THE PIPELINE EXCALIBUR REVIEW, PART 3:
THE RETURN OF ALAN DAVIS
After a year and a half of flailing about, “Excalibur” returned to form with issue #42, when Alan Davis returned as both the artist and the writer. This time, his inker would be Mark Farmer, and this would be the start of a beautiful artistic partnership that thankfully carries on to this day. While Chris Claremont was gone, his shadow loomed large over the title. Davis set about to tie up the loose ends from Claremont’s run as best he could. The tricky part being, Davis didn’t know where Claremont was going with them, so he had to pull it all together himself. In effect, his second run on “Excalibur” was as the clean-up crew, writing the greatest and most professional fan-fic of all time. No minor character would go unexamined, no dangling plot thread would be untied. It was a virtual ret-con, invisible to the readers. Davis attacked it from the start and carried it through the nearly two years he stayed on the book this time.
A partial rundown:
- When would that love triangle with Captain Britain, Meggan, and Nightcrawler come to a head?
- What about the love triangle with Kitty Pryde, Rachel Summers, and Alistaire Stuart?
- Whatever happened to those weird alien guys we last saw at the end of the Brighton Pier?
- Who is Widget? Where did he come from? Why is he here?
- Hey, guys, Courtney Ross is dead! That’s not her! HELLO?!?
- What happened to that boy in the first issue that Widget transported across dimensions?
Davis would last about 25 issues in this go-around. We’ll focus on the front nine this week and come back another time for the rest. Not all of the plots mentioned above had wrapped up by the fiftieth issue, though their questions were certainly raised.
Issues #42 through #50 form one larger storyline in the midst of the plot bit clean-ups. It starts with Gatecrasher blowing up the top of the lighthouse tower that Excalibur had called home for most of its existence. (This being Excalibur, the payload was carried by a Tweetie Pie-like chicken that popped out of an egg Meggan was making for breakfast.) An issue later, Technet was living in the tower and helping to restore it, leading to a progression of chaotic and hilarious situations. Davis knew how to play the book for laughs, and making it such a universal situation as a home renovation helped to ground our heroes in some sense of normalcy. The lighthouse’s owner, Captain Britain, did not enjoy the time living in a crowded house under construction, where there mere act of finding an empty bathroom is cause for an issue’s worth of hijinks.
After that, Davis sent the team on separate paths. Nightcrawler stayed at the tower to take care of whipping Technet into a team with some fighting form. Meggan and Rachel went on walkabout in Europe, looking to find their true selves. Captain Britain wound up in another dimension in front of a jury of his peers. And Kitty went off with Alistaire Stuart on an “archaeological dig” that would later, of course, turn up some exciting and dramatic plots.
Along the way, Davis brought us Kylun, the lion-maned Conan-type character from another dimensional who would eventually land in the Marvel Universe and join Excalibur. It’s half Edgar Rice Burroughs, half Robert E. Howard. You could tell Davis loved to draw that kind of stuff, and included as many pages as he could in working Kylun into the storyline. Cerise the alien warrior would soon follow. Then Feron, the spoiled pointy-eared boy wizard who thought it was his destiny to inherit the Phoenix powers. Feron may have had a plot purpose at some point, but was mostly the annoying caustic kid in the title. Maybe Davis had more plans for him in the future that never came to fruition, but he seems like a waste of page space in retrospect.
Along the way, Numbers and Dragon fell in love and had baby flying dragons.
Yeah, it’s crazy stuff, but a lot of fun and played perfectly for laughs alongside the drama. It was the best part of Claremont’s early scripts, and turns out to be the strongest material in Davis’ return to the title. The way things built to a head in this first year of comics is remarkable. He uses the craziest and most bizarre set of characters ever to set foot in a Marvel mutant book to get there, but it works.
The larger arc fell into place with issues #47-#50, where we learn about the secret origins of Excalibur and who’s been pushing the buttons behind the scenes the whole time. I remember being impressed at the way Davis pulled so many threads together at this point in the run when I first read it twenty years ago. Today, I recognize that he made up a lot of this as a sort of ret-con, but am more impressed at home seamless it all feels.
