The X-Men line is often accused of being too extensive and bloated. And, honestly, sometimes it is. Yet, especially in the last five years, the X-Men line has also been the source of some surprising gems that for one reason or another went overlooked by the comic book audience. These excellent titles flew under the radar and were soon canceled- too soon, if you ask me. But they’re worth discussing. More than that, they’re worth checking out if you happen to run across the back issues or a trade paperback.
Captain Britain & MI: 13 (2008)
By Paul Cornell and Leonard Kirk
15 issues plus an Annual (available in trade as Captain Britain & MI: 13: Secret Invasion, Hell Comes to Birmingham and Vampire State)
Captain Britain was one of my favorite titles at the time. It had a wonderful mix of personalities- Excalibur staple Captain Britain and relative newcomer Pete Wisdom, former Avenger Black Knight and Golden Age legacy Spitfire, plus new characters like John the Skrull and Dr. Faisa Hussain. By issue 5, they added vampire hunter and sometime solo star Blade.
Even better than the cast, Captain Britain & MI: 13 had a wonderful fix of epic action and strong characterization. The team had the mandate of defending the British Isles against external threats can couldn’t be handled by conventional military. In the three story arcs, they squared off against an alien Skrull invasion, an uprising by the denizens of the underworld and a massive infiltration of vampires. The stories had a definite weight to them. The fate of the nation, if not the world, depended on the success of the team. As a reader, you were caught up the action and concerned about the outcome. Personally, I couldn’t wait for the next issue to come out. Even though the three arcs all had an invasion theme in common, the source and nature of those threats were varied enough to sustain interest. Paul Cornell combined science fiction, fantasy and horror elements to craft an engaging superhero series.
At the same time, Cornell remembered to put a human face on the series. The relationships were as engaging and as varied as the epic invasions. The strongest relationship was the blossoming romance between the Black Night and Dr. Hussain. Hussain was a very naturalistic portrayal of a Muslim immigrant to England. She was cool and charming and it was interesting to meet her family through the eyes of the Black Knight. The other chief relationship was the quiet rivalry between Captain Britain and Pete Wisdom. Both were used to being leaders in the past and both had leadership roles on the current team- Captain Britain as the public face and Pete Wisdom as the power behind the scenes. Cornell crafted a complicated relationship, in which they worked together but occasionally resented the other. As the series progressed, we were introduced to a third relationship that had both romantic potential and a complicated rivalry: Spitfire and Blade. They had a strange detente as Spitfire was a vampire and Blade a vampire hunter. You were never quite sure if the sparks between them would ignite into passion or explode into conflict. It was fascinating to follow the progress between them.
Leonard Kirk was a great choice as the artist for this series. He had a strong handle on facial expressions and body language. The wide variety of characters were easily distinguished and never caricaturized. And he knew how to pull out the big guns for the big invasion scenes. I particularly remember the vivid scene of the vampires descending from the sky. Kirk was masterful in combining the characterization and the action that the series demanded.
I’m not sure why Captain Britain & MI: 13 didn’t catch on. It seemed like Marvel did everything right in launching the new series. They started with a preliminary mini-series starring Pete Wisdom, a strategy that was successful in turning a Madrox mini-series into an X-Factor ongoing. Perhaps the launch would have been more successful if they had used a familiar name like Excalibur. Then again, the Excalibur name was slightly damaged from a couple of recent failures. Marvel also tied the opening arc into the Secret Invasion crossover, which should have brought in additional readers. The same strategy worked for a Deadpool series that was launched at the same time. Then again, it’s possible that M1: 13 was swallowed up by the crossover hype and unable to survive on its own. Whatever the reason for its too-soon demise, Captain Britain & MI: 13 was a great series and deserves to be remembered.
Jeff Parker’s Exiles was a fun romp while it lasted. The title blended wild action, solid characterization and a healthy dose of humor. Parker also utilized a back-to-the-basics approach that was reminiscent of Judd Winick’s original run and Tony Bedard’s early stories.
The team centered on Blink, the most popular character in the series’ history and one of the central triumvirate along with Mimic and Morph. But while Winick drew extensively from the Age of Apocalypse (see his use of Blink and Mimic) and Bedard raided the entire multiverse for characters (see the inclusion of Longshot and Spider-Man 2099), Parker found inspiration in another alternate world scenario. He drafted Polaris and the Scarlet Witch, whose sisterly camaraderie and occasional rivalry (or should that be sisterly rivalry and occasional camaraderie?) had been a potent combination in several Magneto mini-series set in Genosha as well as the House of M crossover. Along with Blink, the two half-sisters provided an emotional core for the series.
