Sunday, August 2, 2009

Captain Britain #10-15 "Vampire state"

"Captain Britain and the MI13" is the name of the recently cancelled Marvel title. Written by Paul ("Dr. Who") Cornell and pencilled by Leonard ("Supergirl") Kirk, it was basically the company's latest push in trying to bring in a more diverse readership, by once again proposing the concept of an English team of superheroes. Seemingly aware that on their own, these decades-old characters cannot hold their own series, the company has seen fit to try to brand it as an X-Men title in the past. The most recent example of this was the cancelled "Excalibur" series Chris Claremont wrote, and Paul Cornell was to continue. After trying the new incarnation of the team out in the "Wisdome" mature-readers mini-series, the company finally green-lighted the writer's take. Launching as part of the "Secret invasion" crossover, Marvel tried their best to support Cornell's idea and further differentiate their super-hero line. During the very next story-arc, the Internet saw rise of the rumours announcing the book's untimely demise, followed by contradictiong reports made by the editorial. The confusion was ultimately settled, and the book continued with the plans to produce it's new story-line. Unfortunately, printing "Vampire state" with no sales gimmicks and little noticeable marketing push, doomed the book's most ambitious and complex arc to remain the last chapter of this incarnation of "Captain Britain and the MI13".

On the face of it, the book was nominally set on spotlighting Captain Britain. Basically a Superman analogue, the character has been around since the late seventies, and is arguably the most famous Marvel UK creation. His adventures have been wide and varied, but usually somewhat fantasy related, making him also similar to Captain Marvel, once wildly popular in Britain. Due to the various revamps and status quo changes, the character has built up a severely complicated back story, making him even harder to introduce to the new readers. Cornell and Kirk solved this problem in the title's very first arc, by giving him a new start. By "Vampire state", the patriot symbolism has been downplayed, represented almost solely by his costume. Effectively, portraying Captain Britain as a love-sick veteran superhero powerhouse, the creators have him play the team's Superman figure. 

Yet it is by blending together the title character among his colleagues, that Cornell manages to concentrate on MI13 as a group. The writer's approach to the characterisation of the rest of the cast is to give them all a defined role to play, and about the same amount of focus. Naturally, Pete Wisdom takes the lead, as a somewhat more relatable character, as well as much more in keeping with the book's general approach. A stock Warren Ellis character type, Wisdom has been kept in heavy circulation long since his creator has stopped using him. Having him lead MI13, Marvel has given it's fans a notice that they're dealing with the spy/superhuman hybrid book. As such, it plays down Wisdom's superpowers, focusing on his ability in managing a unit of superheroes. By letting Captain Britain remain a field leader, Ellis' creation is better served as the team's agent when dealing with the government. This does not marginalize the character per se, but leaves him with little subplots of his own. In "Vampire state", this means the very start of a romance, that will probably remain undeveloped due to the book's cancellation. Thankfully, as with many other aspects of the final arc, the nature of the relationship is set up in such a way that it is not hindered by this unfortunate turn of events.

Due to the nature of the storyline, Jacqueline Falsworth gets to be spotlighted in a more direct way. The creators use the vampirism fostered upon her in a rather arbitrary continuity decision as a crucial piece of setup, and a credible reason for the reader to witness scenes of villains' scheming before they meet the rest of the team head-on. Interestingly, the creators play down her role as a WW2 heroine, along with her original superhero nickname of Spitfire. For the reader uninitiated in decades old stories, she comes off as no more than a reluctant vampire, which goes a long way for explaining longevity, and the complicated relationship she starts having with Blade.

Adding the character made famous by movies was a strange decision, with Blade appearing in the second arc on the strength of his almost forgotten English ancestry. Unfortunately, despite repeated proclamations of his importance, the character remains an arbitrary addition. Of course, as a "Tomb of Dracula" regular, it makes sense that he would appear, and Cornell and Kirk use Blade's previous associations to bring the rest of the cast to a crucial plot point. Still, his role could have been filled more naturally by Union Jack, a vampire hunter himself, and Jacqui's long-time lover. On top of being one of the more recognisable British superhero characters, Joe actually appears in "Vampire state", trying to find a way to work with Blade during the emergency. In any event, this is just another unsuccessful attempt by Marvel to replicate something of the Wesley Snipes version of the character, while the readership continually ignores their focus on the character.

