Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Secret Services: MI-13

Only a couple of entries left in my completely arbitrary list of Secret Services.

Today's entry might have been placed way back near the beginning of the list, arguably even as early as between the Guardians and Omega Factor's Department 7 since it's first incarnation appeared in the late 70s. But then, the case could be made that it wasn't until 2006 that it finally evolved into what I'm calling a "secret service."

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll start at the beginning. Stick with me, this may get complicated.

In the pages of Captain Britain Weekly #17, back in 1977, readers in the UK were introduced to S.T.R.I.K.E. (otherwise known as Special Tactical Reserve for International Key Emergencies), a British answer to the UN's SHIELD. Wikipedia has the creators of STRIKE as writer Gary Friedrich and editor Larry Leiber, and I see no reason to doubt it. STRIKE is of little interest to us here except as a historical precursor, since like SHIELD it isn't really a "Secret Service" dedicated to policing the supernatural and paranormal, but your basic comic book intelligence service and counterterrorism agency. (They did have a "Psi Division," though, which is a mark in its favor. And they fought Nazis, which is always a plus.)

Later, STRIKE is compromised when one of Captain Britain's villains takes over the outfit, and the British government shuts it down, replacing it with the R.C.X. More properly the Resources Control Executive, RCX is introduced in the pages of Captain Britain (vol 2) #1, by writer Jamie Delano and artist Alan Davis. Instituted to deal with the fall-out of the Alan Moore-penned "Jaspers' Warp" stories, the RCX gives its agents Biblical codenames (Gabriel, Michael, Peter, etc.), and recruits Captain Britain to serve as their figurehead (later to be replaced temporarily by his sister, Elisabeth Braddock, who wears the modified uniform of one of Captain Britain's multiversal counterparts). RCX is quite a bit more sinister and secretive than STRIKE, but still not a "Secret Service."

Sometime after the events of the second volume of Captain Britain, RCX is replaced by a new organization, and here we start getting into real Secret Service territory. First seen in in the pages of Excalibur #6, from writer Chris Claremont and artist Alan Davis, this new outfit was called the Weird Happenings Organization, or W.H.O., and was headed by Brigadier-General Alysande Stuart. And here we start moving into Secret Services territory. Headquartered in a secret base beneath the Tower of London, WHO is very much off the public radar, and charged with protecting the British realm against threats beyond the purview of the normal authorities. They interacted with Captain Britain on a regular basis, and Stuart twin brother Alistair Stuart even became a companion of Captain Britain's team for a time, travelling with them on a crosstime tour of the multiverse.

A brigadier named Stuart, in charge of secret organization called WHO? Mmm. What does that remind me of...?

(Parenthetically, I think that the potential of WHO was never fully realized. When I was asked to write an X-Men novel for Pocket Books, I jumped at the chance to feature Brigadier Stuart, then still a colonel in the Royal Marines. [I also showcased Betsy Braddock, and my personal favorite mutant Douglas Ramsey, but that's a matter for another time.] In the final pages of my novel X-Men: The Return, then, you'll the following "origin story" for WHO.
“Consider this call a courtesy,” the brigadier interrupted. “I’ve just received confirmation that Downing Street has accepted my proposal to create a tactical force of scientists and lateral thinkers, to anticipate, detect, and analyze the bizarre mysteries that lie beyond the fringes of man’s current knowledge. The next time alien invaders come calling, mankind won’t have to look to rogue elements like the X-Men for rescue, as the Weird Happenings Organization will stand ready to meet the challenge.”
But enough about that.)

When Warren Ellis took over the scripting duties on Excalibur, he introduced yet another British intelligence agency, Black Air. At first, Black Air was a counterpart to WHO, with a rivalry not entirely unlike that between MI5 and MI6, but in short order WHO is disbanded and Black Air takes over the whole show. Field agent Peter Wisdom is assigned as a liaison with Excalibur, and eventually ends up joining the team. Captain Britain was mostly absent by now, but popped up now and again. Black Air was, for all intents and purposes, a Secret Service, with a mandate to investigate and research all paranormal and supernatural phenomenon. They were also sneaky bastards, engineering weaponized viruses from xenobilogical specimens, allying themselves with baddies like the Hellfire Club, and generally looking after their own dark interests before anyone else's. Apparently they eventually moved to the private sector (remember Caballistics, Inc, anyone?), where that kind of thing is standard practices.

