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Excalibur Graphic Novel and TPB Reviews - Page 1

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"The sword is drawn..."

For other related appearances see
Captain Britain collections, and The X-Men collections

All Excalibur GNs/TPB published by Marvel Comics

cover by Alan DavisExcalibur 1987 (SC GN) 48 pages

Written by Chris Claremont. Pencils by Alan Davis. Inks by Paul Neary (and Mark Farmer).
Colours: Glynis Oliver. Letters: Tom Orzechowski. Editor: Ann Nocenti.

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

This graphic novel kicked off yet another spin-off series of the ever expanding X-Men franchise. The story takes place during one of the frequent periods when the world believes the X-Men are dead. Sharing in this misapprehension are X-Men Nightcrawler and Kitty Pryde, who are hanging out on Scotland's Muir island, grieving over the "loss" of their team mates and trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Also grieving, separately, is England's super hero, Captain Britain. But the return of former X-Man Rachel Summers (Phoenix II) from some other dimension, with various characters in hot pursuit, brings the characters together (along with Captain Britain's mutant girlfriend, Meggan), resulting in the characters banding into a new super group, Excalibur, by the end.

Written by then-X writer, Chris Claremont, and drawn by risng star Alan Davis (a British artist who had drawn Captain Britain's solo adventures), Excalibur went on to a reasonably successful run as a kind of British branch of the X-Men. It was often viewed as the lighter side of the grim X-Men, apparently, with stories that tended to be more whimsical and humourous than the parent mag. That's not as obvious here. Certainly once the fights happen, there's a little more whimsy, but the initial part of the story, with grieving characters gnashing their teeth, is pure X-Men angst.

But ultimately, Excalibur: The Special Edition (sub-titled "The Sword is Drawn" inside) is an undistinguished read. Davis' art is nice, and Claremont does a perfectly competent job of writing -- well, in that earnest, sometimes overly verbose Claremont style. But nothing really succeeds in leaping off the page at you -- there are no great scenes, no powerfully written exchanges. Claremont falls into the trap (as he often did) of layering on his verbiage, his introspection, without anything really igniting or distinguishing itself. And the plot is rudimentary, as Claremont could be, with long scenes of characters talking, followed by just kind of big action scenes without a lot of plot twists or turns.

The foundations of the story are kind of nebulous, too.

Because this is tied into the X-Men mythology, I'm not sure what prior knowledge the reader is expected to bring with them. Rachel Summers had apparently disappeared months before -- O.K., I got that as it was explained. But she shows up, being pursued by creatures controlled by someone called Mojo, as well as being hunted by a separate group of inter-galactic bounty hunters (familiar from earlier Captain Britain adventures) who are also after Rachel. But, guess what? By the end of the story there was no explanation for who Mojo was, or why the bounty hunters were after Rachel. Presumably that would be dealt with in later issues of the regular series, or in one of the subsequent prestige format Excalibur graphic novels (there were more than just this one, including one called "Mojo Mayhem"). Or maybe we were supposed to know the answers from previous X-Men/Captain Britain stories. Either way, as a stand alone graphic leaves you kind of going, huh?

The newly formed Excalibur beats off the bad guys, without actually defeating them, then get together and agree to keep alive the X-Men's dream of a world where humans and mutants can live in peace -- even though the adventure here had absolutely nothing to do with mutants or the persecution of such. It's an end scene that seems more intended to just cement the new series' connection to the X-Men than as anything that stems organically from the story.

Excalibur doesn't end on a cliffhanger (the villains are, at least temporarily, sent packing) even as it provides little explanation for what transpired. It's no more than a comicbook origin issue, and not a "graphic novel" as the format implies. If you can find it cheap (I got it for a couple of bucks, Canadian), and are a fan of Claremont's X-Men days, or Excalibur, it'll help to kill a few minutes, but otherwise, it's nothing to actively seek out.

