The British Invasion, Part 2: Grant Morrison in 1986: Superman & Captain Britain

The last installment examined Grant Morrison’s early, partly comedic Batman prose story, “The Stalking,” which was published in the United Kingdom in 1986. In the 1986 British Superman Annual Grant Morrison did another text story, “Osgood Kennedy’s Big Green Dream Machine,” this one illustrated by Barry Kitson and Jeff Anderson. As the title may suggest, this is ultimately another comedy. A scientist named Osgood Kennedy meets with a group of criminals and tells them that his new invention is the key to defeating Superman. His “dream machine” will allow them to look into Superman’s dreams and thereby discover how to destroy him. Kennedy may be brilliant, but he is hardly as sinister a figure as Luthor or Brainiac. Morrison depicts him as a somewhat comical nerd: for one thing, he has a nervous stammer. In order to get his dream machine to work on Superman, Kennedy explains he had to surreptitiously plant a microtransmitter on Superman’s cape. (As in “The Stalking,” Morrison’s Superman makes lots of public appearances, it seems.)

One criminal, outraged, asks, “’And what makes you think Superman sleeps in his costume? Do you sleep in your lab coat?’

“Osgood was offended. ‘As a matter of fact, I do!’ he snapped. “And remember, Superman is on call 24 hours a day. Why should he take off his uniform? He’s invulnerable! He doesn’t sweat!’” So here is a criminal scientist who doesn’t see why Superman should have higher standards of hygiene than he does.

And Osgood’s device seems to work. The dream machine’s monitor seems to televise Superman’s dreams, but to Osgood’s surprise, it keeps showing pictures of bones. Osgood declares that “Superman is in need of psychiatric help” and speculates that the bones betray Superman’s terror of death, an ironic fear for a supposedly invulnerable man.

Then Superman bursts into the room and confronts Osgood and the criminals. One overconfident crook threateningly waves a wishbone at the Man of Steel, but to no avail. Superman explains to Osgood that with his super-hearing he could detect the microtransmitter’s signal, so he attached it to someone else. The dreams about bones were actually the dreams of Krypto the Superdog!

Morrison concludes the story, “And as Superman led Osgood and the others away, the air rang with the sound of his laughter.”

So this is another comedy. But one can also see a glimpse of the side of the Grant Morrison who would go on to write dark subversive treatments of classic super-heroes, such as Arkham Asylum, which was published only three years later (1989). Even though Kennedy turns out to be foolishly mistaken, Morrison has nonetheless raised the idea that the godlike Superman may fear his own mortality. Indeed, mortality–actual, irreversible death–is a recurring theme in the comics of 1986, even including super-hero comics like Crisis on Infinite Earths, Squadron Supreme, Strikeforce: Morituri, and Watchmen.

But this story too shows Morrison not as the writer of subversive, deconstructive super-hero stories but as the devoted fan of the comics of his childhood. It was Weisinger who introduced and frequently used Krypto, especially in Superboy stories; Schwartz eventually brought back Krypto but seldom used him. In 1986 DC Comics banished Krypto from the official continuity when the Superman mythos was rebooted in John Byrne’s The Man of Steel. The conventional wisdom was that Krypto and the other “super-pets” of the Weisinger era were too juvenile for the older audience now reading comics. But Morrison fondly uses Krypto on this story, and Moore memorably gave Krypto a heroic, even moving end in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

Moreover, Morrison’s story could well have been published in the Weisinger period. It follows familiar Weisinger story patterns: in one, something threatens to disturb Superman’s status quo, but is revealed to be a fake; and in another, Superman triumphs by cleverly tricking his opponent.

Like “The Stalking,” Morrison’s “Osgood Kennedy” tale foreshadows his future work. One of the highlights of Morrison’s career is his All-Star Superman series (2005-2008), which provided an alternative continuity to the official canon in the regular Superman series of that time. All-Star Superman was really Morrison’s revival of the Weisinger-era Superman mythos—from a clumsy Clark Kent who was not married to Lois to Luthor as a convict to Superman robots to the Bizarro World—while approaching them from a contemporary, analytical perspective.

One could argue that the first of the “British Invaders” were Chris Claremont and John Byrne, who had each been born in England, though Claremont was raised in the United States, and Byrne grew up in Canada. Both had also read classic British comics. Perhaps these factors contributed to making their collaboration on Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men in the late 1970s and early 1980s so groundbreaking.

It was surely due to his British background that Claremont got to co-create the super-hero Captain Britain for Marvel UK in 1976. Early in his career Alan Moore wrote Captain Britain stories from 1982 into 1984 that are highly imaginative, although they lack the depth of his later work. In Moore’s stories Captain Britain has counterparts on alternate Earths throughout the multiverse, such as the female Captain UK. In retrospect it seems odd and foolish that after all his work for Marvel UK, Marvel did not recruit Moore to write for the company’s American comics, and DC hired him instead.

How would comics history have been different had Alan Moore worked for Marvel in America instead?

