Thursday, 29 December 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Forty-Seven)

Comics Lesson 20:

The only comics characters that are owned by the people who write and draw them are the so-called ‘creator-owned’ properties. Spider-Man, Superman, Daredevil, Catwoman, etc., are all owned by the publishing company and whether you work on one issue or a thousand, you have no claim to that character or comic.

However (and I’m going to simplify this greatly) it came to notice that artists who had worked their hearts out for decades, were not even retiring with a pension and had no way of making any money from any of the work they once did, and what was more galling than anything else was that even if a creator had a hand in the actual physical creation of a company owned character he was not entitled to anything. Most artists and writers are [genuinely] self-employed, and for years page rates were so poor that working as a comic artist was probably like a second-class job. Over the years, the plights of a number of artists were highlighted, and the comics companies they worked for were exposed as bastards who wouldn’t even part with the original artwork so an artist could sell his back portfolio and possibly earn enough money to eat. There were changes made and royalties and reprint deals were agreed, making the industry a much fairer place for the artists in particular.

The most successful creator-owned comics character of recent years is Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, which has… ahem… spawned a film, toy line and animated TV series.

Both Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who ‘created’ a number of Marvel’s iconic heroes have received recognition and even DC Comics now acknowledges that Bob Kane created Batman.

The problems most editors face (especially if they are not good, strong, editors) are when the creative team on a comic decides that they are bigger than the property they are working on. When creators are hoisted by their own petard the usual target is the editor, because the creators see the editor as ‘the enemy’. The editor is the guy who has the final say as to whether something stays or goes, whether he likes the direction you’re taking the book, or if he thinks it’s time for some drastic changes in approach, like a replacement writer or artist perhaps? The writer, a far more insecure creature than an artist, tends to be more receptive to editors, probably because some of them had been editors themselves. But it’s the writer/artists who tend to be the most controversial. But that said Alan Moore has famously had a feud with Marvel and DC for many years, over these publishers decisions to reprint material he had done for them without his consent. Some say he cut off his nose to spite his face, but he stuck by his convictions and eventually was seen to be right.

I can honestly say that I had a hand in changing Alan’s mind about his obstinacy towards Marvel Comics – any Marvel under any regime. It happened during the mid to late 1990s and I was drinking in a local pub called The County Tavern, Alan’s local at the time. He was there with an old friend of mine, his some-time collaborator (and musician, but not comics') Tim Perkins. I actually went over to talk to Tim, not realising that Alan was sitting with him (you’d understand how ironic this statement was if you were to see Moore) and after reintroductions and much slagging off of Dez Skinn (who I was still working for at the time), I asked Alan what his problem was with having his seminal Captain Britain written material reprinted? But before I let him go into the reasons why (Marvel had reprinted a Doctor Who story of Moore’s without asking him first so he had never worked for them or acknowledged them since – it’s a little more complicated than that, but essentially the reprint was the reason.) I told him that it wasn’t fair to his many thousands of fans who had never had the chance to see this series, and he was doing an injustice to Alan Davis and especially to Dave Thorpe, the writer he replaced on Captain Britain.

Let me explain, after Dez left Marvel UK he’d sown the seeds for the reappearance of a hero that was created specifically for the British market. The character, Captain Britain was reintroduced (out of costume) and then re-reintroduced in the wake of Dez’s departure, it was written by Leicester-based Dave Thorpe and drawn by Alan Davis. Thorpe only lasted half a dozen weeks, the reasons he was replaced are unclear – legend has it, Alan Moore offered his services to then Marvel UK editor Paul Neary and Neary bit his proverbial hand off. So Moore replaced Thorpe and Captain Britain went on to receive some high praise and it is regarded as one of the pinnacles of British comics. Moore’s prevention of the series ever being reprinted meant that Thorpe, above anyone else – Davis was earning big bucks by now – was losing out. He had never made it as a mega-successful comics writer and frankly he wasn’t given the time to see if he could, but he could have at least cashed in on some of the success. After all, he’d written the opening six parts and Moore used much of this to build his own story around. Without any hesitation Alan said he’d have no problem with Marvel reprinting the Captain Britain series, especially if it meant that Thorpe would not lose out. My respect for the man increased and I’m sure Dave Thorpe’s bank balance benefited as well. Alan gave any monies he was due to an organisation within comics called The Comic Book Legal Defence Fund.

