This week Avengers Assemble #15AU came out, by Al Ewing (yes relation) and Butch Guice. The comic is, as Hazel has pointed out, the most British thing ever published (at least by Marvel) and it is absolutely rammed with references – some obvious, some rather more obscure. Because Al is a pro, I reckon the comic is comprehensible without understanding all this stuff, but it’s safe to say there are parts of it many US readers won’t really get. There’s also parts of it which tap a knowledge of recent Marvel continuity, and we’ll explain that too.
So here’s an annotations post, which in the way of annotations posts will be updated with new information as you uncover it in the comments boxes. (And will also be updated with links and images!)
Contains, obviously, HEAVY SPOILERS for Avengers Assemble #15AU
SOLICITATION (available here):
The whole solicitation – “Ultron rules OK!”, “Aggro!” et al – is referring to this old issue of Action!, the notorious weekly 1970s comic which was the subject of questions in Parliament for its exceptionally brutal and anti-authority content. “Kids Rule OK” – the story of a world overturned by catastrophe in which kids ran gleefully wild – was a particular flashpoint for the trouble around Action! and the “AGGRO IS A WAY OF LIFE” cover would raise eyebrows even today. The Action! ban is in some ways the UK’s version of the Frederic Wertham incident – after a month off the shelves, Action! was toned down considerably, and the need to channel its violent impulses into something more palatable to the authorities – and the printers – led to the launch of 2000AD, though even 2000AD would contain considerably redder meat than most Comics Code endorsed US comics.
At no point does anyone inside the comic mention the exact words “Avengers UK”.
Why is it “#15AU” and not “#15”? Because it’s part of this spring’s big Marvel crossover event, Age Of Ultron, about long-standing Oedipal robo-menace Ultron finally taking over the world.
Captains Marvel and Britain punching out some Ultrons. Look – Big Ben! Getting destroyed! So we know this is a disaster story set in the UK. The rest of the comic may have one or two pointers to this too (though at no point does the fight happen near Big Ben).
Synopsis and premise. By a scheduling quirk, this issue comes out after the “Age Of Ultron” reality described here has been reset, so the information given here isn’t really accurate. (As of writing, Ultron has not simply managed to kill his father, but has got his father killed before he was born – not even Oedipus managed that.) So while what’s about to happen is not exactly an imaginary story, it’s not really a week-by-week crossover either. Age of Ultron isn’t the kind of event to need plot-exposition crossovers, so best to just enjoy this episode as a stand-alone.
Panel 1: Tottenham Court Road is home to a huge concentration of electrical goods shops, and here it is being attacked by robots (irony!). The eponymous tube station has historically been the place you’d go first as a wide-eyed comics shopper arriving in London – it’s near Forbidden Planet old and new, near Orbital Comics, nearish to the new Gosh! and very close to the old one, and so on.
Panel 3: There’s this British TV programme, with these robot-like creatures called the Dal – oh OK, you know that one. This sequence isn’t just a cute reference, though, it’s a cute reference which establishes there’s something a bit weird about this besuited survivor.
P4 (double page spread)
Panel 1: The character intro/outro captions – “Carol Danvers IS Captain Marvel” – are obviously doing standard character intro work, but may also be a reference to the typical “You Have Been Watching…” titles on a UK Sitcom. Well, that’s what they reminded me of.
Anyway, Carol Danvers is Captain Marvel. She used to be Ms Marvel, and Binary, and possibly other things – she’s been around since 1968 but only took this title last year with the start of her current series. She is an Air Force Colonel, so outranks her own codename.
Carol wants to eat British chocolate. Some American visitors – her clearly included – believe it to be nicer than the US brands (they are broadly right).
Panel 2: As established in Age Of Ultron, Ultron’s attack overwhelmed human and superhero resistance extremely quickly. The “can’t fly” condition is a subplot in Carol’s own title, Captain Marvel.
Panel 4: Some British people say “sorry” a lot. Stereotypical but true.
