On October 13th 1976, Marvel UK launched a comic with its first UK commissioned work- the titular Captain Britain! Until this moment, Marvel UK had existed solely as a reprint house, repackaging Marvel USA comics in the standard UK weekly format- black and white, roughly A4 size, anthologies featuring 3 or 4 strips per comic per week. The new comic continued some of this tradition- A4, anthological (initially Steranko’s Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD and the Fantastic Four), but with two major differences.
First, two of the strips were in colour. Secondly, one of those strips, Captain Britain, was original work only published in the UK.
Captain Britain was created by Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe- who are on record as saying they got the job because Chris had been born in the UK and Herb had visited London on occasion. The fact that both were based in the US meant of course that they saw the UK very much through visitors’ eyes and would create some amusing mismatches between Captain Britain’s Britain and real life Britain! Before we discuss these though, let’s start by explaining who Captain Britain is.
Captain Britain starts life as Brian Braddock, a brilliant physics student from the University of London. We know he is both English and a brilliant young scientist because he smokes a pipe- despite being only 20 or so years old. After being selected to be part of a research team at a top secret nuclear centre in Darkmoor (yes, DarKmoor- either a mistake for Dartmoor or an attempt to suggest the magical goings on that were to follow- you decide!), Brian is caught up in an attack by hi-tech thieves (so not so secret a base then) and in the confusion escapes on a motorcycle. In the ensuing chase, he crashes and finds himself in a circle of stones and confronted by Merlin and Roma, Merlin’s daughter.
They give him a choice between the Amulet of Right or the Sword of Might. Considering himself to be a scholar and not a warrior and unsuited for the challenge, he rejects the Sword and chooses the amulet and becomes Captain Britain. His pursuer grabs the sword and becomes the Reaver. Both adversaries are supernaturally powered, with enhanced fighting skills part of the spell but Brian triumphs and takes on the role of this Britain’s champion.
I say THIS Britain because years later we will learn that there is a multiverse and ALL Britain’s have a Captain Britain whose job it is to uphold the laws of the Britain of that world. Merlin and Roma are part of the Omniversal Guardians. But I am reaching ahead of myself.
Over the next 39 issues we discover much more about Brian. Born and raised in the small town of Maldon, Essex and educated at Fettes College in Edinburgh, Brian was a shy and studious youth, living a relatively quiet life and spending a lot of time with his parents and siblings (older brother Jamie and fraternal twin Elizabeth, who would eventually go on to become Psylocke!). The family were an aristocratic one who were no longer rich enough to fraternise with their peers, leaving Brian (too proud to fraternise with lower classes) a lonely child who immersed himself in the study of physics. He takes the fellowship at Darkmoor after the death of his parents (Sir James and Lady Elizabeth) in what seemed to be a laboratory accident.
It is only much later that it is revealed that Braddock is only one member of a much larger, inter-dimensional corps of mystical protectors, long after the original Captain Britain weekly was cancelled.
So, as his career as a superhero begins, Brian fights as the champion of Great Britain, often clashing with S.T.R.I.K.E, the UK version of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Welsh anti-superhero police officer Dai Thomas, as well as the usual assortment of mad scientists and slighted villains who become super creative to get revenge on those who had slighted them (see Hurricane). We are also introduced to the assassin Slaymaster and the crime matriarch Vixen. As with other Marvel heroes, Brian was viewed as a coward by others because he always vanished whenever trouble started. However Betsy and Jamie become aware of his secret identity when he saves them from Dr Synne, a villain terrorising the land around Braddock Manor. We also discover that Synne is in fact controlled by the sentient computer Mastermind, a device Brian’s father had created. During this particular battle Brian also learns that his parents did not die in an accident but had been deliberately killed by the computer. In the middle of this story arc, Chris Claremont left as writer, citing creative differences between him and the editor (this would not be the last time that the good Captain would be involved in creative disputes). Gary Friedrich took over the reins and continued the Americanised view of British life.
Shortly after this Captain Britain thwarts a neo-Nazi takeover of the country with the aid of Captain America, Nick Fury, and S.T.R.I.K.E. and is responsible for both saving Prime Minister Jim Callaghan from the Red Skull and from stopping the Skull’s germ bomb from killing everyone in London.
During this story however the format of Captain Britain as a comic changed dramatically- out went the colour in issue 24, with art duties taken on by one of the hottest artists at Marvel at the time- Mr John Buscema and later by Ron Wilson with Pablos Marcos. I think it would be bad form for me not to mention the fact that I think Herb Trimpe produced some of the best artwork of his distinguished career on Captain Britain weekly- the first couple of story arcs are captured in the 1978 Captain Britain annual on high grade paper, and you can really see the art at its best.
