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Thursday, September 9, 2021

X-amining Excalibur #103

"Bend Sinister Reprise"
November 1996

In a Nutshell
Shadowcat, Colossus, and Nightcrawler are confronted with manifestations of their darker selves by Belasco

Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Carlos Pacheco
Inkers: Scott Koblish & Bob Wiacek 
Letterer: Richard Starkings
Colorist: Ariane Lenshoek
Editor: Matt Idelson
Editor-in-Chief: Bob Harras

Kitty, Nightcrawler and Colossus wake up in a village populated by no one except alternate versions of themselves. Exploring the village, Kitty realizes they are all darker alternate selves, representing the sides of themselves they try to repress. As the three teammates make their way through the town, they come to realize they are trapped in Limbo, and only emerge once they've affirmed the attributes which have enabled them to survive all the darkness they've faced recently. They begin to fade away, much to Belasco's delight, who had been watching alongside a captive Margali, the three heroes having endured the test he administered to them ahead of a likely confrontation. Back on Muir Island, the rest of Excalibur is relieved to have their missing teammates home, and Wisdom declares his love for Kitty. 

Firsts and Other Notables
This is the final issue of Warren Ellis' run on the series, which also marks the end of his brief sojourn with the X-office (for now; he'll be back for "Counter X" at the end of the decade). This is also Carlos Pacheco's last issue of the series, though while he'll be missed, his absence is less impactful since his work here appeared so inconsistently, and he's leaving to take up penciling duties on Adjectiveless (also, while he'll return to co-pencil issue #106, Casey Jones' run sharing duties w/Pacheco is also over as of last issue, something I should have pointed out there). Salvador Larroca is announced on the letters page as the book's new regular artist. 

For his final issue, Ellis tries to provide a coda of sorts to his run, using the three former X-Men members of the team being tested by Belasco as a vehicle to explore their recent adventures under Ellis (and perhaps more importantly, as a vehicle for Pacheco to draw a bunch of cool alt versions of the characters). 

He concludes with Wisdom declaring his love for Kitty, which aside from being a bit eye-rolling given Wisdom is Ellis' author-insert character is also a bit of plot completion; in issue #101 Brian told Wisdom the only way to avert the dark future he witnessed in issue #94 was for Wisdom to tell Kitty he loved her; by doing so here then, Ellis is definitively closing off that potential timeline. 

Belasco is revealed to be the villain behind the three teammates' experiences in this issue, as part of a test he's conducting on them for vague reasons. He explains (sort of) all this to a captive Margali Szardos, though at this time that is presumably Amanda Sefton in Margali's body given later revelations. Whether Belasco knows that or cares is unknown. 

The title of this issue is a reference to the title of issue #83, Ellis' first on the book. 

In perhaps a hint towards the series future as the first official ongoing X-book to be cancelled (and not just cancelled to be rebooted as something else), the Statement of Ownership in this issue lists monthly sales to be around 165,000 issues. Which would be pretty gangbusters numbers for a series nowadays, but comes up short when compared to the ~250k a month that Generation X was brining in (to say nothing of Uncanny or X-Men). 
Through the Looking Glass
One of the alt-versions of Kitty in Limbo is the "Age of Apocalypse" Shadowcat. 

A Work in Progress
Nightcrawler is (somewhat snarkily) aware of his status as a character in genre fiction (something I can appreciate), noting that if he'd had a normal life, waking up in the circumstances he finds himself would drive him mad, but since he's used to this kind of stuff by now, he simply recognizes that he's encountering alternative versions of himself and his friends. 

Artistic Achievements
Pacheco turns in a great three panel montage of different versions of Kitty, Nightcrawler and Colossus, with all three appearing in each panel and each panel styled to a different "type" of alteration: kinky, destitute, and religious. 

Austin's Analysis
Warren Ellis' run comes to a close with an issue that is less about plot or character and serves as more of a...tone poem, for lack of better term, capturing the somewhat fractured and skewed perspective he brought to the series while reflecting briefly on its past events from his run, before he wraps things up with a declaration of love between his author-insert character and a generation's audience surrogate character. It is, in its way, representative of Ellis' run as a whole: intriguing and well-crafted, but also somewhat half-formed and feeling rushed & incomplete, filled with suggestions of deeper, richer stories that never quite materialize. 

Though he's been on the book for nearly two years (and two full years' worth of issues, if you include X-Calibre), it feels likes his run has barely started. Part of that is due to the fact that in my mind, his run doesn't really start until Carlos Pacheco comes aboard, despite the fact that doesn't occur til much closer to the end of Ellis' run than the beginning (and that even when it does start, Pacheco is still just a part time series artist). Part of it is also circumstances outside his control: he inherited the plot to his first story, then had his second story interrupted by "Age of Apocalypse". Once he got clear of all that, he devoted a three issues to establishing the Kitty/Wisdom power couple (and the "superheroes by way of The X-Files" vibe he intended to bring to the book), then after a few (mostly strong) character-focused issues, he settled in to begin the one proper "epic" of his tenure (and even that gets interrupted by "Onslaught" to some degree). Then...he's done. 