The next day I wrote up the story for Movers & Shakers and the day it went to the press I called Bob Harras (by now top dog at Marvel). I only got his secretary, because he was in a meeting. I asked her if I could speak to Bob’s voicemail, but she was reluctant to put me through – she didn’t know who I was. I explained to her that 6 years earlier when Bob was working on the X books we got friendly and that the message I was leaving might be beneficial to Marvel and I was not in any way going to leave abuse or anything that Bob wouldn’t want to hear. She still refused and said she would take the message for him. Exhaling loudly I explained to her that Alan Moore had given his verbal permission for his Captain Britain series to be reprinted. The secretary, obviously had some knowledge of comics, (but not that much) asked me, “Aren’t the Captain Britain comics Marvel UK?” I said they were originally. “Then surely you need to talk to Marvel UK?” I explained to her that this wasn’t a Marvel UK matter and that Marvel US had been trying to get permission for a number of years to reprint this series. “I still think you should go through Marvel UK first, sir,” she said and by this time I was growing annoyed – this was a trans-Atlantic call after all.

I asked if there was another editor I could speak to but was told they were all in meetings. I said I’d call back later in the day, but she told me to hold the line. I was put on hold – very un-Marvel like muzak playing in my ear – and she came back on the line. “Hold on, I’m putting you through.” I think she spoke to someone who knew because the next voice I heard was Bob’s. He started by saying he was very busy, but he soon shut up when I told him I’d been talking to Alan Moore. The call took about four minutes and at the end of it Bob thanked me and said he’d be making some calls. 8 months later the first of a 7-issue reprint series was published, followed by a trade paperback. I didn’t even get a mention in the despatches…

[* Captain Britain – was a great character – one of my personal favourite comicbook heroes, not for any of the obvious reasons, just because he was created for Marvel UK when I was heavily into their comics. In 1976, Stan Lee came to England and decided the time was right to launch Marvel UK into the 20th Century with its own comics strip – Captain Britain! He came up with the name and idea (because it took a lot of thought...), but the duties of producing this character’s weekly adventures fell to a young writer called Chris Claremont (who had been born on a US air-base in the UK) and a US artist called Herb Trimpe (pronounced Trimpey) who lived in a renovated lighthouse in Cornwall – it’s all so logical if you think about it. Captain Britain epitomised everything that is both bad and brilliant about superhero comics. Two Americans produced his adventures for his first year of life; with their tenuous links to Britain they wrote and drew a very un-British styled comic strip. When they departed the entire strip was produced in-house by Marvel US and just felt like another American comicbook, but produced without the love and affection seen in US comics. It was a dreadful rehash of Captain America stories and ideas (and they were bad enough) and it died a fitting death. The good Captain appeared in a couple of US Marvel comics and disappeared.

Dez Skinn brought the character back in a supporting role as his alter ego, Brian Braddock, in the ongoing Black Knight strip in Marvel UK’s Hulk Comic, and eventually Marvel UK brought a costumed Captain Britain back in 1980. The initial story was a mixture of quirky English eccentricity and a superhero who returns to a reality obviously not the one he left. I don’t know where Thorpe would have taken the story, all I do know is that what followed is in my opinion a far better example of the geniuses of Alan Moore as a comics writer and Alan Davis as an artist than any other work these two have been associated with. The plaudits are waved at Moore for Watchmen, but for me Captain Britain ranks as one of the most adventurous, controversial and disturbing comics stories ever produced by two Brits. It might have had something to do with the duo’s fresh approach to comics.

If I wanted to introduce someone to the infinite possibilities of sequential art and storytelling and how un-childlike comics can be then this would rank much higher than the books they believe you should be reading. Other writers have borrowed from this story, others have swiped it full stop, but none have been able to convey what these two Northamptonshire men did. What was so special about it? If I told you would you care? I shall anyhow...