Grant Morrison also wrote a text story, titled “Captain Granbretan,” for Marvel UK’s Captain Britain #13, which was cover-dated January 1986; the story was illustrated by John Stokes. The title character is one of these otherdimensional analogues of Brian Braddock, alias Captain Britain. Based on various pieces of information Morrison provides in his story, one can deduce that Captain Granbretan exists on a parallel Earth in which Napoleon defeated Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. As a result Napoleon conquered Great Britain, renaming it Granbretan, and, as Morrison shows us, it is Napoleon’s statue that stands atop the famous column in London’s Trafalgar Square, not Nelson’s. Apparently Granbretan eventually became an independent nation, but retained a French-speaking culture.

Interesting as this backstory may be, it is not Morrison’s main subject in this story. In “Captain Granbretan” one does indeed see Grant Morrison the deconstructionalist, not the nostalgic super-hero fan, at work.

In Claremont’s 1976 origin story for Captain Britain, young Brian Braddock was working at the Darkmoor nuclear research center when he nearly died nearby and was endowed with the costume and super-powers of Captain Britain. In Morrison’s story a student named Paul Peltier finds the costume of Captain Granbretan at Darkmoor, depicted as “a circle of neolithic stones” comparable to Stonehenge. Donning the costume, Peltier gains superhuman powers including super-strength and the ability to fly.

The traditional trope in super-hero origin stories is that, upon gaining super-powers, the hero decides to use them in the service of a mission to fight for justice and help those in need. This, indeed, is what Brian Braddock does on becoming Captain Britain. But Morrison is engaging in an exercise in metafiction here. Paul Peltier has long fantasized about becoming a super-hero since he reads about them in comic books—or, rather, as Morrison calls them here, “bandes dessinees” (since Granbretan has a French-speaking culture). Finding the costume enables Peltier to make his fantasy come true.

This is not without precedent. As shown in Showcase #4 (1956), Barry Allen was inspired to become the Silver Age Flash because he was a fan of the comics about the Golden Age Flash. But Barry was more of an idealist than Paul Peltier.

Paul’s motive for becoming a super-hero is not to help other people but to win fame and fortune for himself. Morrison’s narration tells us that Paul thinks, “It was even better than being a pop singer or starring in films.” And so, “With visions of fame and money and girls jostling for space in his imagination, Captain Granbretan had taken to the sky on that first day of his new life, never suspecting what lay ahead.”

This too has a classic precedent: as shown in Amazing Fantasy #15 (1963), Peter Parker’s initial motivation as Spider-Man was becoming rich and famous. It was the double shock of his Uncle Ben’s death and his realization that he had failed to prevent it that drove Peter Parker to his unending mission to use his powers as Spider-Man to fight crime. As Stan Lee famously put it in that story, “With great power there must come great responsibility.”

Paul Peltier comes to a similar conclusion, but not through suffering the loss of a loved one. Whereas Spider-Man sought to make his fortune in show business, Captain Granbretan instead tries to charge money for his services as a super-hero. But he quickly learns that people expect him to do his heroic feats for free; presumably they’ve read super-hero comics, too, and have their own ideas about how a super-hero should act. The money-hungry Peltier “soon came to realise that super-heroes were looked upon as charitable institutions.” Nor did he get girlfriends: either women were “too much in awe” of him to approach him, or his super-hero activities left him “far too tired to respond to the overtures of those women who did actively pursue him.” As for fame, the public was apparently catching on to his less than heroic personality and had started to turn against him.

As Morrison noted in his Superman Annual story, Superman is on call 24 hours a day. Although Peter Parker sometimes decides “Spider-Man No More,” he inevitably resumes his costumed career out of his sense of responsibility.

Having become a super-hero, the self-aggrandizing Peltier has discovered that he now has responsibilities to use his powers for good, but unlike Superman or Spider-Man or Batman, he regards this not as a noble duty but as an endless, exhausting burden. “In fact, all things considered, the life of a super-hero was, to be quite frank, a complete and utter living hell.” Morrison tells us that Peltier has sunk into “a profound depression.” He is stressed out, “too tense to sleep properly.” The narration asserts that “In the end, all he really had was a dreadful, crushing responsibility.” Lacking any dedication to heroic ideals, Peltier has come to regard being a super-hero as no more than exhausting, soul-crushing drudge work.

Morrison’s “Captain Granbretan” also turns out to be a comedy, but a black comedy. Overwhelmed by stress, Peltier decides that “It had to stop. Here. Now.” So he returns to Darkmoor and begins to try to take off his costume. But as soon as he attempts to take off his helmet, it begins to speak to him! The helmet had “only just developed consciousness.”

“’What do you want?’ asked Captain Granbretan, beginning to feel unpleasantly like a character in a play by Harold Pinter at his most obtuse.” I wonder how many American mainstream comic book writers even today know the work of Harold Pinter. Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison arrived in the American comics industry with considerably wider literary knowledge than most American comic book writers showed signs of possessing.