But for the Captain, his early career was coming to an end. Issue 39 of Captain Britain weekly was the final issue, as the title was merged (by popular demand no doubt!) with Super Spiderman weekly with issue 231. Following more revelations from Merlin about the true mystical nature of his powers and heritage (plus the transformation of his Quarterstaff into the Star Sceptre bringing flight to the Captain’s powers) Brian begins fighting more supernatural enemies rather than regular supervillains, all retroactively revealed to be part of Merlin’s overall plan to mentally prepare him for the much later Jasper’s Warp.
After limping on in Super Spiderman until issue 253 at least he went out on a high- Chris Claremont and John Byrne teamed the Captain up with Spiderman for a greatly entertaining showdown with Arcade and his Murderworld (basically reprinting Marvel Team Up 65 and 66), as Brian joins a student exchange programme in the US of A. This was December 1977, just 18 months from the launch of “the greatest superhero of all.”
After this he was not seen again until he played a supporting role in the excellent British creative team produced Black Knight strip in Hulk Comic which began in March 1979, where we are once more drawn into the dark magicks at the heart of the Captain Britain saga. This story arc also laid the groundwork for the complete relaunch that was to follow in Marvel Superheroes Monthly 377 in 1981. But all this is a story for another time.
So what are we to make of the Captain from his first appearance as discussed here? Well, let’s be honest, the strips are not going to win an award, and they provide a source of unintentional fun with their depiction of how our American cousins pictured life in the UK in the late 70s. Everywhere is smog and fog, our police officers wear rain capes, carry pistols and ride horses. Everyone says “cor blimey” and “mate” and even “chum”. I swear reading those early issues again I half expected Mary Poppins and Dick Van Dyke’s cheerful cockney chimney sweep to pop up dancing through the streets of London going “cor blimey guv’nor!”. Of course at the age of 12 when I first read Captain Britain weekly, I didn’t really know that coppers in London didn’t ride horses and carry guns either (by the way, this concept was continued on in the Marvel Two In One Thing-Spiderwoman-Modred story arc also published in 1977), nor that not everyone in London called everyone guv’nor or mate. So I just enjoyed the fun innocently at the time.
But to call simply decide that the comic was “quaint” and “of its time”, doesn’t really do the title justice. True Brian was the caricature of the English upper class son, living in a mansion with acres and acres of land and no other houses nearby. True all the non-upper class people wear caps and braces, and also true that every village has a ring of stones contained within it. Brian also follows the Peter Parker/Rich Rider formula of doubting his abilities, his suitability to be hero, and has a tragic family history. But even in these early stories, we see both his undoubted bravery and the roots of the mental frailty that would see him psychically over-whelmed between the end of the team up with Spider-man and his amnesic broken drifter return in the Black Knight strip.
Furthermore, the stories are just great fun. They move on at a cracking pace and had an innocent appeal that is a cheerful antidote to a lot of the angst ridden anti-hero strips that would follow in the 1980s. Brian, for all his self-doubts, displays an intelligence that would be sadly lost once he joined the mainstream Marvel US universe- the “Brian smash!” run in Excalibur and beyond- always trying to think and strategize his way out of trouble. And his costume was superb, especially visual with the staff weapon that he originally had (sadly the star sceptre that replaced the staff looked like a prom queen award). Just look at the covers for the weekly too and tell me that Herb Trimpe didn’t do some of his best ever work on the good Captain!
All in all, it is well worth checking out those early editions of Captain Britain, either in the original weeklies (which remember had the 70s Fantastic Four and Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD), the 1978 annual which reprints his origin and early battle with Hurricane on high quality paper, or the recent Captain Britain Birth of a Legend Vol 1 omnibus produced by Marvel USA (printed of course on high grade glossy paper). Yes you will laugh at the innocence of it all, and yes you will shake your head at the skewed depiction of life in Great Britain. But I also bet you have fun and get lost in this slice of comic book history from yesteryear. As a joke The Guardian newspaper suggested that Marvel should do a Captain Britain movie in their third wave. If they do (after all everyone laughed at the Ant Man film notion too), I really want them to do THIS Captain Britain first, before he becomes all Hulk-like. Just imagine, Merlin, a costumed pipe smoking student superhero with a staff, secret nuclear research centres surrounded by mystical stone rings and fog…
Well, okay, maybe not.
On October 13th 1976, Marvel UK launched a comic with its first UK commissioned work- the titular Captain Britain! Until this moment, Marvel UK had existed solely as a reprint house, repackaging Marvel USA comics... Read article