A Marvel comic shows the true face of Britain

Faiza Hussein is the new Captain Britain.

Given the events in Woolwich yesterday – and here I'm speaking less of the horrific murder, and more of the ugly response which followed – it's no surprise that this page, from Avengers Assumble #15AU, has been making the rounds online. In it, Captain Britain, a Marvel hero from the 1970s, relinquishes his title to Dr Faiza Hussain, an Islamic woman of Pakistani heritage. It is all that is right about modern Britain, from English writer Al Ewing (art by Butch Guice, inked by Rick Magyar and Tom Palmer, and coloured by Frank D'Armata):

Hussain was originally introduced to the Marvel universe in 2008 by writer Paul Cornell and artist Leonard Kirk. Cornell, who is most famous for his work on Doctor Who, writing the episodes Father's Day, Human Nature and Family of Blood, was brought in to revamp Captain Britain, who had been languishing in obscurity for over a decade. In the process, he created a rich supporting cast for the dated hero, including Faiza, the viewpoint character for the series. (It also features a shapeshifting alien who thinks he's John Lennon, it's all-round good stuff.)

Speaking about her at the time, Cornell – who is himself a Christian, and is married to a vicar – said:

She's very into mainstream British young woman culture. She's on Facebook, she reads celebrity gossip magazines, but her biggest fan rush is for British superheroes, who also pop up in those magazines. She knows about them all, she had Knights of Pendragon wallpaper when she was a kid (Or insert apt reference for Marvel time)…

I have two aims here: to make her a real person and not someone who has to represent the entire British Muslim world all the time – I think superheroes are too prone to being standard bearers for whole communities – and to make her an everyday religious person who you won't hear anything religious from until it would naturally come up.

Although a critical success, the series was cancelled due to low sales after a little over a year. Captain Britain was used in an Avengers series, but there's been no room for Faiza until now.

Writing on Tumblr, where the issue has taken off since the Woolwich attack, Al Ewing adds:

 

This was a thing I thought up in the shower, just a thing that seemed really obvious. Captain Britain knows he’s going to die, who does he pass the torch to? Faiza. Duh. Honestly, who else would it be? In any circumstances?
 
She’s NHS. Come on.

Sadly, due to the contortions of comics continuity, the issue in which Faiza accepts the mantle of Captain Britain actually exists in an alternate timeline the effects of which have already been undone in the wider series. But don't let that stop you from reading the whole comic; the story of a Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage becoming the living embodiment of all that is British may not be a story which "matters" in the comic's world, but it's certainly one which matters in ours.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism