero could be popular in England.” But as tenuous as the initial creative team’s connection to the UK was, Friedrich’s arrival marked the point where the series became a revolving door of creators with no connection whatsoever - Trimpe left after issue #23, with John Buscema, a longstanding artist most associated with The Avengers, drawing seven issues before being replaced by Ron Wilson, around which point writing duties became a complete mess. Issue #36 was plotted by Friedrich but had dialogue entirely written by Larry Lieber, issue #37 was scripted by Len Wein, with Larry Lieber joining Bob Budiansky for plotting duties, and issues #38 and 39 were plotted by Bob Budiansky with dialogue by Jim Lawrence. By this point the comic had long since deteriorated to where it was no longer profitable to print it in color, and with issue #39 it was cancelled entirely and, in the usual Marvel UK way, merged with another title, in this case the newly reminted Super Spider-Man and Captain Britain.

Figure 320: Nobody has ever suggested that Lord Hawk is
a classic villain, a status that is perhaps unsurprising given
the mess that makes up the credits on his appearances. (From
Captain Britain #28, 1977)
The only surprise here is that Captain Britain wasn’t abandoned entirely. The series had by this point become thoroughly dire, with Captain Britain facing such ludicrous foes as Lord Hawk (who mostly just attacks people with a robotic hawk) and the Highwayman (a motorcycle-based character described as being “like a stallion-borne brigand of old”) and the plot had become effectively incoherent. As Moore puts it, “at this point in the Captain’s history he had two writers and three artists. This possibly explains why Merlin, previously thought to be an ancient Celtic warlock suddenly reveals himself to be an extra dimensional space traveler.” Instead the character limped through seventeen issues of Super Spider-Man and Captain Britain, most of them written by Larry Lieber again, and featuring some of the most appallingly generic superhero material ever written. Moore sardonically describes it as a “spectacle of The Captain losing his last shreds of credibility at the hands of The Highwayman, The Manipulator, Dr. Claw and his Evil Mutants, The Loch Ness Monster, a bunch of Aliens, Werewolves, Vampires, Slaymaster, and of course that much-loved old stand-by the Devil Himself,” a description that is unfair largely because it wrongly makes it sound vaguely interesting. 

Figure 321: It is traditional, in any superhero team-up, to begin with the
two heroes pounding the crap out of each other. (Written by Chris Claremont,
art by John Byrne and Dave Hunt, in Marvel Team-Up #65, 1977)
Meanwhile, in the United States Chris Claremont used his gig writing Marvel Team-Up Featuring Spider-Man, a series in which Spider-Man teams up with various Marvel heroes, to take another bite of the apple and try to write Captain Britain, having him show up for a two-issue run. The story was a straightforward execution of the standard tropes of superhero team-ups - the first issue features Captain Britain and Spider-Man slugging each other over a misunderstanding, while the second involves them actually teaming up against a villain - in this case the overly elaborate assassin Arcade, who Claremont would go on to use fairly regularly in his 1980s X-Men comics. These two issues were serialized over six installments of Super Spider-Man and Captain Britain at nearly the exact same time they were coming out in the US, and this refreshing return to mediocrity served as the character’s last appearance for over a year.

Figure 322: Hulk Comic was Marvel UK's
first attempt at creating a magazine primarily
comprised of original material.
With Marvel UK in a tailspin, Marvel hired Dez Skinn, a British industry veteran, to investigate and explain what was going wrong. In Skinn’s account, the report was successful and straightforward enough that Stan Lee offered him the job of editing the line, for the first time moving editorial control of Marvel UK to the UK itself. Skinn launched a bevy of initiatives, including acquiring the Doctor Who license and starting Doctor Who Weekly in October of 1979. But his first and in many ways most significant move was the March 1979 launch of Hulk Comic, Marvel UK’s second attempt at producing original content. Where Captain Britain was an American comic published for British audiences, however, Hulk Comic featured a lineup of British creators doing their own takes on Marvel’s characters. The comic led with a Hulk story by Steve Moore and Dave Gibbons, backed up by a Steve Moore-penned Nick Fury strip featuring the art of a sixteen-year-old Steve Dillon and a Steve Parkhouse/David Lloyd strip featuring their original creation of a noir superhero named Night-Raven, along with some reprints of 1960s Ant-Man comics from the US. Most of the original material faltered after about twenty issues, but the fifth strip, written by Steve Parkhouse and featuring the Black Knight, continued throughout the sixty-three issue run of the comic. 

