Tuesday, March 29, 2011

New Excalibur

I recently went and read Chris Claremont's last Uncanny X-Men run. While reading it a lot of Claremont's previous work on Excalibur and Captain Britain where brought up. I had only read a handful of Excalibur issues. I had always liked what I read - but the main X-Men books where where I put my main focus. Besides a few back issues, it was only through a cross-over event that I got exposed to the book. For me, it was basically the book where Nightcrawler had been hiding all these many, many years. Now many years later I'm older and know a lot more about Excalibur - but was motived by re-reading those Uncanny X-Men issues to actually read Excalibur. I got the first two TPBs and I very much enjoyed the issues. The early Claremont/Davis issues where simply stellar in their quality - and I can now see why the concept for the British X-Men has endured in fan's minds as long as it has. That wee bit of British creativity/insanity was layered into the original Excalibur issues really shined through, giving us much more than just another Super-Hero team. (When I say creativity/insanity, I of course reference the likes of British shows and creators like Doctor Who, Paul Cornel, and Grant Morrison. Seriously, it's a compliment!) Well, reading those issues, and coming off of reading Claremont's third Uncanny X-Men run, I couldn't help but look to the book "New Excalibur" - which spun out of that run. Luckily, not being the most well received of series, the issues were cheap, and I was able to get all 24 issues, including the mini-series X-Men: Die By the Sword - all for a little over $30. Here's what I thought of those issues.

New Excalibur, spinning out of the Uncanny X-Men House of M cross-over, launched under the creative team of Chris Claremont and Michael Ryan. The series used the aftermath of M-Day (where 99% of all mutants on Earth mysteriously lost their powers) as a spring board, but it was hardly used in actual execution. After the events of the House of M, Captain Britain found himself unable to return to Otherworld. The team, lead by Captain Britain, consisted of Dazzler, Nocturne, Juggernaut, Sage, and Pete Wisdom. They came together after the appearance of alternate reality version of the original X-Men, called Shadow-X, attacked Dazzler and tried to kidnap Nocturne. These sadistic versions of the original X-Men, while not an original idea, proved a very exciting concept and where good adversaries of Excalibur. Showing how dangerous the likes of Jean Grey could be without morals, she used her telekinetic abilities to give Dazzler a heart attack. Nocturne is then kidnapped by these Dark X-Men. This all eventually leads to the other members gathering together to help their friends - and after defeating Shadow X, Pete Wisdom convinces everyone to join with him and help Britain during this crisis - as with nearly all the world's mutants mysteriously loosing their powers, and how this attack of evil X-Men - Wisdom suspects something else is coming, and wants to be prepared to help defend England.

It was all a very good start for the new series. There where a number of plot-lines that began to be followed for each character.

Dazzler, for instance, found that she mysteriously couldn't die. She later dies, I believe, twice more during the series - and twice again she got up healthy as could be. During the series she also became quite astute at utilizing her light/sound powers to their fullest, even letting her create swords of pure light - and at one instance was even able to fly (though it was short lived and never repeated.)

Peter Wisdom, being the non-super hero of the group sometimes clashed with the team, like when he used seemingly lethal force to stop the Dark version of Professor X. Being an agent of MI-13, he was often more concerned with the bigger picture of events, and wasn't above getting his hands dirty to achieve his goals. His snarky disposition to all things super-heroic became somewhat of a humorous element on the team. At one point he even used his "I'm actually the leader of this team" card, since he shepherded the group himself. Everyone else simply laughed hysterically and ignored him.

Sage joined the team continuing her snooping around in all areas - gathering more and more knowledge for her to compute and help the team. She begins a somewhat flirtatious romance with Pete Wisdom, but it never lead anywhere. She and Wisdom, though, got along much better on more practical matters, as she, like Wisdom, was never above using hasher tactics against their enemies.

Nocturne, a girl from an alternate dimension where she was the daughter of Nightcrawler and the Scarlet Witch, had found a new home on Earth 616 (the regular Marvel Universe). She was a great character to read in the series, and she quickly made friends with Juggernaut.

