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Friday, March 12, 2021

X-amining Excalibur #100


"London's Burning"
August 1996

In a Nutshell
Excalibur battles the Hellfire Club, Black Air, and Margali Szardos for the city of London! 

Writer: Warren Ellis
Pencilers: Casey Jones, Randy Green, Rob Haynes
Inkers: Tom Simmons, Jason Martin, Rick Ketcham, ROb Haynes
Letterer: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Colorists: Ariane Lenshoek, Jim Houston
Separations: Malibu Hues 
Editor: Suzanne Gaffney
Editor-in-Chief: Bob Harras

Plot
Excalibur arrives in London, determined to stop Black Air & the Hellfire Club even as the demon under the streets feeds upon the basest emotions of the people inside the city, driving them wild. Spotting Black Air agent Scratch from the air, Wisdom tells the rest of the team to keep going, while he goes after Scratch. Meanwhile, back on Muir Island, Amanda Sefton arrives, having tried - and failed - to stop her mother's plans. Just then, a contingent of the X-Men arrive in the wake of Onslaught's attack. Moira proceeds to lead them to a secret underground chamber Professor X had built in the complex. At the Hellfire Club, Brian Braddock confronts the Black Queen, believing her to be Mountjoy, but Mountjoy reveals himself to be Scribe, and attacks Brian. Elsewhere, Excalibur arrives at Black Air headquarters. They enter the facility, and Colossus is forced to stay behind to hold off a contingent of guards as the rest of the team goes deeper into the facility. On Muir Island, the X-Men & Moira discover the chamber contains files created by Professor X outlining ways to defeat all the X-Men, including himself. In London, Wisdom battles Scratch while Brian takes on the Black Queen & Mountjoy and Excalibur penetrates deeper into Black Air, with Meggan breaking off to battle a group of techno-organic Brood while Nightcrawler duels the Red King. Back on Muir Island, the X-Men, horrified by what Xavier did, depart with files on how to counter Xavier's psychic powers. In London, Brian defeats Mountjoy, while Wisdom gets an assist from Lockheed, enabling him to stop Scratch. At Black Air, Kitty & Wolfbane reach Margali, still entranced by the demon, and realize Douglock is the conduit channeling the demon's power. They are joined by Amanda, and as Kitty's taps her laptop into Douglock, deleting the files used to channel the energy, Wolsfbane severs the connection between Douglock and the demon, while Amanda binds the demon, ensuring it can't escape. Cut off from its power, Margali screams, then fades away. Later, Excalibur emerges from Black Air and reunites with Wisdom, then discover that his old connections in the intelligence community have set about ending Black Air and the Hellfire Club; London is saved. 

Firsts and Other Notables
The Black Air/Hellfire Club story concludes this issue as Excalibur celebrates one hundred issues. In the end, Excalibur manages to sever the connection between Margali, Douglock, and Black Air's imprisoned demon, ending the threat to the general populace, while Wisdom's peers in the intelligence community do what he asked of them last issue, making Black Air's machinations known to the public in order to take them down in a more public venue. 

Along the way, Brian Braddock completes his mission, exposing Scribe as having been possessed by Mountjoy and forcing Mountjoy to flee (he next turns up in X-Man #23), while also effectively bearing witness to the dismantling of the Inner Circle of the London Hellfire Club, with most of its members either dead or in custody by the end of the story. 


Brian also dons a new, darker, Captain Britain suit, the first time he's officially operated with that look/moniker since disappearing between issues #67 and #68 (he returned in issue #75, but as Britanic, and even after Ellis mostly shed him of that setup, he remained largely a civilian without a costumed identity). 


Amanda Sefton returns this issue as well, and reveals that she recently confronted her mother, and learned that she’d murdered everyone ahead of her on the Winding Way in order to increase her power. This behind-the-scenes struggle with Margali is meant to explain Amanda's absence of late. 


This issue gets an "Onslaught: Impact" label, as it depicts Cyclops & Phoenix, along with Psylocke & Archangel (as well as Cannonball) arriving on Muir Island. They break the news to Moira about Professor X (even though she seemed aware in Uncanny X-Men #335).