The Black Knight was a perennial also-ran within Marvel, first appearing in 1955 as a character in a five-issue Stan Lee-written medieval adventure serial featuring Sir Percy of Scandia, a knight in King Arthur’s court who wielded the Ebony Blade, forged by Merlin from a meteorite. In 1964, Lee created a second version of the character, descended from the original, who served as the villain for a story featuring Giant Man in Tales to Astonish #52. This villain kicked around for about two years before being killed in an Iron Man story, and about two years after that Roy Thomas created a third iteration, the nephew of the second, who was heroic again, and served as a recurring character in The Avengers

Figure 323: The Black Knight strip in
Hulk Comic was elevated tremendously by
John Stokes's moody artwork. (Written by
Steve Parkhouse, art by John Stokes, from
The Incredible Hulk Weekly #51, 1980)
It was this version that Dez Skinn dusted off for use in Hulk Comic. Reasoning, as he put it, that “he would suit an Arthurian mystery story far better than a Manhattan skyline,” Skinn turned the strip over to Steve Parkhouse, who had a noted affection for Celtic and Arthurian legend. Realizing that the Black Knight and Captain Britain, although developed independently, both had origin stories based in Arthurian mythology, Skinn suggested that Captain Britain be a co-star of the strip. But the details of this were held back - instead the Black Knight encountered the mysterious Stranger, who lurked in a cave in Cornwall. It is not until the third installment of the strip that it’s finally revealed that the Stranger is in fact an amnesiac Captain Britain, and not until issue #42 that his amnesia is finally explained as the product of a psychic attack he suffered on the plane ride home from his adventure with Spider-Man, leading him to leap out of the plane and wash up on the coast of Cornwall. 

Figure 324: Gustave Doré's art for Alfred Lord
Tennyson's Idylls of the King. (1868)
Over the course of fifty installments the Black Knight and Captain Britain go on an extended adventure into Otherworld to rescue Camelot from a siege on the part of the demon Necromon, whose attack was responsible for Captain Britain’s amnesia. Over the course of it Captain Britain dies and is resurrected, the Black Knight comes to wield Excalibur itself, and the pair find themselves accompanied by a cheeky elf named Jackdaw. As with much of Parkhouse’s work, it doesn’t hold up when artificially strung together into a single extended narrative, but as a weekly serial it served up satisfying slices of epic bombast elevated by Stokes’s meticulous artwork, which realized the fantastic monsters in a rich style that evoked the woodcut engravings used to illustrate 19th and 20th century volumes of fairy tale and legend, placing the comic in the same tradition as Gustave Doré’s illustrations for Idylls of the King or Henry Justice Ford’s illustrations for Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books. “It was magnificent,” Moore declared straightforwardly in his overview of Captain Britain’s comics, and it is in truth hard to argue. Certainly, for the first time, the UK had a story featuring Captain Britain that felt British, drenched in an understanding of lore and Celtic mythology that, while amplified to a bombastic tone suitable for Marvel comics, was still clearly the work of someone who grew up reading the Arthurian legends as opposed to by someone who had seen Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot and Disney’s The Sword and the Stone at the cinema once. 