The team is rounded out by Black Knight and his protege Faiza Hussain, introduced in the first issue as the reader identification character. Her 1950s created mentor is almost never refereed to by his code-name, so it's a bit jarring when she earns the clunky "Excalibur" moniker. It is even more perplexing, when taking into account that Cornell's intimate focus on his principal cast means having them mostly call each other by their civilian names. Faiza is originally depicted as a naive superhero fan, that has her wishes come true as she starts developing superpowers. The writer and artist have brought her to life, by granting her with a civilian occupation, and detailed social life, that are both utilised in this storyline. The latter, epitomized by her family is crucial to "Vampire state", while unexpectedly her growth as a superhero feels rushed. It's clear that the creators had plans for a much slower development. 

In any event, the focus provided on creating a single new character in the book that is such a mixture of long-existing unrelated superhero concepts, leaves Marvel with a unique opportunity. Due to her ethnicity being dealt with in a very respectful way, the creators have given the publisher a heroine that is the example of unity. Faiza is an immigrant who has come to both love and respect her new country, going so far as to be willing to give her own life for the benefit of others. 

Her mentor the Black Knight, on the other hand, is a much more complicated concept, that jarrs with the book's tone. Originally created in an attempt to marry the more classical parts of British folklore with a play on typical super heroic secret identity, he was re-introduced seemingly only to be succeeded by Faiza. By keeping him around in the role of the teacher, and teasing a romance with his pupil, Marvel has effectively asked the readers to tolerate a couple fantasy concepts in an espionage-heavy book. As the more medieval of the two, Black Knight is at odds with the basic nature of the series, leading to his being kept out of the "Vampire state"'s plot minutiae. In a reversal to the typical comic book dynamic, he is defined by the female character. Unfortunately his very existence asks the readers to stretch their sense of belief even further, in an arc that already tries it's best to balance between mixing the genre for added effect, and falling into outright camp.His extremely complicated back-story is never really delved into, but the one bit that remains, that of his being cursed with a literal "heart of stone", may be the best example of asking the reader to accept too much of the unreal. In MI13 Black Knight is defined solely by his association with cursed swords, which has been much more effective during the initial "Secret invasion" tie-in arc. Forced to deal with a "Black Panther" continuity detail, Cornell has again chosen not to be intimidated by the inter-title confusion, deciding to incorporate the matter in "Vampire state". Unfortunately, the pick and choose method of using Marvel universe trivia to the best of his advantage, does not really gel with the rest of the plot in this instance, rendering the Ebony Blade's inclusion as even more terse than Blade's McGuffin.

A cursory examination of the cast reveals that a large amount of the book's drama hinges on the personal relationships. Literally, by the end of the story arc, all of the book's principal characters have started sharing romantic feelings for one another. This is, of course, a rarity in today's more violent comic book climate, but never feels unnatural or forced when reading the book. Due to the high stakes the characters live under, it can probably be explained that the cast found a refuge in physical relationships, but the only other example of social contact to be found in "Vampire state" is that of the respect Pete Wisdom feels for Captain Britain, as a more traditional hero, albeit with a heart in the right place.

It is to be commended that despite the myriad subplots, Cornell takes time to add some poetic color to the dialogue, cementing the fact that his characters are, first and foremost, human. In much the same understated way, both the writer and artist tackle the larger than life elements that define their heroes' lives, never forgetting to go that one step further to take note of the irony and the beauty inherent in MI13's dangerous lives. Unfortunately, the British charm found in abundance in the "Wisdom" mini-series never finds a place to truly enliven both Cornell and Kirk's United Kingdom. Strangely, it is supplanted by characters inviting each other to tea so frequently that it almost becomes a common shortcut getting them back to the Earth, if not a running joke of sorts.

