Of course! Don’t you know anything about Science? (Marvel’s Captain Power Annual)

The Captain Power AnnualIt is 1989. Blah blah George H. W. Bush. Blah blah Taylor Swift, Anton Yelchin, Daniel Radcliffe and Lucy Hale. Blah blah Graham Chapman and Hirohito. Blah blah World Wide Web. Blah blah Salman Rushdie, blah Manuel Noriega. Blah blah Shining Times Station, blah “Blame it on the Rain” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. We’ve been here before and we all know the drill.

So you know how I made a couple of references to The Captain Power Annual, a 1989 publication that is probably the most distant point in the Captain Power Universe. Information on it is sketchy. I didn’t even know about it myself until a few months ago. In terms of obscurity, this is less-well-known than the handful of supermarket coloring books (Which no, I’m not going to suddenly show up with and talk about, because there is nothing at all to them). More than once, I’ve sort of intimated that I’d review it if I ever found a copy, which I implied to be an unlikely task so many decades later.

As it turns out, though, the trick to getting a copy of The Captain Power Annual was, technically speaking, to actually look for it. Seriously, once I decided to make an actual effort, it took me two hours to order a copy off of eBay. It would have taken less but I don’t speak Dutch.

The Captain Power Annual was made by Marvel UK, and falls into the tradition of British Comic Annuals. There’s not, so far as I know, a direct stateside equivalent of this sort of thing — the closest equivalent I can think of, at least in terms of content, would be fanzines. American comic makers sometimes do release special annual publications, but these are usually either reprint albums or just special longer editions, and the practice has been in decline since the ’80s in favor of trade paperbacks.

British Comic Book annuals are typically published around Christmas, and are hardcover books running in the neighborhood of 60-90 pages containing games, comics and short stories. In addition to the annuals associated with the classic staples of sequential art in the UK, annual publications are often associated with TV-tie-ins. Doctor Who, Star Trek, Blake’s 7, Thunderbirds and Space 1999 all had annuals associated with them in the UK — Doctor Who‘s resumed publication with the launch of the new series. Even The Tomorrow People and Sapphire and Steel got one annual each.

They were typically aimed at a younger audience, and because of the vagaries of how the TV shows were licensed, who was writing what, and when things had to be done, they often diverged wildly from the source material.  Furthermore, Great Britain already had its own tradition of comic art when American-style superhero comics became widely available, and so the art style in British sequential art is a lot more varied than what you see in US comics. For me, this gives everything a very retro feel, with the brighter colors and less stylized art that I personally associate more with newspaper comics than with comic books.

All that adds up to the fact that, despite coming out at almost exactly the same time, the Continuity Comics adaptation of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future looks basically nothing at all like the Annual.

I’ll be upfront. This isn’t great. It’s a slim sixty pages consisting of three comic strips, three prose stories, three “games” and back-of-the-toy-box-style radically non-show-consistent character profiles for Dread, Cap, Tank, Hawk, Soaron and Blastarr. It shows a cover price of £3.95, which would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $13, which is roughly half what I paid, and roughly twice what you’d pay for a modern copy of The Doctor Who Annual. It seems like kind of a lot of money to me, but it’s apparently not out of line with similar publications of the era.

The Captain Power AnnualThe front and back cover show identical pictures of Captain Power and Lord Dread locked in battle, Cap blocking Dread’s force-lance while drawing back a kind of tecnho-billyclub thing. The inside cover, again front and back, have the same illustration expanded to a tableau with the supporting characters surrounding the pair, Cap’s allies to the left, Dread’s to the right. The artwork is just a bit reminiscent of Judge Dredd. Even though the characters themselves bear little resemblance to one another, the physical designs of the two are similar enough that it should really be surprising if Cap didn’t owe a little in his comic book form to He-Who-Am-The-Law. This tableau is the only place where the art style seems anywhere close to the Continuity Comics series, though their preference in this book is for gritted teeth over the open-mouthed “dongs” look. The art inside the book is simpler and brighter. Though they do have in common the fact that Dread looks a bit like a cross between Yen Sid and Yul Brenner. There’s a frame or two in the Continuity Comics book where he looks like that too, but not many.

The Captain Power AnnualThis book is very strange in its approach to continuity. I would say that it seems like the writers (There are no credits in this book beyond the copyright, so I have no idea who to blame) hadn’t seen the show, and were working entirely from the toy boxes and possibly the series bible. But of the three prose stories, one is a straight-up adaptation of “Flame Street” and another is explicitly a sequel to “The Eden Road“.