They proceed to a heretofore unmentioned secret basement on Muir Island that Xavier had built but never allowed Moira inside (after Muir Island was destroyed by Legion/Shadow King in the Muir Island Saga, presumably). It contains a computer housing the "Xavier Protocols", files he created detailing how to defeat each of the X-Men (including himself), with the gimmick being that certain files are shown depending on which people are in the room (so Moira, Cyclops & Jean trigger the Xavier file; when Archangel enters the room, the file for Wolverine comes up, etc.). 


The Xavier file contains schematics for the creation of armor that will nullify Xavier's psychic powers, and that becomes the takeaway for the X-Men from this issue, as they depart for New York with the schematics; this will later lead to the development of individual devices worn by the heroes which are capable of protecting the wearer from Onslaught's psychic attacks. 


Margali disappears at the end of this issue, and her disappearance will be investigated in issue #102 and in issue #103 it will be revealed that she has become a prisoner of Belasco, though X-Men Unlimited #19 (the next actual appearance of the characters) establishes that some point circa #102, she switches bodies with Amanda, leaving Amanda (in Margali's body) trapped in Limbo while Margali (in Amanda's body) operates freely. 

Still a rarity at the time, this issue opens with a full text page recapping the story thus far (Marvel will shortly after this begin experimenting with different forms of recaps in all their series). 


A Work in Progress
Wisdom is able to slow his descent by riding thermal updrafts created by his hot knives.


The Black Queen is revealed to have killed the Black King between issues. She also reveals her power to be psychic "skinning", peeling back the layers of someone's mind (which is mostly a lot of mutant power mumbo-jumbo but is not unlike the Soul Skinner from X-Men (vol. 2) #17-19, I suppose)


Other Xavier Protocols shown (aside from the Professor X one) involve ways to kill Wolverine & Cable. 


During the infiltration of Black Air headquarters, the team comes across some techno-organic Brood, whom Kitty encountered in the "Dream Nails" trilogy. 


Mountjoy uses the anti-mutant bullets designed by Brian’s father, discovered in Genosha in issue #86. He also says their development is what led Brian’s father to leave the club.


As a capstone of sorts to the semi-recurring Lockheed/Wisdom feud, Lockheed intervenes to save Wisdom from Scratch, and talks to him once again (something no one but Wisdom has yet to experience). 


Douglock is rescued from Black Air, his connection to the demon under London severed, in this issue. 

Austin's Analysis
Though not his final issue - he's got a few more to go before he leaves the series - this issue is, for all intents & purposes, not just the climax of the Black Air/Hellfire Club arc that's been building since issue #96, but really, the climax of Warren Ellis' run in total, as he pulls together all the various plot lines he's threaded since he started his run: Margali's power grab in the wake of the "Soulsword Trilogy", the weird Genoshan mutant bullets designed by Captain Britain's father, the aliens & other Black Air weirdness at the Dream Nails base, the general machinations of Black Air & Pete Wisdom's involvement therein, even the running feud between Wisdom & Lockheed. It gives this centennial issue a feeling of celebrating, if not the entirety of the series' previous 100 issues, at least the last twenty or so. Along the way, he gives each of the main characters a chance to, if not shine, then at least get a brief moment in the spotlight. (Wolsfbane, after all, just slashes a techno-organic tendril, but it's still a relatively important slash). 

It doesn't make for the most dynamic of collective team action, but the way Ellis unfolds the conflict, like he's peeling back the layers of an onion, is still engaging: one by one, each member of the team is stripped away as they get closer to their objective, with each one engaging in an action that makes the subsequent actions of the rest of the team possible. It gives the team - through their approach to traditional comic book action beats and not just in terms of how they seek out/respond to conflicts - a different feeling compared to the other X-books, a feeling that is more clinical & diagnostic, befitting their (ostensible) status as agents of Muir Island and its more humanitarian mission. It would have been nice if Carlos Pacheco (off penciling the final two issues of Fantastic Four) had been able to draw some of this issue (though co-regular penciler Casey Jones and the small army of additional pencilers and inkers that pitch in do a perfectly cromulent job with a story that, by design, doesn't require them to do a ton of big, sweeping action scenes, while also maintaining a remarkably consistent look despite all the artists involved), but all-in-all, it's largely successful as an anniversary issue, a conclusion to the immediate Hellfire Club/Black Air story, and as a climax to the entirety of Ellis' run, which is no mean feat. 