Moore took the concept of the hero in a strange, but similar land, and played with it from the moment he took over scripting. The eccentric, slightly wonky world, created by Dave Thorpe would be the backdrop for the first part of a story that would twist and turn through nightmare upon nightmare – never before has a hero faced so much and lost virtually everything. And poor sales conspired to help this story become a comics legend stretching over 5 different titles …

Captain Britain became a tool for a mighty ‘elder of the universe’ who we know as Merlin, of Arthurian legend. Throughout the multiverse (universes within universes – the every-decision-you-make-could-lead-to-different-paths scenario) there is a ripple, something is wrong somewhere and Merlin needs Captain Britain to look for and stop it – he is Merlin’s champion.

A mutant called Jim Jaspers, who in different universes is anything from a raving mad man to a prominent politician, has caused the ripple. Jaspers’ power is phenomenal; he is, to all intents and purposes, a God. He intends to shape the universe into the form he wants it and because Jaspers is completely insane that shape could be anything. While Captain Britain tries and fails repeatedly to stop Jaspers, on another Earth where another Jaspers had already caused considerably destruction a secret weapon is released – quite possibly the scariest most innovative villain (if you could call it a villain) ever devised for comics. On this other Earth, the fear of superheroes and villains with powers to destroy the planet had become such a worry scientists created the ultimate killing machine – The Fury. The Fury becomes an anomaly when Jaspers destroys its universe, however a small part of the Fury survives and finds its way to the Earth Captain Britain comes from, an Earth that is now under the thrall of its own Jim Jaspers. The Fury was Alan Moore’s version of the X-Men villains the Sentinels, huge robots programmed to wipe mutants off the face of the planet. The Fury is essentially an organic compact Sentinel, except it has been repeatedly modified so it cannot be destroyed. If even the smallest of molecules remains it will rebuild itself better than it was before. Moore created the ultimate bad guy – one that didn’t stop until its prime directive was achieved – wipe out anything with a super power that lived.

The first time the Fury goes up against Jim Jaspers it escapes by literally the skin off its back. The first time Captain Britain meets the Fury, the latter kicks the crap out of him. The second time Britain meets the Fury he is obliterated into atoms. Dead as a dodo.

End of story?

Not even close. Using a neat juxtaposition on how the Fury re-grows himself, Merlin takes all that is left of Captain Britain, some hair, some bone and a piece of his costume and literally grows Brian Braddock again, except this time imbuing him with more power, enough he thinks to stop both the Fury and Jaspers. Jaspers has become one with his other selves and is now quite literally God. Worlds become enslaved and anyone who has any super powers is imprisoned in concentration camps and tortured or killed in the name of Jaspers. However, the madman doesn’t take into consideration that his actions were having an effect on the rest of the worlds; the Warp he created was not only changing him and his surroundings but also the young and the unborn.

Reborn, Captain Britain returns to his family home, he rescues his sister, a telepath who would later join the X-Men, and now has a menagerie of telepaths, aliens and generally weird people living in his home. He and his familiars are aware that something is on the horizon, but are living life the best they can in the face of the impending adversity. Stumbling into Brian Braddock’s life comes Captain UK, a version of him from another plane of existence, this Captain is Linda McQuillan, from an Earth where her husband was a hero called Marvelman. McQuillan is petrified, she doesn’t know how she’s where she is, she only knows that the Fury isn’t far behind, because the Fury had rampaged through her universe and destroyed every living hero and villain, with no mercy and now sensed her. Now the Fury isn’t your Doctors Doom or Octopus in stature, he is in fact a rather stout brown humanoid figure with a rudimentary head and a lens for an eye. One of his arms adapts into a form of weapon and is nanotechnology to the nth degree. He's an ugly mother. He is not aesthetically pleasing.

