Welcome to Back to the Lighthouse, where I’ll be taking you through what I consider to be the best comic series of all time: Excalibur. But first, let me explain how I came to this conclusion.
I’ve been reading comics since before I can remember. My uncle’s favored babysitting technique of throwing me some comics to keep me out of his hair was a win-win for both of us. I was hooked from the start. The Zoo Crew was cute, Fantastic Four had space travel, but as far as I was concerned, the X-Men had everything– and then some! Was his collection complete, in order, or even all from the same series? Nope. Did that matter? Nope! Kitty Pryde and Rachel Summers– the young heroes known as Shadowcat and Phoenix (now going by Kate Pryde and Prestige) — were my entry into another world. There was no way for me to know all of their backstory, but the depth of the characters allowed me to envision a friendship and a history that was a real, substantial force propelling them through their adventures.
Once I got more into comics, I realized that sure, following the adventures of the X-Men was great– but the X-Men included dozens of characters, some of whom I wasn’t interested in. But there was one guaranteed way to read about my two favorite characters: Excalibur.
Excalibur was Chris Claremont and Alan Davis’s “cosmic comedy” spin-off of X-Men, set after the Fall of the Mutants. While most of the team was feared dead after that event, Shadowcat, Nightcrawler, and Phoenix had been left behind. The three of them, along with two British heroes (Captain Britain and Meggan), formed the backbone of this new team.
Claremont and Davis used this opportunity to combine elements of what they had worked on before and take it in an utterly wild direction. The series takes advantage of a lot of breathing room, both in literal distance when compared to the primarily New York-based adventures of most Marvel comics, as well as the lack of pressure to fill the role of a flagship title. A comic like X-Men has certain obligations — sales of course, but also meeting expectations about the types and frequency of fights, character appearances, etc. Excalibur had the freedom to switch directions from what had become the standard.
As Davis said in a Marvel Age interview, “The main difference [from X-Men and New Mutants] will be mood. There is a sort of tongue-in-cheek aspect of it…we take the adventures one degree further into the absurd.” While every series has its jokes and fun moments, Excalibur goes beyond that. It often pokes fun at itself, and at the comic industry in general, in a very self-aware manner. The characters don’t directly break the fourth wall, but there’s plenty of gags and references aimed at the audience. It plays with the readers’ expectations of what a superhero comic should be.
While Captain Britain fits the stereotype of a leader (hell, he’s literally called Captain) and sometimes leads the team in the field, the rest of the team is frequently critical of him and he often ends up in truly ridiculous situations. Kitty and Rachel are both teenagers in a foreign country (and time!), but it’s rare that they’re talked down to. This team functions more like roommates, though it’s rough at first, and slowly becomes a family.
Now, if you’ve ever read a Claremont book from this era, you’ll know that he uses more words in one issue than some current authors do in an entire arc. I know his style isn’t universally beloved, but I’m a huge fan. For a project like this—starting a new series with characters of varying popularity, in a new location with a cast of recurring background characters– it’s perfect. In a time before comprehensive internet recaps, fan and official wikis, and easily accessible back issues, determining what happened in a single issue or a series you missed was a lot harder than it is now. Claremont often uses thought balloons and narration to sum up a character’s long and detailed history with another character in a panel or two, but never in a way that feels too repetitive.
The team’s adventures begin in 1988 with The Sword is Drawn, which was published as an expanded, higher-quality issue. The issue is 48 pages of story, and serves as an origin for getting the team together. It was written by Chris Claremont, penciled by Alan Davis, inked by Paul Neary with Mark Farmer, colored by Glynis Oliver, lettered by Tom Orzechowski, and edited by Ann Nocenti. (With the exceptions of Farmer and Nocenti, this will be the main creative team for the early arcs.)
We open on Kitty, who’s trying to sleep–she’s tossing and turning, but her heartache won’t let her rest. Suddenly, she’s grabbed from bed and shoved onto a sound stage—full of the X-Men! There’s some great gags on this page—Havok sits in a chair labeled “Understudy”, Wolverine gets his nails done, Xavier sits above, directing the scene—but Kitty is initially so full of happiness at seeing her family that she doesn’t think it through.
The other X-Men are cruel to her—they’re professionals, their powers aren’t real, and they don’t understand why she’s being so unreasonable. It’s not until she sees Betsy’s empty eye sockets (a reference to a past New Mutants adventure involving Mojo) that it registers that she’s in a nightmare.
