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Excalibur Visionaries: Alan Davis, vol. 1  2009 (SC TPB) 232 pgs.

coverWritten and pencilled by Alan Davis. Inks by Mark Farmer.
Colours: various. Letters: Michael Heisler. Editor: Tom Kavanagh.

Reprinting: Excalibur (1st series) #42-50 (1991-1992)

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

Number of readings: 2

Review posted: Mar 2016

Marvel's "Visionary" TPBs tend to focus on particular artists and/or writers on a series, either by bringing together disparate tales or simply by presenting a chronological run if said creator was involved for a consistent period. In this case, artist Alan Davis had actually co-created Excalibur, along with writer Chris Claremont, but their seminal collaborations are reprinted in the earlier Excalibur Classics TPBs (reviewed on previous page. So this "Visionary" collection -- and a couple that followed which also focus on Davis (another batch focused on Warren Ellis) -- marked Davis' return to the series after a break, now wearing both hats as writer and artist.

Excalibur was, of course, a group of British-based super heroes including Captain Britain and his shape-shifter girl friend Meggan, as well as one-time X-Men Nightcrawler, Kitty Pryde, and Rachel (though the team gets augmented by some quirky additions in these issues).

At the time, Davis' return to the team was generally heralded by fans, perhaps both as a sign of how much they liked his work, and maybe also an indication there was a feeling the series had started to flounder under other hands.

And this collection is certainly an engaging run.

Indeed, I'd suggest Davis-the-writer maybe had a better feel for it than Claremont did. To be honest, I sometimes am mixed on these sorts of "light-hearted" super hero comics, where it's deliberately supposed to be veering into comedy and parody (even as it still is fundamentally a super hero adventure series, with dramatic undercurrents) and that includes the early Excalibur by Claremont and Davis. But here, it works.

Whether that's a mark of Davis, or simply the characters having by this point had time to gel, the different aspects flow together better. It is amusing, and silly, and fun -- yet the main characters are involving as people and the events are still engaging as stories (even if a bit rambling, with maybe not too many clearly defined "plots" that, for instance, begin and end in an issue). This collection is a mix of plot threads, ranging from outer space mercenaries becoming temporary house guests and Captain Britain shanghaied to the mystical Otherworld, to stake-outs in museums and a couple of the characters backpacking through Europe to find the secrets of Meggan's past -- eventually morphing into a genuine story arc that builds to a dramatic, universe-shaking climax in the double-sized 50th issue. Hence my point about it equally wanting to function as a drama as much as comedy. It definitely becomes more serious toward the end of this arc.

Art-wise Davis is in peak form here -- no small compliment given Davis is widely regarded as a fan-favourite artist anyway, with his mix of straight-forward realism of well-proportioned faces and figures, and super hero idealism (Captain Britain is particularly buff and muscular, his girl friend Meggan almost implausibly buxom). And since the stories are constantly veering between silly and serious, between realist and head trippy & bizarre (including with plenty of aliens and other dimensional beings dropping by) there's a lot of bases he has to cover. But maybe working from his own scripts he's just particularly pumped, or especially in tune with the story boarding needs of the various scenes.

Davis coming back to the property and taking the reins means it works as a decent jumping on point, issue #42 feeling like the beginning of a new arc. At the same time, it is heavily mired in Excalibur (and Captain Britain) history. I am familiar with some of what they reference, but not all, so I'll stick my neck out and say it's still accessible to a novice reader, most explained as it's needed. But be forewarned: it is a story arc heavily built upon past history (and Excalibur -- and Captain Britain's -- history involving a lot of weird alternate universes and stuff!)

Indeed, Davis seems determined both to deliver a story that feels like it's the culmination of years a backstory (suggesting that cosmic forces brought the team together in the first place in order to prepare for the very menace that arises in these issues) and also to do a bit of retconning, as if he was not entirely happy with some of the things that were done in his absence. When the characters start analyzing and pulling apart the logic of a recent adventure (Excalibur Special: "The Possession") by another creative team, I can't decide if it's Davis' way of thumbing his nose at that comic -- or, conversely, whether it was actually his way of trying to justify the inconsistencies and so make it more appropriately canonical.

You can wonder if some of these plots had been burning a hole in his brain for the previous couple of years, given he even references cryptic scenes from back in the very earliest issues (as if maybe these were plots he had wanted to pursue then -- but Claremont, or an editor, wasn't as keen).