The story moves into its endgame with Captain Britain checking out a disturbance in the grounds of his ancestral home and stumbling across the creature he last saw milliseconds before he was obliterated almost out of existence. It is with this specific segment of story that proved to me that comics were something more than just heroes fighting villains, this story proved to me that superheroes could be fallible, they could have weaknesses, they do get scared. Britain’s reaction on seeing the creature that killed him was to piss himself, while wearing a look of sheer horror and fear drawn so well that Alan Davis could live to be 1000 and he would never be able to convey the power and emotion on that page of story ever again. The Fury just about kills Braddock again, but he’s saved by the band of vagabonds back at his house, who drive the Fury underground believing him to be dead – of course Linda McQuillan knows differently. The story moves to the confrontation between Captain Britain and Jim Jaspers, a one-sided affair until the Fury shows up again – he is essentially following his new prime target, destroy Jim Jaspers, the most powerful creature in the universe and therefore the biggest threat to humanity. There is irony here - Jim Jaspers of the Fury’s world was responsible for the creation of the Fury – he is the Fury’s creator, his God. But none of that overrides his prime directive – therefore the Fury begins to learn to fight the same way as Jaspers and begins to match his creator punch for punch, the two of them pop in and out of different realities constantly countering each other’s attacks, until finally Jaspers runs out of ideas and the moment that happens the Fury toasts him.

It had already been over a year of mind-boggling storylines, but the final acts were yet to be played and the analogies would begin soon after the conclusion. The Fury, now rid of his prime target turns his attentions to the lesser targets and begins to rip Captain Britain to bits again, Brian (what a great name for a superhero, eh?) fights valiantly but he’s just not got it in him and as the Fury is about to end his existence for a final time, the cavalry arrive. The cavalry is a woman wronged and who has been through hell and isn’t about to go there again – Linda McQuillan is essentially Brian Braddock’s equal in every measure, they should theoretically fight each other to a standstill, but there is one difference between the two of them – McQuillan doesn’t care anymore. The final battle scenes are quite possibly some of the most violent and nasty ever seen in comics, let alone a UK comic aimed at predominantly pre-teens. McQuillan literally tears the Fury to shreds and then the shreds to shreds – so completely spent from its battle with Jaspers and then Britain, the Fury begins to suffer total breakdown as nothing it does to counteract McQuillan’s attacks seem to work – he has never encountered a creature with so little regard for her own safety, all his foe wants is the same thing it wants – death. It is several minutes after the Fury ceases to function that Captain Britain finally pulls Linda away from what remains of its body.

What makes this a fabulous story is that while the hero is intermittently heroic, he actually doesn’t come out of it looking at all victorious. There was no tickertape parade for this hero at the end of the story. During it Braddock had become an alcoholic, been killed, saw his sidekick slaughtered before his eyes, was constantly betrayed and double-crossed by everyone, including Merlin (who died for his sins), soiled his long johns and basically chickened out and was prepared to lay down and be killed. Captain Britain was the central character in this story, but he never outshone the story and the direction the story was going. It was like he was an unwilling pawn in a chess game (in the story and as the hero) and everything was happening out of his control – this doesn’t­ happen in standard superhero comics. But don’t think this is just a bleak and dark story, it has many high points – the dialogue is good, the story moves along at a cracking pace considering it was being done in weekly 7-page chunks and it even has time to have a love story and set up several dozen subplots that Chris Claremont would introduce into the one major X-book spin-off I’ve not mentioned –Excalibur (a comic strongly associated with Alan Davis as well.)

There is another great reason why this story works so well for me and could work well for people who might find the idea impenetrable – it’s a British comicbook, so therefore there isn’t a lot of baggage hanging around. The final irony of Captain Britain and his history is that Chris Claremont, who created the character in 1976, and wrote his few other US adventures in 1978, returned to the character and made him an associate of the X-Men, and remained faithful to Alan Moore’s rendition rather than looking back at his own. Now everything has changed and I’m not even sure Brian Braddock is still alive.]

These previously mentioned creative and editorial problems happen when there’s a clash of personalities. Most temper tantrums in comics are down to ‘creative differences’ a term that is all encompassing and in most cases are down to the creator being pissed off with getting fired despite his book having become a critical failure and sales that have dipped to close to cancellation. The ego cannot be deflated – most prima donnas will actually go as far to blame the audience. It’s their fault I’m so crap! Go figure.

Next: Sandman, bring me a dream, bum bum bum bum, make it the cutest that I've ever seen...

1 comment:

  1. Chuck Austen did kill Brian off, but he got better and then joined the Fifty State Initiative, although Marvel never explained which of the fifty US states he was representing.

    He later turned up in Paul Cornell's quite good Captain Britain and MI13, and when that got cancelled, I think he joined the new new new Avengers.