Juggernaut, a former long time foe of the X-Men had been for a while now trying to go straight. Things didn't go quite well for him at first, as a double decker bus crashed into him in early issues. He was later arrested and taken to court - but it was due to Pete Wisdom stepping in, and showing Juggernaut's "get out of jail free" card, that he was able to stay on the team. Since he was working on behalf of M1-13, through Excalibur, Juggernaut was able to get such legal protection. Cain's efforts to go straight would later be challenged, as old friends from his past would come back and less than pleased to see their friend playing hero. Juggernaut's best friend and former partner in crime, Black Tom, notably returned to cause some trouble. Tom had lost his powers after M-Day, and was so desperate of not being caught that he took a woman hostage and threatened to kill her. Juggernaut was able to talk Tom down and get his old friend to give up and surrender to the police.

For Captain Britain, appropriately enough, his main focus in the series became the main mission of the team. Brain was at first attacked by one-time Avenger Kelsey Leigh, who wanted revenge on Brain for making her the new Captain Britain. See, during issue of the Avengers Kelsey was introduced as the new Captain Britain. She was a single mother who tragically died - but Brain, when he was ruler of Otherworld, gave Kelsey a chance to live again and protect her children (who where in danger at the time, if I remember correctly) She was given the same choice Brain had been given when he was chosen as Captain Britain - a choice between an Amulet, or a Sword. Unlike Brain, Kelsey chose the Sword and became the new Captain Britain. She used these powers to help the Avengers and save her children. There was a catch, though, to all of this. Apparently there is a curse that came along with bringing her back to life - she cannot reveal herself to her kids ever again, or she would die. This is what drove Kelsey's anger towards Brain. After the Avengers broke up Kelsey took on the name Lionheart. Lionheart was angry, claiming Brain should have told her the correct choice in what item to pick; the sword or the amulet. Brain tried to reason with her - but it was soon revealed that someone else was behind this attack.

Albion, an alternate dimensional version Captain Britain, revealed himself to Brain. Brain, during his many adventures in the omni-verse, has seen many alternate reality version of himself and other Captain Britains. The omni-verse is in fact protected by the Captain Corps, a gathering of hundreds of Captain Britains from countless alternate worlds. Yet he had never seen anyone else, besides Kelsey, who had also chosen the Sword over the Amulet. Albion soon departed with Lionheart. The threat Albion posed was the reason Excalibur was needed.

Other matters where also investigated by the team; particularly the leader of the Shadow X-Men, Professor X. There was definately something up with this dark version of Xavier, as even though he was hit with a supposedly leathal attack by Pete Wisdom, he still managed to remain alive. Psylocke visited Brain to help with the interrogation - as, at the time, Psylocke's powers protected her from telepathy. It turns out this Xavier was really the Shadow King - a twisted and body-less psychic being who has long been an enemy of the X-Men. The Shadow King had previously been trapped and caged in Psylocke's mind, but when she died (she later came back to life) the Shadow King had escaped. It was specifically pointed out that this was not another version of the Shadow King, as there is only one being like him in all existence; no, this Shadow King had been lost and found himself in another dimension where he was able to possess this Professor Xavier and corrupt his X-Men. During the interrogation events occurred where Psylocke tried to attack the Professor with her psychic sword - but something else happened. Betsy disappeared in a flash, not to be seen again for a while. Everyone thought she had died. (Her character was in fact being moved to the series Exiles.)

The series so far was simply a fun traditional super hero book. The focus was squarely on the cast, which proved to have a good dynamic. Everything, though, quickly fell apart for the series. Chris Claremont endured a health scare, later diagnosed as Cardiac Stress. He had to stop writing. On Uncanny X-Men other writers had come in to simply finish the run. Excalibur, having only reached issue #8, simply wasn't done yet. While Claremont was away Frank Tieri came in and wrote the book for the next 7 issues. His tenure on the book was somewhat good, though fraught with controversy. He seemed to take the point of revisiting other British super-heroes in the Marvel Universe. His first stop was Jono Starsmore, aka Chamber.