But at the same time, the trivia puzzle on page 22 claims, as if the audience had a realistic chance of knowing this, that the Metal Wars started in 2020, while the introduction manages to get confused on the same page, giving the current date as both 2089 and the show-accurate 2147.

The introduction frames the annual as excerpts from the journal of Jennifer “Pilot” Chase, discovered hidden in the barracks by a nameless Dread Youth soldier. That’s a cool conceit, and you see similar things done these days with TV-tie-ins and mixed-media “scrapbook”-style books such as Dugald Steer’s ‘Ologies series. It would have been really cool if they’d done something more with it. The introduction ends with the disgusted soldier turning the book in to Lord Dread for destruction, hoping to get some kind of reward. Instead, he’s scheduled for digitization, as Dread considers the journal so dangerous as propaganda that no one who’s read it can be permitted to live.

The Captain Power AnnualThe content proper begins with a comic titled “Judge”, in which Captain Power and his friends rescue an Overunit who’s been placed on trial for being a Captain Power supporter. Cap and company break in with the help of an under-cover sympathizer and rescue the prisoner. Cap agonizes for one panel over whether to take the operative with them too, but ultimately decides to leave him under cover. But once they’re gone, it turns out that Dread has found out about the double-agent, and it’s kind of implied that the trial was actually just a rouse to expose him. This story feels incomplete. There’s an interesting angle here, with Captain Power being conflicted about leaving a resistance member under cover in Volcania, and the fact that Cap’s decision turns out to be the wrong one should be a great source of conflict. But we never see Cap again after the agent is exposed, so we’re left with a downer ending for no clear reason. That’s especially jarring when you consider that the Annual, like the rest of the Captain Power merchandizing, is unambiguously targeted at children rather than adults, and the Annual seems to be targeting even younger audiences than the toys and the comic.

Captain Power Annual - Lord Dread and FalcorLord Dread’s profile and picture include Falcor, the robotic bird who was originally planned to be Dread’s personal Laserbeak. It gives a greatly simplified version of his backstory: in this version, he simply became “embittered” when he was “ridiculed” for inventing BioDreads. Fair enough. If someone invents intelligent life, “ridicule” is not an appropriate response.

Our first prose story is “The Eden 2 Enigma”, which gives the rather bizarre dateline “47 23 mark 5”. Which, based on the show, would be the twenty-third month of 2147.  Lousy Smarch weather. The first part of the story is a straight-up rehash of “The Eden Road”, with Cap and company making their way into Darktown to gather intelligence on Dread’s latest secret plan, “Project Stormbringer.” There’s no mention of Pilot, which I suppose is technically appropriate as this should be a year after the series finale. It mirrors the Darktown part of “The Eden Road” up to the point where Scout impersonates a trooper, then Soaron shows up and knocks Cap into a hole, where he blacks out. Cap awakens in Eden 2, where he’s greeted by John, who for some reason looks like Barry Gibb now. He’s tempted to stay, but Vi shows up and asks after Hawk, which harshes his buzz by making him remember his responsibilities. Vi gives him a soporific flower and he passes out. We get our one attempt in this thing to render Tank’s accent, as the awakening Cap hears him say “Pawra Keppen Pawra,” which is eventually decoded as “Power on, Captain! Power on!” The others assure Cap that his experiences in Eden 2 were only a dream, as he was unconscious for only a few minutes after his fall. The coda, however, reveals that Cap still has the flower, which he chooses to destroy, lest his team lose sight of the fight against Dread in favor of searching for Eden 2. Much like “Judge”, this story is light and fluffy, but suddenly makes a wild tack at the end to go a bit heavy.