But the long and the short of it is I quite enjoyed this collection, enjoying the characters, their interaction, their adventures (and mis-adventures) in a way that I hadn't other Excalibur TPBs and comics I had read before.

Cover price: __

Excalibur Visionaries: Alan Davis, vol. 2  2005 (HC & SC) 192 pages


Written by Alan Davis, Scott Lobdell. Illustrated by Alan Davis, Joe Madureira, James Fry, various.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: Excalibur #51-58, Excalibur vs. The X-Men: Special Edition (a.k.a. Excalibur: XX Crossing) - 1992covers

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Mar. 2016

I've ended up reading a few different Excalibur collections even though I'm not really a big fan of the series. Part of that is just me reading what's to hand for the sake of reviewing, and I was able to borrow different volumes. Partly because I kind of want to like the series. For although it's obviously heavily tied up in Marvel lore, by virtue of the characters being located in England it does offer a slight sense of a series that exists for itself (as opposed to being just one corner of endless and numbing cross-title crossovers). And I have liked Captain Britain (in some earlier solo stories) and the X-Men (and some of the team here are X-Men).

The first TPB that really started to woo me over to the team was the one just prior to this -- the first of the Alan Davis collections. Davis had co-created the team with Chris Claremont, then left after a few issues, only to return as writer/artist and his initial issues seemed as though he really did understand the group better than most. The series' trademark was it was supposed to be a quirky, whimsical, super hero team, as much comedy as drama. And Davis seemed to strike the right note. He captured a light, amusing flavour that, nonetheless, could easily segue into drama and pathos, and back again. The humour enhancing the characters -- not undercutting any emotional gravitas.

So I started on the second of three sequential Alan Davis collections with some optimism.

Unfortunately, the second volume is considerably more hit and miss.

Perhaps the most significant thing to note is that for an "Alan Davis" collection -- there's surprisingly little of Davis on display. I don't know what else was going on at the time, whether he was juggling other projects simultaneously, but his presence is intermittent. He only actually draws three of the issues here -- and let's not forget Davis started out as a popular artist so I'm guessing most readers, as much as they might enjoy his writing, are expecting to see his signature pencils, too. But even in the writing, he's only on board for some of the issues. He writes some, gets a plotting credit on some -- and on some issues he's not around at all.

And I suspect that also affects the flow of these issues. Because there can be a feeling like it's more just lurching about, with some issues that feel like "fillers," as if Davis was distracted and hasn't really focused on what he wants to do or where he wants to take it (after the previous collection where the issues did unfold a story arc). There's also a sense that Davis is still trying to tie up loose ends from back during his Claremont collaborations -- as if the writers inbetween had forgotten threads. Another issue tries to act as a summation of the whole (convoluted) Phoenix idea -- handy for completists, not necessarily much of a story for itself (and Excalibur's Phoenix -- Rachel Summers -- spends the first few issues in a coma before disappearing, making this story of seeming little relevance to these issues).

Among the only issues with Davis on board as writer/artist is a two parter with the team being attacked by old enemies at their mansion H.Q. -- again feeling a bit like Davis is just trying to play catch up with long neglected plot threads.

Helping out in the scripting department is Scott Lobdell who had written other Excalibur issues -- and was later responsible for a "funny" version of Alpha Flight. But Lobdell approaches comedy with a much heavier hand than does Davis. Davis' comedy is more of a light-hearted and whimsical tone while still staying true to the characters. Lobdell's way is more prone to silliness and slapstick (a villain who speaks with a lisp) while also trying to touch on the serious aspects of the characters (often just as heavy handed in the dialogue) -- for uneven effects. Lobdell is also an American and tends to write the British characters like, well, how you might expect an American to write British dialogue.

He pinch hits a flashback tale to when Captain Britain (in his original costume) teamed with Spider-Man (that original story published in the 1970s and reprinted in a few different TPBs) by basically chronicling what happened in the days after. It's a weird mix of "serious" character stuff with goofy "villains," and I'm not sure is entirely true to the characters at the time. His portrayal of Captain Britain is as a boozy hedonist (who talks in exaggeratedly "posh" Brit-speak) -- which I'm not sure he was then (CB's drinking problem -- itself a kind of awkwardly handled character flaw anyway -- came about much later). Partly it's so the story can be about CB learning what it means to be a hero from Spider-Man -- which can either be seen as simply an interesting character idea, or an attempt by an American writer to put the British hero in his place (the villains are obnoxious Europeans who disparage America). The issue's drawn by James Fry employing what seem to be a few Frank Miller "swipes." Lobdell's other contribution (working from a Davis plot) is a two-parter guest starring the X-Men that, again, conflates silliness with comedy -- and reprises a story and villains from some earlier X-Factor comics.