Panel 3: New Oxford Street and Great Russell Street are parallel to one another, so this isn’t the complete route. But I wouldn’t be great with London directions when under Ultron attack either. By the standards of Marvel Comics set in Britain, this is phenomenally detailed. Fans of Walt Simonson’s awesome Thor run will remember with some delight his conception of where anything in England actually was.
Panel 5: A vodka and coke is writer Al Ewing’s preferred tipple – met with bafflement when he asks for it in the US, apparently.
Panel 7: The sword and amulet reference is to Captain Britain’s origin, from Marvel UK’s Captain Britain #1, by British-born Chris Claremont. This – the first appearance of Captain Britain – came out in mid-October 1976, in the fortnight between the Sex Pistols signing to EMI and Action! being withdrawn from sale. So it doesn’t fit the traditional cultural narrative of the time, but its mystical approach to British superheroes has set the tone for a lot of later depictions of England in US comics. British-made super-characters tend to be a little different, as we’ll see.
Panel 1: King Arthur’s sword Excalibur, which has a fair bit of Marvel Universe history behind it but has for the last few years been in the hands of…
Panel 2: Faiza Hussain, also codenamed Excalibur, a British Muslim doctor from Essex who has powers as described here – entirely defensive, according to her creator Paul Cornell, who used her all through his much-missed 2008-9 Captain Britain And MI-13 series. She (and the sword) most recently showed up in X-Men spin-off Gambit at the end of last year, apparently.
Faiza is treating a survivor of the Ultron attack, a Government minister who is exaggerating the extent of his injury. Which Government minister? It could be quite a few (and doesn’t really matter) – most of the current UK Government, and indeed most of every UK Government, are white men, and that’s all the information we have.
Panel 5: BIT OF POLITICS HERE. The NHS (National Health Service) is free at the point of service but the current Government (of which this guy is a part) is opening large sections of it up to private competition, widely seen as a first step to ending free healthcare. The Minister, by implication, already uses private healthcare, hence Faiza’s “now”.
Panel 2: Faiza is established as a UK superhero nerd, so recognises Graham at once.
Panel 3: “I Love The [Insert Decade]” was a nostalgic UK clipshow which ran in the 1990s and is repeated occasionally – talking heads comment on 80s stuff they were into or involved with.
Panel 4: Computer Graham! There are two things to know about Computer Graham. One is the “bedroom coders” stuff he tells us in the issue, which is a two-panel summary of an important British pop-cultural moment, the early videogames boom. This happened everywhere in the West, of course, but it happened differently in Britain because the bulk of our videogame market wasn’t console-based, it was based around small, programmable home computers. So instead of our touchstones being large US and Japanese corporations, they were tiny software houses and teenage one-man bands rising to pop-culture success on games coded in, yes, teenage bedrooms. There’s a fine book detailing this history, and also at least one song about it. There was a very strong patriotic streak to the UK computer revolution – British gamers building a homebrew market in the face of flashy, but essentially crap, American imports. So no wonder Computer Graham’s come out of hiding now.
The other thing to know about Computer Graham is that he’s a re-spray of a real old UK comics character, Computer Warrior, who starred in Eagle for 9 years, battling enemies inside mostly real games. I only read a couple of Computer Warrior strips, but I am fairly sure his treatment here does them justice. In the original strips he’s only a player, not a coder, though.
Panel 5: Doomdarke is – minus the ‘e’ – the villain from Mike Singleton’s Lords Of Midnight, one of the great cult UK games and an astonishing display of what is possible with 48k RAM. Singleton died recently, so this is a nice tribute. Macaroni Ted is from Jet Set Willy. probably the most anticipated UK bedroom-coder game of the whole era. The Chief Examiner has Marvel pedigree – he appeared in the Scott Adams range of Questprobe text adventure games, notorious for their unfairness.
In fact, all three games referenced are very hard – JSW famously uncompletable due to a bug (which the makers claimed hastily was a feature). So Computer Graham is kind of a badass.