annual8

Next up is a profile on Captain Power himself (who’s described as the defender of Eden 2), and a trivia game that can’t make up his mind whether Cap’s Christian name (That is the actual term they use) is spelled “Johnathan” or “Johnathon” (I’m pretty sure I never saw this spelling in the wild until the 21st century, when suddenly it became ubiquitous. Resultingly, I have a hell of a time not wanting it to be pronounced to rhyme with “telethon”) and asserts that while the PowerJet can travel at Mach 19, Hawk’s top speed is the speed of light. The next comic is “Salvation”, which is, this seems kind of inexplicable now, a beat-for-beat retelling of “Gemini and Counting” with, for no reason I can sort out, the character of Pilot written out. “It starts with one,” the narrator tells us. Captain Power AnnualA disease breaks out in the passages — which here, look suspiciously like a generic mid-20th century small town full of people in generic early mid-20th century casual wear — and the only place where they can find vaccine in quantity is Volcania. Cap sneaks in and roughs up some Dread Youth. One of them wakes up, so he ties her up, binds her wounds, and tells her her entire life is a lie. Just like Pilot, he’s able to recite a Dread Youth oath word-for-word, and decries Dread as the “lord of lies”, which has a nicely biblical tone to it. He retrieves the medicine he needs, bandages the nameless Dread Youth some more, and is held at gunpoint by her once the fighting breaks out in earnest. He offers her the same choices Pilot offered Erin: kill him, come with him, or let him go and just pretend this never happened. The one thing this version of the story adds is a brief coda: a single frame at the end of the nameless young woman, still bandaged from her injuries, at a Dread rally, unable to cheer along with the others. The comic ends with the narrator repeating the opening line: “Someone has to be first.”

Captain Power AnnualThe juxtaposition is nice, great even, but it’s a poor substitute for the emotional core of “Gemini and Counting”, the implicit congruence between Pilot and Erin. Absent that, what we’ve got here is essentially a very stereotypical story of The Mighty White Man who saves the soul of an impressionable girl by giving her a sermon. I suppose it’s just about possible that the Dread Youth in this story is actually meant to be Pilot (Though she’s a brunette… Except for that last panel. Maybe having your soul saved bleaches your hair?), and this is really Pilot’s origin story. That rubs me very wrong. Firstly, it makes Pilot’s origin story an inferior knock-off of Pilot’s big character focus episode. But far worse, given the romance arc between Cap and Pilot, it’s really nasty to insert an element of “Oh, he beat me up, restrained me, forced me to question my entire way of life, alienated me from the only family I have ever known, and now I love him.”

The frame of this being a journal Pilot left behind when she defected from Dread to join the resistance might account for why Pilot herself barely figures into the narrative. But that explanation only goes so far. After all, at least some of these stories are set during or after the time frame of the series. Besides, Scout is equally absent.

Which means that we’re in a somewhat similar situation in the Annual that we were with the series: the writers only seem to have time for a Power Trio, but they’re technically supposed to be writing a Five Man Band. It makes me think of the old Activision Ghostbusters videogame (“Conglaturation! You have completed a great game! And prooved the justice of our culture! Now go and rest our heroes!”), where Peter, Winston, Ray and Egon were replaced by three identical white guys (The versions for systems oriented toward showing a bunch of text explain that you’re not playing the Ghostbusters, but a random franchisee in a new city facing, surprisingly, exactly the same kind of invasion by a dark hell-god).

Scout gets the worst of it. He only appears in two illustrations in the entire book. And, while I will grant the possibility that this is just a printing error, he seems pretty unambiguously white in both of them. I know, it’s an easy mistake to make, what with Scout being one of the only two people of color in the entire Captain Power universe, but you had one job, TV-tie-in!

Captain Power Annual

Next up is a simple race-style board game and a profile on Tank which doesn’t mention anything about him being genetically engineered. Then there’s an adaptation of “Flame Street”, which is divided into two parts with a break in the middle for Blastarr’s profile. Including one direct adaptation like this is a bit strange to begin with, and stranger still when you consider that “Salvation” is basically a complete rip-off, and even “The Eden 2 Enigma” is really only a slight modification of “The Eden Road”. Keep in mind, though, that this is still 1989. DVD won’t be invented for another six years. TV shows were only rarely released on home video formats, and concepts like a complete season boxset were a decade away. Captain Power was lucky in that it received a home video release at all, but even then, only ten episodes were available on VHS (Plus several “Movie” compilations, edited chimeras stitched together from eighty minutes of the final four episodes). And I haven’t turned up any evidence that such releases were ever made in PAL format for the UK market. So if you were a child in the UK in 1989 and you wanted to re-experience Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, this was pretty much it.The adaptation is completely straight; the only deviation from the televised show is that Cap is looking for information on the afforementioned “Project: Stormbringer” rather than New Order. Captain Power AnnualWhat does diverge, quite a bit, are the illustrations which accompany the story. Zoneboy and Mindsinger both sport a lot less hair and are a lot more colorful. Far and away the most bizarre and impressive change, though, is to Stuart Power. I have no idea what the Expletive Deleted prompted this. Stuart Power here is depicted looking kind of like an elderly wizard, balding with long white hair and beard wearing Cap’s armor with a full-length cape. Far from looking like the unlikely bearded lovechild of Kenny Loggins and Rachel Maddow, here, he looks like the unlikely lovechild of Marvel’s Odin and Shazam, the wizard mentor of DC’s Captain Marvel. I have absolutely no idea what they were thinking here, but it’s amazing.