While the female characters were reassuringly familiar, the male characters were refreshingly unexpected and mysterious. Parker playfully went against type with both the Black Panther and the Beast. In most scenarios, the Black Panther is the calm, wise leader figure. And, early on, the other characters looked for the Black Panther to fill that role based on their past experiences. But this Black Panther was a youthful replacement, unsure of himself and uncomfortable with the expectations of leadership. It was delightful depiction that surprised the characters and the audience. The Beast was drawn like the Dark Beast from the Age of Apocalypse but he had the kind-hearted soul that we know from the regular Marvel Universe. Once again, our expectations ran counter to the reality in a pleasant surprise. Given time, I’m sure we would have discovered a hidden depth to Forge as well. However, with only 6 issues in the can, he remained mostly a cipher.
Artist Salvador Espin employed a highly stylized approach that was a perfect fit for this quirky title. His expressive faces conveyed the requisite shock and surprise. Yet he still managed enough subtlety to keep us guessing about a character’s motivations when it was necessary to maintain the mystery.
This installment of Exiles was also wonderfully fast-paced. The first story covered all of three issues, a refreshing change from the standard six. It was followed by an excellent two-parter and then a one-shot. The quick turnover of alternate worlds and interesting stories should have kept the reader’s attention. It certainly captivated mine.
Once again, I’m not sure why this series didn’t catch on. I suspect that it was too soon to launch another Exiles series considering that the Chris Claremont-helmed New Exiles had only been canceled two months earlier. Then again, that didn’t seem to be a problem with Uncanny X-Force the following year. On the bright side, Parker employed a similar approach on Thunderbolts and was much more successful the second time around. Parker’s T-Bolts lasted 2 and ½ years before being rebranded as Dark Avengers. Fans of Parker’s work on T-Bolts and Agents of Atlas should give his Exiles a look. It may not have lasted long, but it was a treat in its brief time.
S.W.O.R.D. was a very similar title to Exiles, which maybe wasn’t the best idea considering that Exiles had just been canceled. It was quirky and fun. It paired wild action with humor. It was fast-paced, almost breath-taking in its sprint from one incident to another- as reflected in the title of the trade paperback.
Kieron Gillen did a good job of evoking famous X-Men stories. SWORD owed a clear debt to Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, using Agent Abigail Brand as a central character and even referencing Kitty’s situation as part of world-size bullet. The connection was strengthened by the presence of Astonishing X-Men’s John Cassaday as a cover artist and by the inclusion of Kitty’s dragon Lockheed as a member of the cast. Even so, the classic references weren’t restricted to X-Men lore. Later cover art evoked Jim Steranko’s amazing ‘60s run on SHIELD. And the inclusion of Henry Gyrich as a government busybody evoked John Byrne’s excellent tenure on The Avengers.
At the same time, Gillen did a good job of setting SWORD apart from the current Marvel continuity. There were brief references to the X-Men relocating to Utopia, which provoked a falling out between Beast and Cyclops and led to the Beast leaving the X-Men for SWORD. But that was mostly background information and had no real bearing on the current series. There were also slight connections to Dark Reign, as Brand tried to solve a recent alien incursion before Norman Osborn and his Avengers could interfere. But it was a tangential connection that didn’t upset the plot or run counter to the tone of the series.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the series was the way it juggled several storylines at once. There was the story of an intergalactic bounty hunter tracking Brand’s half-brother. There was the story of alien representatives threatening to invade earth if they weren’t given North Carolina as tribute. There was the story of an accidental invasion by rock aliens who thought they were liberating prisoners from Mt. Rushmore. There was the story of the robot prisoner who manipulated events from behind the scenes. And there was the story of Henry Gyrich’s purge of all aliens and half-breeds from Earth. These stories eventually wove together in ways that provided surprising complications and enjoyable outcomes.
Steven Sanders was a good complement as series artist. His exaggerated style accentuated the frenetic pace of the stories. It also leant itself well to depicting crazy space vehicles, unusual life forms and especially intergalactic android bounty hunters.
For the third time, I find it hard to explain why such an excellent series had a hard time catching on. Perhaps other fans don’t appreciate quirky humor the way I do. Perhaps the intentional divorce from current X-Men continuity was a deterrent rather than a draw. I’ve heard it suggested that the cast had a limited appeal- Lockheed and Brand don’t exactly have large fan followings and Beast has had trouble selling eponymous mini-series let alone starring in an ongoing that doesn’t have his name in the title. Perhaps it was simply the wrong time to try something new. In any case, SWORD was an excellent comic book. It was as much fun to read the second time as the first and it’s worth checking out if you get the chance.