And yet despite the somewhat disjointed and hodgepodge nature of his run (and despite later revelations involving the writer's behavior), it stands as one of the three definitive Excalibur runs, alongside the original Claremont/Davis run and the solo Alan Davis run. Like those previous creators, Ellis brings a unique voice and sense of tone to the series that is almost more important than the actual plot of the stories or the character developments therein. The sort of snarky, too-cool-for-school super-heroism operating in dark sci-fi or fantasy corners (represented, of course, by Pete Wisdom) is as defining and definitive for the series as Claremont's cross-time capers and examinations of identity and Alan Davis' whimsical explorations of the series' internal continuity and the development of its own internal mythos. And with Ellis' departure, the series will enter another phase, not unlike the one it did after the departures of Claremont and Davis, of fallow storytelling lacking a distinctive voice or perspective as it runs out the clock. The series may stick around for twenty-two more issues, but for all intents and purposes, it ends here. 

Next Issue
Next week: Havok returns in Uncanny X-Men #339 and Nate Grey takes to the streets in X-Man #22!

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  1. I appreciate the alternate Kitty dressed like Cockrum's Phantom Girl.

    1. Oh, you're right! I totally missed that. That's a nice touch.

  2. This is the last issue I truly enjoyed. I think I kept up with it for three more issues but became bored and just stopped buying it. It wasn't a conscious decision on my part, I just didn't look for the following issues on the stands.

  3. I'm with you; in my mind, the Ellis "run" doesn't actually start until somewhere around issue 96, because that was when I started reading -- due to the arrival of Carlos Pacheco, on the heels of Colossus joining the team.

    I mostly like this as the final issue of a run. It gives us a nice little ending and ties up most of Ellis's remaining plot points, but also opens up something new for the incoming writer to run with -- which is how I think any writer should leave a book. But reading this one, boy do I wish Pacheco had done more than three or four issues or whatever it was!

    I kept reading EXCALIBUR after this issue, but dropped it within the year (best I can tell, it looks like my final issue was #113). I mentioned before (and will probably mention again) that I really, really, really liked Ben Raab's various mini-series in the late 90s, but his EXCALIBUR just didn't impress me all that much. Though I'd love to go back and read all of it now, to see what I missed. I get the impression it sort of limped to the finish line, but at the same time, knowing Raab was a big fan of the early 80s X-Men, I think I need to give it another chance.

    Unfortunately, all my issues are put away in storage, so while I'll be reading your posts and commenting, I won't be reading along, even though I'd like to. That said, Marvel just solicited an Epic Collection of the first half-ish of Ben Raab's run -- covering issues 104 - 115, plus the COLOSSUS one-shot and the KITTY PRYDE, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. and NEW MUTANTS: TRUTH OR DESTINY limited series. It appears that's due out in February, so I'm hopeful I can resume reading the series, as far as I can, when it releases. I imagine the issues will hit Marvel Unlimited around the same time, as they typically do.

    1. I missed that Excalibur solicitation. The inclusion of The New Mutants: Truth or Death mini seems so utterly random. I would have thought that would have been included in the final volume of The New Mutants Epic collection (if there ever is one).

    2. Yeah, I can only assume it's in there because it follows Douglock? I actually never read that mini-series, so I don't know what it's about!

      I'm also wondering what will be in the subsequent volume... there's only ten issues of the main series left, plus the SWORD OF POWER mini-series Raab wrote a couple years after the main series ended. I know there's an X-MEN UNLIMITED story that wraps up the Margali stuff, so that will probably make the cut too... but beyond that, I don't think the series had any further annuals or ancillary mini-series/one-shots by its final year.

      Still, there must be more that I'm not thinking of, because 15 issues does not make for much of an Epic Collection, even if a couple are double-sized! They're usually more like 20 issues (or the equivalent thereof, when double-sized issues are included).

    3. @Matt: It appears that's due out in February, so I'm hopeful I can resume reading the series

      I mean, given my pace, you'll only be an issue or two behind, at most, once it comes out. :P

      @Drew: I would have thought that would have been included in the final volume of The New Mutants Epic collection (if there ever is one).

      Or in the corresponding X-FORCE one. I guess because Wolfsbane is in it, they can justify putting it here, and needed the space in X-FORCE for something else (or needed to pad out this volume in order ensure the final EXCALIBUR volume has enough material, or something like that). It's definitely an odd inclusion.

      @Matt: Still, there must be more that I'm not thinking of, because 15 issues does not make for much of an Epic Collection, even if a couple are double-sized!

