Sunday, 31 May 2015

Stiff upper Strips part four: the Best of British

A universe of heroes and villains as complex as the output of Marvel and DC seemed to disappear from British news-stands almost overnight in the mid-seventies.  At last the story of what really happened can be told.

This is the premise behind Albion, a six part comic series plotted by Alan Moore and written by his daughter, Leah, and her husband in 2005. As a co-production between DC comics and IPC Media (formerly IPC publishing), this venture revitalises, or at least gives cameos to, scores of classic British comic characters - some of whom I've mentioned in earlier posts.

We learn that all of these characters really did exist, but, along with their peculiar weapons and costumes, have been rounded up by a frightened Government and interred in a maximum security asylum. Naturally - where else would these bizarre figures, who would probably cause most of Marvel and DCs lot to soil their tights, end up?

This full page art is typical of Albion's attention to detail.
There are several familiar mechanical British comic characters in this scene,
including the Steel Commando (far right) and Monster Fun's Dough Nut and Rusty on the steps.
On a more serious note it once again highlights the difference between American and British sensibilities when it comes to their fictional 'heroes'. Stateside, costumed characters routinely help the Police or form their own Leagues to serve justice. In the UK it wasn't unusual for analogous comic strip stars to be villains, or at least anti-heroes anathematic to the forces of law and order.  As well as embodying the British preference for anti-establishment rebels, characters like Charlie Peace and the Steel Claw are grown-up versions of much-loved anarchistic tykes like Dennis the Menace and the Bash Street Kids.

The authorities were incapable of containing such forces of chaos alone, so employed none other than the Spider himself (see to do their dirty work, before betraying and imprisoning him with the rest.

The Spider messes with his captor's heads...
Zachary 'Zip' Nolan, always the most American of these characters, has been dispatched to assess the security of this top-secret  facility by his own anxious Government. Unfortunately for him, this corresponds with 'Bad' Penny Dolmann's attempt to break her father out, using a reconstructed robot Archie, and the fruition of a particular resident's master escape plan.

Robot Archie to the rescue!
Albion is a delight from start to finish, not the least for the chance to spot many, many familiar characters (and artifacts - hello Phantom Viking's helmet on page 65) in almost every frame, a task made a little more difficult by the three decades of ageing since we've last seen them.

The opportunity is taken to provide some of them with an origin story - Captain Hurricane is revealed to be essentially another scientifically-augmented Captain America, as seen through an extremely distorted lense, while three contradictory but equally fascinating (and dubious) accounts are offered for the Spider's beginnings. Meanwhile, my old Shiver and Shake favourite Grimly Feendish is shown to be a far more disturbing figure than ever before, as are his constant companions - the 'squelchies'.

Grimly Feendish and his Squelchies - depicted in a rather more sinister
fashion than his comic origins (inset upper right)
Albion makes no effort to apologise for or sanitise any of these characters; no matter how outlandish or cartoonish some of them seem, they are all plonked firmly into our reality, whether we like it or not. And when it inevitably ends with literally all hell breaking loose, the reader is left with the inescapable conclusion that there's plenty of life left in this particular UK-verse. As Feendish tells his former captor:
"Don't be afraid of these wonderful freaks. Instead revel in them...revel in their absurdity, in their power.  They are us at our bravest and best!"

Safely behind bars?  Hardly...

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