And so it’s goodbye to another Captain Britain series…..
by Paul Cornell and Leonard Kirk, with Mike Collins, Ardian Syaf, Patrick Olliffe
And so we have the second and third volumes of a Captain Britain book I rather enjoyed when I read the first volume. Sadly these are also the last volumes, as Marvel pulled the plug on the book at this point, although they did allow Cornell the courtesy of finishing off his storylines in as satisfying a manner as he could in the space allowed.
It was described to me by Dave Hopkins of wonderful Nostalgia & Comics Birmingham as “a case of diminishing returns” and I can see what he meant, sort of. Allow me to explain….
Volume One was a strong start, reintroducing the good Captain and establishing a new multi-layered team of old and new characters all under the auspices of British Intelligence in general and Pete Wisdom in particular. Cornell chose to play heavily throughout the run on Britain as a particularly strong source of magic in the Marvel Universe, beginning in Volume 1 with a Skrull Invasion force determined to capture Britain’s magic for their cause. Captain Britain and the gang (Pete Wisdom, The Black Knight, Pete Wisdom, vampire turned heroine Spitfire and the new Muslim character Faiza Hussain – who now wields Excalibur) only prevailed against seemingly insurmountable odds when Pete Wisdom unleashed the forces of evil to banish all Skrulls. Good and bad. No more Skrulls, good. Britain overrun by mystical evil, rather bad.
(Except, it seems, maintain a continuing, high selling book. The good Captain defeats a prince of hell in Captain Britain and MI13: Hell Comes To Birmingham.)
Volume Two begins a little after this, with the team bolstered by Blade, the half human, half vampire, all vampire hunter character (born in England – who knew?). The first of the evils let loose into the world makes it’s presence felt; the demonic Dr. Plokta, a prince of hell who uses something called his Dream Corridor powered by ancient magics to trap innocents using their most powerful heart’s desires. It all falls apart rather quickly for the team, Captain Britain is overwhelmed, living his dreams with Meggan (his wife, who was, prior to this, lost somewhere along the way). The team fights back and eventually wins the day, Blade overcomes his hatred of the vampire heroine Spitfire, Brian nearly recovers Meggan, and Plokta is trapped by MI-13.
And if that seems a rather rushed summary of volume 2, it’s because it’s really a little bit rubbish. Sure, there are nice touches all the way through in Cornell’s writing, particularly in the character driven personal moments and various well written sub-plots along the way. But the main storyline is a bit of a bore, lacking the punch and direction of the first book and it wanders rather aimlessly. This would be the “diminishing returns” that were pointed out to me then.
(The final page of Volume 2, hinting at a better storyline to come – the Vampire invasion of Britain.)
Except, it’s not so cut and dried. Volume 2 actually turns out to be more the case of “the difficult and disappointing second album” or a foot off the gas moment. Because the third storyline; Vampire State, manages to pull back the title from the lacklustre Volume 2 and actually outdoes the first volume. If you’re going out, you might as well go out on a high I suppose.
With Vampire Nation, Count Dracula has decided to invade Britain and claim it for his kind. Cornell is at great pains to emphasise Dracula’s vast strategic knowledge at all points in the buildup to the invasion, and in doing so, tells something more like a good thriller or wartime drama than a straight superhero story. It’s full of twists and turns, as Dracula seems to be one step ahead of the team at every point, with Spitfire under his control, Faiza’s dad turned into a vampire, and the team completely outnumbered and outmanouvered with the vampire army growing in number every day and Britain seemingly lost.
(Dracula reigns supreme in Britain, his Vampire State. From Captain Britain And MI13: Vampire State.)
Except….. Pete Wisdom has a plan. And here’s where it really does turn out to be a rather good thriller, in fact almost a really good murder mystery or crime caper, with the final part turning everything that’s gone before it on it’s head.
Dracula’s being played by Pete Wisdom. Brilliantly, dangerously played, all to buy Britain some time and a lot of intelligence. And suddenly you realise that, although Hell Comes To Birmingham may have been a little rubbish, it was all necessary for Paul Cornell to trap that prince of hell that can grant your heart’s desire. Pete Wisdom’s been playing the long game, deliberately trapping Dracula in the “magical room of wishes” created by the demon Dr Plokta. It’s a great twist, really well executed. But it’s not the last one that Cornell throws your way either. And that final one I’ll let you discover for yourself.
It’s also full of some really nice ideas; my favourite being the spell cast by Quincy Harker, vampire hunting acquantance of Blade. A minor alteration of the old vampires “can only enter your house if you invite them in” boundary thing. Except Quincy gave up his soul in exchange for extending this to Britain as a whole. An anti-vampire-invasion weapon that’s contained in a dead man’s skull. Great idea, well executed.
(Pete Wisdom has a plan, and it’s a doozy. From Captain Britain And MI13: Vampire State.)
It’s a really sweet end to the series, albeit a slightly rushed one – but that’s not Cornell’s fault after all. The whole final volume works really nicely with just a couple of flaws: For some reason, in amongst all of this great Vampire State stuff, Cornell decides he’s going to bring Meggan back from hell, and it’s a big mistake that just seems completely pointless to the big story unfolding.
To compound things, Marvel then insert the contents of the Captain Britain annual into the book, between parts 4 & 5 of Vampire State in an almost deliberate attempt to ruin the momentum built up. The first annual story, of Meggan’s escape from hell, almost works there – but even this relevant story criminally breaks up the tension and momentum in the final part of Vampire State. But why did Marvel included the second annual story? – the team play cricket in their downtime and Brian does a bit of wistful looking back – that should certainly have been stuck in the back.
A quick mention of the art. It’s alright, nothing stellar, whether it’s Leonard Kirk or the various fill-in/guest artists listed at the top. Nothing wonderful, nothing beautiful, but nothing too ugly either.
In the end, over the course of 3 volumes Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain attempt proves a flawed but interesting work. Volume One was enjoyable big superhero stuff with a touch of wit, sarcasm and Britishness. Volume Two is a huge letdown that, bar that important point of trapping the wish fulfillment demon, can really be overlooked. But it’s all capped off by Volume 3, where the Vampire State storyline, despite the unecessary inclusion of the whole Meggan thing, really shows us that Cornell is capable of turning in some very good, quite clever superhero comics that do a rather fine impersonation of a tight thriller with not one but two very nice twists along the way. It’s flawed but fun. It would have been nice to have been able to see where he planned on taking us next. But we’ll never know.