Panel 1: Captain Britain, AKA Brian Braddock, has as mentioned been kicking around the Marvel Universe since 1976, and has as much pedigree in stories about its mystical and alternate-reality elements as he does in UK-set yarns. In fact he’s the Guardian of the Multiverse, quite a wide-ranging gig, and it’s as that he’s been used recently in titles like Journey Into Mystery and Secret Avengers. Brian’s powers fluctuate with his self-confidence – a relatively recent kink to his power set established in Paul Cornell’s run when he returned from the dead powered by the ‘hopes and dreams of Britain’ (thanks Hazel).
Panel 2: The boarding school Brian’s been teaching at may be the Braddock Academy, introduced – I think – in teen superhero Battle Royale knock-off Avengers Arena, but I haven’t been reading that. If it is, presumably Ultron may not be responsible for the dreadful fates of *all* the missing kids – some are battling Arcade and each other on a death island (though I guess said death island has been Ultronned too).
Panel 3: Dane Whitman, the Black Knight. Black Knight used to be a mainstay of the Avengers books – he debuted in the 60s, and featured heavily in the 80s – he was on the team in what’s probably the first Avengers comic Al Ewing read (mind you, so was Starfox). For a long stretch in the early 90s Dane was basically their male lead, with the 90s mullet to prove it. But he was one of a few formerly prominent characters almost completely ignored during Brian Michael Bendis’ long run in charge of the franchise. He was a lead character in Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain and MI-13 series, though, which presumably set up his current status quo – back wielding the Ebony Blade, his mystical sword which, Elric-style, is very bad for him. His tussles with Ultron take place off panel.
Panel 4: Magic Boots Mel is new to this story, and like Computer Graham she’s an updating of a British comics – well, archetype, almost, the kid who is magically awesome at sports thanks to enchanted kit. Billy’s Boots would be the most famous example, where a schoolboy gets a dead star’s football boots and finds himself playing like a man possessed.
Mel is more typical of native British adventure heroes than even Computer Graham. British heroes are basically gimmick characters, because of the circumstances in which British comics were made – weekly anthology titles, needing filling each week with a rotation of strips. It meant there was a continual need for new heroes, so any given craze or leisure pursuit would be turned into a strip. Football, the national pastime, got entire comics devoted to it.
As Pete points out, Mel is also reminiscent of Jess Bhamra, the heroine of 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham.
And a great suggestion from Daibhid C in the comments – Mel may be a reference to Melchester, the fictional home of Roy of The Rovers, Britain’s longest running football comic hero.
Panel 6: Mel’s outfit – black top, skull and crossbones motif, blue shorts – is a riff on the one worn by Danny, leader of the Bash Street Kids, a UK kids’ comic strip originally created by the great Leo Baxendale which has run for decades.
Panel 7: Gimmick heroes weren’t particularly robust or deep – they just had to be likeable, so that’s what the enjoyably gung-ho Mel Kapoor is.
Panel 3: Can’t believe I missed this one:
This panel – as MJ Hibbett (who wrote the computer song upthread!) and Seb Patrick pointed out – is a homage to this famous scene from The Invasion, a 1968 Doctor Who story in which Cybermen invade Britain. They do rather less well than Ultron has. One reason I should have picked up on this is that I got Al Ewing a DVD of this story for Christmas last year. Oof!
Panel 4: As close as we get to an “Avengers UK” moment!
Panel 3: A useful closing-off of a potential plot hole – what about them Multiverse powers?
Panel 4: There’s a lot in this panel. As far as I can tell, this explanation for the Ebony Blade is entirely new, and I think rather good – it ties it explicitly to Excalibur, which creates storytelling neatness (a magical evil blade forged at the same time as the magical good one should probably have something to do with it) and also positions it as Excalibur’s functional opposite. Excalibur unites, the Ebony Blade divides. Excalibur’s use is largely defensive and symbolic – it protects and maintains the symbolic order of the unified Kingdom. The Ebony Blade is more gruesomely practical – it is a weapon, and essentially destructive.