Original cover price: $4.25 CDN./ $3.25 USA

Excalibur Classic, vol. 1: The Sword is Drawn 2005 (SC TPB) 176 pages.

coverWritten by Chris Claremont. Pencils by Alan Davis. Inks by Mark Farmer.

Colours: various. Letters: Tom Orzechowski.

Reprinting: Excalibur: Special Edition ("The Sword is Drawn"), Excalibur (1st series) #1-5 (1988)

Rating: * * 1/2 (our of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Review posted: Mar 2016

Part of the way I review these things is sometimes I pick up a TPB at the library, or I find the comics dirt cheap in the discount bins. In other words: I don't necessarily have any predisposition toward the material. I'm just reading n' reviewing it -- for the sake of reading n' reviewing it. I say this because, for instance, Excalibur ran for over a hundred issues -- plus a few ancillary one-shots and specials, plus it has been revived periodically since (albeit with membership changes). So if you're already a fan of the series -- this review probably won't have any value.

But if you ain't, if you've never read it, then let's delve into it together!

Excalibur was an X-Men spin-off -- sort of. It featured three erstwhile X-Men -- Nightcrawler, Kitty Pryde, and Rachel Summers (Phoenix II) who all at that point mistakenly believed the X-Men were dead. Having relocated to Great Britain, they hook up with the super hero, Captain Britain, and his girl friend, the shape-changing Meggan, to form Excalibur. So its roots are in the X-Men -- which writer Chris Claremont had been the primary writer on for years -- even as the comic isn't directly connected to the X-Men franchise (though presumably the name Excalibur -- ie: X-calibur -- was selected for the alliterative association). And Captain Britain had actually been created by Claremont -- albeit he'd undergone so many changes in powers and costume that he's hardly the same character Claremont first envisioned in the 1970s. And Claremont is paired up with popular artist Alan Davis, also with a long association with Captain Britain, as well as the X-Men, and is a proper Englishman, just to lend the series some authenticity.

And part of the point was to offer a slightly lighter, quirkier branch of the X-Men franchise. Which was kind of a trend at the time, with a number of mainstream super hero team comics veering into quirky and whimsy just to be "different" (though if everyone's doing it, it starts to lose its novelty).

Though the "lighter" aspect is not apparent immediately, the team (and this collection) kicking off with the one shot special (generally known by the sub-title The Sword is Drawn) which starts out with a fair amount of angst and teeth gnashing over the believed death of the X-Men. But that soon gives way to a more whimsical plot -- or, at least, running about -- involving other-dimensional warwolves (silver-skinned werewolf-like creatures).

And this is where Excalibur fans might want to tune out. Because it just didn't fully grab me -- not the one-shot, nor the ensuing first five issues, all included in this TPB collection. It's attractively illustrated by Davis, and it's written with enthusiasm by Claremont, but without really finding any solid footing. Basically there's a lot of what happened in the special -- a mixture of long, talky, "character" scenes of the heroes just hanging out, mixing drama with light humour, and then some sort of action sequence that's heavy on the running about and, again, whimsy -- but a bit thin in terms of plot.

The special involves these warwolves -- working for someone called Mojo, who it seems like maybe we're supposed to know from somewhere else (presumably an X-Men comic) -- without much explanation for who they are or what, with the main "plot" simply being them trying to capture Rachel. Then they are back for the opening two-part story. Then there's the third issue which reverses the formula: opening with action (a prison break) then closing with character stuff. Followed by another two-parter, once more in which the clash-with-foes seems to be the plot, rather than a bi-product of a plot (ie: the villains having some ulterior plan).

I guess it just depends on what you're looking for.

But the problem with the "character" stuff is at this point there isn't much in the way of a supporting cast (other than Captain Britain bumping into his ex-girlfriend, another Claremont creation from days gone by) so really it's just the same characters having the same conversations about the same thing issue after issue. Even then without a great deal of consistency (at one point Kitty thinks Nightcrawler is her best friend -- yet it seemed more like Rachel was; or at another point Kitty refers to Captain Britain and Meggan as "bimbos" -- a pretty snide attitude toward people who seemed like friends).

