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Thursday, February 18, 2021

X-amining Excalibur #99

"Fire with Fire"
July 1996

In a Nutshell
Excalibur gets closer to the truth about Black Air & the Hellfire Club, as the Red Queen makes her move. 

Writer: Warren Ellis
Penciler: Casey Jones
Inker: Tom Simmons
Letterer: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Colorist: Ariane Lenshoek
Editor: Suzanne Gaffney
Editor-in-Chief: Bob Harras

Combing through the files stolen from Black Air, Excalibur realizes the intelligence organization is deeply connected to the Hellfire Club, with the Hellfire Club directly bribing the British government on their behalf. Wisdom reaches out to a safe contact within the intelligence community, sending him all the files and telling him to spread them around to anyone with an interest in taking down Black Air before getting the hell out of London. Just then, Brian Braddock contacts Excalibur, the Hellfire Club's show-of-force via the mystical column of fire convincing him the team needs to make their move on the club soon. Meanwhile, the Hellfire Club holds an emergency meeting, the black side angry that the red side is progressing their plans on their own. They proceed to Black Air headquarters, where the Red King reveals their new link to the mystical power source under London: Douglock. The next morning, Excalibur heads to London, while Brian prepares to don his Captain Britain uniform once more and the Black Queen is visited by Onslaught. At Black Air headquarters, the Red Queen, having seduced the Red King, reveals herself to be Margali Szardos, then uses Douglock to access the power under London. The source of the power turns out to be a demon, who overpowers Margali and takes over her body. Free at last, the demon unleashes its power, sending the people of London into a frenzy as the city begins to burn...

Firsts and Other Notables
This issue reveals that the Red Queen of the (London) Hellfire Club is Amanda Sefton's mother (and Nightcrawler's adoptive mother) Margali Szardos, last seen in issue #85 claiming the Soulsword for herself. It's also revealed that she used the Soulsword to kill everyone ahead of her on the Winding Way (the hierarchy of magic users) to become even more powerful, and that the whole Black Air/Hellfire Club plot is being orchestrated by her as a means to tap into the mystical power trapped by Black Air beneath the city (Amanda herself, who has been absent since issue #95, will return next issue, for what it's worth).   

To that end, this issue also reveals that the captive Douglock is being used as, essentially, a conduit for mystical energy, funneling the trapped demon's power (and, eventually, its consciousness) into Margali. 

Onslaught briefly appears before the Black Queen, but (say it with me) nothing much comes of this tease, as next issue's "Onslaught" tie-in has nothing to do with the Black Queen. 

Creator Central
Casey Jones is back on pencil duties; with Carlos Pacheco off drawing a pair of Fantastic Four "Onslaught" tie-in issues, Jones will stick around (with some help) for next issue's double-sized anniversary issue, and the next few subsequent issues as well. 

A Work in Progress
Wisdom explains that while he and Scratch both killed while in service to Black Air, Wisdom only killed people in the service, while Scratch killed anything he could.

Going through the files they stole last issue, Meggan discovers that the Hellfire Club (which began in the 8th Century) is passing bribes through Black Air to the British government, something Alistair Stuart had said was happening, which Nightcrawler considers a smoking gun.

It's said that King James is responsible for much of the collection of mystic arcana in the Hellfire Club's possession. 

The Grim 'n' Gritty 90s
Wisdom intends to send computer files to his allies in the intelligence community via a dial-up modem.

Artistic Achievements
I have no idea what pose the Black King is meant to be striking in this panel. 

(NOT) To the Extreme!!!
Nightcrawler is concerned with finding a way to infiltrate Black Air without team coming across as terrorists, saying that Excalibur isn’t like X-Force or the Mutant Liberation Front.

Austin's Analysis
As the series hurtles towards the conclusion of the Black Air/Hellfire Club story next issue, this is perhaps the most Warren Ellis-ian issue of the series yet. It features a number of the tropes for which the writer will be known: shady black ops agencies with their hooks in the government, secret cabals of powerful individuals pulling the strings from the background, weird and somewhat random mysticism/arcana thrown in, fusions of technology & magic (and, of course, too-cool-for-school snarky author insert characters). These elements have been present to varying degrees in Excalibur for most of Ellis' run, but this is the issue that really stiches them all together and makes it clear they all factor into this particular story. As such, it is, paradoxically, both the culmination of Ellis' entire run -  especially with the reveal that Margali Szardos, following on from his first story on the book, "The Soulsword Trilogy", is the true villain here - and the point at which this really starts to feel like Warren Ellis' Excalibur, despite the fact that Warren Ellis' Excalibur will soon be ending (he remains on the series past issue #100, but not very far past it). Ellis' run on this book has always seemed like a short one, despite the fact that he's on the series for twenty issues (plus X-Calibre), and part of that is probably due to the fact that all the pieces we think of when we think of a "Warren Ellis story" don't really all come together for the first time until this issue, much closer to the end of his run than the beginning of it. 

Next Issue
Tomorrow, Cable #33. Next week, Onslaught: X-Men

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  1. To the point of your review, perhaps Ellis had finally gotten comfortable enough on the series to feel like he could really go all-out with the stuff he likes. Or maybe he was just saving all his favorite tropes for the big anniversary issue.

    I have to say, most of the Ellis issues have felt very light and/or decompressed, and they've typically been very quick reads. This is the first time where I've felt like I got my money's worth (i.e., this issue feels more on par with a typical contemporaneous issue of UNCANNY or X-MEN or most any other Marvel in terms of the amount of story content and the number of words on each page).

    You may have a quote or something lined up for issue 103, but I'm curious whether Ellis has ever discussed why he left the series. Did he just have nothing more to say? He seemed to remain on good terms with Marvel, so I assume there was no falling-out.

    "I have no idea what pose the Black King is meant to be striking in this panel."

    I imagine Jones is just trying to go with some over-the-top dramatics, a la Neal Adams, but it comes off looking like he's doing goofy Tenacious D Jack Black stuff with his hands. Still, I wish Jones had put this much effort into the reveal of Captain Britain in the next issue. I'll grouse a bit about it when you post that review, but suffice to say that after an absence of more than 30 issues (not counting the flash-forward in #94), when Brian finally dons (a variation of) his classic costume again, we get a big splash panel... of him just sort of standing there awkwardly, unsure what to do with his hands.


  2. “Necromanteion” is specifically a chamber for communing with the dead or traveling to the underworld, not just any old “magician’s workplace” as the Red King says in that panel you shared of him entering the room of mystic artifacts.

    Was “a trident that supposedly once belonged to the Devil’s son” meant to reference Daimon Hellstrom? Ellis had written the character recently and it seems possible that the Hellfire Club acquiring a chip from his trident could be based on a documented incident.

    For the record, I kind-of like where the story has arrived too, although the art is uneven at best with some horrendous color modeling.


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