Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Quintessentialist II

Veteran comic creator Alan Davis, responsible for some of Marvel and DC's most endearing stories, does his best work when fully off the leash. And "the leash" refers of course to continuity, that pesky web of logic that binds a shared fictional universe (and can make or break a reading experience). Davis is a typhoon of ideas unto himself, and has written and drawn Superboy's Legion, Justice League: The Nail, and Fantastic Four: The End, mini-series that all take place outside the normal run of their characters' history.

This makes the tightly-knit brilliance of his Excalibur run, which salvaged four-years worth of scattered plot-threads, all the more savory. Last post, I mentioned the villain Necrom, an ancient sorcerer (and walking prune) who wants the cosmic Phoenix entity to serve his lust for power. The Phoenix, unfortunately, is hosted by Rachel Summers, and that's where Excalibur takes issue.

Now, other writers who needn't be mentioned had written this comic with a gruesome abundance of "wacky." Puerile at best, fifty shades of asinine at worst, Excalibur strained the patience of the most loyal X-Men fans. Here, Davis tweaks the book's tone- and the team's mechanics- to suit more mature audiences. First, he finds a flexible way to ratchet down Rachel's nigh-invincible Phoenix abilities.

Quite cleverly, it begins with the shape-shifter Meggan wanting to know what she actually looks like. Having involuntarily empathic powers has always caused her to become what those around her think she should look like (which, by the way, is a pointy-eared blonde bombshell). A trip with Rachel to Germany's Black Forest brings them into contact with a Neuri (think of Neil Young, in sasquatch form), and he strips away the top layer of reality to show them the Alshra. "A kaleidoscope of pulsating color," Davis narrates, "as the world's familiar spectrum of dull light gives birth to unseen horizons of shimmering life force."

During this scene, "Rachel sees the Phoenix force threaded through every cell of her mutant body." She realizes for the first time that active use of the force has kept her memories from healing properly- and that's a whole other post, in which she's stranded in our present after escaping a horrible future where she hunted other mutants for her human overlords. Anyway, she decides to put the Phoenix to sleep, and this powering-down lets a more organic (and more genuinely dramatic) story build up.

About halfway through his X opus (in issue 47), Davis allows waves of painstakingly-rendered insanity to crest. The Technet, a band of inter-dimensional mercenaries who'd been staying at Excalibur's lighthouse, are whisked off stage by yet another band of consummate weirdos (most of them last seen in Captain Britain). Their crackling arrival prompts Nightcrawler to say, "This is getting silly." Thug (who's basically a frog) then tells him that they're leaving for an alternate Earth because there's a 98% chance that [ours] will cease to exist in the next seventy-eight hours.

And, like cherries on top, there's Kylun and Cerise. Each of them arrive tempestuously out of thin air, separately and for different reasons. This is a testament both to Excalibur's lighthouse acting as an inter-dimensional G-Spot, and Davis' obsession with genre-bending controlled chaos. Removing her insectoid battle helmet, Cerise asks Nightcrawler, "Which is the dominant species of this world?" Humans, he answers. "Which of you conforms to this specification?" she asks. "Of all the varied life forms in this room," says Nightcrawler, "you look the most human."

Davis excels in crafting sprawling cosmic tales that harken back to their 1970s heyday. While the wizard Merlyn and his daughter Roma argue the finer points of an energy matrix, I can hear legendary Avengers scribe Roy Thomas (who always spun dense super-logic into narrative gold) banging away at his typewriter.

The multiversal stakes rise higher as we discover that an infinite number of Earths might be destroyed if Necrom wins, and that the members of Excalibur have been manipulated since their first adventure by Merlyn himself. It turns out that Necrom is his adversary of old, and Captain Britain and company have always been meant to thwart him. Rachel, however, must force a battle with the evil sorcerer by activating the Phoenix force. Their showdown, once it happens, literally breaks free of the comic's thin white borders. Davis' panels tilt and stretch to flaunt the operatic destruction of an entire solar system. With inker Mark Farmer's (and colorist Joe Rosas') pristine help, the crumbling of worlds has never looked so inspiring.

Davis' style today, over twenty years later, is nearly all slants and jagged panels. Back then, it served the story like any truly thrilling innovation should. The main draw to this run, however, is the sense of intense wonder stitched deeper than in any other comic of the time. Better not to trample the idea of "blog post" by going on at length about Widget's evolution, the lighthouse mirages and Rachel's meeting with Anti-Phoenix. We'd all miss lunch marveling at just how many floors comprise this towering eight issue story.

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