A Very British Scandal – The Missing Writer of the Captain Britain Omnibus 

Cover at by Alan Davis.

There are two names on the cover of the 2021 Captain Britain Omnibus from Marvel/Panini.1 The first is Alan Davis, whose presence is self-explanatory. Of the 620 pages therein, Davis pencils more than 500 (a run of Captain America stories are drawn by Paul Neary, with one other story drawn by Mike Collins, and several backup strips drawn by John Stocks). Davis is also the credited co-writer of several of these stories, and was probably at least somewhat involved in shaping the pieces where he doesn’t get a writing credit. The other name on the cover is Jamie Delano, and that is a rather strange choice. Delano doesn’t appear until about halfway through the book, and he doesn’t stay until the end. He’s a familiar name, being the first writer of the much-loved Hellblazer, but if familiarity is what the publisher was looking for, surely they could’ve used Chris Claremont (he writes about 80 pages) or Grant Morrison, who authors a four-page text piece.2

No, the fact of the matter is that there is another name the publishers of this brick would like to use, but they cannot - not even in the full credits given on the inside cover (although this name still appears in the credit box within the issues themselves). It's the other big Alan of British comics, ‘The Original Writer’ himself, Alan Moore. This situation is very metaphorically appropriate to the role Moore has long come to play within the world of superhero comics - the eternal missing father figure. Someone people love to shout at and rail against, for his ‘grim and gritty’ stories or for ‘ruining superheroes’,3 though superhero comics never seem to be comfortable leaving his shadow.

Every post-Watchmen superhero work that explicitly tries to get the audience (and other creators) to move past Moore—and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking Doomsday Clock, Pax Americana or Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt—only strengthens his influence. The black hole into which everything will eventually collapse, even when unacknowledged he is seemingly omnipresent. And I've gotta admit, if I didn’t already know Alan Moore wrote large chunks of this book, I probably wouldn’t have bought it.4 I like Alan Davis quite a lot, but these books are expensive.

Indeed, while Davis is the cohesive force manifesting Captain Britain's shape and form, it is very much the particular stories he co-created with Moore5 that give this book its soul and spine: what comes before seems to be building up to them, and what comes after feels very much like the direct result of them. Not counting the various crossovers with Captain America, the X-Men and the New Mutants, this whole tome has the feeling of a unified saga (if a heavily truncated one), rather than a set of traditional ‘runs’ being passed around several teams.

I'm not saying this issue isn’t present. The Omnibus begins with 50 pages written by Dave Thorpe which takes the character from a previous status quo involving Merlyn, an elf and other fantasy-based elements into a more science-fiction direction. Stranded in an alternate reality Britain, an oppressive state straight out of 1984, Captain Britain fights alongside the mysterious Saturnyne who seeks to ‘elevate’ the people of this world with a mysterious liquid substance. Thus, a theme of progress vs. stagnation: Saturnyne is assisted by the Avant Guard (those who go ahead of the camp, the artistic radicals) while the corrupt Britain is being safeguarded by the Status Crew (who wish to preserve things as they are).

As the early story reaches its final act, it appears Captain Britain and his companions will indeed manage to ‘advance’ this reality… before things go horribly wrong. The final page of the Thorpe run is also the first of the Moore run, and it's as painful and swift a whiplash as the final page of Kirby’s OMAC. All the efforts of the protagonists are undone by the reality-warping Mad Jim Jaspers, who leads the world to ruin.

Moore’s proper run, easily distinguished by the move from black and white to color,6 started in Marvel Super-Heroes #387 (July 1982). In that issue, the two Alans kill Captain Britain, courtesy of a seemingly unstoppable killing machine called The Fury (one of the best Alan Davis designs, right on the precipice from humanoid to monstrous). In the following stories, Captain Britain is resurrected, and in the process of resurrection we get a new perspective on his origin that reveals what we had believed before was actually false - the old stories are thus re-interpreted in a colder, more scientific light. We also learn that Captain Britain has a greater cosmic significance, and at that point I realized this all sounds terribly familiar because it's exactly what Moore would go on to do in The Saga of the Swamp Thing less than two years later, to a much greater degree of success.

Indeed, read in 2022, Moore’s Captain Britain feels like a trial run, a new-ish writer trying out some tricks for the first time that he would not completely figure out until later. This doesn’t make it a bad story - even when not fully in control, Moore is still far ahead of the pack,7 but it does mean the faults become more obvious. For instance, Moore doesn’t seem to have any particular vision for his main character. He’s strong and heroic and wants to do the right thing - but these are all generic superhero traits. We get a lot of potentially interesting notions—that he was man of science drawn into a world of magic against his will—that are never fully developed.