I’m less excited by how much exposition was necessary to tie up all the loose ends and to connect the dots. Some of the material covered goes back to the original “Captain Britain” comic days, so Davis did have a lot of explaining to do to get where he needed to be. Still, this issue is the point in the run where the book becomes more about plot and less about characterization. It loosened up again in the second year before tightening back up in the finale. We’ll talk more about that at another time, though.
“Excalibur” #50 turns out to be an important issue for the series, ending the big Phoenix question that was hanging around from the start, while also providing the Big Epic Anniversary Issue Double-Sized Spectacle. It also destroyed the light tower once and for all and resolved Captain Britain’s fluctuating power issues (for the moment). It was, however, a difficult issue to process. It took me three tries to plow through it. Just painful. Tedious. Plot mechanics lay bare on the page, and it’s all magic and cosmic powers stuff that don’t excite me because there’s never a reality to it; whatever explanation the author might need to explain his way out of a situation, he can make up and get away with. The art was beautiful, but the story tedious. It was a necessity to clear the decks, as they were, but not very entertaining.
The issue is filled with painful narration to explain everything that Davis needed to convey. It’s slow-moving. It’s a complete slog. On the bright side, it’s filled with original art that I’d probably be able to afford, if it were ever available on the market.
This is the run where I first discovered Davis’ art, so I’m sure I’m slightly biased by that, but even Davis’ best art didn’t look “right” until Mark Farmer set ink to it. The first “Excalibur” run looked great and had flashes of brilliance, but this is the sequence of issues where it looked consistently top grade to me. Farmer’s inks add depth and fluidity to Davis’ artwork. Characters look softer and smoother, and that works. Some judicious shadows occasionally provide a lifelike look to such “simple” black and white drawings. With a book that was originally described as a ‘super hero comedy,’ nailing those expressions and that body language counts for a lot. Davis always did that, but there’s now an extra pop to his art, particularly with the characters’ faces. Farmer’s inks know when to disappear to keep a feminine face soft and young, but also when to lay down the larger black areas to add drama and shadow — or just to fit the environment.
Davis’ covers are also excellent. They mix things up, going from classic superheroic team pose to flat out comedy. There are word balloons on there, gags, and even some playing with the format, as with issue #49’s breaking logo. (Fittingly, there was a new logo with issue #50.) But they’re always related to the story happening on the inside, even when it means just the slightest tip towards it on the team post on issue #48. That’s not a poorly-drawn Kitty Pryde. That’s the Kitty from Rachel’s future. The “Toward the Future” caption on the cover makes sense, then.
Others are more obvious, thought. A mock Technet team debut in issue #45 is fashioned after the cover introducing the original new X-Men. Kitty Pryde stands front and center explaining some of the chaos happening behind her on issue #54. Issue #47 has a cover showing the team as pawns, with a visual cue that Davis uses inside the series a couple more times. And, of course, issue #42 has the little bird threatening the team with death. Even Widget and Lockheed are scared.
The coloring is bright and simple. It’s mostly by Glynis Oliver, who isn’t afraid to use a lot of brighter colors and keep the backgrounds simple. When the paper stock is upgraded with issue #46, the colors looks bolder. It’s not a major change in paperstock, but there’s much less of the ink being soaked up by newsprint, resulting in a flatter but stronger color scheme.
This is still long before computer coloring took over at Marvel, leading to the atrociousess that you’d see later on Davis’ artwork on “Uncanny X-Men,” for example. (Too dark! And murky. And detailed.) Joe Rosas comes in to color the fiftieth issue and lends just enough style to the coloring to make it look more interesting without taking over. Rosas, in my mind, was the unheralded start of a new coloring style at Marvel in the early 90s. The work he did over Jim Lee on “Uncanny X-Men” is the best stuff Marvel had at the time and unlike anything else anyone was published. He had an attention to detail and the skill to add shading without overdoing it. He did a Liquid!-like job in the pre-Photoshop days.
Michael Heisler handles the lettering. It does the job, though it’s not as special as Tom Orzechowski made it look during the Claremont era of the title. It’s solid work that stays out of the way, but lacks that extra character the book once had.
