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Captain Britain

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Superheroes constantly draw upon myth and folklore as their archetypal source material, and the legend of King Arthur (popularized in the fifteenth century by Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort D'Arthur) is one of the mythic wells to which comics creators constantly return. Created by British-born X-Men writer Chris Claremont and Incredible Hulk artist (and Cornwall resident) Herb Trimpe as the flagship character for Marvel Comics' new United Kingdom line (and debuting in Captain Britain Weekly vol. 1 #1, October 13, 1976), Captain Britain unambiguously draws upon the Arthurian mythos, mixed with a dollop of Captain America, a national symbol from the States (where Captain Britain would not debut until 1978, alongside Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up #65 and #66). The Captain would then vanish again from the sight of American readers for another decade, except for the lucky few who stumbled across imported British comics at the local comics shop. While Captain Britain's popularity grew steadily in the United Kingdom through the first half of the 1980s (though other British heroes, such as Brian Bolland's tongue-in-cheekily ultraviolent Judge Dredd, had a decided head start), the Captain had scant opportunity to replicate that burgeoning success in America.


Thames University graduate student Brian Braddock, already a brilliant young scientist in the mode of Peter Parker (Spider-Man), is working as a research assistant at England's Darkmoor Research Centre when the facility is attacked by a super-criminal known as the Reaver. Panicked, Braddock flees on a motorcycle, but the attackers pursue him, causing a fiery crash. The mortally injured Braddock then experiences a vision in which the sorcerer Merlin and the goddess Roma offer to make him Britain's superpowered champion. They bid him to choose between two mystic talismans, the Amulet of Right and the Sword of Might. Braddock selects the amulet, and is immediately infused with mystical energies that not only heal his injuries, but also enhance his strength, stamina, and agility, and give him the power of flight, thereby transforming him into Captain Britain, a red-garbed figure with a gold lion emblazoned across his chest (perhaps symbolizing King Richard Lion-Heart) and a Union Jack–motif mask which conceals his entire face (the costume also amplifies Braddock's physical abilities via internal microcircuitry). In addition, the patron gods of the British Isles give Braddock a staff called a star scepter, whose mystic properties greatly enhance his hand-to-hand combat abilities.


Merlin, acting as Braddock's mentor, reveals to his charge that the Braddock family has a mystical connection to an extradimensional realm called Otherworld, located at a cosmic nexus linking every parallel Earth in the multiverse (known here as the Omniverse). Here the newly minted hero becomes the most powerful member of Merlin's Captain Britain Corps—a group charged with protecting Earth and all of its infinite parallel worlds from the forces of evil, whether magical or scientific—bringing to fruition the life's work of Braddock's late father, scientist James Braddock. [Merlin and Roma] dipped me in magic and clothed me in science, Braddock tells his telepathic twin sister Elizabeth [Betsy] Braddock years later (Captain Britain vol. 2 #1, 1985). They made me a hero. They dragged me screaming into the Omniverse I was their creation, birthed in blood. I was Captain Britain. They made me fight. And I liked it.


Despite his initial enthusiasm for the nonstop costumed derring-do his mystic sponsors demand of him, Braddock finds it difficult to balance his personal life (his desire to be a scientist) with his superheroic responsibilities. This conflict spurs him to problem drinking, gets him killed several times (luckily these demises prove to be only temporary), and leads him to take several sabbaticals during the 1980s and 1990s. During his first leave of absence from superheroics, Braddock hands the mantle of Captain Britain off to his sister (who would years later become the X-Men's Psylocke). He resumes his costumed identity after the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time Betsy is blinded by the villain Slaymaster, whom Brian then kills.

Captain Britain's early adventures achieved only spotty success. Following the cancellation of the first Captain Britain series in 1977, the United Kingdom's homegrown superhero found himself wandering among the various other British Marvel titles (and the aforementioned two issues of Marvel Team-Up in the States), landing first in the weekly Super Spider-Man, then guest-starring in the weekly Hulk Comic, in that title's Black Knight feature. London's Financial Times characterized some of the early Captain Britain tales as a farrago of illiterate SF nonsense. Claremont, who was succeeded in Captain Britain #11 (1977) by writer Gary Friedrich, has acknowledged that something was lacking during Captain Britain's early outings: Over the years since his debut, the poor Captain more or less floundered. Costume changes, role changes—superhero action adventure segueing sideways into outright fantasy and science fiction—but nothing ever seemed to jell.


Things began to turn around in the early 1980s when Marvel U.K. editor (later editor-in-chief) Paul Neary decided to hire some of England's most gifted young comics creators to bring Captain Britain to life, beginning with artist Alan Davis and writer David Thorpe in the U.K. monthly Marvel Superheroes magazine (1981). Davis not only redesigned Captain Britain's costume—transforming it into a more dynamic red, white, and blue while retaining and emphasizing its Union Jack aesthetic and making it friendlier by revealing part of the Captain's face—but also collaborated with writers such as Alan Moore (destined for enduring fame on DC's The Saga of the Swamp Thing and Watchmen) in revamping the character's mythos by injecting a compelling balance of fantasy, realism, horror, and whimsy. Claremont has called Moore's Jaspers Warp storyline (beginning in 1982's Marvel Superheroes magazine #387), in which a madman named Jim Jaspers alters all of reality to suit himself, one of the most emotionally powerful stories Alan Moore has ever written. After the hero had migrated yet again to The Daredevils and Mighty World of Marvel, writer Jamie Delano teamed with Davis in 1985 (beginning with Captain Britain vol. 2 #1), building on the character's growing success with the introduction and evolution-toward-humanity of Brian Braddock's shapeshifting werewoman lover, Meggan.


In 1988 Claremont and Davis made Captain Britain the focus of an England-based superhero team known as Excalibur (Excalibur: The Sword is Drawn #1), published in the United States by Marvel Comics, a development that gave the character his greatest stateside success, thanks to the group's close relationship to Marvel's immensely popular mutant characters the X-Men. Among the Captain's teammates are Meggan and several expatriate American X-Men, including Rachel Summers (the second Phoenix), Kitty Pryde (a.k.a. Shadowcat, possessed of the ability to walk through walls), and the teleporting acrobat known as Nightcrawler. During the course of the series, Captain Britain apparently resolves the old conflict between his superhero duties and his desire to do science, and eventually loses his powers while preventing the Dragons of the Crimson Dawn from opening a world-threatening dimensional portal.


Excalibur proved extremely popular with the worldwide legions of X-Men fans, though it never enabled Captain Britain to make the leap to television or film, and spawned very little in the way of licensed products, either in England or the States. Excalibur's final issue (Excalibur #125, 1998) presents the long-awaited wedding of Brian Braddock and Meggan on Otherworld, after which the team disbands, its American members returning home. But the Braddocks' hopes of living a normal life afterward go awry when Braddock gets involved—along with the Captain Britain Corps and allies Psylocke, Captain U.K., Crusader X, and the Black Knight—in a battle to prevent an apparently insane Roma from destroying Otherworld as part of an attempt to conquer the entire Omniverse. The Captain frees Roma from the influence of Mastermind, the artificial intelligence (created, ironically, by Braddock's late father) that turns out to be the true culprit in this cosmic malfeasance. Braddock then accepts the Sword of Might from a grateful Roma, bringing the blade together with the Amulet of Right. Taking his place as the rightful ruler of Otherworld and the protector of the Omniverse, Captain Britain at last fulfills his Arthurian destiny, with Meggan (his Lady Guenivere) at his side. —MAM


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