Despite the charm to be found in the Marvel universe characters and settings, the backbone of the book's flavour comes from a very particular niche it tried to fit in. By positioning itself as a spy/superhero hybrid, it entered a field where few titles managed to make a permanent stay in. With "MI15", this does not only signify a slightly more violent genre take, with a more corporate headquarters, but a real thought-out, military strategy in a world of fantasy. Thus, Cornell and Kirk's characters have to maintain their guard against the unchecked forces of unreality, using cost-heavy spells, and dealing with the other branches of the government's secret service. With the real world (of spy movies) as the main reference point, the superhuman defenses and launch-codes make up a somewhat realistic background for the frequently unbalanced portrayal of similar ideas in science fiction.

Still, when dealing with a full-scale supernatural invasion, this kind of scenario comes with a potential problem. Does coming up with vampire suicide bombers turn an innocent offbeat superhero book into an offending piece of caricature? Perhaps not, when the book already purports to introduce an imaginary government department determined to put a stop to the threat to the enemy, depicted in no uncertain terms as evil incarnate. Taking into account the amount of care spent on rendering Faiza Hussain as a realistic character, it's probably the best to view the series' quasi-realistic bent as window-dressing for telling modern superhero stories.

The war fostered upon Marvel's England is thus more of a game of misdirection and constant twists and turns. One densely plotted scene follows another, with a constant stream of faces and movement going on in the background. The carefully built up characters lend themselves to action scenes that never feel gracious, despite sometimes feeling cut off. It is understandable then, that Leonard Kirk couldn't have produced the amount of work asked of him in the saga of this magnitude, and to be able to illustrate all of it. The reader is taken out of the story the moment he sees Mike Collins's pages, with characters that are very slender, sporting somewhat more caricatural facial features. Thankfully, Kirk works much more in concert with Adrian Syaf, giving way to a familiar unified art style. 

It is a necessary evil considering the need to keep a monthly schedule on a arc consisting of six issues, and literally hundreds of characters bursting from every panel. Once again, the creators seemingly embrace the restrictions of the superhero comics, by reminding the readers of some of the cult Marvel UK characters. Cameos aside, the main threat in the "Vampire state" comes from no less than Dracula himself, allied with a host of his undead nation. Despite the presence of Lilith and Captain Fear, both of whom work as opposite numbers for some of the MI13 team-members, the title's third arc shows a clear progression. Once again, the bulk of the fighting goes on with Skrull-like faceless drones, but Cornell and Kirk are not set on repeating Plotka's mistake as somewhat of an underdeveloped main antagonist. Sticking with the idea of combining the two approaches, the creators have made a gamble of getting behind the king of vampires as a gimmick that could attract the reader's attention. In retrospect, Dracula is shown to be a fearsome warrior, whose presence commands the arc. The authors are right in approximating that using the vampire to target the team makes the stakes seem that higher, but further analysis reveals this to be problematic from both story-point and the previous use of the character. Dracula's stated goals are not shown to be particularly Britain-oriented, as literally any country in the world could have provided the deeper folklore connection hinted at in his plan. Of course, his creator Bram Stoker set most of his novel in London, but following through on that kind of reasoning actually hurts Marvel's high concept. Despite the character's long-term use in the Marvel universe, he is of course a classical horror icon, wherein lies his notoriety and the novelty of using him in a story. The downside is that it renders "Vampire state" as no more than a piece of fan-fiction that benefits from the association with the better-known story.

As for Lilith, Captain Fear and even an unexpected appearance from someone in Jacqui's past, they are introduced providing for as little confusion as possible. As Dracula's pawns, their tasks are clearly outlined, with Kirk's designs to set them apart from the rest of the vampire's followers. A long-time reader of Marvel's various horror books will no doubt be familiar with some of them, but it is by no means a requirement, as Cornell's script once again gives all the information needed in terms of the story at hand.