Let me say that I simply adore the book Generation X, and Chamber stood out as one of my favorite members of the cast. His character was simply fascinating - as he had a very dramatic power -- having energy continually flowing out of his chest and face. His powers had erupted out of him, blowing a hole into his body. He has no mouth, lungs, ect. The only reason he could talk was he possessed low grade telepathy. Add to this he was an angry brooding youth - suffice to say he was simply a great character, and was even one of the only members of Generation X to graduate up to the X-Men. After that, though, things did not go well for the character. He was one of the high-lights of how devastating M-Day was for certain mutants, as when Chamber's powers disappeared - he was left with that gapping hole from his chest to his lower jaw. By all rights he should have been dead - but somehow he was able to be hooked up to medical machines to keep him alive. This is where Frank Tieri came in, showing Chamber merely surviving in the hospital. A therapist talked to him, supposedly to help him through the trauma
he's suffered. Meanwhile Pete Wisdom comes to visit, offering to use MI-13's recourses to help find a way for Jono to recover, and perhaps join Excalibur. Jono is less than interested. While Wisdom was away from the hospital room he came back to discover Jono was gone! Jono later wakes up in an alter room. He's connected to machines, and finds that he's been transformed. His mouth and chest are back - but his skin has turned grey and his mouth covered with blue lips and lining across his mouth. He looks very much like a particular old X-Men foe, and sure enough that's what he's intended for - to be the new host body of the villain Apocalypse! Apparently Jono's father was a member of the Clan Akkaba - who have served Apocalypse for centuries. The therapist Jono had been visited by in the hospital was the head of this group. A tattoo for the Akkaba Society was placed on Jono's chest by his father - and apparently the one up-side when Jono's powers manifested was being able to blow the tattoo off of his body. (Note, this was ALLL made up, on the spot, for this issue.) Jono is essentially told of his purpose, but is not stopped from leaving when he promptly refuses; Their plans for Jono, for now, are fulfilled. Jono soon runs into Excalibur, who are shocked to see what has happened to him. Jonothan angrily refuses their offer of help, telling them that not everyone actually wants to be saved. Jono's story was later followed up in New Warriors, where he took on the name Decibel with sonic powers. I don't know wether Frank Tieri was asked by Marvel to transform Chamber like this or not, or it it was all originally planned to be a prelude to the New Warriors book. But, suffice to say, fans HATED this issue. It took one of the most interesting new characters in the X-Men mythos and essentially destroyed him. It was simply a shame to see the character changed so dramatically, in a single issue.

Tieri's later issues of Excalibur went over better. Along with Michael Ryan Tieri wrote a 3 part story where Excalibur, and the British hero Black Knight, went back in time and had jolly old adventure with King Aurther. It actually was a very good story, and even helped explain some of the confusion that existed at the time over the Black Knight's Ebony Blade. Another writer, having even less care with continuity, had shown Black Panther possessing the Ebony Blade. So what did that leave the Black Knight with? Apparently, unknown to him, he didn't possess the Ebony Blade; the one he had was a fake. While this trip back through time was a fun adventure, it had a few continuity problems for fans. I believe it altered the history of the Black Knight. I didn't know his history to begin with, so I can't speak on what might have been changed. But I do know that during this adventure, when the team meets Merlin - that Frank Tieri had forgotten to mention that Captain Britain has already meet Merlin (and Arthur, for that matter) - and he was none too fond of the old man, Merlin being a manipulator of Captain Britain's entire history. I suppose to either not worry his team mates, and also preserve history, Brain kept his mouth shut on the matter. Either way it was a fun tale, with dragons, knights and the like. It was quite frankly a refreshing return to a more simple story, so long as you don't dig too deep into the continuity errors.