Quite possibly Morrison’s talking helmet was inspired by the Helmet of Nabu that was worn by the DC super-hero Doctor Fate: the human who wore the helmet became possessed by the consciousness of Nabu the Wise, a supernatural being who was a “Lord of Order.”

Peltier’s helmet, however, does not speak on the typical manner of some grand, godlike being in comics. Saying it was “designed to be a super-hero’s battlesuit,” it wants to “exercise my full potential,” but accuses Peltier: “Instead of saving lives and averting disasters, you spend all your time moaning about how difficult your life is. Well, I’m bored!” Possibly Morrison is satirizing the way that Marvel heroes in the Stan Lee tradition soliloquize about their angst. It’s as if Spider-Man’s costume got fed up with listening to Peter Parker complain all the time.

Is it possible that Morrison also read and recalled writer Robert Kanigher’s “Case of the Curious Costume” from The Flash #161 (May 1966), in which Barry Allen quit being the Flash, but then heard—or imagined hearing—his Flash costume asking him to put it on and resume his costumed career?

The Captain Granbretan costume is also engaging in projection: complaining that it is tired of Peltier’s complaining. So perhaps the costume can be seen as symbolizing a side of Peltier’s psyche, his conscience.

Morrison’s story turns quite serious when Peltier makes what the narration rightly calls an “impassioned speech,” begging for understanding. “I can’t go on like this. Do you realize how much crime there is in this world? How many earthquakes and oil slicks and air crashes there are? How many wars and riots? How much terrorism? I’m only one man. I’m expected to sort everything out on my own, because of these powers, but there’s just me, you know? I can’t deal with it all.” Peltier concludes, “My life’s not my own anymore.”

The helmet replies, in an ominously matter-of-fact way, “That’s true.” The helmet overrides Peltier’s nervous system, taking complete control of his body. The narration refers to Captain Granbretan as “jailed in his own clothing” and as “a hijacked prisoner.” The human being is trapped within his uniform, the outward sign of his public image and career.

Now Morrison’s comedy turns dark and even macabre, as the helmet takes pleasure in enslaving its wearer, and breaks into song, as if this were a musical comedy, as it forces the Captain to fly through the air. “’Come fly with me, come fly, let’s fly away. . .’ the helmet hummed tonelessly. ‘You like Frank Sinatra, don’t you, Paul?’ it asked, not waiting for a reply. ‘How about this one?’ It took an electronic breath and began, ‘I’ve got you, under my skin. . .’”

The helmet compels Captain Granbretan apparently to work nonstop: “from kittens trapped in trees”–a possible reference to an incident in the 1978 Superman movie?– “to foundering oil tankers, Captain Granbretan was there to save the day.” Morrison finally lets the reader know that the helmet has forced Peltier to work through exhaustion and perhaps starvation to death. But that would wreck the Captain’s heroic image if the public found out. “It knew it could animate him for only so long, before his glassy eyes and decomposing flesh gave the whole game away.”

And so the helmet decides to “return to Darkmoor, digest Peltier’s body and then wait” for “someone who’d always fancied the idea of superpowers” to come along and don the costume. The helmet and costume is like a spider, weaving its web in order to catch its next victim. Morrison concludes with grim irony: “Happy again, the real Captain Granbretan swooped and soared and sailed, then settled gently in a ring of stones. And began to feed.”

At Marvel in the 1960s Stan Lee had pioneered the idea of the super-hero who is driven by his mission, at harsh costs to his personal life, the hero whose super-powers seem to be a curse rather than a blessing. In this story Morrison takes that concept further, presenting the man who is literally destroyed by his role and career as super-hero, as symbolized by the sentient helmet and costume. Moreover, through this image of the hero “jailed” by his own costume, Morrison devised a metaphor for dilemmas that affect people in everyday life. Peltier is like any person who is ruined by the pursuit of his ill-conceived ambitions, especially those for fame and fortune. He is a man who makes the wrong decision, not recognizing the consequences it will have, and who suffers as a result. He is a potentially tragic figure who sets his life on a self-destructive course that proves to be irreversible. Peltier is an everyman who finds himself weighed down by the burden of moral responsibility. And he is an ironic figure, a man who thinks he has the key to supreme power, who is instead ground down and destroyed by forces he did not even know existed.

Revealing his prowess at exploring the dark potential of the super-hero genre, this story is a small gem in Morrison’s early career. Imagine how surprised readers must have been in 1986 to get to the end of this text story in a Captain Britain comic, if they even noticed it.

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Peter Sanderson is a comics historian and critic who has written and co-written numerous books, as well as contributing essays to several Sequart anthologies. Sanderson has three degrees in English literature from Columbia University, and has taught "Comics as Literature" at New York University. He was Marvel Comics' first archivist and an assistant editor there. Sanderson has curated or co-curated three exhibitions on comics at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York, worked on two documentaries about comics, and written reviews and journalistic pieces on comics for Publishers Weekly and other magazines. For further examples of his work, see his online column "Comics in Context."

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Also by Peter Sanderson:

Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide


Gotham City 14 Miles: 14 Essays on Why the 1960s Batman TV Series Matters


Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen


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