Captain Britain departed the Black Knight strip in issue #60 of what was now named The Incredible Hulk Weekly, sent back to Earth alongside Jackdaw by the newly resurrected King Arthur three installments before the Black Knight and King Arthur finally defeat Necromon, leading to another sizable gap in his publication. By this time Dez Skinn had left Marvel UK (his last credited issue of The Incredible Hulk Weekly was #52, which came out the last week of February, 1980) having effectively revamped the line. On the one hand, his approach was a committed imitation of the US Marvel approach - indeed, even in 2014 his website declares him to be “the British Stan Lee.” Following from Lee, he introduced a regular column in parallel to “Stan’s Soapbox,” “Sez Dez,” written with the same sense of unceasingly enthusiastic hype, laying out an elaborate (and ever expanding) plan for the “Marvel Revolution.” By the time of Hulk Comic #46 at the start of 1980 he had seven “phases” to his revolution under his belt, and was hyping the eighth and (as it turned out) final one. The Incredible Hulk Weekly wound down in May of 1980, three months after Skinn’s departure. One month later, in June of 1980, Alan Moore got his start as a comics scriptwriter in Doctor Who Weekly. Skinn, in the meantime, went on to run his own company, Studio System, which provided consulting services for art design. About a year after leaving Marvel he decided to get back into comics under the company name Quality Communications. And in April of 1981, Skinn began work on a new anthology series to be called Warrior.

Figure 325: Steve Parkhouse's The Spiral
Path
 was an attempt to recapture the energy
and tone of his Black Knight strips for Hulk
Comic
. (Written and drawn by Steve Parkhouse,
from Warrior #1, 1982)
There are several accounts of the exact concept behind the strips in Warrior, but it is generally agreed upon that the magazine was modeled directly off of Skinn’s earlier work. In Skinn’s account, “instead of Captain Britain, we had Marvelman. Instead of Nightraven, we had V for Vendetta. Instead of Abslom Daak, a character we created for the Doctor Who comic, we had Axel Pressbutton. And instead of Conan we had Shandor.” In what will prove a recurring theme when dealing with Dez Skinn, this difficult to reconcile with factual reality. Abslom Daak’s first appearance, for instance, came in the February 6th, 1980 issue of Doctor Who Weekly, which means that Skinn only ever edited the first story of the character. It is far more likely, as Alan Moore claims, that the comic was modeled almost entirely on Hulk Comic. As Moore points out, “the only inclusion of Captain Britain [in Skinn’s work] had been in Steve Parkhouse’s Black Knight strip in Hulk Weekly,” suggesting that Parkhouse’s The Spiral Path was the intended descendent of that, and that Laser Eraser and Pressbutton was modeled on the Moore/Dillon Nick Fury comics from Hulk Comic, with “Marvelman as a stand-in for the Hulkand a couple of other ideas like Father Shandor, Demon Stalker coming from earlier comics Skinn had edited.

Just a month after Skinn started work on Warrior, Alan Moore gave an interview to David Lloyd for the newsletter of the Society of Strip Illustration, a professional organization for British comics creators. Although Moore had been in the comics industry proper for less than a year, Lloyd identified him as being among “five of the most respected and reputable strip writers in British comics” alongside Steve Parkhouse, Steve Moore, Pat Mills, and Angus Allan.” This was, to be sure, high praise - Moore had, by that time, only published eight stories in 2000 AD along with four in Doctor Who Weekly, but for all his greenness, Moore answered the questions in the sort of detailed length that would characterize his later interviews. In his answer to the final question, “What ambitions do you have for ‘strips’ as a whole,” Moore concluded by noting that his “greatest personal hope is that someone will revive Marvelman, and I’ll get to write it.” 

Figure 326: Alan Moore got his wish
when he revived Marvelman for Warrior.
(From "A Dream of Flying," written by Alan
Moore, art by Garry Leach, in Warrior #1,
1982)
This was, obviously, a shockingly well-timed interview comment - Skinn had, in fact, decided to put a Marvelman revival into Warrior (even if he had not been particularly diligent in securing the rights). The strip was originally intended to go to a high profile and well-known creative team - Steve Moore, Steve Parkhouse, Dave Gibbons, and Brian Bolland were all sounded out, but turned the offer down. Exactly how Alan Moore came to be offered the gig is somewhat muddy. Moore suggests that Skinn might have read the SSI interview, whereas Skinn suggests that Steve Moore, when declining the series, suggested that “he had a friend who would kill to write Marvelman,” stressing that he’d not even heard of Alan Moore. Lance Parkin points out that this is at least somewhat strained as a claim - it requires both that Skinn forget having hired Moore for the Frantic Winter Special while at Marvel UK (admittedly plausible) and that Skinn did not realize that the Axel Pressbutton character he was arranging to have Steve Moore write for Warrior had made most of his appearances under Moore’s pen (also plausible given that Moore was working under a pseudonym in Sounds). Regardless, Skinn allowed Moore to pitch for Marvelman and then to write a script on spec before hiring him to write it, and, subsequently, the Night-Raven-style strip, now called V for Vendetta, with David Lloyd on art. Moore’s work on these two comics would turn out to span the entire decade and eventually form two of the most important texts of Moore’s career, but at this point they were exceedingly well-received comics in a highly respected publication, albeit one with chronic distribution problems. They were, in other words, earning Moore acclaim among serious comics fans. 

