Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Captain Britain and the Narration of Nation

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Captain Britain and the Narration of Nation

Article excerpt

Captain America, perhaps the most iconic nationalist superhero in the world, dates to the period before World War II, when the American comic-book industry was coming into existence. Indeed, Captain America can be understood as a foundation for the nationalist superhero genre. Although many superheroes, like Superman, are in some sense nationalist in that they associate themselves with national values--"truth, justice, and the American way"--none fits the mold as perfectly as does Captain America, whether because of his star-spangled uniform, military title, and comportment or his self-identification as a national icon and symbol of hope.

In the United Kingdom an independent tradition of comic-book heroes that embody national values has long existed. For example, the 1930s saw the debut of James Bigglesworth ("Biggles"), a Royal Air Force pilot in World War I (Kirby 2000). Biggies thrilled his readers as he went on to battle the Nazis, Japanese, Soviets, and other threats to the British Empire in books such as Biggles in Africa and Biggles Defies the Swastika (Johns 1936, 1941). The post-World War II era saw the creation of Dan Dare, a space pilot who embodied the hopes of a resurgent future Britain. The introduction of American reprints of Captain Marvel to the British market in 1953 heralded the country's first big boom in the superhero genre, and when Marvel canceled those reprints they were soon replaced by a similar British superhero, Marvelman. The similarities were enough to keep the audience reading, and interest in superheroes grew (Gravett and Stanbury 2006).

The 1972 creation of Marvel U.K., the British imprint of the popular American comic-book company, heralded a new era for nationalist superheroes. U.S. domination of the superhero genre had been de facto (Wright 2001; Edwardson 2003), and as a result the only nationalist superheroes of note had been centered in the United States. Marvel U.K.'s main task was to sell reprints of Marvel's U.S. comics, a role that had not been filled since 1969. However, digests of purely American material such as The Mighty World of Marvel and Spider-Man Comics Weekly only whetted the appetite of Britons for more local material. The New York-based Marvel Comics heard the demand but was unwilling to alter its business model any more than necessary. Rather than hire a British writer and artist it assigned the job of writing a new United Kingdom-centric comic to Chris Claremont, an American writer who had lived for a short time in the United Kingdom as a child.

Thus was born Captain Britain, a British nationalist superhero produced by Americans for the British market. In each of the thirty-nine issues of the U.S.-produced Captain Britain Weekly, published in 1976 and 1977, (1) the first eight pages contained a serialized narrative about Captain Britain, and more reprints of Marvel's U.S. content filled the remainder of the comic. Despite the flimsiness of the British connection, comics fans received the character warmly, imagining their own communities being endangered by supervillains and subsequently saved by a hero draped in their national symbols. Criticism of the characterization of the hero and of the creative team's nationality no doubt existed, but, broadly speaking, the hero was a success, and British fans hailed him as one of their own. More than simply creating a nationalist hero, Marvel U.K. stirred nationalist thoughts in its readers through the very act of creating the hero, as evidenced by the letters to the editor printed in the comic. That the Americans created the hero in a paradoxical way added to the sentiment, because the gesture could be interpreted as an egalitarian recognition of the United Kingdom's importance.

In this article I demonstrate how Captain Britain acts as a rescaling icon for British identity (Dittmer 2007a), connecting the abstract body politic of the nation with the body of the hero in the imaginations of young readers. …

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