RIP Captain Britain and MI:13

This week sees the final issue of Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain and MI:13 comic for Marvel. This is a Damn Shame. Not just because it was good (and it was, it really was). It’s always a shame when a consistently good comic falls victim to market forces. I’m sure we’ve all got a personal favourite (RIP Nextwave, RIP Cable and Deadpool). But the demise of this comic is a Damn Shame because it was unique. It was British. I’m sure that Marvel will have another Britain-set comic before long. It usually has one on the go (Excalibur and Union Jack previously) but Cornell’s series actually felt British, was set in a recognisable Britain and to a certain extent was about being British.

How many comics claim to be set in Britain but might as well be set in New York but with the occasional London landmark or have dialogue written by someone whose only exposure to a British accent is Dick Van Dyke?

Captain Britain and MI:13 sees Pete Wisdom (mutant, rogue, former romancer of the X-men’s Kitty Pryde) lead a government-backed team of heroes to investigate magical or extraordinary threats to Britain. His team is made up of heroes who are either British or have a strong connection to Britain.

The idea of Britishness crops up regularly in Cornell’s writing. He wrote the season 3 Dr who 2 parter Human Nature/The Family of Blood which (aside from just being awesome) was shot through with insight on class, pre-war tension and imperial angst. All this was shaped to fit serve the characters and story. Plus it had scarecrows and Gatling guns. What more could you possibly want on a Saturday night?

His Wisdom mini series for Marvel took this one step further. It essentially functions as a prequel for Captain Britain and MI13 and follows a more scruffy and careless Pete Wisdom leading a much more motley team. Each issue is a standalone and focuses on a different threat, each representing or illuminating a different facet of the British psyche. These include fairy terrorists, slumbering giants, the living embodiment of Wales and hundreds of alternate universe Jack the Rippers. It is by turns funny, exciting and heart-breaking.

This leads us to Captain Britain and MI:13. Wisdom is still team leader here but Captain Britain is the shiny hero that the public can see, while Wisdom makes the hard decisions behind the scenes. It’s less directly about Britishness in its storylines but still effectively explores this through its characters, who all feel British.

Their dialogue is full of dry wit, understatement, stoicism. It could even be said that these qualities, are part of what makes them heroic. In the case of John the Skrull (part of a cultural invasion plan by the Skrulls in the 60s to replace the Beatles) it is implied that it was spending years imitating such an iconic British, working class celebrity that led him to defect from the Skrull cause. The British stiff upper lip in particular, that act-now-worry-about-the-post-traumatic-stress-later attitude which is so often mocked, makes the characters seem heroic in the face of disaster but more importantly, by allowing us to see the moment where they register their horror, their grief or their hopelessness then grit their teeth and get on with it anyway, it also manages to make them seem more human.

Britishness doesn’t just extend to the classic Anglo-Saxon white stereotype. Wisdom’s team is made up of a mixture of class and race, including Blade (yes, actually he is British-born in the comics) and Faiza Hussain a young Muslim doctor who discovers her powers during the Skrull invasion and winds up wielding Excalibur. She is a beautifully pitched example of a fully fleshed out, nuanced, multicultural character rather than a novelty like Dust – the X-Men’s burka-wearing student who turns into a sandstorm (although I have heard that some writers have done good things with her).

Credit also needs to go to artist Leonard Kirk. His fantastic, clean, dynamic artwork beautifully sells both the action and the quieter, emotional scenes. He is also in a minority of artists that properly research their picture reference meaning that Britain’s architecture and its people all ring true. For example, British police wear high-visibility jackets rather than the cliché’d bobby-on-the-beat uniform.

The silver lining is that, Cornell is still writing comics, he’s got a novel on the way, and perhaps the extra time on his hands could be used to contribute a 2-parter for the upcoming series of Dr Who (he is being quite frustratingly coy about it on Twitter). There are other comics out there that deal effectively with British culture (Jamie Mckelvie’s Phonogram being a particularly high-quality example), but it’s hard to see that there will ever be one given such a high-profile push by a major publisher.

It’s a funny old concept – Britishness. Its hard to think about it without being reminded of our imperial past, our complicity in the slave trade, the far right, “rights for whites”, “British Jobs for British workers”. I’m no particular patriot, in fact I’m often ashamed of the things that Britain has done and the things that continue to be done by people with a misguided sense of Britishness. But Cornell’s characters remind me of the things that I do like about this country and it’s people. I think that’s what Ill miss the most.

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