Successive chapters keep bringing in more characters (The Special Executive! The Captain Britain Corps! The Dimensional Development Court! Betsy Braddock and her psychic comrades!) seemingly because the principal creators don’t find Brian Braddock that interesting a figure. That the big climactic battle with The Fury ends up being decided not by Captain Britain but another member of the Captain Britain Corps, Captain U.K., might be seen as interesting development, but then you realize if Brian Braddock wasn’t around at all, events would probably play out the same. The strip might be titled "Captain Britain", but it’s not his story.

From "Killing Ground", originally presented in b&w in The Daredevils #4 (Apr. 1983). Written by Alan Moore, drawn by Alan Davis, lettered by John Aldrich. Coloring by Helen Nally.

Nor is Moore's a story with a particular point of view on Britain. Dave Thorpe adopted the point of view of an alternate Britain that is easily recognizable while being openly fascistic - it still works to this day. Jamie Delano’s later run is much more down and dirty, playing up elements of class struggle and the title character's sense of guilt at not quite being up to task of embodying the national spirit (while wondering what even this national spirit is meant to be). Delano’s Brian Braddock actually feels like a person making choices (even if they aren’t the smartest ones) rather than someone being dragged around by events. I wouldn’t dream to suggest Alan Moore is bad at writing stories in UK-style short installments—The Ballad of Halo Jones alone negates this argument—but he certainly seems more comfortable with the larger page count and monthly pacing of American comics compared to the compressed and rushed nature of the British magazines.8

Moore needs more space to work in, to develop his big visual ideas and grand theories; he needs room to let his characters make big speeches through which they define themselves. Later serial works like From Hell and Providence on the basis of luxurious page count alone could never be published by Marvel UK, no matter how big the writer. All of Moore's new ideas and characters simply end up crowding his Captain Britain work, turning the reading experience into a breathless race.

From "Endgame", originally presented in b&w in The Mighty World of Marvel #12 (May 1984). Written by Alan Moore, drawn by Alan Davis, lettered by Steve Craddock. Coloring by Andy Seddon.

It is, however, a visually-stunning breathless race. Alan Davis was doing comics part-time when he started, making his real money as a forklift operator. The Dave Thorpe chapters already show his good qualities–a mastery of anatomy, strong dynamism, good design sense–but the script doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with them. It has the familiar quality of British serials where the point must be reached as swiftly as possible; anything visually interesting is up to the artist to figure out. Such forward momentum is commendable in the world of action-adventure strips, but is not particularly conducive to graphic adventurism.

Moore’s scripts challenge Davis; he develops by leaps and bounds throughout. The battle between the reality-warping Jim Jaspers and the seemingly-unstoppable Fury is one for the ages: the characters shift; the scenery shifts; the mood shifts. You would expect so ‘controlled’ an artist to have a tough time with a character as visually exuberant as Jaspers, but Davis more than succeeds. Whatever crazy concept Moore throws at him, he manages to sell - the big action pages are loud and epic, while the parts in which the villains win have a truly sinister feeling to them.

In one chapter, Captain Britain tries to challenge Jim Jaspers, and the reality-warper proceeds to turn his world inside-out and upside-down. Brian Braddock is made to imagine all of his adventures are nothing but a delusion, that he is just a regular man that was stuck in a make-believe world - probably an over-familiar notion to any modern-day reader. No one today is going to get fooled by that suggestion, even if couldn’t see there are 200 pages left in the book. But the scene itself carries some power - the way in which the bottom row splits into a series of slim vertical panels, growing ever darker until one pops almost entirely white. It just grabs your attention.

From "Anarchy in the UK", originally presented in b&w in The Mighty World of Marvel #10 (Mar. 1984). Written by Alan Moore, drawn by Alan Davis, lettered by Steve Craddock. Coloring by Andy Seddon.

Likewise, there is a scene towards the end in which Captain U.K. has had enough of all the crap she’s been through - a six-panel page which depicts her ever-growing rage over The Fury killing a friend, until she finally lets loose in a full-page splash (a luxury in those days). It’s such a powerfully planned and preformed page, so obviously ahead of the competition in terms of its visual language. Moore could think in terms of impact on the panel, page and chapter level in a manner that so many other writers still cannot. He understood the power of the single image in sequence, even then. And yet… and yet… here he ends up crossing some invisible line that separates a comic that uses these visual elements and a comics that is being used by them.

I am impressed by the moments described above, and many others throughout, but I can’t actually feel them. It’s too planned, too mannered; you can almost see the script controlling the action. There’s no room for sloppiness, which means there is little room for the humanity of the characters. By the end of Moore's tenure, pretty much everyone important to the story is some god or cosmic being, or a mighty superhero. Like Crisis on Infinite Earths in miniature, the scale is so big it overwhelms everything else, including Captain Britain. Including the Britain of the story.

