Friday, May 31, 2013

Recommended Reading for 5/31: Excalibur by Warren Ellis

Nostalgia is a big part of pretty much any fandom, and I think many comic fans are very guilty of it, me included. Things we once loved, we look at with ruby quartz colored glasses. I've gone back and reread some runs that I loved when I was in high school and even college and wondered what I was thinking. But some of those runs really do hold up. I am glad to say Warren Ellis's run on Excalibur is one of the runs that holds up pretty darn well.

When Excalibur first came out, it was a very tangential X-Men comic, about a team of European mutants and superheroes working together in Great Britain. Sure, Nightcrawler and Shadowcat, two mainstays of the X-titles, and Phoenix, a newer addition but with quite a heavy link to the franchise, were in the comic, but it was removed from the main events of the Marvel Universe and the X-Men titles by oceans, and never took part in the annual X-events. It was also a light and somewhat goofy title, with all sorts of crazy villains and reality hopping exploits. Writer Scott Lobdell, writer of Uncanny X-Men and a sort of pinch hitter for the X-line in the 90s, came in and started tying it more into the main books with a tie-in to the "Fatal Attractions"crossover in issue #71 and wrote a few more issues before a relative newcomer to American comics took over with issue #83: Warren Ellis.

This is really written by a proto-Ellis. The character accents are a bit thick, and the British slang is heavily used; I don't think six pages go by without someone being called a git, or toerag, or scab. It's the most traditional superhero book that exists among his canon, tying into events going on in the X-Men universe and tying up and continuing a lot of plot threads left dangling by previous creators. But there's glimpses of the "real" Ellis in here: his snarky, clever wit, his crazy ideas, and above all, the Ellis anti-hero. In this case, that character is one of my favorites in all the Marvel Universe, and one of Ellis's great creations, the mutant spy Pete Wisdom.

I talked a lot about Wisdom in my recommendation for Captain Britain and MI13, but I'm going to talk about him some more here. Wisdom is the prototypical Ellis anti-hero: hard smoking, hard drinking, with a caustic sense of humor, and a past that haunts him. He's not necessarily a hero, and he has done some bad things, but underneath it all, he is a good man. His mantra is, "It needs doing," a way to justify to himself and his own cynicism the good he does for others. There are bits of Spider Jerusalem, Jenny Sparks, Elijah Snow, and all the other trenchcoat wearing Ellis protagonists in Wisdom, who is their forebear (it can be argued as well that they all draw from John Constantine, especially is you look at Ellis's own Planetary #7, but Ellis wrote Wisdom before he got to write Constantine, so I see him as Ellis's first attempt to properly hit that character type).

What makes Wisdom different from so many late 80s and early 90s anti-heroes is his genuine reluctance to kill any longer. When readers first meet Wisdom, he is in a field of dead terrorists, all of whom he has massacred. And Wisdom has collapsed in tears. He truly wants to find a better way, and he finds it by joining Excalibur. He isn't an unrepentant killer like Punisher, and the things he did in his shady past he can't chalk up to mind control like Wolverine. He did everything he did as an agent of British intelligence for queen and country, and he wants to put that behind him now. I think that is part of what drew me to him; I'm a sucker for a character in search of redemption.

Wisdom found his redemption in Kitty Pryde, the X-Woman known as Shadowcat. Kitty was the junior X-Man when she was in the States, joining the team at thirteen, and being everyone's little sister. But she had come into her own somewhat over the course of Excalibur, and Ellis took this to the next step. He played Kitty as smart, confident, with a nasty temper she did her best to keep in check, and with a sense of humor to match Pete Wisdom's brittle one. And he had the two of them fall in love. It wasn't always an easy relationship, with the two starting out adversarially and even after they got together, Wisdom being at times reserved in how he let his feelings show, but they worked brilliantly as a couple. They were the heart and soul of Excalibur, and worked so well, they got their own spinoff mini-series, but more on that later.