Next Issue
Next week: Generation X #18, Wolverine #104, and X-Factor #125!

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7 comments:

  1. Yeah, anytime I read this issue, I find myself wishing Pacheco had drawn it. Nothing against Casey Jones, but Pacheco was just so much more dynamic. Which, of course, is why he was poached to give the FF their pre-"Heroes Reborn" sendoff.

    I love how Ellis brings everything together here, as you mentioned above. This isn't as satisfying to me as Alan Davis's issue 50, which was a masterclass in tying together plot threads, but it's really good nonetheless. I remember reading this issue back in the day and liking it a lot. It's still probably my favorite of Ellis's issues, for the way (again, as you said) he gives nearly everyone a "moment".

    That said, the "Onslaught" pages just feel out of place here. Like they're an afterthought. I assume Ellis really did script them, but I can't help feeling that Bob Harras basically told him, "Reserve about five or six pages. We'll need them for Onslaught stuff," and then later told Ellis exactly what needed to happen in those pages.


    "Along the way, Brian Braddock completes his mission, exposing Scribe as having been possessed by Mountjoy and forcing Mountjoy to flee (he next turns up in X-Man #23)..."

    This is weird, because Cap clearly knocks out Mountjoy in this issue. I remember Scribe showing up in X-MAN, because it was during the very brief period I read that title, but was she still possessed by Mountjoy at the time?

    "Brian also dons a new, darker, Captain Britain suit..."

    This is really my main takeaway from the issue. I prefer the Alan Davis costume with white and blue rather than black, but nonetheless it's great to see Brian back in something that resembles his best costume. Though it seems from Ellis's script that he did not intend this to be permanent. I suspect he just wanted Captain Britain back in action for the anniversary issue, and then planned to have Brian dump the guise again. His comments (and some of the narration) clearly read as if this is a one-time thing and he doesn't really want to be doing it.

    I don't really remember Ellis's final few issues that well, but does he have Brian do any Captain Britain stuff post-100? I know he wears the costume on the cover of Ellis's last issue, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. And I recall that Ben Raab can't get rid of Cap soon enough when he takes over writing, de-powering Brian almost immediately for some reason. I will never understand why nobody except for Alan Davis really knew what to do with Brian in this series. (Which seems to still be the case today, as every time I read that Brian Braddock is back as Captain Britain, he quickly gets injured, retires, dies, or all of the above. It's really annoying!)

    "This behind-the-scenes struggle with Margali is meant to explain Amanda's absence of late."

    I can't help feeling that only a few years earlier, this would've played out as an ongoing series of sub-plot pages rather than being revealed as something that happened entirely off-panel.

    "...some point circa #102, she switches bodies with Amanda, leaving Amanda (in Margali's body) trapped in Limbo while Margali (in Amanda's body) operates freely."

    "Amanda" and Nightcrawler don't have any romantical-type scenes during that period, do they? Because if so... eww.

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    1. I remember Scribe showing up in X-MAN, because it was during the very brief period I read that title, but was she still possessed by Mountjoy at the time?

      I'm going entirely off the MCP here - I have no memory of Mountjoy appearing after this issue, but I usually try to doublecheck any time I'm inclined to make a "this is the last appearance to date of __!" statement (especially when dealing with relatively minor characters like Mountjoy), and the MCP has him appearing in X-MAN #23. I also have no recollection of that issue (I've read all of X-MAN, but vast swathes of it are just a blur in my mind), so I didn't even realize it was a Mountjoy-in-Scribe scenario.

      I don't really remember Ellis's final few issues that well, but does he have Brian do any Captain Britain stuff post-100?

      My memory is hazy as well, but what I do remember of these last few Ellis issues, there's not much Cap stuff in it. It's mostly dealing with fallout from this story & "Onslaught".