The final three issue story line Terri wrote concerned the Juggernaut. For a long while it had been established that Cain Marko's powers had become weaker. He was still strong, but no longer the "Unstoppable" force he had once been known as. This story reveals the origin of Marko's powers. He had become the Juggernaut by touching the Crimson Jem of Cyttorak. Yet there was a master behind the power of the crystal, and this other worldly being known as Cyttorak was not pleased to see his unstoppable avatar choosing to be a hero. So Cain is drawn back to the Temple of Cyttorak in Vietnam. There it's revealed that there had been other people chosen to be the Juggernaut. In fact, Cain Marko was never intended to be the Juggernaut. It had been his step brother, Charles Xavier, who was suppose to take that power. A dark secret of Cain's is revealed to this team members - that, to gain the powers of Cyttorak, he had committed an atrocity and wiped out a Vietnamese village who had stopped worshipping Cyttorak. Cain was challenged for his powers by a prospective new Juggernaut, but was able to beat him and retain his abilities. The news of what Cain had done in the past shocked the team, and there where discussions of expelling him. I think it's through Wisdom's desire to keep as many allies as possible around that Juggernaut was allowed to stay.

All in all Frank Tieri's run on Excalibur wasn't bad, but it certainly could have been better. It seems obvious that he must have had to jump into writing the series on very short notice, which makes the continuity errors forgivable.

Chris Claremont was finally able to return to work, picking up the series at issue #16. Drawing on his own experiences of getting so suddenly sick, and suffering through the fear and pain of rehabilitation, Claremont took one of our heros through a similar journey. Nocturne suffered a stroke, and was frightened to find how much her life changed so quickly. She only suffered a mild stroke, but it still meant months of rehabilitation to relearn how to walk, talk, and write. She continually had problems with her memory, and even when she began to show more significant signs of recovery, the trauma was still with her, and half of her body remained weaker from the other half. My own mother last year suffered from a stroke as well. It luckily was likewise not a severe stroke - and she's more or less recovered. Yet half of her body is still weaker than the other. So I appreciate the effort Claremont put in to showing a more common situation taking place in a super hero book. Nocturne seemed an especially good character to choose this to happen to - as her ability of being able to leap into other people and possess them meant she could still be of use in a dangerous situation. Though she appropriately didn't jump back into being a super-hero until the end of the series.

With the book suffering from what I would imagine where weaker sales through the transition of writers, it seemed like Claremont wisely chose to focus on the biggest remaining plot-line - the threat of Albion. Albion's origin reveals that he comes from an Earth where World War 1 simply never ceased. The war kept raging on and on - until the Earth was nothing but a crumbling war zone. When Merlin and her daughter Roma appeared before Albion, offering to give him the powers of Captain Britain, he choose the Sword over the Amulet. Apparently this was the first instance of this ever happening. Roma immediately wanted to take the powers away, which angered Albion immensely. Here he was, being given incredible powers which might finally give some ray of hope in ending the war on his world, and Roma was going to take those powers away? Luckily for Albion Merlin opted to let him keep the powers, finding it interesting and surmising that powers derived from the Sword would be of benefit to such a ruined world. Albion did use his powers to try to save his world, thought that meant often getting his hands dirty. At one point he was challenged by other members of the Captain Corps who just happened to be lead into this dimension. When they found how cruel Albion could be, in slaying defeated enemies, they tried to put him down. They failed - and again Albion's anger was pointed towards Roma and all Captain Britains. Eventually Albion's path lead him to the regular Marvel Universe where he seduced and corrupted Lionheart, and had set his goal towards taking over and ruling the world.

Albion began gathering his forces. He specifically began recruiting mutants who had lost their powers, and offering them suits that would give them abilities comparable to his own. He also made an alliance with Shadow-X, who needed Albion's help to break out their captured Professor Xavier/Shadow King. There was of course a betrayal, but one which Albion was prepared for. Lionheart had been given a device which would lock the Shadow King into the host body he had chosen, and then killed the body with the hopes of killing the Shadow King and removing him from the playing field.