I thought we’d be able to plow through Davis’ entire sequence of issues this week, but it’s not meant to be. Join us again — sometime in the near future — when we’ll look at issues #51 – #67, where new threats come to pass, Davis goes back to the well of British pop culture for an issue, fill-in art is supplied by a teenaged Joe Madureira, and things get set up for a bold new era just as Davis leaves and the whole series goes down the toilet for a while yet again.
More importantly: Widget, Deaths, Widget, and Days of Future Past! That’s right, it’s time for more Phoenix! Pity.
But Nightcrawler has a romance, Kitty attempts one, the British government comes after Excalibur, and Davis runs out of superhero names and goes with “Cabbage” and “Pumice.”
Like I said, there’s too much left to talk about. So we’ll go for a fourth part. That one will be final. I promise.
PIPELINKS-A-LOT: FRENCH COMICS, PREDICTIONS, REVIEWS
- Last week’s essay on learning French via comic strips brought a few responses on email, but no luck on my original plan. Basically, it’s a fool’s errand to look for today’s English language comic strips translated into French and posted on a website. It’s just not done over there, for various reasons. I could do a course in Spanish in this style, but not French. So it looks like I’m back to reading French art blogs and translating things myself.
- There is one comic strip way to do things. The collected editions of American comic strips are available in French editions. I could buy some of those to compare to any such English-language editions of those books I might already own. Since I already have the complete “Calvin & Hobbes” book, that might be an option. It’s a much more physical process and not automatable, but it’s a possibility.
- News broke early on Monday morning that Comixology is moving into Europe. If that means original French works will be available for American customers of Comixology (Please? Please? Please?), then I’d be very happy.
- If I could go one step further, it might not be cost prohibitive to translate those French comics into English for sale digitally. There is an art to how translating works, but the lettering could be done as an in-house production issue. The balloons and sound effects are already there. Without the hurdle of a print bill, the investment to start this market could prove very profitable. I look forward to downloading the Dargaud or Soleil apps next. Even better, I’d like to read that stuff on my larger desktop computer monitor.
- This is the week “Invincible” #100 is released through Image Comics, meaning that Robert Kirkman will have written two 100-issue runs at the same time. I opened up on a question on Twitter if there’s anyone else who’s done that. Maybe Stan Lee did it in the 1960s/1970s? So far, the only response back has been Brian Bendis, who by his own count is up to 185 issues of “Ultimate Spider-Man” and 102 issues of “New Avengers.” That’s an insanely impressive run, particularly in modern comics.
- Matt Brady recaps “Groo” #64, which is the first issue of the series I ever read, from 1990.
- Lewis Trondheim (back to French comics!) shows off one way he draws comics by rubbing out the lines. Translation: “The magic of drawing gum. (For those who do not know, this is a thick liquid that spreads as desired, dries, and then you can cover it with ink, erase, and recover all the white paper.)” (via Tom Spurgeon)
- I made predictions for 2012 at Mike Sterling’s Progressive Ruin blog. A year later, Mike has the results. They’re decidedly mixed. I nailed the prediction about the continuing lack of Diabetic-American characters in mainstream comics, though. Shame on you, Marvel and DC!
- My one New Year’s Resolution is to contribute more to the CBR Reviews team. I’ll have a review of “Glory” #32 up later this week, but for now you can see my takes on “Witch Doctor: Mal Practice” #3 and “Todd the Ugliest Kid on Earth” #1.
- More Kyle Baker greatness than you’d possibly have time to read in one sitting is now available for free on his website. Click through and you’ll have your choice of eight different graphic novels that Baker has posted on his website for your reading pleasure. You’ll have to do a lot of arrow-clicking to get through it, but it’s worth it.
- “Cowboy Wally,” in particular, is a favorite Baker book. I first reviewed it in an earlier version of Pipeline. On USENET. On March 13, 1996. Google can back me up on that.
- Jim Zubkavich (spelling his last name doesn’t frighten me) posted an analysis of his numbers for the “Skullkickers” on-line publishing experiment. It’s great news. Hopefully, Kyle Baker will see similar results.