Being that this is an X-title, Ellis clearly had more characters to write than just Pryde and Wisdom. Excalibur founding members Nightcrawler, Megann, and Captain Britain were still there, but each had changed since the founding of the book. Nightcrawler had become the team leader, and Ellis showed him to really trying to do his best to lead the team in the right direction. Over the course of the run, he, along with Carlos Pacheco, one of numerous artist's along the way, gave Nightcrawler the first major makeover the character had in his nearly fifteen year history. Captain Britain, Brian Braddock, had recently returned from being lost in the timestream, and had taken the new name Britannic. Brian seemed to be following a similar path of change as Wisdom, as he wanted out of the superhero game, and was trying to get back to being a scientist. This, of course, doesn't work exactly as he planned, but it shows a different side to a character who had often been played as headstrong and cocky before. Megann was often a cipher who was there as a supporting character for her boyfriend, then fiancee, Captain Britain. But Ellis expanded her power set, focusing on her elemental abilities, making her one of the most powerful members of the team, and spending time talking about how the previously illiterate Megann was learning to read. It's a small subplot, and is never used as a club, but Ellis does use it to show Megann's joy in learning and generally about the importance of the written word.

Along with these characters, Ellis inherited a couple of recent additions to the team. Excalibur had come to operate off of Muir Island, a fictional island that housed the research facility of Moira MacTaggert, geneticist and ally to the X-Men. At the time of the series, Moira was hunting for the cure to the Legacy Virus, a disease that had been designed to kill mutants and had recently been contracted by its first human victim: Moira herself. Moira had often been a character who was shown as haunted, having lost her mutant son to his own powers, and made some questionable decisions, but now she was in a fight for her life. Moira was shown as strong, and fierce, but still sad in her way. Along with Moira came Dr. Rory Campbell, a psychologist who had been working with Moira on some of the problem mutants in the island, and who was being haunted by a vision of the future where he became the mutant hating villain Ahab. Rory is working with a mutant called Spoor, a villain who affects emotions, and things do not go in Rory's favor. Watching Rory agonize over the possible dark fate is one of the best subplots, and one that never was paid off after Ellis's deaprture other than a few vague references. There was also Douglock, a techno-organic being with a past so convoluted it had to be from an X-Men comic, and who was now a Pinocchio type figure, the little metal boy who wanted to be real. And finally, Daytripper, Nightcrawler's girlfriend and sorceress.

And if that wasn't enough, two more characters were added to the mix during Ellis's run. Wolfsbane had been a member of other X-teams X-Factor and the New Mutants, but came back to Muir Island when she learned her guardian, Moira, was ill. She became an innocent amongst the team, often set against Wisdom's cynicism, but she also had a very sweet relationship with Douglock, whose physical appearance was based on Doug Ramsey, a dead mutant she had been friends with. And another classic X-Man joined some of his fellows: Colossus. Having recently abandoned the X-Men to join Magneto's Acolytes, Colossus came to Muir to rekindle his relationship with Shadowcat, only to find her with Wisdom. A fight ensued, and neither exactly came out better for it. But over the course of the next year's worth of issues, Ellis worked to redeem Colossus, having him work through some of the issues that lead to his defection, and to his erratic behavior over the past few years worth of stories.

One of the best parts of this run is the amount of time spent character building. There are a few issues where very little "action" takes place, or where there are no supervillains, and the conflict is character based. The highlight of these issues is #91. After the action packed "Dream Nails Trilogy," Pete Wisdom and Kitty Pryde, now just becoming a couple, want to go out to a pub. The entire team winds up going with them, and the issue is really a story about these people getting to know each other. We see just how much the Legacy Virus research is haunting Moira. We see Rahne, who was raised by a frightening reverend before being taken in by Moira, get her first visit to a pub and learn its not all about drunken debauchery. The demonic looking Nightcrawler is surprised and pleased to be accepted by the locals, showing that not everyone judges books by their covers. And we see Kitty and Pete reveal to the team that they are a couple, and see when Nightcrawler and Captain Britain corner Wisdom and give him a talking to about what will happen if he hurts her. The issue introduces the Chalk and Cheese, a pub that will become Excalibur's answer to Harry's Hideaway, the bar the X-Men hang out in, and it's proprietors, Jack Crossan and his daughter, Annie, old friends of the MacTaggert family. It's a sweet, smart issue, with some very funny bits and great dialogue.

Two issues later, Ellis spent time doing an issue that dealt with the tried and true theme of all X-Men related comics: racial intolerance. Wolfsbane, Megann, and Shadowcat spot a fire from Muir Island and upon reaching the mainland, find that it's being caused by a young girl with pyrokinetic abilities. They learn quickly that the girl was discovered to be a mutant and is being shunned by the people of her town, something that strikes a chord with Wolfsbane, who was chased from her village by people with pitchforks and torches, lead by her guardian the Reverend Craig, calling her the spawn of Satan. Rahne learns that this girl was also found out and exposed by Craig, and goes to confront the reverend. A powerful scene follows, where Rahne enters the church and stands up to the man who has haunted her for her entire life, and reveals something she has learned: Craig is her biological father, having hidden his indiscretion with her mother. Rahne is able to walk away from Craig with her head held high, and the hypocritical man of God broken. It's a beautifully crafted scene, and takes the usual mutant/human confrontation to a more deeply personal level than it usually is.