This could be forgiven if the character stuff was just squeezed in between the super hero adventure plotting.

Yet as I say, the adventure-plots are equally vague, with villains who seem to have little motive, or plan, outside of fighting the heroes -- and vice versa. There's a gang called The Crazy Gang -- which pretty much says all you need to know about their motives and personalities!

And there's a great deal of drawing upon pre-existing foes (for a series starting from issue #1!): the warwolves occupying the special and the opening two-parter; the prison break story involves X-Men foe the Juggernaut and Captain Britain foe, lady mobster, the Vixen. The final two-parter involves Captain Britain foes the Crazy Gang and also Arcade, the assassin with the theme-part theme who Claremont created and who he trots out from time to time (but I'm not sure many other writers have expressed much interest in him, perhaps because it's such a limiting M.O. and he's a character who has no outside goals other than attacking heroes)

The strange thing about characters like The Vixen and The Crazy Gang is that they are carryovers from Captain Britain's U.K.-published adventures -- but I'm not sure the American audience had much exposure to them (until subsequent TPB reprints). So these are "familiar" foes with whom I doubt most readers were that familiar!

Along the way there are hints of plots to come and foreshadowing -- but it all feels a bit vague and unsatisfying. (How vague and unsatisfying I didn't fully appreciate until realizing some of these threads are returned to in the stories collected in Excalibur Visionaries: Alan Davis, vol. 1 -- when Davis returned to the series after both he and Claremont had left it, implying Claremont never actually did much with the threads himself).

Now, obviously, this all gets back to the idea of light-hearted and whimsical -- the lack of deep or complex plots being because it's more just meant to be quirky romps. And certainly the Crazy Gang plot boasts a slightly intriguing idea (as the heroes and villains switch bodies). But with that said: it's not that funny. Nor is it that quirky (it's not like we're moving into Doom Patrol eccentricity areas) -- nor is it entirely meant to be. I mean, it's still meant to exist in the Marvel Universe with these familiar, serious, heroes.

Now I'll admit I'm not always keen for these kind of "whimsical" super hero comics -- they often feel self-conscious in their attempts at lightness. I can laugh out loud at old Spider-Man comics, or The Thing's wisecracks in the Fantastic Four, and enjoy the repartee in the Silver Age Doom Patrol, or the eccentric turns in some of 1970s The Defenders comics. But other such series can often strike me as struggling to seem funny -- rather than actually being funny.

So as I say: if you're an Excalibur fan, well, you'll know if you like it or not already. But for my money, you can finish this run of issues, and have trouble even remembering much that happened.

Still, I have access to a few more collections, so I'll probably read n' review them and see if the series evolved more to my tastes. (And just to anticipate: I did find I enjoyed Excalibur Visionaries: Alan Davis, vol. 1).

Cover price: $__ USA.

Excalibur Classic, vol. 2: Two-Edged Sword 2006 (SC TPB) 192 pages.

coverWritten by Chris Claremont. Pencils by Alan Davis, Arthur Austin, Marshall Rogers, Ron Lim.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: Excalibur #6-11, Excalibur: Mojo Mayhem

Rating: * * 1/2 (our of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Review posted; Mar 2016

This is the second volume collecting early Excalibur issues, both from their own comic, and the one-shot special Mojo Mayhem. Now the truth is, I've been mixed on Excalibur -- not having especially enjoyed the first Classic volume. But I can't fully dismiss the property because I quite liked the slightly later collection, Excalibur Visionaries: Alan Davis (vol. 1). Excalibur is a team comprised of a few ex-X-Men plus the British hero, Captain Britain, and was one of those super hero comics that was deliberately meant to be often light-hearted even silly -- yet equally capable of drama and thrills (it's a style even more prevalent today).

The problem with it, obviously, is if it isn't making you laugh, or at least chuckle, then there's a problem. Not that it's all supposed to be grins and guffaws.

