Captain Britain and the Comforting Myths of Englishness

In Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain and MI:13 #1, the eponymous Captain is killed by a Skrull missile during an alien invasion of Britain. As is the way of super-hero comics — and as was something of a habit for Captain Britain from even early on in his career — our brave Captain is soon resurrected. It’s an odd rebirth — as if a restoration to life could be anything other than an oddity — and Mr. Cornell is obviously fighting and writing with determination to make some sense of what the “Britain” in Captain Britain does and should mean.

“The British Felt It in Their Chests”

On his death, we’re told that when ”Captain Britain died, the British felt it in their chests.” To establish the point we’re shown four panels, each representing a different group’s response to the Captain’s demise: there’s some folks weeping in a supermarket or department store, three Anglo-Asian men wracked with grief, what appears to be some young working class men rioting, and finally an old couple sitting together in their loss. It’s a clever conceit, and though it’s easy to feel that the colorist might have taken a little more time in three of the panels to represent more than the grief of white people, I can appreciate the way it helps reestablish, even in his death, the fact that there is a nation of Great Britain in the Marvel Universe that loves and admires their good Captain.

And the British have indeed always tended to love and respect the men and women who have fought under the Union Jack, whether in what we might today consider good or ill causes. It doesn’t mean that we’ve been willing to actually make ours a ”land fit for heroes,” as Lloyd George so stridently promised and so cravenly failed to deliver in the wake of World War I. But we have long been, as Lawrence James has written, a ”martial race.”

Yet I don’t find it easy to believe that the mourning for Captain Britain could run that deeply, or be that apparently all-inclusive. The list of groups who would inevitably be at best suspicious of a superhero clothed in Great Britain’s flag is a long one. To take but one example, as a teacher I worked with significant numbers of Anglo-Asians, particularly young men, who felt little faith in the symbols of British patriotism. They were absolutely British, but they’d learnt not to trust the flag. What of the Welsh and Scottish nationalists? The apolitical masses? The feminists who might distrust Captain Britain for clothing himself and his muscles in and under the Union Jack? The fascists who have their own agenda for the flag? Pacifists? Super-villains and criminal empires? The list goes on and on.

No doubt on Marvel Earth, Captain Britain has fought so well and so often for the nation that he has won the respect and affection of large swathes of the British public. But a fictional representation of a nation does need to bear close relation to the actual country here on Earth-Not-Marvel. Otherwise, a story that’s trying to discuss the present day — as well as detailing which costume is hitting which other costume — can end up bucking the reader out of the narrative. And I can’t see that the universal grief depicted here would actually happen in real life. I keep wondering to myself: well, what about all the rest of Britain, and all the folks that just don’t care, and all the ones who really aren’t friends of the flying flag?

After all, as has been said for so many decades that it’s a commonplace, isn’t Captain Britain really Captain England? He’s a white, male Englishman from an aristocratic family somewhat down on its luck. At the very least, you’d expect a lot of Britain to see him as something other than “theirs.”

Interlude 1

I was born in Wales of Scottish parents, though I can remember nothing of Anglesey or the RAF base my father was stationed at there. While he helped to keep Nimrod early-warning aircraft aloft, I concentrated on growing teeth and howling. Then to Scotland, and council houses and huge ugly housing estates. And then, just as the shift to long trousers began to become a pressing issue, I was transplanted to the London suburbs, to Heathrow, where the now-long defunct British Eagle Airways paid my dad enough money to haul us down from Currie, our home.

I could, had I had any gifts for sport at all, played for any of the Home International sporting teams. Through my grandmother’s Irish origins, I could have worn the green jersey of the Republic’s teams too.

I have lived in east and north London, York, Leicester, the countryside between Northampton and Oxford, and East Anglia. In each of them, my accent, mutating as it collected the stray vocal characteristics of wherever I’d last been and adding them to the collection of those I’d picked up before , became one that declared me to be simultaneously a citizen of nowhere and of somewhere-else-from-here.

In London, I was fiercely bullied — and I eventually violently responded — because I was Scots and because we were less than affluent in an affluent county. And so I have never been an Englishman. In Scotland now, however, and the irony is fierce, I am often considered an Englishman, able to be at home only so long as I keep my English mouth, with its English accent, shut.