What Ewing is doing here is tying this concept to an explicitly political reading. Unification in the modern UK means multiculturalism, means bringing everyone under the protection of Excalibur without erasing their difference (so Captain Britain gets to be a British Muslim woman). The Ebony Blade, however, is the impulse of “Little England”, to divide – to set resident against migrant, middle-class against poor. Which is – BIT OF POLITICS II! – precisely what the current UK Government is doing. The other England is always below the surface, and sometimes not even below.
Brian’s specific references are to “scroungers” – right-wing shorthand for fraudulent (or sometimes genuine) state benefit claimands – and “chavs”, an ugly catch-all word for the mostly white, mostly urban poor and young.
Panel 7: Mel at this point is sounding authentically like a UK teenage adventure comics character, which is to say not especially like a UK teenager. (Fans of Dr Who will know it as “Ace Syndrome”, and the resemblance may not be accidental) (As several people mentioned, the Doctor also had a companion called Mel, AND in the novels one with the surname Kapoor for that matter).
Panel 5: Faiza gets a promotion. Merlin, Roma and Otherworld are all elements in the original Captain Britain origin. (Merlin is the Arthurian Wizard, Roma is his daughter (a Claremont invention), Otherworld is the magical kingdom that’s the source of most British heroes’ magical powers, one way or another. Oberon (King of the Fairies) is a more recent addition, I think from Paul Cornell’s Wisdom miniseries.
Panel 6: Brian calls upon British culture as well as established Marvel UK divinities – though as of Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery run, pop impresario Tony Wilson counts as both – he is a steampunk “Manchester God” who now rules (or jointly rules) Otherworld. Perhaps in an unseen tale Captain Britain also teamed up with kids’ TV character Bagpuss? I’m fairly certain this is the only Marvel Comics mention for the “saggy old cloth cat” but I wonder if the Ashes have been menthioned before? (Update: They have! Faiza is an established cricket fan.)
If Captain Britain is now powered by the hopes and dreams of Britain, then the somnolent pink giant Bagpuss represents the latter and the Ashes the former.
Panel 6: Brian explains the loophole in his powers, a consequence of having about 20 origins I’d guess.
Panel 2: Good zing from Captain Marvel.
Dribbling is – for non-football/soccer players – the art of keeping the ball under control while moving with it. It is not generally an art British players are much enamoured of, and indeed Mel does not take this advice, preferring in the end a more ‘Route 1’ approach to superheroics by hoofing things at robots.
Panel 1: Carol, despite her earlier ceding of command to Brian, naturally takes it back as soon as an actual combat situation develops. I don’t think they’ve worked together much, so “Steve Rogers” (Captain America) is an improvised manoeuvre she can be sure Brian will get.
Panel 3: If Mel didn’t remind me of Ace before, she would with “Maneouvre N-9”, a reference I suspect to Nitro-9, Ace’s homebrew explosive of choice.
Panels 4-7: A collection of footballing slang, UK comics style.
Panel 6: On computers with tape-loaded games – which was basically all of them, during the UK home computer boom (and Graham’s heyday) – phrases like “Data? Rewind Tape. Error.” would be the computer’s signal that it couldn’t read data off the tape. Since a lot of commercial software cassettes were copied on dirt-cheap, bottom-end industrial copiers (the good ones being used by the music biz), an awful lot of time would be spent reading this message, obeying its dread command, and waiting in false hope only to get it again. And again. So there’s a definite joy in seeing gleaming tech bastard Ultron taken down this way.
Panel 1: Being from the 80s, Computer Graham thinks of code in BASIC. In general line 10 of this important program would read “PRINT “TOM IS SKILLFUL”” or something similar, not Ultron’s more drastic variant.
Panel 4: In the UK educational system, A-Levels are the second tier of exams, taken at 18 after GCSEs at 16. Mel hasn’t taken her Fighting A-Levels yet.
Panel 3: As happy an ending as the (already doomed) Age of Ultron timeline gets.