Editor's Note: Captain Britain and MI-13 #5 arrives in stores tomorrow, September 17.
"Hell Comes To Birmingham: Prologue"
I'm going to start this review by talking about the end of the issue, because it's a great example of Paul Cornell's strength as a writer. The cliffhanger ending (which, of course, I won't spoil here) took me completely by surprise, yet is completely logical given the characters involved. What's more, Cornell drops plenty of hints about it throughout the issue, making the development seem completely obvious once you think about it, but never tipping his hand to such an extent that you can guess what's coming the first time you read the issue. Without naming any names, I can think of several far more established comics writers who could learn a lot from Cornell's approach to pacing and structure here, as he's managing to make each issue of Captain Britain feel like an enjoyable read in its own right, as well as crafting a compelling overarching story for the entire series.
I've compared Paul Cornell to Joss Whedon before, and was again reminded of the Buffy writer here, as Cornell ensures that all of his action scenes and plot developments are firmly rooted in his characters, first and foremost. As a result, nothing feels forced or overly contrived, with the story of the issue growing organically out of the personalities of his key players and out of the unresolved plot threads that were left dangling at the end of the previous arc. There's plenty going on here, and it's easy to see why the decision was made to break up the first two story arcs with a "prologue" issue in order to give readers the time to absorb a lot of new information in the wake of the Skrull invasion, before plunging into the book's second arc, "Hell Comes to Birmingham."
We see an interesting development regarding the reborn Captain Britain's powers (albeit one that has been seen in superhero comics before) that promises to add an interesting layer to his own personality and to his relationship with Pete Wisdom - as evidenced by Pete's slightly clunky pep talk at the issue's end. We see the long-awaited introduction of Blade to the team, with Cornell capturing the character's voice well through clipped, brusque bursts of dialogue (that I couldn't help but read in the voice of Wesley Snipes). And we also see far more of the MI-13 operation than ever before, with Cornell setting out his vision of a government-sponsored superteam that has a well-defined paranormal national security remit, but which is also able to operate with a fair amount of independence and latitude.
However, it's the Black Knight's visit to Faiza Hussain's family that is probably the standout scene of the issue for me, for several reasons. On the surface, it's a fairly comedic encounter that plays out like a British comedy of manners, with Dane's clumsy attempts to address the family in Urdu or the forced formality of their conversation ("We seem to have got off on the wrong foot, Dr. Hussain - - If you and... Dr. Hussain would give me a moment - - to tell you about... Dr. Hussain and I...") making for an amusing read. However, there's a much more serious subtext to the scene that directly addresses the tensions and difficulties that accompany the integration of different ethnic and religious groups into Britain's increasingly multicultural, multi-faith society. Cornell manages to successfully navigate the minefield of clichés and stereotyping that could accompany such a scene, but doesn't shy away from exploring the sometimes uneasy relationship between minority and majority groups in British society. Faiza's father's reaction to her possession of the sword Excalibur, in particular, is a very telling line that reminds us that even the more established descendants of families who migrated to Britain generations ago may continue to have concerns about being accepted as legitimate members of British society. If this book has a single driving theme, it's that of the British cultural identity, and whilst that's particularly interesting to me as a British reader, it's testament to Cornell's skill that he manages to make the ideas that he's exploring accessible and universal enough that they can be enjoyed by readers of all nationalities.
This issue sees penciller Pat Oliffe replace regular artist Leonard Kirk for a brief stint, doing an excellent job (in conjunction with inker Paul Neary) of capturing the tone of the book as established by Kirk. The look of the book is incredibly close to that of the previous four issues - indeed, readers could be forgiven for casually glancing at the pages and assuming that Kirk pencilled this issue, too. All of Oliffe's character designs are perfect (I hope that Kirk's Blade is this good), and the art team pulls off the moments of purely visual storytelling well, too (such as the ominous, mysterious shadow over John the Skrull's grave that appears to foreshadow a later plot point, or the depiction of Spitfire's powers).
Captain Britain and MI-13 is one of a handful of books that keep me buying monthly comics. In just a few issues, it's already established itself as one of Marvel's best current superhero titles, and probably the book that's truest to the Marvel spirit of colourful yet flawed heroes fighting fantastical villains in a realistic and imperfect modern world. Newcomers to the book's universe are well-served by succinct, elegant exposition and effective, immediate characterisation - especially impressive considering the size of the cast - and readers of Cornell's previous work with MI-13 in the pages of Wisdom will be pleased to see the concept find such a good home (and they'll be particularly overjoyed to see a certain Captain Midlands make a cameo appearance in these very pages). I simply can't imagine anyone not enjoying this series - and I can't wait to see what Cornell has planned for my home town of Birmingham over the course of the next few issues.
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