I am, therefore, British, or, to put it another way, an alien in each of the nations that I at-the-same-time do and don’t belong to. And I’ve always longed to be able to be able to pull some colour of shirt over my head and be a part of something greater than myself.

Or at least, something bigger than myself.

“One Thing That Contains Many”

And then Captain Britain returns, summoned back to life by Merlin, who declares that ”At the centre point of Britain, I’ll bring ‘the hero’ back for all.” Which as would be expected from a writer as humane and liberal and just plain inclusive as Mr. Cornell, is a lovely idea. The concept that Britain, that Great Britain, is a place where everyone benefits from being there, where everyone belongs, where one man will protect the life and liberty of everyone — even, presumably, of those who don’t want there to be a Britain itself — is a beguiling one. (Especially, I can imagine Mr. Cornwell say, those who don’t wish well of Britain, as long as they’re not harming those that do.) ”Now he’ll be one idea, one symbol!” affirms Merlin. “But like their flag, one thing that contains many.”

And all the Union Jacks in Britain rush to cloak the rising hero, and the returned Captain Britain takes hold of Excalibur and steps back into the fray against the alien hordes. And I really do want to believe in this Captain Britain, in this pluralist Britain, in this more-decent-than-not Britain that we’re having depicted for us, just as I wanted to believe inDan Dare’s England. But England, when I was a lad, didn’t really want me, or so it felt to me as I learned to get kicked off desks and chairs by young Englanders, and mastered the art of throwing desks and chairs back at them in return. Is this Britain of Cornell’s any better? Where are its comforting myths? And its uncomfortable truths, what are they? What are people there going to believe in, really believe in, so that this Britain becomes something that truly competes for the citizen’s affection? I struggle, but I can’t find the facts. England I can find, I know it, and I love it as much as I feel apart from it. Scotland I know as if it were my own family rather than a country, even if some of the nation thinks I’m not one of them because I don’t speak like them. But Britain?

As Captain Britain himself says to a Skrull threatening him, ”You have no idea what this flag means. It isn’t popular. It’s not a gesture.” Which is true, but then what the hell is this flag? I know a slew of theoretical models that define and explain Britain. That demystify Britain. Britain as historical accident. Britain as agent of economic and cultural imperialism. Britain as English centre and Celtic exploited periphery. Britain as this, Britain as that.

But what are the comforting myths of Britishness? Because the reality of Britain is failing to hold. I know far fewer people who feel British rather than English, or Scottish or Welsh. Is Paul Cornell’s kinder, more inclusive Britain a myth that can translate into reality, and a myth that could inspire people to want to turn it into reality? Because it sounds remarkably like Labour’s unsuccessful attempts in the 1980s to challenge Margaret Thatcher with a coalition of minority groups and some very idealistic policies for everyone else. Yes, it’s nice to stand together, and yes the world would be better for us all if we stand together.

But that’s not a beguiling myth. To say “we’d be better off being nice now that we’re all together here” is a realistic, kindly vision. But I don’t think it’s particularly inspiring. It worry that it won’t bring about the thing it describes.

Interlude 2

I’ve not had many dreams of any consequence in my life. In fact, I’ve had three. Here’s one of them.

In reality, I’m sleeping in a rickety attic somewhere in the countryside of Buckinghamshire. In my sleep, I’m walking down a street that’s in a peaceful suburb somewhere better than I’ve ever been. Either side of me as I walk on are lovely semi-detached suburban houses, safe and clean behind white wood fences and half-hidden by elm and cedar trees. In each front garden stand happy people I clearly know, though I couldn’t name them. I wave at them, they smile, they wave back at me. They’re all quite remarkable in their friendliness, truly and genuinely happy to see me, and I’m so pleased to acknowledge their warmth and return their greetings. Hello, hello, hello! On and on I go, and for the first time ever in my entire life, I know that I belong. This is a good place, a safe place. This is that demi, if surburban, Eden.

