X-Men: Excalibur

X-Men: Excalibur

(pop culture)

Aforerunner to the current manifestation of internationally linked groups of X-Men, the hero team Excalibur stemmed, in no small part, from the work of writer and artist Alan Davis on the U.K. comic book Captain Britain. Continuing from the work of Alan Moore, Davis applied a distinctly British sensibility to the trappings of American superhero comics for an engaging strip starring a character originally conceived as little more than a composite of nationalistic clichés.

Davis dispensed with Captain Britain’s pseudo-mystical origin. Instead, he established that the Captain’s alter ego Brian Braddock’s abilities were a genetic inheritance from his father, a refugee from an other-dimensional world, unimaginatively referred to as “Otherworld.” Braddock’s lover, Meggan, was initially shrouded in mystery, and never given a surname. She often modified her appearance, and was eventually revealed as a shapeshifter, who instinctively assumed forms offering her protection, whether this be from the elements or from her emotions. Although critically acclaimed, lack of finance ended the Captain Britain strip in the United Kingdom, but it had an old friend across the Atlantic in its co-creator, writer Chris Claremont, who had featured Captain Britain in American X-Men strips. Significantly, he also used Braddock’s twin sister Betsy in X-Men titles, as the powerful psychic Psylocke.

Excalibur was formed when, believing their X-Men teammates to have been slain, then underused X-Men Nightcrawler, Phoenix, and Shadowcat decided to start afresh by decamping to the United Kingdom, where they became embroiled with Captain Britain and Meggan. The German Nightcrawler had been an early mainstay of the revived 1970s X-Men. His generally jocular personality belies his demonic appearance, complete with forked feet and long tail, essential for the highly developed athletic maneuvers his slight form is capable of. The distinctive sulphurous smell that accompanies his teleporting accentuates his demonic ties, although editors, ironically, established that Kurt Wagner is a staunch Catholic who has considered taking vows of priesthood. A further ability to become invisible in shadow has been largely sidelined, and it took more than twenty years to establish that Night-crawler’s mother is the similarly blue-skinned shapeshifter, the villainous Mystique.

The Phoenix of this team was not the original X-Men’s Jean Grey, but rather Rachel Summers, who arrived from the future in one of the time paradoxes common to X-Men continuity. She was the daughter of X-Men Grey and Scott Summers, from a bleak mid-twenty-first century where mutants were hunted, and either murdered or confined in concentration camps. Inheriting her mother’s mental abilities hadn’t prevented Rachel’s capture by a mutant-hunter named Ahab, who tattooed her face, permanently identifying her as one of his mutant-hunting “hounds.” It wasn’t until she escaped to the 1980s that she discovered she could tap into the limitless abilities of the Phoenix Force, which she was able to use to obscure her facial tattoos.

When introduced, Kitty Pryde was the youngest member of the X-Men, only of college age in present-day Marvel Comics continuity, almost twenty-five years after her introduction as a thirteen-year-old who could walk through walls. Characterization appropriate to her age was adroitly handled by Claremont (despite bruising encounters with the vicious aliens the Brood) and she regularly changed her code name, switching from Ariel to Sprite, before settling on Shadow-cat. Precociously intelligent, she has a technological affinity, and honed her original abilities by learning how to partially solidify within machinery to disrupt it, and walking on air. Her acquisition of a miniature alien dragon she named Lockheed further established a unique identity.

The team name evoked Captain Britain’s discarded Arthurian origin, but also evoked connections with X-Men titles. Excalibur based themselves at an offshore lighthouse, and the eccentricity of their headquarters was mirrored in the foes they faced. The Crazy Gang were lunatic and dangerous versions of Lewis Carroll’s playing card characters from Alice in Wonderland, while Arcade constructed elaborate death-traps based on pinball machines and other arcade games. Holy echoes of the 1960s camp Batman television show! More threatening was Saturnyne, an other-dimensional conqueror, with a close resemblance to Brian Braddock’s previous girlfriend Courtney Ross, whom she masqueraded as. Most dangerous of all was Jamie Braddock, brother to Brian and Betsy. His ability to warp reality drove him mad, but he was no less formidable for that.

A notable early adventure was sparked by a fragment of sentient alien technology christened Widget by Pryde. It activated interdimensional and trans-temporal gateways that sent Excalibur on a prolonged tour of space, time, and other dimensions. Humor was a significant aspect of the comic, and significantly weaker after Davis departed in 1989, indicating his plotting input. A pastiche of Ronald Searle’s riotous public schoolgirls, from his St. Trinians cartoons, was a brief attempt at restoring the humor that only fully returned with Davis’ appointment as sole writer and artist in 1991.

The prolific Davis introduced several new characters. Kylun the Barbarian was a British schoolboy transported through Widget to a barbarous world where he grew into an accomplished fighter, although his mutant power to reproduce any sound precisely is hardly an essential combat trait. Cerise was, in effect, an alien recruitment agent for the Shi’ar Empire. Her escape from an overzealous commander brought her to Earth, where an ability to generate malleable energy fields came in useful. Feron was a teenage mystic, raised from birth to host the Phoenix Force, and when it passed him by his arrogance became a source of friction within the team. Even Widget finally achieved the fully functional artificial life form he’d been building toward since arriving on Earth, as a sentient robotic time-portal.

Davis also incorporated characters from his Captain Britain days. Inept alien mercenaries, Technet, turned up for a period as Excalibur’s tenants, resulting in slapstick disaster, and police inspector Dai Thomas was a hostile official presence. A recurring plot device, also inherited from Captain Britain, was the existence of thousands of extradimensional Earths, each with a counterpart of Captain Britain. On one alternate world the Nazis had won World War II, resulting in a Hauptmann Englande. Other simulacrums included a pith-helmeted Victorian, a hippy, and a reptile! Particularly prone to interfering in the affairs of Captain Britain was Roma, the imperial guardian of Otherworld. While benign, she isn’t above indulging in manipulation to produce results her innate sorcery can’t affect directly.

Post-Davis, Excalibur comics entered a protracted five-year decline to cancellation. Davis’ creations were largely ignored or completely forgotten, and the characters introduced to replace them were largely cast-offs from other books. Writers transferred the Russian Colossus from the X-Men (long revealed as not dead after all), adding raw power to the team in his organic metal form. Piotr Rasputin was a gentle giant, the object of a teenage crush for Pryde, and an artist as well as a fighter. He would later sacrifice his life to spread the cure for the Legacy Virus. This virus affected only mutants, lying dormant before activating with fatal consequences, and one victim had been Piotr’s sister Ilyana. Former secret service agent Pete Wisdom was a far more cynical and manipulative type than Scottish agent Alistaire Stuart, who’d previously accompanied the team. The chain-smoking Wisdom could fire off “knives” of burning energy from his fingers, and had a sordidly unhealthy passion for the extremely young Pryde, who welcomed his advances. Also incoming, from New Mutants, was British native Rahne Sinclair, alias Wolfsbane.

Making way for the new characters was Phoenix, who was shuffled off into the timestream, where she landed in another alternative future and helped to raise X-Force leader Nathan Summers. Here she called herself Mother Askani, and eventually died at a ripe old age. Death, however, has rarely proved a hindrance to Marvel superheroes, and time paradoxes have enabled her to make subsequent appearance in various incarnations.

Excalibur’s last writer was Ben Raab, who was considerate enough to end the comic, in 1998, by revealing the whereabouts of all cast members forgotten by interim scripters, and to give the audience what they wanted by featuring the wedding of Meggan to Brian Braddock in the final issue. —FP

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