I’ve never liked Captain Britain. For a country which pours scorn on anybody (Stephen Fry aside) with power, he seems like a weird addition to the national psyche. He’s a ticklist of irritating pieces – like all British characters during the 1980s, he’s got a drinking problem; he wears a Union Jack on his shirt; he’s self-interested and posh. And if there’s anything which would cause British people to bristle, it’s the thought that their main hero went to a private school. Every detail I hear about him – the way he intimidates his wife, the fact that apparently everybody in Britain thinks he speaks with their accent, and his treatment of his sister in Uncanny X-Force – makes me like him less.
But he’s pretty good in Avengers Assemble AU! From the creative team of Al Ewing, Butch Guice, Tom Palmer & Rick Magyar, Frank D’Armata and Clayton Cowles. This is one of the tie-ins to Age of Ultron, the ‘event’ storyline currently running through Marvel. Age of Ultron itself feels rather irrelevant as a whole, being a time-travel-alternate-reality storyline which hasn’t gone anywhere very quickly, and doesn’t look like it’ll be ending anywhere interesting. It’s been a very slow storyline which has passed most readers by, apocalypse-by-the-numbers. And in such troubled times as these, readers turn to the tie-ins to make something out of the event.
Featuring a cast including the dreaded Captain Britain as well as Captain Marvel, Excalibur, the Black Knight and a handful of new creations, the book strands itself in London and creates a claustrophobic sense of dread. Robots have taken over the world, and they’ve won. The only way the characters will be able to survive is luck – which is when Carol Danvers stumbles upon somebody who might actually be able to provide a solution. Creating an odds-and-sods team of heroes, the two Captains go on a suicide mission to take down Ultron and give Britain a chance to strike back.
It’s not a particularly new storyline, but it’s not intended to be one – Ewing seems acutely aware of the limitations that the event puts him under, and his characters know they can’t destroy Ultron forever. Because, that’s going to be the job of the characters in the main book. Instead, the characters here are portrayed as doomed but resistant. A lot of the characterisation for this comes through in the text, but as much of it is due to the job done by inkers Palmer and Magyar, as well as colourist D’Armata. It would be tempting on a book like this to make everything dark and grim – but instead, they simply choose to mute the storyline.
This is most obvious in the colouring, which is dulled down from the usual shiny reds and blues seen on the Captains. In this issue, everybody looks grubby – nobody’s washed their hair in weeks. The inking, as well, isolates the characters. There are a few pages where the only clear thing are those dirty reds of Captain Britain’s costume, and yet he’s inked ahead of the background, so he pops away from it. This makes him feel unreal even though he’s battered and technically defeated by circumstance. Ewing’s script is heavy on characterisation, and the artistic team leap on the chance to accentuate his ideas about the cast.
It’s a standard what-if in theory, this issue. But in the hands of Al Ewing – who appears to be making good on his reputation as the next major writer in comics – that doesn’t particularly matter. The characterisation is where the book manages to pull away from its parent title and become a story of its own. He manages to echo the style of Paul Cornell, who last handled these characters, but with a bleaker core. Captain Britain and MI13 always felt romantic and idealised, with a cast who were safe and protected. Ewing seizes an opportunity to erase that security, and put fear into the characters. Faiza Hussain, Excalibur, benefits most from this. Her optimistic babble-talk could rankle if handled incorrectly, but the circumstances of the Age of Ultron suddenly give her a new light.
Rather than being plucky, the book paints the characters as being tough. Captain Marvel especially, who jumps six levels in steely determination for this issue alone. Danvers, like Captain Britain, has had a prior history of being a blank symbol, who doesn’t have the character to back the conviction of what they represent. Yet the last year with Kelly Sue DeConnick has put some fire into the character, some anger and power, and here we see again just how even the dullest of edges can be sharpened. The dialogue is crisp and to the point, setting the four or five principle characters apart from one another but uniting them in spirit.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the clear star of the issue, either – Magic Boots Mel, a football-magic hero who races around, drop-volleying grenades at ultrons.
Making sure to sidestep the trap of having every character say ‘sodding’ twice a panel, Ewing manages to script convincing British characters who feel contemporary in spirit. The final page in particular shows off how the creative team are handling the cast – with Faiza giving a final speech that slips away from her usual humour and into a more determined, steely mode. Guice adds uncertainty to her expression even while Ewing writes her speech as firm. There’s intricate contradiction in the characters, which elevates them and makes them feel real and important.
Which brings us back to Captain Britain, really, doesn’t it? The issue’s core moment for the character actually comes very early on, as he gives a speech about the nature of Britain and all that weakens it. In a move which surprised me, he mentions his disgust as those who “sneer at “chavs” and scroungers”. Rather than being one of the privileged who looks down on the working-classes, this gave me the first glimpse of a Captain Britain who actually recognises and understands the people of Britain. Rather than being the man who stands above everyone else and determines what is ‘british’ or not, Ewing’s Captain Britain stands in amongst the people, worrying for everybody and trying to push everybody into a better place.
I liked that version of Captain Britain. I hope Ewing brings him back soon.