Alan MoorePaul NearyCaptain BritainMerlin
Captain Britain volume 4 - The Siege of Camelot
Medium: comic
Year: 1979-1983
Country: UK
Writer: Alan Moore, David Thorpe, Steve Parkhouse, Paul Neary
Artist: Alan Davis, Paul Neary, John Stokes
Keywords: Captain Britain, King Arthur, Merlin, Special Executive, superhero
Format: 258 pages
Website category: Comics UK
Review date: 11 December 2011
I bought it because of Alan Moore, obviously. Panini's reprinted all the Marvel UK Captain Britain comics in five collections, from his origins in 1976 under Chris Claremont up to Jamie Delano's run a decade later. I believe Captain Britain is still the only Marvel superhero ever to have been written by Alan Moore, who's in volumes 4 and 5.
Volume 1: The Birth of a Legend (Chris Claremont, 196 pages)
Volume 2: Hero Reborn (Gary Friedrich, 204 pages)
Volume 3: The Lion and the Spider (Chris Claremont, Steve Parkhouse, 204 pages)
Volume 4: The Siege of Camelot (Alan Moore, Alan Davis, Steve Parkhouse, 258 pages)
Volume 5: End Game (Alan Moore, Alan Davis, Jamie Delano, 292 pages)
I'd read Moore's run before, obviously, but these collections provide more context. They're also extremely weird, especially if you're unfamiliar with now-dead British comics traditions.
Volume 4 comes in three chunks: Parkhouse, Thorpe and Moore. Thorpe's run also contains a side-story by Neary.
1. BLACK KNIGHT, PART TWO (written by Parkhouse, art by Neary and Stokes), pp10-70
Incoherent occasionally to the point of illegibility, this fractured, impressionistic narrative feels like something from TV Comic. You see, it was published in two and three-page weekly episodes. Good storytelling isn't impossible under this format, but the default style is always going to involve throwing exciting incidents at the reader and hoping they don't think about it too hard. (Here, for instance, what happens to the Black Knight's evil pearl that makes Excalibur reject him and yet later gets forgotten about?)
In fairness this storyline isn't as disjointed as it looks, but it has no depth. Instead it's an epic of Celtic mythology, with King Arthur, Merlin, elves, dragons, apocalyptic battles and breathless declamatory dialogue. Its title character, the Black Knight, is a cardboard cut-out, as Parkhouse freely admits. Captain Britain barely appears. There's also the problem of the authorial voice, which is the same as that of The Tides of Time and can be overwhelming. This story needed two or three times the page count to breathe, but in this compressed narrative Parkhouse's poetic excess is capable of stifling both his artists and his storytelling.
Does it work? In a strange way, yes. You can't say it's not thinking big, at least. It ends with the fall of Camelot, while scenes like the humiliation of Gargantua and the resurrection of Arthur aren't without power. It also looks dribblingly beautiful, as you'd expect from Stokes and Neary.
In fairness also this is only the second half of Parkhouse's Black Knight saga. The first half was in volume 3: The Lion and the Spider.
2. MARVEL SUPER HEROES 377-386 (written by Thorpe, art by Davis), pp75-126
Deceptively interesting. It's not well written, obviously, but it's also crammed with ideas that would fuel Alan Moore's entire run on the title. It has a fascist alternative England that feels akin to V for Vendetta, but a hundred times weirder and with superheroes. Nonetheless Thorpe's political content here is if anything even stronger than Moore's, being specifically rooted in the real world (BNP, an identifiable London) and having to be censored by Marvel UK when Thorpe thought he could write a story set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. (This would have been a disaster because he's nowhere near good enough to make it work, but if nothing else you've got to admire the fact that he wanted to go there.)
"I stand for whatever is good for the people of Britain." "You anti-state subvert!"
However in addition it has Mad James Jaspers and his Alice in Wonderland sidekicks. It has Captain Britain being regressed to an ape. It has a memorably apocalyptic finale that's giving Moore lots to sink his teeth into. If nothing else, it's rich enough that Moore's run can't help but be Chapter Two of the house that Thorpe built and you'd be silly to try to skip it.
Alan Davis is on a very obvious learning curve here, by the way. It's almost startling to see how far he comes in next to no time.
2a. ATTACK OF THE BINARY BEINGS! (Neary and Davis), pp117-121
High-concept SF that feels like the stories Paul Neary had been writing for DWM, e.g. The Touchdown on Deneb 7, Voyage to the Edge of the Universe. Its ending's weaker than any DWM back-up strip's, but I liked it.
3. ALAN MOORE'S RUN, PART ONE (Moore and Davis), pp127-258
...and at last, the main attraction. You can't miss it, because here they switch to colour.
It takes Moore a little while to get going here, but stick with him. This one never stops getting stronger. What's distinctive about it for me is the way it's a long unbroken run (about 200 pages) that feels like proper Alan Moore and yet also a proper superhero comic. Obviously the man's done plenty of superhero work, as is nearly inevitable for a comic book writer, but his inherent Moore-ness warps both Miracleman and Watchmen to become alien to the genre that spawned them.
His Batman and Superman work on the other hand isn't revolutionary. It's superb and I adore it, but we're essentially talking about a few one-off stories.
These Captain Britain strips though for me manage to square the circle. They're recognisable superhero stories, but they're also Alan Moore unleashed. He continues Thorpe's political subtext, with homelessness and right-wing politicians that can destroy the world. He has concentric circles of terrifying power and its potential for abuse, with Merlin playing chess with mortals' lives and Lord Mandragon exterminating a universe. (That was... wow.) He has death camps and the full emotional impact of them.
"Punks. They're all on glue, you know."
Meanwhile Alan Davis keeps growing as an artist. He clearly loves drawing superheroes and beautiful, muscular bodies, but you don't draw for Alan Moore without getting stretched emotionally too. He does a pretty poor job on An Englishman's Home early in the run, but look at how much more richly he's portraying his characters' emotions in later chapters.
The cross-fertilisations and references are more interesting than these things usually are. The fight in Forbidden Planet is funny, but consider the implications of a character in a Marvel comic strip trying to protect a copy of X-Men 137. Furthermore the very same panel has a sign in a comic shop window saying "Coming Soon: Saturnyne and the Special Executive", which is a double spoiler for the following episode. It kills Miracleman, not to mention a bunch of other characters from old British comics that hardly anyone will recognise today. It guest-stars characters from Moore's Doctor Who back-up strips and brings back Merlin, explicitly referencing his Parkhouse-Gibbons DWM persona. p194 even includes cameos for the Mekon and Dangermouse, although in fairness Alan Davis might just have been having a laugh there. Still, that's a lot of threads being pulled into a Marvel UK superhero comic.
The Fury might also be Alan Moore's scariest monster. Heavens above.
Overall, a fascinating book. It's zig-zagging between comic traditions so different that they're hardly even the same genre. Parkhouse's TV Comic style run is beautiful, but these days might as well have landed from Mars. Thorpe's run is clumsily written, especially in the relationship between Captain Britain and Jackdaw, but the guy clearly has a vision for what he wants the strip to be and he's a positive volcano of invention. Then, finally, there's the most important writer ever to work in Western comics, Alan Moore.
Obviously you'll also need to buy volume 5, though. I'll get to that soon.