Friday, December 14, 2012

The Quintessentialist

Longtime comic readers never forget the exact issues responsible for their obsession. They come to treasure and mythologize the circumstances in which they realized, "Comics are something weird, wonderful, and so different from other entertainment that I can't do without them." My circumstance was a drive to New Hampshire, for a weekend at the summer house of people I barely knew. While visiting a hobby shop, I followed the lead of two other kids I was with and picked out reading material for later.

In 1991, the comic racks bristled with variant covers to Jim Lee's first issue of X-Men. Not quite sure what I looked at (beyond Magneto and Wolverine's awesomeness), I grabbed two different copies of the same thing. Now, with no designs as a collector, this was a devastating rookie mistake. But I also happened to gravitate (for some arcane reason) toward the mild-mannered heroes posing on Excalibur 48.

I honestly can't remember even flipping through it before buying. Written and drawn by Alan Davis, this comic cost $1.75, which was twenty-five cents more than the already double-sized X-Men. If I had peeked inside, I'd have seen boundless energy and inventiveness on every page. I'd have seen impeccably clean art, with balanced anatomy and nothing overtly gory. To a ten-year-old at the time, these elements might have converged and registered as cool. But next to the rest of Marvel's gun-toting, stab-happy stable of characters, the chances of that were slim.
For those not in the know, Excalibur is a superhero team based in the United Kingdom, spun-off from the X-Men and imbued (forcefully, by original writer Chris Claremont) with British whimsy. Visually, this is a good thing, because the adventures of Captain Britain (the flying muscleman), Nightcrawler (the teleporting acrobat), Kitty Pryde (the intangible computer whiz), Phoenix (the host of an all-powerful cosmic being) and Meggan (the ingenue shape-shifter) are never dull. Tonally, however- let's say that scripting superheroes with the frantic panache of Noises Off is in nobody's best interest.

Then there's Alan Davis, who drew Captain Britain in the 80s. Not only is he one of the most breathtaking choreographers in the business (George Perez, of course, ranks first), but he's also an incredibly savvy writer. His Excalibur run discussed here (42-50) doesn't have art cramped with superfluous narration boxes, which are usually X-Tensions of a writer's ego (and signs that he doesn't trust the artist to tell the story). Instead, we get dialogue that prefigures the best work done today- controlled bursts of genuine character and cleverness that never undercut what we primarily paid to see- superhero action.

The first few issues of this run must reintroduce Excalibur's opposite number, the Technet. Described as loosely as possible, they're a band of inter-dimensional mercenaries. But such a phrase does nothing to prepare you for how startlingly weird they are. China Doll looks like a serpentine water sprite, with the ability to suspend and shrink any opponent. Body Bag is this bulbous insectoid creature that sprays preservatives before swallowing you whole. Ringtoss, Thug, Scatterbrain and Waxworks are equally surreal, which is probably what drew me in, back before I knew Muir Island from Madripoor.

I love narrative disorientation. I revel in the detective work of following a story from the halfway point, of needing to scan every detail interminably until all of the info's in hand. And this is required often in comics (to the dismay of their creators), especially those from the continuity-dense 90s. Eventually, I found the rest of the Excalibur issues written and drawn by Davis during this era, and I've come to adore them more with each read. Years later, I think of them as my touchstone to the comics' world.

Despite issue 42 being the start of this run, Davis drops us deep into a river delta of the bizarre. The Technet tries to destroy Excalibur by sabotaging one of their eggs. One of their breakfast eggs that is, with a chick who's primed to detonate. "Twied tew cook my goose," he chirps, as the clock on his forehead ticks down, "Pwepaih tew meet yaw doom!" Though some may cringe, Davis' comedic timing rivals any Loony Tunes short. Later, when Hard-Boiled Henry's attack fails, the Technet show up at our heroes' tower for a brawl that's as entertaining as it is impeccably drawn.

And that is likely Davis' overarching charm. Many artists draw infinitely expressive characters that are instantly recognizable as theirs. His, however, possess such friendliness that they can't help but invite you into the pages for a lengthy stay. Additionally, Captain Britain and Nightcrawler both flex a rugged nobility, while Kitty and Meggan resonate cheerful, elfin energy (like Kate Bush songs made flesh). Phoenix (the melancholy Rachel Summers) is regal, mature beyond her years, and undoubtedly the title's prime mover.

Her cosmic power, a devastating force if untamed, is coveted by lunatics of every stripe. The being Necrom, as we'll see in my next post, has set a great many conflicts in motion to harness it. The question, naturally, isn't whether Excalibur can protect her- it's how much swashbuckling delight we'll get out of watching. As a young photojournalist once said, "The journey is the destination."

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