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Friday, December 14, 2018

X-amining Excalibur #83

"Bend Sinister"
November 1994

In a Nutshell
Warren Ellis' run begins as forces converge on the Soulsword.

Writer; Warren Ellis
Artists: Terry Dodson & W.C. Carani
Letterer: Jon Babcock
Colorist: Joe Rosas
Editor: Suzanne Gaffney
Group Editor: Bob Harras
Chief Editor: Tom DeFalco

Bishop arrives on Muir Island with a shipment of research equipment, and new clothes for Kitty, courtesy of Jubilee. On vacation in Egypt, Amanda Sefton encounters her mother Margali, who warns her that Gravemoss, a sorcerer ahead of Margali on the Winding Way, is plotting to retrieve the Soulsword and use it to cement his power. Back on Muir Island, Meggan suddenly goes into convulsions while sprouting spikes all over her body. As Moira anesthetizes her, she asks Kitty for help, but Kitty ignores her. Instead, she disdainfully goes through the clothes Jubilee sent. In London, a sorceress who feels crippling pain whenever the Soulsword is drawn vows to kill the possessor of the weapon. On Muir, Kitty searches through Moira's room. When Moira discovers her, Kitty knocks her over, then draws the Soulsword from her chest & declares she'll have to kill Moira. Nightcrawler, responding to the crash of Moira's fall, attempts to teleport to her room, but in the split second he travels through an alternate dimension while teleporting, Gravemoss takes control of his body.

Firsts and Other Notables
Warren Ellis becomes the series' regular writer with this issue, a role he'll maintain through issue #103. Part of the "British Invasion" of comic writers in the early 90s, Ellis got his start at Marvel on the short-lived Hellstorm series, along with some work on the 2099 imprint, before coming to this book. Nowadays, he's one of comics most famous (and polarizing) writers, having helped usher in the era of "widescreen comics" with The Authority and seen a number of his works adapted to other mediums.

Excalibur, on the whole, is a series defined by three distinct artistic runs, with all the various fill-ins and shorter runs by other creators working in the shadows of/killing time between one of the Big Three: the original Claremont/Davis run is one, and Alan Davis second, solo, run is another. Warren Ellis' run is the third.

He kicks off his run with the "Soulsword Trilogy", a three part story exploring the status of Illyana's Soulsword in the wake of her recent death while picking up on the "Winding Way" concept introduced by Scott Lobdell in issues #76-77 to play up the more mystical elements of the series (something which will be a hallmark of his run). To that end, he introduces a pair of new characters in this issue. The first is Gravemoss, a necromancer just ahead of Margali on the Winding Way, capable of possessing people.

The other (unnamed in this issue) is Shrill, a sorceress who has had one eye replaced with the same metal from which the Soulsword is derived, and who experiences massive pain whenever the sword is drawn on Earth. Neither character has, to date, appeared outside this story.

This story on the whole plays pretty fast and loose with the continuity of the Soulsword and its relationship to Illyana, but most of that comes out in the subsequent chapters. Here, it's worth noting that Shrill is in possession of a couple pieces of metal (her eye, a brooch) said to be made of the same material as the Soulsword, which doesn't really make sense, since the Soulsword was supposed to be crafted from Illyana's soul (it's more or less "the focused totality" of Illyana's magical powers).

Creator Central
With Ken Lashley, the theoretical regular artist of the series apparently in need of a break after drawing half of the previous issue, future Generation X and Uncanny X-Men (and overall superstar) artist Terry Dodson fills in on this issue, in what is, I believe, his first work for Marvel.

The cover and front piece are from Bill Sienkiewicz. There's an additional note stating the story was based on an idea from Scott Lobdell.

A Work in Progress
Ellis introduces the concept of Kitty having “outsider moods”, semi-regular periods of time in which she revels in being alone, something I don’t think ever gets referenced outside this story.

Seeing as how Kitty’s age will become something of a hot button issue during Ellis’ run, it’s worth that narration here says she was fourteen when she first met the X-Men (though she was in fact 13).

He also proceeds to immediately sex her up (another oft discussed Ellis-ism).

It’s said that part of the Winding Way involves periods of extreme power being followed by one’s of low power for the magic user.

Austin's Analysis
Warren Ellis *finally* arrives, and his impact is felt immediately. There's a consistency & level of craft to this issue that had been lacking in previous ones (which often felt cobbled together by a committee), character voices are distinct, and even in his first issue, there's a sense of the cheeky style that will define his run. This is far from perfect - Kitty's transformation is a bit too abrupt, some of the Soulsword continuity is a bit loosey-goosey, and the ending - in which Gravemoss makes his first appearance by possessing Nightcrawler - feels less like a cliffhanger than an arbitrary (and abrupt) stopping point because the issue ran out of pages. But it's difficult to oversell just what a difference, in just one issue, having a competent writer with a vision for the series & a decent grasp of the character makes. Clearing the low bar set by the majority of the previous post-Alan Davis issues isn't that much an accomplishment, and Ellis' run will have it's up and downs, but through it all, the series will be his in the same way it was Davis' & Claremont's before him, and it will be all the better for it.