This collection (unlike the previous) features a variety of artists on hand. That can sometimes be nice (providing variety) though regular artist Alan Davis is sufficiently popular, his absence from a lot of this is probably disappointing to many. Davis draws the first two part story (#6-7), then the first issue of a subsequent two-parter (#9). Ron Lim draws one issue (#8) -- Lim later becoming a regular contributor to the series. While old time veteran Marshall Rogers (paired with inker Terry Austin) draws two (#10-11). Lim is one of those artists who isn't really bad, but I just don't find really appeals to me much. His art is certainly straightforward, just not really exciting. While Rogers is sort of a mixed bag, often his figures a bit stiff, but with a nice eye for composition and backgrounds, making for some effective storytelling.

Arthur Austin draws the 48 page Mojo Mayhem special, and his style is well suited to the material, being both dramatic and heroic enough to handle the super hero-ing and the realism, while also cartoony and caricatured enough to easily veer toward the whimsy and humour.

This collection kicks off a bit awkwardly as the first two issues tie into what was a then cross-title story line called Inferno (that was mainly focused on the X-Men comics, but leaked over into most titles). Demons have flooded into New York, causing all sorts of madness, from inanimate objects mutating into ravenous monsters to the heroes themselves sometimes confronted by, or being transformed into, the darkness of their ids. Unfortunately, I hadn't particularly liked the main Inferno story (collected as a TPB) -- finding it just messy and noisy and confused, trying desperately to seem like it was profound (by virtue of the character exploration inherent in the inner demon idea) even as it didn't really seem like it was. And now not only is there more of the same, but it's even less coherent since it doesn't really tie directly into the bigger story (even as it isn't well explained on its own) and because it's now meant to be a little sillier (for a concept that barely had any logic to begin with). Needless to say: not my favourite issues.

This is followed by a whimsical one issue of the team still in New York and getting into misadventures (and introducing a thread that both Captain Britain and his shape changing girl friend, Meggan, are finding their powers a bit wonky).

What follows is, for me, the collection's highlight -- a two-part tale in which the team is back in England and tackling alternate reality versions of themselves who have arrived from a Nazi-dominated parallel earth. It perhaps says something about the comic (or my own preferences) that I regard it as the highlight when, in many ways, it's the most serious, straight-faced story-adventure oriented -- though still with quirky and whimsical aspects. But it feels a bit more like a story (or at least a thriller) with twists and turns.

But then the regular issues in this collection end with another kind of "interlude" issue -- acting as both an epilogue to the previous story, and a prologue to the next story arc (which begins in the next Classic volume). Much of the issue just involving Kitty and Rachel at their HQ, with Kitty in a mood (and jealous that a guy she likes she suspects prefers Rachel). Aside from being a minor "story" it basically ends "to be continued" with the team getting whisked off to parallel worlds (for what would be an epic story arc).

Exaclibur: Mojo Mayhem was originally published as a prestige format one-shot and barely even counts as an Excalibur story, as it mainly focuses on Kitty and the X-Babies -- yeah, you read that right (alternate reality kid versions of the X-Men). The rest of Excalibur appear in barely a cameo. The premise is that the X-Babies (who had appeared in a back up story in X-Men Annual #12) are kind of media stars in their reality but have fled to earth to escape their contract, being pursued by the evil agent of the maniacal producer, Mojo (who had appeared in the first Excalibur special that kicked off the series). This is full on humourous mode, partly meant to satirize the entertainment/comics biz itself as well as basically just Kitty and the X-Babies being chased across the U.K. countryside. The plot is negligible (building to a kind of shaggy dog resolution) and it's meant to be a whimsical romp. It's cute, to some extent -- but not much more (but I repeat: maybe I just have a different sense of humour).

So, again -- nothing much here to really excite me, with only the story from #9-10 that riveting. And as I say: maybe it just ain't my thing -- except, as mentioned, I did enjoy the latter Visionaries TPB, implying a can enjoy a blend of whimsy and adventure in the right mix.

Cover price: $__USA.

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