Sage had chosen to go under cover, posing as a de-powered mutant so she could be recruited into Albion's army in an effort to stop him. She was given a suit and dubbed Britannia. During the course of her under cover sting she found the magic of the suit she was wearing was beginning to subsume her real identity. This normally wouldn't be a problem for Sage, as her incredible mind would easily be able to keep everything together. Though, in an instance of showing disloyalty to Albion she was attacked by Lionheart - and the attack shattered her hold on her true identity. She essentially became Britannia. She was able to play off her mis-step and regain Albion's favor. This particular plot point was somewhat confusing for the readers, and in fact there reportedly was a mistake by the artist of not depicting Sage's "soul self" being shattered. So the transition Sage mentally underwent was not as clear as it could have been.

Albion's plot began - he would distract most of Excalibur by launching an attack on the Queen, who at the time was out of the country. Lionheart lead that attack, and when again confronting Captain Britain he managed to raise serious doubts in her about what Albion truly wanted for this world. She eventually turned against Albion and helped Excalibur in the coming fight. Likewise, the betrayed Shadow-X took a change of position and joined with Excalibur in the fight. Their motivation was a bit confusing; it was probably an attempt at self preservation since they had lost their leader the Shadow King. I'd like to think perhaps their true persona had begun to shine through more - as it was theorized that the Shadow King had possessed these alternate dimensional X-Men and had turned them evil in the first place. As the issues began counting down to the end of the series, one Dark X-Man after another died. Many of them died saving people - but I think their abrupt send offs was more due to the series coming to a close than what might have originally been planned for them.

Anyway, Albion's master stroke was his attacking a secret MI-13 armory, where he was able to retrieve a particular magical artifact and activate it. I don't know what this item he used was, and it was likewise never explained - but it's effect was clear enough. It stopped all electronic devices from working. Cars would stop, communication was halted, and worse of all planes kept dropping from the sky. The final battle against Albion took place over the skies of England, where Captain Britain faced off against his doppelganger. Meanwhile the rest of Excalibur worked to free Sage, who had gone completely off the map, even ripping off the head of the evil Cyclops. They eventually did free her, but even her own team mates didn't completely trust her after this.

Captain Britain eventually defeated Albion. His spell was broken and England was saved. In the aftermath Albion was locked up. The authorities almost wanted to lock Sage up as well. The most surprising ending was when Captain Britain and Pete Wisdom took Lionheart to her children, revealing her identity to them, and telling the children that she had been working undercover all this time. She was getting a pass on joining up with Albion since she had turned around and helped stop him. She would supposedly be working for MI-13, though. This ending for Kelsey, while sweet, truly made no sense. For one her pardon seemed to fly in the face of the government at the same time wanting to lock Sage up. There was also no explanation why it would be safe for her to reveal herself to her children after all this time, without the cursing causing her to die again. Honestly, I believe Marvel Comics just wanted the character out of the way. Her creation by Chuck Austin, during those Avengers issues, where truly reviled by fans. She was barely on the Avengers for 3 minutes before they disassembled - and it was only Chris Claremont who had used her at all since. No one has touched her character since either, which seems a shame. She wasn't a bad character - she just wasn't managed well.

The series ended at issue #24, but left several dangling plot-lines totally unanswered. Why did Shadow-X want to capture Nocturne? Why was Dazzler suddenly immortal, for instance? I thought her condition might have been dealt with in the follow-up mini-series "Die By The Sword" - but it never was, and never has been since. The most plausible theory that seemed in line with how she was written during this series is that her powers might have been changing to make her into a being of pure light. One scene even seemed to depict that, with her even being able to fly for a moment - but it didn't last.

The series got somewhat of a sendoff in the mini-series "X-Men: Die By the Sword", which brought together the Excalibur team with another title Claremont was writing, the Exiles. I've never read his Exiles issues, or any Exiles issues - but it seemed like an appropriate team-up, as the Exiles where a group of alternate dimensional characters who fought to protect the omni-verse.