Next Issue
Next week: Generation X #1!

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  1. Hints of of Ellis' later 'widescreen' style can be seen here, particularly the sequence when Kitty phases through the Muir complex along with her mirror sequence you featured in this review.

    To my teen self, the issues read like movie storyboards rather then the usual comic panels. Which was thrilling after being so over the Image style at that point.

    I have to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed how catty Kitty was in this arc. It came closest to Claremont's late era voice for her.

    True, the Soulsteel eye and brooch was a major inconsistency, but it was *SO* interesting I was willing to forgive it.

    You're so right about there being three major creative areas for this title. When I did a major purge of comics years ago, when it came to Excalibur, the three runs you mentioned were the only ones I kept.


  2. I’ve heard some about, but never read, Ellis’s run. No question that this is easily the most interesting issue in years.

    Creators love to help define characters and/or just drop in gags via their bookshelves. Kitty’s include Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Steinbeck, and “Warren Peace”. Argue with those choices if you like; I’m way more curious about why her room has so many danged mirrors.

    Just a coincidence that we’re getting a Sienkiewicz cover and frontispieces here at the same time as in the Return of the Jedi mini, but I shan’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

  3. I mentioned in a comment that for a time, you could still find comics in Waldenbooks in the 90s even as they faded away at other newstand locations. Excalibur #83 was one of those. The cover caught my eye, so I picked it up, skimmed through it, and very quickly realized that the book finally had a writer on it. Strangely I bought quite a few of the early issues of the Ellis runs in non-comics store locations; I recall buying most of the upcoming Dream Nails trilogy at Wal Mart.

    Reading early Ellis now is always interesting because you now know that he's working his way towards the Authority, and picking up on the things he's doing that eventually became that book is always fun. Excalibur turns into a prototype of the work he did on Stormwatch by the end, and a lot of Ellis tropes are established by the end. Thank god we've finally gotten this far.

  4. Ahh, EXCALIBUR -- the only Warren Ellis work that I actually like! (Of what I've read, anyway, which is admittedly not a ton by any means at all.) I think part of the reason I enjoy this run is that Ellis hasn't yet transitioned into "Widescreen Warren". (I'm copyrighting that, so nobody steal it!) As noted above, there are hints of that style to be seen, but this still reads mostly like a typical X-book of the era, right down to the third person narration.

    Plus, whether by his own choice or via editorial mandate, Ellis generally keeps things, err... normal, I guess. There's some "out there" stuff in this run, but the characters mostly all remain themselves, there's little deconstruction, no excessive violence, etc. Heck, he even fixes Captain Britain late in the run!

    And speaking of late, I didn't join Ellis's EXCALIBUR right away. I did read X-CALIBRE during "Age of Apocalypse" for whatever reason, even though I wasn't a regular reader of the main continuity series -- but I didn't keep going with it when AoA ended. I considered picking it up when Colossus joined, but he alone wasn't enough to get me on board -- it took Carlos Pacheco and the Hellfire Club to finally prompt me to try out the series. I went back just now to see what my first issue was, and I was astounded to see it was #96 -- the start of Ellis's final major story arc, and only eight issues before his departure! It's even more impressive, I think, that I remember the run so well, and consider it definitive, if I read so few issues at the time. It was at least ten years later that I finally went back and read all of it.

    Also, on the artistic front -- Terry Dodson is one of those artists whose work I actually liked better earlier in his career. He's a consistenly good artist, don't get me wrong -- but I look at his work nowadays and while the figures are great and everything flows just fine, it all looks very static and motionless somehow. I hate to say it, but I think the inking has something to do with that. Early on, Dodson was inked by a number of different folks at Marvel, and they all tended to use really heavy blacks which made his work look bold and exciting. But for the past decade-plus, he's been pretty much exclusively inked by his wife, Rachel, and her lines are really thin -- almost scratchy. I assume that's the look Dodson wants, but it just doesn't do much for me.

    (I actually read a European comic, MUSE, printed directly from Dodson's pencils, some years back -- and that looked way better to me than the stuff inked by Rachel.)

    Anyway, looking forward to the next two years of EXCALIBUR (and X-CALIBRE)!

  5. I've never liked Dodson's art. I didn't realize he did these issues but I remember how off putting they were to me at that time, going from an Image type style to this was jarring and even to this day, I don't like his work. It's not like other artists like Mike Mignola where I didn't like it then but love it now, it's still a No. I was really a big continuity buff and still am and what he did with the Soul Sword made no sense with what was already established, this all just drives me nuts. It's the free agent writer coming in and wanting to tell a good story over keeping with what's established and not caring about what came before if it makes a good story. Drives me CRAZY.


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