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.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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