When I woke up, I had, without quite realizing it, tears in my eyes. And I tried to explain to my partner of that time why I was upset and what I had experienced. But I couldn’t make her understand what I was talking about.

Why ever would I feel that I didn’t belong?

“Some Farcical Aquatic Ceremony”

When Captain Britain returns, it seems that everyone in Britain is immediately aware of his resurrection. (I may be misreading the comic, because the folks who actually say they “know” he’s returned are people who actually know him. Perhaps the team of heroes have a way of communicating with each other that I know nothing of.) But it seems as if the flag-wrapped hero’s rebirth is signalled to all of those he represents as well as all of those he personally knows. This would make sense. It’d be magic. Merlin has returned, and reshaped, the hero, commanded flags to fly to his place of rebirth: why not let everybody know that the champion has risen, and inspire hope in the face of an overwhelming alien onslaught?

But that leads me to the ugly thought that perhaps the feeling in their chests that the British felt, when Captain Britain died, was not simply grief, but some kind of magically-transmitted sensation. That Captain Britain, and by extension Marvel-Britain itself, is a nation-state created and unified less by political realities or comforting myth or common values, but by magic.

And if that’s so, then I would have to turn to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where Dennis responds to Arthur’s claims that he is King of the Britons because the Lady of the Lake gave him Excalibur: “Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

And Dennis is right.

Interlude 3

It’s a sad irony that nothing has made the British people fonder of the very idea of a British people — if not a British state — than the sacrifice of British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. That there is a reality as well as a myth of brave British soldiers falling overseas has brought the people of Britain more together in town-centre welcome-home parades, and ceremonies of respect and remembrance than at any time in decades that wasn’t a funeral of a Princess. Nation-states have been welded together by blood before, though I’m in no way suggesting that that’s anyone’s purpose where the wars today are concerned. But making people love Britain, rather than admiring more the soldiers fighting for her, will take more than respectful parades and public expressions of grief.

We’ll need to actually believe in something. We’ll need a Britain that’s more than just the power-relations, more than just the facts, linking together the parliaments of England, Scotland and Wales.

“I Could Always… Put it Back?

At the end of Captain Britain And MI: 13 #4, Dr Faiza Hussain, an Anglo-Asian woman doctor, modestly pulls the sword Excalibur from the rubble Captain Britain has half-buried it in. She’s worried that the super-heroes of MI: 13 have forgotten the sword and she removes it, albeit on Merlin’s secret prompting, to return it to them. And as it comes easily of the rubble in her hands, she — and the readers — immediately know that she is the new, worthy, wielder of Excalibur.

It’s a scene that’s almost weakened by its own good intentions. We know the point that Mr. Cornell is making. Of course it would be a damn good idea for the Muslim woman to wield the sword. That says is this is a good Britain, a country that embraces all of those who live and work within her borders, or as Cornell has Merlin say, a Britain that is ”one thing that contains many.” It’s a touching, hopeful, inclusive idea, a far more positive spin than that of Garth Ennis, but no less a thoughtful one for all that.

But what finally closes the idea and caps the words is the charming last panel of the story, by artist Leonard Kirk, where Captain Britain, the Black Knight, Spitfire, and Peter Wisdom surround Dr. Hussain, absolutely gleaming with the joy they feel about her winning such an honor. (Of course, it’s implicit that she is honoring the sword by her virtues as much as it is her by its choice to sit in her hands.) The cast of the comic are so very happy for her — and for themselves — because this is a better world now. They’re relaxed in each other’s company, two aristocrats, an American immigrant, a white Englishman and an Anglo-Asian woman. They like each other, and they’re more than happy to work and stand together. It’s a group of folks we’d like to know ourselves, and be respected by. They’d be good folks to live and work with.

Myths are mysterious things. They can begin to seduce you even as you dissect them for their meaning, their antecedents, their artistry, their contradictions and flaws. You can pin a myth down, thinking you’re going to cut it up and understand it and emasculate it.

But you really can’t.

This article and its companion, tomorrow’s “Dan Dare and the Seductive Myths of Englishness,” together constitute a remixed version, prepared by Sequart, of a single article that first appeared on the author’s blog, Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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