Lobdell also writes Excalibur: XX Crossing (published as Excalibur vs. The X-Men: Special Edition) with various artists contributing to the chapters (no Davis at all, here). It makes an interesting companion piece to the other X-Men team up, as this has Excalibur and the original X-Men (from back in their black & yellow costume phase) plucked from their respective times and tossed throughout history, to battle each other individually in short chapters (the X-Men brainwashed into thinking they are part of the eras). It's okay, and is once more meant to be just a light-hearted romp, but as such is also inconsequential (the fights are basically just fights for the sake of fights).

So, after finally being won over to the series by the first Alan Davis Visionaries TPB -- this one once more has me looking at the property with ambivalence.

Cover price: __ USA

coverExcalibur: Weird War III  1990 (SC GN) 62 pages

Written by Michael Higgins. Pencils by Tom Morgan, Justin Thyme. Inks by Joe Rubinstein, Tom Morgan.
Colours: Brad Vancata, Joe Rosas. Letters: Janice Chiang.

Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Mar. 2016

Weird War III is, I believe, the only Excalibur story published in this format -- a 62 page graphic novel presented at over-sized tabloid dimensions and with multi-tone, semi-painted colours.

If only it had justified the format.

To be fair, at this point the early "special-ness" the tabloid graphic novel format promised (with memorable works like The Death of Captain Marvel, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, and Daredevil in Love and War) had been watered down and a lot of Marvel's graphic novels were often minor, forgettable efforts.

The premise here is that Excalibur (a team given to a lot of reality hopping anyway) suddenly find themselves in a world where Nazi Germany won World War II, encountering both Nazi-fied versions of familiar friends (with the X-Men's Professor X a chief villain) as well as more typical Nazis such as arch fiend, The Red Skull, and an aging Adolf Hitler.

To be honest there's nothing really fresh or unusual about the concept, not just because alternate realities in which the Nazis rule the world are quite common in sci-fi, but as mentioned, Excalibur had already been this route (and for a stand alone "graphic novel" they keep harkening back to things from previous stories).

But if the premise isn't particularly unusual -- the execution is, frankly, bewildering. To the point where I'm not entirely sure how to review it.

It's just...not very good. I had read another Excalibur story (a special) by Higgins and Morgan and it too struck me as not very good (honestly, I'm trying to be polite!) This is a pretty thin story for its length (though at least it clips along briskly). And the dialogue is often clunky, the scenes confusing, the narrative logic and coherence tenuous at best. I literally kept checking the page numbering at the bottom of the pages just to make sure I wasn't missing pages, or that they hadn't been printed out of sequence.

The art is often stiff and ungainly, and equally confusing in depicting what's happening and why at times (and Meggan and Kitty are drawn oddly similar). There's little detail to the backgrounds and with a decidedly caricaturish bent at times to the elongated faces. Given Excalibur was often a whimsical, light-hearted comic that style might seem appropriate -- except this isn't a whimsical story. Quite the opposite with its tale of a Nazi ruled England, Nazi experiments, and metaphorical Death Camp infernos (metaphorical in that they are sucking the psychic life force from their victims as opposed to, literally, incinerating them in ovens -- but the resonance is the same). Yet without doing it in such away that it seems especially sensitive to the real life atrocities. It should be noted that Morgan's credited co-artist, Justin Thyme (ie: just in time), is -- I believe -- an industry pseudonym suggesting some last minute pinch hitters

The semi-painted colouring is the main appeal, and along with the big pages (and panels) lends the thing a slight "graphic novel" opulence. So to give it its due, there is a certain brooding atmosphere to the story.

To be honest, this is one of those things where I find myself wondering if I just somehow really mis-read it or, I dunno, fell asleep while turning the pages, because I'm otherwise amazed it was even given the greenlight. So yeah -- I'm not sure what to say.

Cover price: $ __ USA

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