Which brings us to 2006, and the introduction of the latest British intelligence service. MI-13 first appeared in the pages of New Excalibur #1, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Michael Ryan. Captain Britain was once more in charge of Excalibur by this point, and when Pete Wisdom introduces himself in this issue it's as an agent of something called MI-13, which goes on to fund the newly reformed team.

But it's in the pages of Wisdom that we really find out what MI-13 is all about.

Written by Paul Cornell with art by Trevor Hairsine, Widsom introduces us to that branch of the British intelligence services responsible for "Weird Happenings." Threats from within the borders of the UK are the balliwick of MI-5, threats from outside the country are the responsible of MI-6, but invasions of faeries from Otherworld? Dragons tearing up the suburbs of Cardiff in Wales? A plague of Jack-the-Rippers on the streets of London, or HG Wells's Martians breaching the walls between realities? That is the responsibility of MI-13.

Pete Wisdom is back, leading a team of field agents that includes Tink, a fairy dissident expatriated from the Otherworld; John the Skrull, an alien shapeshifter who took the form of the "Smart Beatle" back in the 60s and never changed back; Sid Ridley, the WWII-era super-soldier known as "Captain Midlands"; and telepath Maureen Raven. Outfitted by MI-13's quartermaster O, and only occasionally butting heads with MI-6's new scientific advisor, Alistaire Stuart, the team investigates the strange, the inexplicable, the unusual--weird happenings.

Wisdom is full of gems, as when John the Skrull remembers the days of the Skrull Beatles invasion, before the four shapeshifters broke-up when Skrull John hooked up with Captain Boko of the Free Kree Liberation Army and Skrull george went on a pilgrimage with the Dread Dormammu. The miniseries ran for six issues, and was released in a dandy trade paperback collection.

And that might have been that, had the fates not shined on us all and granted Paul Cornell a second shot at the characters, in the pages of Captain Britain and MI-13.

Joined this time by Agents of Atlas artist Leonard Kirk, Paul presents us in the first issue of Captain Britain and MI-13 with a new team of agents. Pete Wisdom is on hand again, but most of the previous team is gone after the events of the Wisdom miniseries. In the face of a full-bore Skrull invasion (which I think may have been covered in one or two other Marvel titles...), Prime Minster Gordon Brown drafts all British superheroes as agents of MI-13, and puts Pete Wisdom in charge of the whole affair, answerable directly to the PM. Wisdom rounds up Captain Britain, John the Skrull, the Black Knight, Captain Midlands, WII-era speedster Spitfire (who has a few secrets to tell), and a young Anglo-Arab doctor who turns out to be not only a big superhero fan, but also is the only one able to pull the sword Excalibur from its stone. Together they travel to the Otherworld, to defend the source of all magic against the invading Skrulls, and once they've seen to the alien invaders, they've immediately got a haunted apartment complex to contend with, one that is capable of granting anyone's most cherished desires--for a price. Then Blade (yes, that Blade, the vampire-hunter) joins the team, and when Spitfire's fangs give away her little secret, things get interesting. Oh, and then it turns out that Dracula has been hiding out on the moon for years, and is now getting set to come back down to Earth, with a little help from his friend Doctor Doom.

Pure. Awesome.

Captain Britain and MI-13 is one of my favorite comic series in recent years, standing nicely aside Agents of Atlas, The Immortal Iron Fist, Jack Staff, Umbrella Academy, and the Fables titles. A trade of the first arc is due out soon in the US (and is already out in the UK), and if you haven't tried it yet you honestly don't know what you're missing. So get it, already!


Boy, you can't swing a dead cat in England without hitting a secret agency, can you? I'm still trying to figure out how Torchwood and UNIT can co-exist...
But, yeah, I'd like to second your endorsement of CAPTAIN BRITAIN AND MI-13. Great stuff. AGENTS OF ATLAS sounds like something I'd like but I keep missing it. Oh, well...the first issue of the new run comes out today I believe.
There *are* a lot of British secret agencies, aren't there? And there's one more still to come on the list.

If you like Captain Britain and MI-13, you should definitely check out Agents of Atlas. I think there's a similar sensibility at work in each, above and beyond the involvement of Leonard Kirk in both of them. And yes indeed, the first issue of the new ongoing is out today!
Thanks, Chris, that's very much appreciated.
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