Friday, November 12, 2010

A Short(ish) Autobiographical Interlude

Newsarama blogger David Pepose asked me on Twitter about my obsession with Captain Britain. My response was, "How much time do you have?". To explain it properly, I have to drag in a lot of other bits and pieces of my childhood, like Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes, and I have a feeling the 140 character tweet limit might pose a bit of a problem. Like most creative people, I get more than a little long-winded when I get talking about my creative obsessions. But here's a short(ish) version...

I've told this story so many times I'm not entirely sure if it's true or not, but as I remember it, I wasn't allowed to watch a lot of television when I was a kid. My father worked in (and now teaches) broadcast journalism, but he and my mother were pretty strict about watching TV on school nights. As a result, I never saw the shows my friends at school were all talking about, like Knight Rider, The A-Team, and Manimal. Alright, I admit it, Manimal sounded pretty cool to me when I was a kid. Never actually saw an episode, which might have been for the best.

What I WAS allowed to watch were shows like Masterpiece Theater and Mystery! on PBS. As a result, while my friends were all watching Travellers (does anyone remember that show?), I was watching Alec Guinness in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Somewhere along the way I inevitably became what you would have to call an Anglophile. I'd already been an avid fan of Doctor Who since I was 6 or so, and I'd read all the Holmes stories nearly as soon as I'd learned to read, so it was only natural. Now, throw in the fact that I was a comic book fan as well, and you just might see where this is all heading.

(I could talk about how being exposed to so much British television (and the specific programs that made it across the Pond, which tended to be the best of the best) effected my creative interests, and it DID, but that's another story entirely. But I should point out that there's no question that this is where my obsession with drawing people in overcoats came from. Seriously, nearly everything I've ever drawn involved somebody in a cool overcoat.)

Now let me just say, while my parents never entirely approved of the whole comic book reading thing, they did seem eager to encourage my constant drawing as a child, and when I started drawing a lot of comic book characters, one of them went out and bought me a copy of How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way. Still have that copy actually, and I still refer to it constantly when I need some technical advice (particularly with perspectives... there's a great section on how to draw perspectives). And hidden in the pages and pages of examples and drawing lessons, there's a section 'how to draw an actual comic book page' that features Captain America, Red Skull and a character I'd never heard of before...Captain Britain.

As a young but dedicated Anglophile, just the idea of a proper British superhero was incredibly exciting. I had no idea who he was, what his powers were, or ANYTHING about him, so I naturally assumed he was a combination of all my favorite things, like Holmes, the Doctor, and whichever character from the Legion of Super Heroes seemed the coolest to me that month. And since you couldn't find a Captain Britain comic in the States, I had no choice but to come up with my own version of who he was and the kind of adventures he would be involved in.

I've thought a lot about what causes Anglophilia since then, and I've come to believe it's the same impulse that has driven kids to embrace Manga when they won't give American comics a second glance. We're naturally attracted to the exotic, the different, the thing that isn't like everything else out there. Personally I think that's a wonderful impulse, especially in the creative environment so prevalent in the States, where people like things to fit into neat, tiny boxes.

Years later, in middle school, I discovered a stack of imported Captain Britain comics in a comic shop. These were the Alan Davis Captain Britain issues, when CB actually got his own title for a little while. I bought every one of them, read them again and again, and copied nearly every drawing of Captain Britain in those issues. To this day, whenever I draw a fighting sequence, I find myself emulating poses from those Captain Britain stories. And along with the cool art, there were these wonderful mentions of previous adventures (which I learned later were references to the classic Davis/Alan Moore run) and all of it just sounded so damn British, and so damn cool.

I was hooked, and if I had one goal in life other than to write and draw comics of my own, it was to finally read those Moore and Davis issues, something I wouldn't be able to do until well after my comic book career had started and Marvel finally collected those CB stories into a nice trade.

Now, I've always been more of a DC guy (much to the shame of my Marvel reading friends), but since that first exposure to Captain Britain, I've made an exception to my reading habits for anything CB appears in. And when I had the chance to pitch a project to Marvel in the wake of my Nightcrawler mini-series, there was only one character I had any real interest in -- Captain Britain. As I mentioned in my WHAT IF? post, that project fell apart, but not after I'd had a chance to combine everything I'd liked about the character as I had imagined him as a kid with the way he'd been portrayed by Alan Davis, Alan Moore, and a host of others done the years.

He's still a character I'd work on at the drop of a hat, the only Marvel character I can say that about. Captain Britain is up there with the Doctor and Holmes for me, an idiosyncratic piece of my childhood that led to me working in comics and helped develop the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.

And c'mon... that lion on his original costume... that's just cool.


Anonymous said...

Interesting read.

I really dug Claremont's "Excalibur" as a child, though sadly over the years my collection of those issues has disappeared. :/

Was really digging MI:13 too until it got cancelled.

matthew dow smith said...

Thanks, Kevin. I loved the Claremont and Davis run on Excalibur, though the title got a little uneven later on. And Cornell's MI:13 was incredibly good. I was crushed when I heard it got canceled. I'm a big fan of Paul's.

Lan Pitts said...

Very cool, man. Yeah, I'm glad David let you talk about this. There's nothing better than talking about WHY you love a character.

Ryan Cody said...

As I've said before, the first handful of Excalibur issues were amazing. I love the Captain Britain character.

Kathy Gambino said...

I don't think I ever realized the depth and breadth of your interest in this, as the years mentioned in this piece are when we knew each other...or perhaps we were 'focused' on other are definitely a "man of mystery" Matt!

Richard C. Lambert said...

You know your projects stand out of the herd. There is something special about them. It seems to me all of them are really brilliant!