My Misspent Youth — Excalibur by Chris Claremont and Alan Davis

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Round about the late late nineteen-eighties, there were a few things that could automatically get me — and most of my fellow travelers among the spinner racks — inordinately excited. There was the promise of a new #1 issue, back before that magic number was redeployed by the publishers at the first moment sales on a title started to flag. Then there was the expansion of the sisterhood of titles detailing the adventures of Marvel’s merry mutants, again in a time when it felt like there was at least some modicum of restraint in such matters. Finally, few things conferred you-need-to-add-this-to-your-collection importance to a release than printing it in what was referred to as the Prestige Format, distinguished by thick, glossy paper stock and square-bound binding that essentially transformed the comic from a cheaply disposable periodical to a slender trade paperback. The one-shot Excalibur was that rare treasure that hit the trifecta.

Written by stalwart X-Men maestro Chris Claremont and penciled by Alan Davis, a highly regarded British artist doing his first major work with Marvel Comics, the one-shot was the proving ground for a new team book. To make it that much more difficult for devoted X-Men readers to avoid it, at the center of the story resided Kitty Pryde, the spunky teen with phasing abilities who’d made her debut during the landmark run Claremont had with artist John Byrne several years earlier. A fan favorite, Kitty was at a personal low point, her powers out of control and believing that most of her X-Men teammates were lost forever.

The one longtime member of the X-Men roster who was still around was Kurt Wagner, also known as Nightcrawler. After discovering they’ve both been having the same strange dream about their missing teammates, the two team up to start investigating. It doesn’t take long before circumstances get stranger.

Claremont was undoubtedly the most prized writer in the Marvel bullpen at the time, given the latitude to do just about whatever he wanted as long as he kept turning in his scripts of mutant mayhem on time. Especially away from the main X-Men title, he occasionally allowed himself to get a little loopy. In this era, he seemed especially inclined toward bending his storytelling in the direction of whichever artist he was working with, especially if that artist was incredibly distinctive. Over in The New Mutants, Claremont started crafting reality-ruffling head-trips when Bill Sienkiewicz joined the masthead. For Davis, Claremont looked at his talent for the bright and the bold, with just a hint of the cartoonish, and adjusted accordingly.

The plot of Excalibur is actually a little messy. It never really stuck with me. It involved a bunch of alien bounty hunters calling themselves Technet and phony movie sets in London and lots of bombastic boom boom. In their heroic efforts, Kitty and Nightcrawler were soon joined by Captain Britain, a childlike woman with changeling powers called Meggan, and Rachel Summers, going by the moniker Phoenix, each of them with densely complicated backstories and a penchant for soap-operatic keening. It’s a lot, but then it was supposed to be. That was Claremont’s sweet spot: big, sprawling sagas that didn’t always operating with cogent logic but absolutely made an impression. They felt big and important, or at least important within the confines of the willful silliness of superhero tales.

By the end of the Excalibur one-shot, this ragtag crew of amazingly powered beings have decided to band together. There are always evildoers afoot in the mighty Marvel Universe after all, so it was easy for them to determine they had a collective job to do. The comic fulfilled its mission: It felt like the beginning of something vital, something worth getting in on from the very beginning. Befitting the format of its publication, it felt prestigious.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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