Few series and creators encapsulate an era so well like Chris Claremont’s and Alan Davis’s “Excalibur.” At a time where the mutant dominance of Marvel publishing line was starting to get in full effect, the creative team managed to craft a nook for themselves where characters could focus as much on their relationships as on the big monthly adventure. This weekly Evergreen explores what they did differently and how this became such an unique “X-Men” book.
Written by Chris Claremont
Pencilled by Alan Davis
Inked by Paul Neary & Mark Farmer
Colored by Glynis Oliver
Lettered by Tom Orzechowski
A legendary new X-team is born! Meet the United Kingdom’s champion, Captain Britain, and his paramour, the metamorphic Meggan! They’ll band together with former X-Men Nightcrawler and Kitty Pryde when Gatecrasher and her Technet target Rachel “Phoenix” Summers! Fighting to uphold Xavier’s dream, UK style, the five heroes form Excalibur! From their lighthouse base, they’ll tackle the ferocious Warwolves, the unstoppable Juggernaut and Mojo mayhem! Things get wild with Arcade, the Crazy Gang and the X-Babies, and really heat up as Excalibur is drawn across the Atlantic to an Inferno raging in New York!
Barely any use of Magneto. Not a single battle against Apocalypse. Even a limited exposition of the classic trope of “hated and feared by a world they swore to protect.” For a mutant series, “Excalibur” certainly seemed bent on avoiding these themes altogether, focused on taking well-established (and some less so) characters of that shared universe and taking them to very diverse places.
“Excalibur” was formed at a time when the X-Men were believed to be dead, following the events of the ‘Fall of the Mutants’ saga. Some of the members though, injured from a preceding battle from ‘Mutant Massacre’ end up connecting with other past friends and allies in UK. To protect Phoenix (Rachel Summers) from invading aliens, the group decides to stay together, keeping Xavier’s dream alive… on the other side of the Atlantic.
Looking from this angle, the series seems traditional enough, but it was on the execution of that general plot that Claremont, Davis and team struck gold. First of all, the screen time on “Excalibur” is almost equally divided between high-stake action and personal soap opera. If readers become too curious about how the team will defeat the Warvolves, they will soon discover that Nightcrawler has more than friendly feelings for the love partner of his team leader. Linger too much on the battles against the Crazy Gang, and the audience would witness Kitty Pryde’s insecurities towards her femininity when seen side-by-side with Rachel Summers. This balance probably is a Chris Claremont trope on its own, but it is so well-portrayed on these pages that it defines them. Readers of “Excalibur” will very quickly grow fond of these characters so, whatever happens to them, it bears a personal connection.
Talking about what happens to them… “Excalibur” is certainly an off-kilter book, in the sense that some of the most absurd of villains and situations on the Marvel universe at the time would grace its pages. In a vein not so dissimilar to DC’s “Justice League International,” “Excalibur” was not afraid to lean heavily in humour territory and, even when heroes were being serious, the backdrop upon which they were fighting had very clear tones of absurdity. As the series progressed and the longer arc ‘Cross-Timed Caper’ took over from issue #12 through #24, events became even more unpredictable, with the team travelling aboard a magical, dimensional-hopping train, powered by a dragon engine. Yes, really. It opened the doors to a number of genres, from swashbuckling pirate tales, to interstellar travel to medieval drama, to a point when “Excalibur” as a series could no longer be narrowed down to a specific type of story, to the benefit of readers everywhere.
What to say about the work of Alan Davis (who remained with the book on its first year and for part of the second one)? Already a master then as he is today, Davis juggled the larger-than life battles against Juggernaut and Arcade, as much as he was able to revel on intimate moments. The life inside the lighthouse that Excalibur makes its home is a lively environment, with meals, bedside drama and even restroom encounters being detailed, real and beautiful. Each of the main characters, and many of the most recurring supporting ones, are very well fleshed-out, recognisable, down to the nuances of how their eyebrows move when interacting with friends and foes. Colouring by Oliver is also a joy to look at, especially on the special that launched it (‘The Sword is Drawn’). His work has a fairy-tale aspect to it, with faded tones clashing with a more saturated palette, bridging that gap between a superhero book and one of fables and classic stories of old.Continued below
Still fresh for today’s readers, perhaps the only area where “Excalibur” might feel dated is on its visual representation of Rachel Summers. Clearly a product of its time, “Excalibur” does over-sexualise the heroine, not to a point that impairs her growth as a character, but certainly enough to pull readers away from some character beats.
With some of the craziest adventures the mutant universe ever offered (then and since), based on a core group of characters that grown individually and as a group as the series moves forward, “Excalibur” is a joy to revisit, in no small part given the gorgeous art by Davis, Leary and Oliver. Several attempts were made to recreate the magic this creative team had back then, but none truly succeeded to tell such a complex, and yet so personal, story about growth, adventure and honor.