      I wonder if they're planning to include volume 3 as well? That would add an additional 14 issues (or 12 if they leave out the "House of M" tie-ins). Which would flip it to being a bigger Epic, but not unwieldly so.

    4. The only reason I would think EXCALIBUR vol. 3 wouldn't be in an Epic Collection is that, to the best I can tell, Marvel has never published an Epic containing material from the Quesada era and beyond. The Epics seem to be reserved for the "classic" Marvel Universe (for lack of a better term) -- everything that was published prior to 2000/2001, and which was never collected in full chronological trade order before (unlike the post 2001 stuff, which has almost always been released in trade not long after it hit stands in comic book format).

      But (and now I go off on a bit of a tangent), I also assumed that Marvel would publish all of the original THUNDERBOLTS series in two Omnibuses, and then do a potential third book someday for the NEW THUNDERBOLTS run of a few years later. This just seemed a natural way to split it apart, due to the time separation between both series. However the release of vol. 1 and solicit of vol. 2 for those books seem to hint at (or really, basically confirm) a third volume which will include the final dozen or so issues of the original series, combined with all of NEW THUNDERBOLTS.

      So the point is, my guesses, educated though I try to make them, don't usually add up to much.

      (And the bigger point, completely unrelated to the subject at hand, is that I can't wait to have all of THUNDERBOLTS/NEW THUNDERBOLTS on my bookshelf in another year or two.)

      "I mean, given my pace, you'll only be an issue or two behind, at most, once it comes out. :P"

      I had that thought, but I wasn't going to say it!

    5. WOLVERINE: BLOOD DEBT does creep into 2001 and the Quesada Era (and includes ORIGIN, perhaps the hallmark story of the Quesada Era). Certainly, that's the latest any of the Epics have gone thus far and perhaps they'll go no further (but they would need to in order to close out at least the "main" second volume of WOLVERINE the series is collecting). I've always felt like "Heroes Reborn" is the cutoff for the Avengers/FF books (and the Clone Saga for Spidey), but they clearly have some different rules for the X-books.

    6. Good point! I forgot ORIGIN was in the BLOOD DEBT Epic. Also (as I slap my hand against my forehead), I just realized that EXCALIBUR vol. 2 (a.k.a. SWORD OF POWER) was from the early Quesada era as well, published in 2001. I think in my head it just felt like something pre-Quesada, since it's written by Ben Raab and follows up on a series that ended a few years earlier -- which seemed to be a big no-no during the "continuity-lite" Jemas/Quesada era.

      I wonder if it was greenlit under the previous administration? That wouldn't surprise me. I've long felt that was what happened with SPIDER-MAN: LIFELINE, a mini-series by Fabian Nicieza and Steve Rude, which dealt heavily with decades-old continuity, but was published early in Quesada's tenure.

    7. FWIW, I totally assumed EXCALIBUR vol. 2 was pre-Quesada, too. :)

  4. Excalibur Vol. 2 came out about the same time they were publishing things like The Brotherhood, Muties, and that really weird X-Factor mini-series.

    I've been racking my head trying to figure out what would be in a final Epic Collection of Excalibur. If they did use Vol. 3, it would likely end at #10. While 13 and 14 were billed as a prelude to House of M they were also the last two parts of a four part story.

  5. While I had stopped reading the X-books in the main, Excalibur had survived simply because Warren Ellis was writing it and its days were numbered because of that. Since I wasn't wired into the early comics internet, I didn't find out Ellis was leaving until...this issue. Which meant the end, for now, of my X-Men related reading came QUICK. I flipped through some of the Ben Raab issues at my comic store because I was a big Salvador Larocca fan, but I couldn't bring myself to read it because it was just...awful, really.

    As for the overall run: Ellis was really stung by having to deal with crossovers so often, but he also hadn't quite figured out the whole "telling a long story" bit yet, so some of it can be laid at that. By the time he got to Stormwatch, he figured that out-his run that closed out Stormwatch vol. 1 is basically one story, and interestingly he had to start THAT by cleaning up the mess left from a Wildstorm crossover story. In Excalibur he was still putting those pieces together, plus he was clobbered by inconsistent artists. Give Ellis a long run with an artist-Tom Raney on Stormwatch, Bryan Hitch on Stormwatch and the Authority, John Cassaday on Planetary-and he does better work.

    So yeah, Ellis's Excalibur is utterly flawed in a lot of ways, which makes its status as one of the three good runs on the book kind of hilarious. Since you finally mentioned's kind of gross now, looking back, that the type of girl Ellis has been reportedly into is, basically, Kitty Pryde, and that's REALLY nuked my interest in re-reading this run after following along here.

    At any rate, Excalibur. I'd say its all downhill from here, but the book basically drives off a cliff here.


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