I imagine young people of today don’t have the same experience I did growing up. When I was a kid, most things with broad child appeal had a prose adaptation. A lot of them had several. You could often expect a picture-book for youngest readers (Often a read-a-long book with included 45. One of my fond childhood memories is collecting all four parts of the Gremlins read-a-long adaptation that came with the kids’ meal at Hardee’s over the course of four weeks), and a proper novelization, sometimes targeted at multiple reading levels (I have a copy of Spaceballs The Book with an elaborate aside about fruit allergies to make the “Nobody gives me the raspberry!” bit comprehensible to a child who wasn’t familiar with that euphemism. Also, the crosseyed gunner is renamed “Major Idiot”). There’s probably at least two generations of Doctor Who fans for whom their primary experience of about two thirds of the serials is based not on DVDs and animated reconstructions, but on the relentlessly workmanlike prose of Terrance “Wheezing, groaning” Dicks. Novelizations still exist, of course, often as a way for a fan-writer to produce his own “Director’s Cut” of the story, but they’re more polarized, limited to picture books for the very young, and adult novels in heavily merchandized franchises like Star Trek which already have established original fiction lines. The second board game in the Annual is an even simpler kind of race game, close to Parcheesi, Sorry! or Ludo. The profile of Soaron is brief, but refers to his dislike of the “other warlords“, implying that it was drawn from a draft that still included Tritor.

The last comic of the book is “Captain Power and the Glory”. To keep the sense of time and space thoroughly inexplicable, the caption at the start of the story gives the date as 2029. Cap and company (minus Scout for no clear reason. Pilot is there in a non-speaking role) arrive for a meeting with an up-and-coming resistance cell called “The Glory”. “The Glory” turns out to be Blastarr and some troopers in disguise, as part of a plan that makes no real sense: the Glory was to give the people hope, then crush it when they use this meeting as an ambush. A really terrible ambush, because they decloak their Phantom Striker to taunt our heroes first. The battle is a Stephen Ratliff-level curbstomp, with Cap and company easily defeating Dread’s forces. There’s a real lack of any sense that the writer got these characters at all, giving Blastarr a big complex villain speech (and having him fly a Phantom Striker), and giving Tank lines like “Yo, Johnathan, what’s with the worried expression?” rather than something like “Keptin, vhy so zahd at the pahrty?” In the end, Captain Power resolves to have his team pass themselves off as The Glory in order to keep the myth alive, even though this will mean a reduction in their own relative fame.

annual11Honestly, this story doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, why they’d bother, how Dread’s plan was supposed to work, or anything really. Combined with the shoddy characterization and the bizarre date-line, I’m suspicious that they had no craps to give about this story. The art, at least during the fight scene, is okay. Bright, colorful and fairly clean. The choice of yellow land and pink sky is odd.

Hawk’s profile is followed by a story which focuses on his character, “Enemy Mine“. Which does not even slightly live up to the promise of its title. It’s not a terrible story, though. During a mission in Sector 12 related to Project: Stormbringer (They can’t get the date right to within a century from one story to the next, but they manage a plot arc around Project: Stormbringer?), Hawk takes a serious hit from Soaron and his suit is damaged, forcing him to make his way back to the rest of the team on foot through enemy territory as his suit’s power supply rapidly dwindles. It’s straightforward and action-packed, with a complex dilemma for Hawk, as he struggles with the decision whether to break radio silence, jeopardizing the rest of the mission. The climax comes when Hawk, his power reserves almost depleted, finally uses his radio when he sees Lord Dread sneaking up on the rendezvous site. He’s met with laughter from Cap, who reveals that “Dread” is actually Scout in disguise. The mission had been scrubbed since Cap’s own suit developed a malfunction, and the others (Scout and Tank; Pilot is not mentioned) met too much resistance and nobly ran away, leaving Hawk to the realization that it was only “his own pride and dignity” that had stopped him calling for help sooner (The others didn’t dare contact him since they had no way of knowing if the sound of his radio would give him away).  Like several of the other stories, it ends on a much more complex moral note than you’d really expect.

