Pipeline: Grading "Excalibur's" Sophomore Year

Tue, November 20th, 2012 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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"EXCALIBUR" HAS ISSUES IN ITS SECOND YEAR

With the imminent return of Alan Davis to Marvel's X-Universe this week is a good time to continue my look at his run on "Excalibur." Three weeks ago, I looked at the first year of the title. This time, we're keeping tabs on Year Two, after which Davis left the book for a couple of years. We'll follow this up another week with a look at Alan Davis' return to the title and what he did for the series there.

The second year started off strongly, with Chris Claremont and Alan Davis finding their groove with "The Cross-Time Caper," sending the title characters on a series of adventures through multiple dimensions just slightly off from their own. It's a cross between "Quantum Leap" and Star Trek's "Mirror, Mirror" episode on a larger scale. Claremont built up a large gallery of alternate earths and alternate Captain Britains, specifically, giving Alan Davis rich material to draw from, most based on British culture. There's more King Arthur references, some Judge Dredd, and I'm sure there's a Doctor Who reference or two in there I didn't quite get. There's also a manga issue, but we'll get to that a little later.

The problem with the second year of "Excalibur" is that Alan Davis left the book with issue #17. What followed is five issues by four different artists. The "Cross-Time Caper," which started life as a nine part storyline, ran for 13. And one issue, #20, wasn't even part of the CTT storyline. It was a complete fill-in, and a pretty poor one at that. Davis came back to finish off CTT with issues #23 and #24 to help give his run a final send-off. Those are two very solid issues that did the job well, but it was also the end of an era. Davis was done, and the book fell sharply off a cliff into a series of random artists and, along with that, the departure of Chris Claremont, who left because he never felt the same magic with the book with any other artist. Who could blame him?

As the book wore on, Claremont's famous dangling plot line issues started to show up, too. By the end of the second year, he still hadn't done anything with the Captain Britain-Meggan-Nightcrawler love triangle, nor the Phoenix-Alistaire Stuart-Shadowcat one. The latter stayed consistent and believable, while the former made no sense the more you thought about it, particularly when you throw in Courtney Ross and Captain Britain's affair. There's a lot of set-up in there but never a pay-off beyond a brief look of frustration or an occasional character stomping away from the scene. This is the classic long-game-playing Claremont we saw move through "Uncanny X-Men" for 15 years. That storytelling style worked well over a time span like that with lots of movable pieces, but "Excalibur" was never guaranteed such success. When Claremont left, he took the endgame of many of those stories with him. Dangle, dangle, dangle.

It's the delicate balancing act of running a monthly comic book. There are a lot of moving parts at work here, not all of which are always manageable. When one creator leaves for whatever reason, the whole thing can spin out of control. I'm not sure how much control the editorial team behind the book had at that point. I wonder what the original plan for "The Cross-Time Caper" was. Was it stretched out for a few extra issues because of Davis' departure? Because Claremont had more ideas he wanted to us? Because sales were sliding on the book and they thought ending the storyline would give readers too easy a jumping-off point? Did the story get expanded to give Davis a chance to come back to finish it off?

There's other evidence of chaos in the editorial office, too, as one letters column vowed to keep the back cover pin-ups in place in the same exact issue as the pin-ups disappeared. There's a promise that Davis' artistic successor would be named soon and that it's someone who's already drawn for the book that people liked. I'd have to think that would be either Ron Lim, Chris Wozniak, or Rick Leonardi. Since Lim was already committed to two other Marvel titles ("Silver Surfer" and "Captain America"), I'd have bet against him. Leonardi had a history with Claremont already in "Uncanny X-Men," so he would seem to have been the most obvious and best choice. Chris Wozniak was young and unproven, but had a favorable style for the time, and so might have been the kind of disruptive force that Rob Liefeld's art was on "X-Force," or Todd McFarlane's on "Amazing Spider-Man." We'll probably never know, but I'd have placed my bets on Leonardi.

THE GOOD ISSUES OF "EXCALIBUR"

The artistic high point of the second year would be issues #16 and #17. Claremont wrote to Davis' wishes there, giving Nightcrawler a chance to go swashbuckling as a pirate, complete with lots of those male power fantasy elements. Everything worked well in the issues. Davis drew to his strengths. Tom Orzechowski lettered the first part. Glynis Oliver colored it like nothing else the series had seen since the original one shot. It's not that it used a custom art style or anything, but the bolder colors worked well with the art, and the small touches helped to sell it. Setting the issue on an alien world gave Oliver the chance to be more creative with color choices. Dark blues and bright reds contrast nicely and don't hide the art.