The series opens up with a party being had - the team Excalibur had just saved England. A surprise visitor showed up - Psylocke, Brain's twin sister! She was alive, and was able to explain that she had joined up with the Exiles since last he had seen her. Nocturne, one of the original members of the Exiles, was extremely happy to see her former comrades again; especially Thunderbird. Dazzler is also pleased to see her husband Longshot is alive and with the Exiles; though it turns out he has amnesia and doesn't remember her. It's not long before the party is stopped by villains. Captain Britain is severely wounded, and to stop him from dying the Exiles teleport them to their home base - the Crystal Palace in the Omni-verse. While work is being done trying to save Brain, a new threat makes itself known to both teams.

A long while back, during issues of Uncanny X-Men, when the House of M was created and reality was changed - a cosmic accident revived an old Captain Britain foe. Sir Jim Jaspers, former Prime Minister of England, was revived. Not only revived - but merged with the being that had originally killed him - the Fury. Jaspers has the ability to change and distort reality, making him both insane and dangerous. He's approached by someone else who is also suppose to be dead, Merlin, supposedly also revived in the same manner as Jaspers was. Merlin use to be in charge of the Omni-verse, but had died with his daughter Roma in his stead. Merlin had always been very manipulative of everything, and he supposedly now wanted revenge - even against his own daughter. So under Merlin's guidance the Jaspers/Fury combination began an attack on Roma's palace. The Fury absorbed members of the Captain Corps, turning them into versions of the Fury, and set to work decimating the rest of the Corps. Excalibur and the Exiles join in the battle, but it quickly becomes apparent that they need help. Desperate, it's suggested that they recruit Albion. Albion was in prison, and the only way Wisdom would allow this is if Albion promised he'd return to his cell afterwords. Supposedly, even thought he had made himself an enemy of Earth - everyone could see why Albion became the way he was. He wasn't without honor - he simply didn't have faith in anything, living in the War Ravaged world he came from, and being betrayed by Roma. He agrees to this and comes to help in the battle. Captain Britain recovers and also joins the fray, fighting alongside his former foe. Meanwhile Roma is attacked by enemies herself. While Dazzler and Longshot fight to keep her alive, Roma is fatally stabbed. Before dying Roma takes ahold of Sage's head and downloads all of her vast knowledge into her mind. This drives Sage mad, as she's barely able to contain the knowledge and fearful of it falling into anyone's hands.

Exiles member Blink seemingly finds a way to defeat their joe - by using all of her teleporting abilities to destroy every atom of the Fury that exists. This is ultimately a quickly solution, as the Fury alone is not so easily defeated - and the combination of Fury and Jaspers should have required a lot more effort. Yet there where only 5 issues to this mini-series, and I believe things had to be wrapped up rather quickly. A piece of the Fury did survive and hitched a ride with an escaping Merlin, though. I believe such plot-lines would later be dealt with in future issues of Exiles - but don't know if Claremont was able to get to them all, as the Exiles where canceled very soon after a failed reboot of the series. Characters Sage, Dazzler, and Nocturne join up with the Exiles at the end. Albion keeps his promise and agrees to go back to prison, even though he is offered to head up a new Captain Britain Corps, after the destruction of the so many members, and the death of Roma. All in all it wasn't a perfect end, but it did leave me more satisfied than with the clunkier executed Albion storyline which ended the series. The only real confusing thing was the inclusion of ghost-like people watching over the Exiles in the Crystal Palace. There was no explanation of who they where, and I ultimately figured it was a plot-line from the Exiles series. Turns out these people where Dave Cockrum and his wife. While it's very nice Claremont chose to honor his friend and former collaborator, it seemed like such a poor choice of venue, and with little to no explanation as to the reasoning for this odd intrusion. The entire series, really, just feels like a mixed bag, with some great ideas and good characterization - but the unavoidable hick-ups of the series, and later many weaker fill-in artists, made it simply impossible for the book to recover. It was still a good series, though, and I wouldn't mind seeing these characters revisited again in the future.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed New Excalibur too, it wasn't as zany as the original series but it did use some old elements. Great rundown of the series, and if you can I highly recommend reading Exiles, it's another fun series but one that has it's darker moments.