While these single issues are excellent, Ellis also built a big plot that stretched from his first issue all the way into issue 100. The hints were there at the beginning, and were revealed bit by bit. It involved Black Air, the British agency that investigated the paranormal (Pete Wisdom's employer when we first met him), the London Hellfire Club, and the sorceress Margali Szardos, Nightcrawler's adoptive mother. Issue #94 was a flashforward to 2013 (yup, this very year, ladies and gents), provided by Captain Britain's returning memories of his time lost in the timestream, and it began the endgame. Issues 96-100 were a big five issue story that tied up all these threads, connecting them into a story of demons and chaos. There's plenty of Ellis touches, with mythic hidden demons below London, an entirely new Hellfire Club, conspiracies, and certain revelations about Kitty's pet Dragon Lockheed. I don't want to give any of it away, but if you're an Ellis fan, you won't be disappointed.

The story that most reads like something fans would recognize as a Warren Ellis story was his three issue spin off mini-series, Pryde and Wisdom. A call from Mr. Jardine, a friend of Pete's in criminal intelligence, has Pete and Kitty arriving in London to try to find a mutant serial killer before Jardine's daughter, a journalist, gets herself killed hunting him. Ellis uses Jardine, a character introduced in Excalibur, as well as introduces a host of unusual supporting characters for Wisdom, including his paranoid ex-policeman father and hippy-sorceress sister and Department F.66, Scotland Yard's Department of Unusual Death. F.66 is populated by wackos and washouts to investigate murders that have a paranormal leaning, and they all make Fox Mulder look like the model of sanity and restraint. The murders wind up having a strange religious significance, and the plot eventually introduces an alchemist who could have been England's Charles Xavier is she wished, or so she claims. the conglomeration of weird and wild ideas, many just touched on to move the screwball plot forward is Ellis in his purest form. Toss in the crackling dialogue between the series two leads, and their undeniable Nick and Nora Charles chemistry, and this is one of the great under appreciated gems of the mid-90s.

The art over the course of this run is somewhat more problematic to discuss. Over the course of twenty one issues (not counting Pryde and Wisdom) , there are no fewer than twelve artists, with some issue shaving as many as four pencilers. This wasn't a case of chapter one by one artist, chapter two by another; scenes would sometimes be split between artists, with a fight scene starting out with the classic superhero stylings of early Ken Lashley and finished in the highly stylized work of Larry Stroman (as a side note, I find it funny that something that nowadays gets huge commentary on-line wasn't really blinked at in the pre-widespread comics internet days of the early 90s). Still, there are some very notable artists involved. Ken Lashley, who still does work for DC today, was the regular penciler at the beginning of Ellis's run. Terry Dodson did a few pages here and there, and was one of the principal artists on Pryde and Wisdom. Carlos Pacheco was regular artists from issue #95 until 103, Ellis's final issue, but only worked on about half of those issues; still, his work was stunning. The artist who did the most pages throughout the run was Casey Jones, who did outstanding work. His Pete Wisdom is the one I always picture when I think about the character, and while I think it was Pacheco who designed the London Hellfire Club members, Jones drew the hell out of them. He has since left comics to do design work for Disney, and I miss his work.

Excalibur was a different book than most of its contemporaries during the mid-90s. It didn't get bogged down and lost in its continuity and crossovers, but served as a character spotlight for writer Warren Ellis and an eclectic group of mutants and their allies. It mixed action with drama and comedy to create an enjoyable and memorable series. While Ellis has gone one to work on bigger projects, most of which I have loved, Excalibur holds a special place in my heart.

The majority of Ellis's Excalibur run has been collected in three volumes of Excalibur Visionsaries: Warren Ellis. These trades not only have all 21 issues written by Ellis, but Pryde and Wisdom and Starjammers, a mini-series featuring the X-Men's space pirate allies tied into Excalibur by a common antagonist, an alien race created by Ellis called The Uncreated.These trades are out of print, but can still be found at many comic shops. Uncollected in these trades was X-Calibre, the "Age of Apocalypse" title that replaced Excalibur for the four months all X-titles were shifted into an alternate universe. If interested, those issues would be collected amongst the four volumes of Marvel's Complete Age of Apocalypse trade series.

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