Originally, issue #16 was meant to be self-contained. When Claremont saw how much Davis enjoyed doing issue #16, he reworte the last page to keep the story in the same setting for another month. Alan Davis recounts that story in TwoMorrows' "Modern Masters" edition dedicated to him. In that book, Davis also mentions how much he'd love to do a "John Carter of Mars" comic for Marvel, but knew the rights issues would make that unlikely. He did a Killraven mini-series instead. Marvel has published a "John Carter" comic recently; I wonder if Davis has brought it back up to Marvel editorial?

As a bonus, Kitty Pryde has something close to a Slave Leia moment in the wardrobe department:

"Excalibur" #14 was another highlight, based in part on a story idea Davis once had for the Marvel UK office to help bring the main Marvel Universe heroes into the Marvel UK universe without stepping on any toes. It's an issue filled with background gags and cameos galore. The cover even wraps around to fit in as many Marvel Universe characters as Davis could fit.

Then we can skip ahead to issues #23 and #24, where Alan Davis returns with Paul Neary, Glynis Oliver, and Tom Orzechowski to close the lid on the "Cross-Time Caper" story and this first chapter of the series' life. There are plot mechanics necessary to get the train back "Earth 616," a designation I normally loathe, but which somehow works for a series like this, predicated on the multiple dimensions theory as it is. The interdimensional hijinks are on full display, including Rachel dressing up as Shadowcat to fool a dimensional blockade, Nightcrawler getting his swashbuckler back on, and the second straight issue of someone pretending they don't know something obvious that Excalibur is trying to hide to let them move on to the next world. And in isse #24, Courtney Ross treats Kitty Pryde to an extravagantly good time to convince her to attend her school. Did Claremont also forget that Courtney wasn't Courtney in this story? I know there's a "Girls School From Heck" storyline in the series' third year. I'll assume it's all explained there.

The art in the latter issue as Kitty goes galavanting across Europe and having a magical Claremontian night on the town is some of Davis' best stuff. Davis' art looks very comfortable for just two women sharing drinks, driving fast cars, and enjoying the Parisian night life. It made you wish for the characters to return to their lighthouse home, just to have more "civilian" adventures instead of the cross-dimensional craziness they had been having.

Oh, and John Byrne makes an appearance:

With the fill-in issues, Rick Leonardi had a strong issue, artistically, with "Excalibur" #19. I've always liked his style, and Terry Austin nailed the inks on his half of the issue. Brad Vancata did a great job with the coloring, giving it more than just simple flat colors. The yellow highlights from the light source, in particular, is a neat trick that set his work apart.

THE BAD ISSUES OF "EXCALIBUR"

"Excalibur" #20 is possibly the worst fill-in issue I've ever read in the history of superhero comics. It's only competition is the infamous "Punisher" #8 issue written by Ron Zimmerman. I referred to it at the time as "an atrocious waste of paper." Like you, I have been trying to supress those memories ever since. I have failed.

Do yourself a favor and just skip reading this issue. It's that bad.

With both Claremont and Davis in absentia, Michael Higgins wrote the meaningless ham-fisted one-off issue #20, and Ron Lim handled pencils with Joe Rubinstein on inks. Lim's art is OK, but it's still from his formative years as an artist. It's competent, if stiff, work. Rubinstein's contribution to the book was strong. Those thicker black lines and textured areas are all his. Lim has always been a more thin-lined and open kind of artist. The combination is awkward. I'm guessing Rubinstein was working from some very loose pencils to accomodate Lim's incredibly busy schedule of the time. It just doesn't work, though.

If you took my advice and skipped issue #20, you'd also have avoided the trauma that this final panel could result in. This is Blunt Force Trauma for dialogue.

Lim's artwork is not his best, but it's perfectly serviceable. Higgins' script, though, is awful. It takes the worst of the melodramatic moments of the series, amplifies them, sticks in dialogue straight out of a second grader's chapter book with all the attendant subtlety, and then throws in a random Marvel villain from a relatively recent (I guess?) "Thor" issue to give the team cause for a fight. Captain Britain acts out to the extreme of his character and the rest of the team's reaction to it is non-chalant. Courtney Ross -- though we know it isn't really her -- ponders why her dress fit so tightly and wonders if she's gained a few pounds, while posing in her nightie. (Honestly, I'm not even sure if Higgins read the issue where Ross was melted to slag when he wrote the issue.) There's a moral thrown in at the end that doesn't match the art, delivered in prose so on the nose that you'll want to throw the book aside with great force. This is the worst of "Excalibur" amplified and then forced into an After School Special, minus the redeeming moral value.