Captain Power Annual - BlastarrThis book is weird. In fact, this book is so weird that it’s like a tiny little microcosm of the whole series. Much like the show as a whole, there’s this weird tension between the very child-oriented simplicity of the stories, the bright, colorful artwork, and the strangely maudlin endings. The confusion about the date, I’ve already mentioned. It’s rare for there to be any characterization to speak of, but when there is, it’s all over the place.  I didn’t bring it up in context, but there’s also a sense I get that the writers didn’t know how the Power Suits work: they’re handled properly in “Judge”, “The Eden 2 Enigma”, and “Captain Power and the Glory”, but in “Salvation”, Cap is already in his armor when he “Powers on”, and it seems like the implication is that rather than summoning the armor out of hammerspace, the incantation just energizes some kind of super-mode. In “Enemy Mine”, Hawk’s suit fails repeatedly, but rather than dispersing, it becomes rigid, immobilizing him. This seems like a massive design flaw. For the most part, it feels like this was based purely on the bible and the toy line without any reference from the show itself, but then we’ve got the show-accurate dates (and the clearly show-derived but obviously wrong “47-23” date), wholesale adaptations and direct sequels.

The art is strange. No one looks even close to right, though none get so badly handled as the Last Airbendering of Scout. Pilot and Scout appear only rarely — Scout is never a proper character, just making cameos in “The Eden 2 Enigma”, and “Enemy Mine” (He appears in the illustrations to “Flame Street” but isn’t mentioned). Pilot has a line of dialogue in “Flame Street” and “Captain Power and the Glory” is mentioned in “Enemy Mine” and has a wordless cameo in the opening illustration and “Judge”. I don’t know which one got more shafted here. Scout is spared the indignity of having his big story rewritten to omit him, but on the other hand, he gets turned white for his two appearances, and — I just went back to check this because I found it so unbelievable — he’s not even in the opening tableau.

The utter erasure of the black character and the female character are big-time serious problems with this book. But they’re also symbolic of the problem Captain Power had with its race and gender dynamics in all of its incarnations. For that matter, it’s symbolic of the race and gender dynamics of comic books in general from this time period (and two steps forward and/or backward since then), and I’m a more than a little ashamed to realize that had I been reading this back in 1989, I totally would not have even noticed that this was a problem (I’d like to think I’d have noticed Scout being white, but I bet I’d have thought it was a straightforward printing error, like the time Optimus Prime inexplicably turned albino for one panel).

Captain Power AnnualBut there is one thread of this paradoxical publication that does manage to properly fascinate me. As I said, the art style feels very retro, very Silver Age. Bright colors, simple artwork. More than that, I’m very specifically reminded of the old 1960s-era Doctor Who comics, back when he was called “Dr. Who” and traveled with John and Gillian, and had a Magic Box and saved Santa. Add to that the odd design choices like how Dread’s human forces all dress like communists at a winery (Except for the high-ranking ones, who have Judge Dread epaulets and samurai helmets. And it seems to be implied that the biomech troopers are actually humans in suits), or the way that the passages and Volcania both look like generic midwestern towns of the fifties, and the early 21st century dates occasionally used, and it adds up to that same feeling I mentioned in reference to the training video cover. This feels like the Annual for the hypothetical 1950s Captain Power that everything Captain Power except the TV show itself screams out for.

Captain Power AnnualDoes the Captain Power Annual do it for me? Is it a worthy expansion to the world of this weird little post-apocalyptic ’80s children’s show that I so love from my youth?

The short answer is no. This adds very little to the experience of Captain Power. I sought it out because I’m an obsessive completest who can afford to blow twenty-five bucks every couple of years in pursuit of his lost youth. But I didn’t need this.

But how would Me-Age-Ten have felt about this? I don’t know. I haven’t been that kid in a quarter of a century. I can sort of abstractly say that this is the sort of kid-friendly yet still just slightly dark thing that I think young-me would have thought was a lot of fun. And of course, the me of 1989 would have had his disappointment in a third of the stories being recycled material modulated by the fact that in 1989, I didn’t have the option of watching “Flame Street” or “Gemini and Counting”. That me would very likely just be happy to have, even if it isn’t very good, just a little bit more Captain Power to enjoy.

So ultimately, I guess Me-Age-Ten and Me-Age-36 aren’t so different after all.


 

The Captain Power Annual is occasionally available from amazon.co.uk for a fair bit cheaper than what I paid.

2 thoughts on “Of course! Don’t you know anything about Science? (Marvel’s Captain Power Annual)

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