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. [continued]

Comments

BerserkRL 3 years, 3 months ago

This possibly explains why Merlin, previously thought to be an ancient Celtic warlock suddenly reveals himself to be an extra dimensional space traveler

As later revealed in "Battlefield."

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BerserkRL 3 years, 3 months ago

The Captain losing his last shreds of credibility at the hands of The Highwayman, The Manipulator, Dr. Claw and his Evil Mutants, The Loch Ness Monster, a bunch of Aliens, Werewolves, Vampires, Slaymaster, and of course that much-loved old stand-by the Devil Himself

And the comparisons to Doctor Who continue ....

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BerserkRL 3 years, 3 months ago

Sir Percy of Scandia

"Percy" is of course a quintessentially Scandinavian name. Stan Lee's finely honed sense of cultural authenticity surfaces again.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 3 months ago

To be fair "everyone has Franco-English names, regardless of where they're from" is authentic Arthuriana. If you like, maybe "Percy" is just what the romances called him and his "real" name was Pehr, just like Gawaine was "really" the Celtic Gwalchmai.

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elvwood 3 years, 3 months ago

I'm interested in the comment about Warrior's distribution problems. Except for the Marvelman Special I just went along to my local comic shop and picked it up along with whatever else I wanted, so I never got the sense it was hard to find.

Mind you, I was an undergraduate by then, and Rainbow's End in Oxford was the sort of place I could only dream of finding when I was younger. I remember a family holiday in Norfolk when I was about 15 or 16. We went to Norwich and discovered a comic shop - the first I'd ever seen. It was as if I'd found Aladdin's cave. The only problem was that they had so much I wanted - far more than I could afford. Happy day!

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Dan Abel 3 years, 3 months ago

My first discovery of american comics was also in Norfolk. Caster on Sea holiday camp had a spinner rack, where I bought X-men 165. A classic Chris Claremont issue, link fans.

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Dan Abel 3 years, 3 months ago

In Tech Support news. Is anyone else having problems uploading Smashword's Mobi file to their kindle. Amazon keeps rejecting mine when I send it.

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Alan 3 years, 3 months ago

Ah, Arcade. Possibly the most ludicrous character in Marvel history. Supposedly one of the world's greatest assassins, he charges $1million a hit ... and he kills his victims by luring them to his private amusement park which is outfitted with robots and death traps and easily costs $100million a year to operate. To my knowledge, he had never successfully killed ANYONE in any of his appearances prior to some C-listers and original characters whose death he arranged in Avengers Arena (a vile little Hunger Games rip-off that recently ended).

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BerserkRL 3 years, 3 months ago

And why would anyone hire him? If I wanted someone killed, I wouldn't want them kidnapped and forced to play games from which they might well escape. I'd want a no-nonsense assassin who would take a head shot as quickly as possible.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 3 months ago

It's a known bug with .mobi files generated by Smashwords of books that don't have a table of contents (which the one-chapter Last War omnibi don't) - I'm afraid you'll have to direct-transfer it via USB cable.

I'll try to see if I can get a dummy ToC in for Chapter 8 that will hopefully solve this pesky issue.

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Dan Abel 3 years, 3 months ago

That worked. Thanks!

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 3 months ago

The thing about Arcade is that he debuts at the exact right time and has the exact right name. He's a villain who works through video games, and not in a ludicrous "Captain Video" sort of way that gives the strong sense of someone who has never actually played one. The underlying premise of Arcade may be absurd, but it makes a certain intuitive sense: he kills people by trapping them inside video games. It's perfect for the 80s, and he's been a bizarre legacy ever since.

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