Forget the meaningless lingerie scene for a second, and check out her right stump! Her hair has eaten her hand!

The two parter in "Excalibur" #18 and #19 centers on Captain Britain's brother, Jamie Braddock. If you like demented mentally ill psychopaths in their underwear who can pull at the strings of reality to make nature fit their vision, this would be the story for you. I can't get into that so much, and the first issue's pseudo-manga styling falls flat in modern times. I'm sure in 1990 that the manga look for a "Dirty Pair" homage worked great. Today, it seems too simple and cliche. Dennis Jensen did the art on that issue, #18, but it's a steep drop-off from Alan Davis' work. Even the manga is too simple, the homage being too much "on the surface." The book needed a serious "stylist" in Davis' wake -- someone with a strong style of his or her own that paves its own path. Jensen was not that guy. Rick Leonardi, who followed him, was.

I didn't have a particularly strong reaction to the other two issues' worth of fill in. Claremont wrote them with newcomer Chris Wozniak handling the art. Wozniak's art has some very strong moments in those two issues, but some weaker ones, as well. He came back to do a couple more issues after Davis was gone for good that were much worse. I'd like to pull out more of the early 90s work Wozniak did for a column. He's an interesting case in the world of comics, but he never "stuck." He was last seen as a hurricane survivor on the local news last year. Does anyone have any updates on his life since then? The Facebook link is dead.

THE CONCLUSION AND THE ROAD AHEAD

The second year of "Excalibur" is a classic "Best of times, worst of times" scenario. Alan Davis had some amazing issues during that run, but he still left the series halfway through the year, citing the tight deadlines. Everything that Claremont set up in the first year failed to pay off in the second, for the most part. Layers kept getting added without any housecleaning for the old ones.

Yet the two co-creators of the series still worked well together. They each played to the others' strengths, and the final outcome is a memorable run with fun characters, even if a serious critical look back might be a little less kind due to the number of fill-ins and the lack of resolution. That wouldn't come until Davis took over the book with issue #42, but that's left for another week. If only the creative team could have been more consistent -- and I mean that right down to the letterer and colorist -- the book might be even more legendary, and probably better deserving of the praise.

What followed after this second year is a mess. I haven't been able to convince myself to read it. I've flipped through it, but I'm not sure if I can push my way through it. I know Bill Sienkiewicz and Klaus Jansen (!) do an issue, while Lim, Wozniak, and a parade of lesser early-90s artists pitched in to patch together a run.

The series didn't turn around until Alan Davis assumed both the writer's reigns and artist's. We'll be talking about that next, because it addresses so many of the issues I've talked about in the series so far. We still get bombarded with too many fill-ins, but they're worth it for the run that is what originally made me an Alan Davis fan.

Recommended reading: UncannyXMen.net did a great job in piecing together a history of "Excalibur" from various interviews with both Claremont and Davis. That work helped inform some of this week's review. If you're an X-Men geek, check out the whole site. It's a treasure trove of information, speculation, and research.

NO FASTER ART MACHINE AT MARVEL

Ron Lim (of "Excalibur" #20 fame) was an artistic machine for Marvel in 1990. He drew both "Captain America" and "Silver Surfer" monthly, to start. Take a look at this output in August of that year:

  • "Captain America" #374

  • "Captain America" #375

      As Marvel comics did back then, the series went bi-weekly for the summer. Lim didn't draw 22 full pages, though. There were back-up stories in these issues, so figure Lim drew a little more than half of each issue. From memory, I'd guess he did 14 pages each. Plus the covers. He did this for all six issues that summer. Didn't miss a beat. And when the grueling schedule was over, he kept going, though the series continued to have the back-up stories. Guess who drew those? Mark Bagley. Of course.

      • "Conan the Barbarian" #235 - 'The Road Goes on Forever'

      • "Excalibur" #26 - 'The Times They Are A-Changin''

      He did two fill-in issues. The latter was a return to the title with Mike Higgins. I haven't read that issue. I don't think I have it in me to bother, after their last pairing.

      • "Marvel Age" #91

      Just a cover here, to support this book:

      • "The Thanos Quest" #1 - 'Schemes and Dreams'

      This was a 48 page prestige format book. That's, what, 48 pages?

      • "Silver Surfer" #40 - 'Welcome to Dynamo City'

      He drew the full issue for this one.

      That all said, Olivier Coipel will be stepping in for John Cassaday on "Uncanny Avengers" #5 to give Cassaday time to catch up.

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TAGS:  pipeline, excalibur, marvel comics, chris claremont, alan davis, ron lim

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