It's clear that just as Leonard Kirk had his hands full with detailed layouts, the writer gave his all to craft a story that is bursting at the seams with attacks and counter-attacks, complex subplots, characters both famous and obscure, all the while trying and achieving a very particular genre dynamic. It is really impressive to see that amid all that, he still finds space to experiment with a page provided as if from an illustrated text-story. A dream sequence hidden in a very particular part of the story works to both raise the excitement, and tie-in with the previous story-arc in an unobtrusive way. Yet, despite the backing from the editorial, his is the story that most fans are just not interested in.

This is nowhere as apparent as in a short nod to the current "Dark reign" status quo of the Marvel universe at large. By effectively proving to be in vacuum as to the bulk of the continuity, theoretically "Captain Britain and MI13" to tell any kind of new and refreshing story, that is distinctively unique. Unfortunately, the company's own marketing department has worked for years to build a strong core of inter-related titles that it gravitates the fans to follow, in spite of the off to the side nature of the more experimental superhero titles.

That the creators' enthusiasm has remained on the level is perhaps best illustrated by an Annual, published after the announcement of the book's cancellation. A case could be made that the lead-story inside was to be a prelude for the next story-arc, perhaps even originally meant to be published as #16 in the series. It is possible that Marvel has scrapped such plans upon being disappointed by the sales on the title's final story line, relegating the long-teased return of Meggan to a strange and open-ended Special, tying awkwardly with "Vampire state". Going further with the analogy, one could surmise that the Annual's backstory, again teasing a potential Meggan-centered story-arc down the line, could have been originally produced as a short tale to be published on Marvel's "Digital Comics Unlimited" section of their website, hoping to interest the subscribers in the ongoing.

In any event, despite "Vampire state" finishing with a real ending that admittedly does not bother to tie up all the loose threads, it is actually the Annual that one must refer to as to how the book's future could have looked like, in it's current incarnation. In that respect, the reader is treated with a strange, magic-oriented story, featuring many of the company's lesser known villains. Patching his story up from unrelated bits of continuity, Cornell tries to get to the Meggan's mercurial psyche by building a real theme to her life. This particularly comes of as difficult to process, when told in fairytale fashion of Meggan dealing with the externalisation of her demons.

Of course, at this time it is not certain how different the whole storyline would have been, if it ever planned to be centered around Meggan, that is. The three "Captain Britain and MI13" story-arcs that have been published actually serve as a primer on what kind of tales the reader could have expected, and are satisfying when read as a whole, or even on their own. With the alternative possibly being a complete make over of the book, it is doubtful that this unprofitable version of the team would have been kept on the same track, should Marvel have decided to stick with the book after all.

The reasons for fans' indifference are, of course, numerious. Despite being seemingly inconsequential next to the more connected titles, it is a fact that neither any of these particular, nor the England of their setting, have ever led to a long and stable ongoing series that best serves the publisher's interests. The specific angle Cornell and Kirk have decided upon, while not the most comercially recognisible one, could have theoretically benefited a different book, that would be more to the liking of fans. Also, not to be forgotten, a large number of people have sampled both the initial issues, or some of the later ones, brought on by the title's status of something of a critical darling, and simply found it not to be to their liking.

This could very likely be due to the focus on the magical aspect of Marvel universe, that the publisher has been struggling for decades to attract it's audience to. It seems that most fans simply don't like their superheroes mixed up with the arcana, nor is the genre very popular on it's own at any of the smaller publishers. Despite the frequent outcries, the larger aspects of the superhero fandom have proven time and again what their tastes are, and truthfully there is little of them to be found in the book like "Captain Britain and MI13". Because while it possesses some of the blending with the traditional superheroic storytelling, blended with more violent and post-modern ideas, it was always going to be a niche title, for a particular aspect of fans, served by positive, intelligent superhero books like "Agents of Atlas", and "Incredible Hercules".

Working with their publisher, Cornell and Kirk had no choice but to tie up the possiblity of the hinted Meggan story into "Vampire state", and move on with their careers. Hopefully, at least the return of the back-story format to justify the higher cost of the existing Marvel books will provide a new home for the British super/spy team, and their strange, magical adventures.

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