Friday, November 30, 2012

Recommended Reading for 11/30: Captain Britain and MI13

I love Pete Wisdom. Now, I'd think about two-thirds if you out there are asking who the hell Pete Wisdom is. And the other third are saying, "Of course you do! How could you not love Pete Wisdom?" For the unenlightened, Pete Wisdom was a British mutant and secret agent introduced by Warren Ellis during his run on Excalibur. He was the prototypical Ellis protagonist: snarky, hard drinking, hard smoking, trenchcoat wearing, and haunted by his past and all the friends and family he has lost(so, in all fairness, he's pretty much the mutant John Constantine).

While I know the series I'm talking about today, Captain Britain and MI13, isn't called Pete Wisdom and MI13, it always will be in my heart. It's the first major work from Paul Cornell, who has since made his name with runs on Action Comics and Demon Knights, as well as Saucer Country out of Vertigo, and will be writing the Marvel Now! Wolverine ongoing. His principal artist was Leonard Kirk, one of comics' great utility pencilers, and who's best known for his collaborations with Peter David, including a long run on Supergirl and X-Factor.

If the title isn't a giveaway, the series is about a team of superheroes who work for British Intelligence solving problems that normal law enforcement can't, problems dealing mostly with the vast occult population of the British Isles, but they have no problem dealing with alien invasions or mutant issues too. MI13 is the British occult services division, in the same way MI5 deals with problems domestic and MI6 deals with problems foreign. The series was tragically short-lived, only fifteen issues and an annual, but they were great issues, full of action, humor, and great characters.

Aside from Brian Braddock, the titular Captain Britain, England's leading superhero, and Pete Wisdom, the team was made up of a group of mostly British heroes. MI13 includes Spitfire, the World War II era British heroine who has been made young again and has certain vampiric traits, The Black Knight, former Avenger, and Blade, the vampire hunter. The series also introduces Dr. Faisa Hussain, a kind and intrepid physician,w ho becomes the bearer, and takes up the heroic alias, of Excalibur. Hussain is of Muslim faith, and Cornell does and excellent job of making that an important part of her character without making it all of her character.

Pete Wisdom, trying to draw the sword from the stone
The series began spinning out of Marvel's Secret Invasion crossover, about an invasion from the shape-changing alien Skrulls. Specifically, the Skrulls have come to England because t serves as the font of all magic This is something new to the history of the Marvel Universe as far as I know, but makes for a logical reason why the Skrulls are targeting England. Series beginning during events can be problematic, as sometimes the event seems tacked on, but this specific crossover worked very well.

Cornell also used the crossover to clearly define his two chief protagonists. Captain Britain fights valiantly, but is killed early on by the Skrulls. He is eventually resurrected by Merlin, and made into the true embodiment of England. Captain Britain as a character had always been haunted by doubts, but with this resurrection he became the symbol of a united England, and moved forward as a stronger character. Pete Wisdom, on the other hand, remains a man torn by his past and who must make the hard choices. With the Skrulls having taken English magic, Wisdom is told by a mysterious voice that he must break open a gate to the Dark Dimensions, the prison for demons and the like, to free the being who can save England. Wisdom does it, freeing a trapped Merlin, but also unleashes hordes of the worst demons and monsters of the Marvel Universe. This is the act of a man who is not a hero in the classic sense, not a noble knight, but a man who does what he needs to; a man whose motto is, "Job needs doing."

The second arc adds Blade to the mix, which seems an odd choice until you remember that, from his original appearances in Tomb of Dracula, Blade is English. It also creates an interesting dynamic between Blade and Spitfire. Blade is the legendary vampire hunter, after all, and Spitfire has been feeling the influence of a vampire curse she long thought broken returning. Blade's initial reaction is to stake Spitfire, but the two form a bond over the arc, as they are both half-vampire. We also begin to see more of Faisa, who accidentally received powers during the Skrull invasion and picked up Excalibur at the end of that story. She somewhat serves as the audience proxy, since she is new and asks the questions a reader might, but she's also a noble soul, which puts her in company with only Captain Britain on this team. Each of the others (Wisdom, Spitfire, Blade, and Black Knight) all are tarnished, by their curses or their past deeds, so her innocence adds to what makes her distinct.
The main story of this second arc deals with the first of the demons that were freed by Pete in the previous arc. Plokta feeds on the dreams of those he has captures. Because of this, we get to see a good view inside the heads of our heroes, and what each of them wants and needs. It's a great way to give the audience that kind of infodump without it being an infodump. We also get some really cool scenes inside Plokta's dream corridor, fiery hallways, and a creepy monster on Plokta himself.

Tragically, the final arc was hands down my favorite, and really saw the series hit its stride. "Vampire State" sees the return of the classic Marvel Dracula, who my regular readers read about in my Tomb of Dracula recommended reading. Cornell writes Dracula brilliantly, keeping him perfectly in line with how he's been represented in the past, with his cool, cold grace and style. Dracula has decided to take over England and turn it into a Vampire Nation, and along the way makes accords with Lilith, another of the demons freed at the beginning of the series, and with Dr. Doom.

What I especially love about this story is that it is an intricate chess game between two masters of manipulation: Dracula and Pete Wisdom. Dracula is of course based on Vlades Tepes, a great military leader in his native lands, and so Cornell presents Dracula as a brilliant military mind, building a complex strategy and campaign against his foes. Meanwhile Wisdom is a master spy, who is used to manipulating situations to his won benefit, and his skills are shown off amply here. Cornell does wonderful things with the history of Dracula and his nemesis Quincy Harker as well, although that's a twist I don't want to give away.

Other than spotlighting my favorite underutilized mutant hero, the thing I love about Captain Britain and MI13 is that, while its a serious superhero comic, it keeps an air of fun and adventure about it. The seriousness is there, but it doesn't drown out the fact that these are characters in tights (well, maybe not all of them; Pete Wisdom wouldn't be caught dead in tights), who are having big adventures. It's got witty dialogue, great art, and intricate plots. Plus Pete Wisdom. What more do you want?
Captain Britain and MI13 is available in three trade paperbacks: Secret Invasion, Hell Comes to Birmingham, and Vampire State. If you enjoy them, you might also want to check out Wisdom, the Pete Wisdom mini-series from writer Paul Cornell under Marvel's MAX line. You can also see more MI13 action in this week's new issue of Gambit.


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