      Which seems to still be the case today, as every time I read that Brian Braddock is back as Captain Britain, he quickly gets injured, retires, dies, or all of the above.

      Currently, he's "Captain Avalon" alongside Besty as Captain Britain, and while he's largely a supporting character in the current EXCALIBUR, it's a pretty decent "best of both worlds" scenario for the characters.

      I can't help feeling that only a few years earlier, this would've played out as an ongoing series of sub-plot pages rather than being revealed as something that happened entirely off-panel.

      Good point.

      "Amanda" and Nightcrawler don't have any romantical-type scenes during that period, do they? Because if so... eww.

      Again, my memory of this subplot is...hazy, at best, but I don't think so. But I also think it involves a retcon (I don't think we're meant to KNOW they switched until that X-MEN UNLIMITED issue) which means it's entirely (inadvertently) possible.

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    2. "Currently, he's 'Captain Avalon' alongside Besty as Captain Britain, and while he's largely a supporting character in the current EXCALIBUR, it's a pretty decent 'best of both worlds' scenario for the characters."

      Well at least he's Captain Something! I just Googled Captain Avalon. I kind of like how the outfit seems to follow the lines of the redesigned Capt. Britain uniform from early Excalibur (the outfit Brian took to replace his destroyed costume during "Cross-Time Caper"), but I don't love the color scheme.

      Also, every time I see a page from a current X-book, that lowercase lettering makes me wince. It's so ugly! The characters look like they're mumbling everything.

      (I understand that comic books were originally lettered in all caps because lowercase could get garbled in the printing process, but it became so standard over the decades that lowercase dialogue lettering in a comic will always look wrong to me, and will generally turn me off entirely from reading something no matter how great the story and art might be. I really, really dislike it.)

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  2. I feel like this was the strongest issue of Excalibur since Alan Davis left. While Ellis doesn't really do whimsy, he does do a good job of making sure Excalibur has its own tone. Something that almost disappears entirely when Ben Raab takes over, making it feel like just another X-Men title.

    The art here is serviceable but not really engaging. Part of it is just that 90s style of putting breasts and butts in the same panel.

    As a final note, it's nice that Marvel didn't slap a gimmick cover on this one. Those had largely been abandoned at this point anyway but it's still nice.

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  3. I feel like this was the strongest issue of Excalibur since Alan Davis left. While Ellis doesn't really do whimsy, he does do a good job of making sure Excalibur has its own tone.

    Agreed on both counts. This title is basically defined by three specific writers (Claremont, Davis, and Ellis) and while all three don't do the same thing, all do bring a very specific tone to the series (with everything that comes in the - often very large - gaps between those writers suffering from being very generic).

    As a final note, it's nice that Marvel didn't slap a gimmick cover on this one.

    Agreed. The wraparound cover seems like a nice balance between "this is a big anniversary issue" and "check out this ridiculous gimmick". It really does seem like the chromium covers of GENERATION X #1/X-MEN: ALPHA/X-MEN: OMEGA were the zenith of the gimmicky covers (for the X-books, at least). Even ONSLAUGHT: X-MEN was just a basic wraparound.

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    1. We're on the eve of Marvel's bankruptcy at this point (Google says they filed Chapter 11 on Dec. 27th of 1996). They were probably trying to cut costs wherever possible. Maybe somebody crunched the numbers and realized the gimmick covers weren't making enough profit for what they cost to produce. The Spider-Man books had pretty much abandoned gimmick covers at this point, too.

      I think I've mentioned it before, but I've often said that Marvel's bankruptcy was the best thing that could've happened to them for me, personally, as a reader. They dumped expensive gimmick covers, they scaled back their line considerably, and suddenly I, on my high school/college budget circa 1997 - 2001, could read a vast swath of the Marvel Universe, rather than focusing solely on Spider- and X-books. And the quality of the titles seemed stronger across the board since they weren't publishing so many series.

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  4. The Black Queen here is supposed to be the 616 version of Damask, who was a member of X-Calibre in the Age of Apocalypse. Same power.

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