Compare this to the post-Moore stories, written by the likes of by Delano, Davis himself and Steve Craddock (who, though usually a letterer, gets a co-writing credit on the 1984 story "Bad Moon Rising"). These writers immediately bring down the volume, putting the characters in a more familiar setting that centers them at the core of the story. In “Bad Moon Rising”, Captain Britain fights a misguided monster in London; the battle takes the life of a young child. In the following chapter, “Tea and Sympathy” (written solely by Davis), he visits the boy's family to offer his condolences. The first page, starting with a long horizontal panel of the spot in which young Micky died, establishes the silent desperation of a family dealing with loss in manner reminiscent of the kitchen sink dramas. When Captain Britain enters the apartment on the following page, he is larger than the door frame, establishing (even besides his costume) how out of place he is there: a superhero amongst the mortal; rich amongst the working class; an ideal meeting reality. The ending is a bit cute for my taste, as there must be some manner of ‘happy ending’, but throughout it engages the reader on a personal level that is absent in Moore’s stories.

From "Tea and Sympathy", as presented in The Mighty World of Marvel #15 (Aug. 1984). Written and drawn by Alan Davis, lettered by Steve Craddock.

These writers have an angle for Brian Braddock as a character; like the popular Captain America stories from around the same time, it’s all about the hero's discomfort with what he’s meant to represent, pitted not against outward villains but a government that desires to use him, or at least his image. The writers don't know they following up the Alan Moore. Jamie Delano is just the next guy after some other guy; he continues some subplots, builds up the concepts introduced previously, and makes do with some ideas of his own - he doesn’t write like he’s in somebody's shadow. Just another job for him, and the work is all the better for it.

It’s 2022 as I’m writing this. Marvel is obviously going to try and integrate Miracleman into the Marvel universe. This a character that existed before Alan Moore—though creator Mick Anglo didn’t so much ‘create’ as ‘swipe’ the concept from Fawcett's legally-troubled Captain Marvel—but it is only ever in conversation because of him. Most people that care about Miracleman care about one specific version by one and a half specific writers;9 they don’t want Donny Cates’ Miracleman or Jason Aaron’s Miracleman, but Marvel keeps wielding the character as if it was Moore himself. As if the quality associated with a particular run can be transmogrified into the concept as a whole.

It would be cynical as hell (not a foreign concept for any of the direct market publishers), but I couldn’t help but feel that one of the reasons this big brick of book got published is that it has a Miracleman appearance in it.10 It’s a short one, just another of a series of heroes killed by The Fury as it travels across the multiverse,11 but publishers haven't been shy about exploiting small Alan Moore gags before. They just can’t let go of him.

Which they should. They really should. If the Captain Britain Omnibus proves anything, is that you can’t siphon off the qualities that made Moore’s work recognizable by simply aping surface ideas, or nicking his characters. You can’t move ‘past’ Moore as long you keep referring, reacting, revisiting, reviling or worshiping. Do as Alan Davis did. As Jamie Delano did. Do your own work. Move on.

* * *

  1. Not to be confused with the 2022 Captain Britain Omnibus from solely Marvel, which at 1,360 pages is nearly twice the length.
  2. Using Morrison's name as a plug in these circumstances would be rather shameless; but this is the comics industry we are talking about.
  3. Not that Moore is beyond criticism, mind you.
  4. The presence of so many additional non-Moore stories in the aforementioned 2022 Marvel-only edition was as good a reason as any for me to skip it.
  5. The duo are always credited as ‘co-creators’ rather than ‘writer’ and ‘artist’.
  6. Like most British comics of the time, the Moore stories were also published first in black and white; however, they've since been recolored for various presentations in the American market. The 1995-96 series X-Men Archives featuring Captain Britain appears to be basis of most reprints since. Thankfully, we are spared too much of a 'modernized' color palette.
  7. "You know, Alan is Alan. I mean, honestly, there’s Alan and then there’s everybody else. He’s really in a class by himself." Karen Berger, quoted in The British Invasion by Greg Carpenter (Sequart, 2016).
  8. Some of the other successful members of the ‘British Invasion’, such as Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis and Alan Grant, show the same tendency.
  9. The ‘half’ being Neil Gaiman, who is only now resuming his truncated storyline with artist Mark Buckingham.
  10. At the time that chapter was published in 1983, the character was still called "Marvelman", but Moore employed the alternate "Miracleman" name for the character's cameo. Moore probably figured this was a minor appearance of a character the editors and/or owners wouldn't recognize in a million years, so a small alteration would make all the difference. Miracleman was still around in future reprints as well, and now that the character is owned by Disney, it is no longer an issue.
  11. Obviously Moore didn’t introduce alternate universes to comics, not even to Marvel, but the company’s treatment of the multiverse, including the use of the "616" number, still draws heavily on Moore's work. Think about how many movies and tv shows are mining the multiverse concept now.