Fortunately, Rachel shows up to assist her. This Rachel seems like the real deal, and Kitty is thrilled, but confused (since as far as she knows, Rachel is lost or dead). Kitty explains the situation– these X-Men are horrible versions of themselves. Rachel points out the truth of things: “When the reality no longer exists, explorers can take the legend and make it whatever they want, good or bad.”
The fake X-Men don’t take well to this intrusion. They try to take Rachel captive, catching her in chains and nearly tearing her apart before Kitty can free her. Rachel escapes, with a “Be seeing you—maybe sooner than you think!” to Kitty as she goes.
Unfortunately for Kitty, the fake X-Men turn on her next. They reveal themselves to be Warwolves– genetically engineered hunters who were created by and work for Mojo, and who can steal people’s skin as a disguise. They almost catch her, but fortunately she wakes from her dream, returning to Muir Isle where she’s been staying. The dream has really unsettled her. The X-Men are dead, Rachel hasn’t been seen in months, and she’s stuck in this horrible situation, conflicted about how she feels. She asks herself “Am I so angry—resentful—that they’re…gone? Or is it because I got left behind?”. She’s a young teen, overwhelmed with survivor’s guilt and loneliness.
One positive is that Lockheed, her alien dragon companion (not a pet, it’s important to note) is still with her. Unfortunately, and adding to her despair, her powers are on the fritz, too, and concentrating as hard as she can, she can hardly stay solid enough to pet Lockheed as she sobs over her dead team.
Fortunately, our next scene is the opposite tone! Meggan is joyously swimming with dolphins, and having a wonderful time. Meggan’s powers include shapeshifting, and her body often changes to reflect the people she’s around, as well as her and their moods. In this scene, her joy is evident, and she even slightly resembles the dolphins. Reluctantly she returns home to the lighthouse where she lives with her boyfriend, Brian Braddock (Earth’s Captain Britain at this time), only to find their home a mess. Investigating, she catches sight of a news report that Psylocke of the X-Men—and Brian’s sister—is dead.
Brian is incredibly drunk, and blaming himself. What kind of hero can’t even save his own sister? Meggan attempts to comfort him, but he flies into a rage instead—and throws in her face that she could never understand his grief, because she never had a family. I can’t stress enough that Brian is a real dick when he drinks. This is an issue he will deal with for much of the series, and the impact of his actions on his partner and friends is addressed over time. In the meantime, though, it’s horrible for Meggan.
Meggan flees Brian’s cruelty, and has a self-doubt spiral of her own. She often has difficulty knowing how to act in social situations, but she’s doing her best—and she’s also sad, since Betsy was her friend too. Meggan snaps herself out of it, and leaves Brian a note before heading out for help. The note is mostly doodles, as Meggan isn’t fully able to write due to her upbringing.
Surely the next character introduction for this humor book will be nice and have no depressing parts? Nightcrawler is training in the Muir Island gym, having a fun sword fight with a whole group of robots. He’s enjoying himself—wielding one sword in each hand and a third in his tail, calling himself a true musketeer—but when he instinctively teleports away from an attack, he finds himself incapacitated. His teleportation abilities haven’t been working well, and if he doesn’t disable the robots, he’s a goner, as he’s unable to fight in his weakened state. Fortunately, Kitty phases through the controls at precisely the right moment.
She is furious. He’s running “a full-bore combat exercise with the safety interlocks disconnected” RIGHT AFTER GETTING OUT OF THE HOSPITAL. Kurt explains that he wanted to test himself, see if he still had it—and Kitty basically accuses him of wanting to die because he feels left out since the rest of their team did. He’s mad that she’s asking him that, and she’s mad that he’s giving her cause to do so. It’s brutal– these two are close friends and really care about each other, and this is just adding more pain to the huge load they’re already carrying.
They make up, as they realize that they’re both hurting, and lashing out at each other is just a side effect of their situation. Kurt tells Kitty about an upsetting dream he had, and it turns out to be the same dream she had in the opening! Since they both had the same dream, Kitty points out that Rachel IS a telepath—maybe she was trying to send them a message from wherever she is. They’re not sure what to do—both of them aren’t at full strength—but before they can figure it out, there’s a visitor at the door.
Gatecrasher (and Yap, a small creature riding piggyback on her) have arrived with a message. They’re members of Technet, an interdimensional team of bounty hunters who we will be seeing a lot of, and they’re on Earth on business. But before Gatecrasher can deliver her message, Meggan arrives. Kitty knows her, but Kurt (who’s been in a coma) doesn’t know Meggan OR who Captain Britain is. Coming into the first issue, this team are barely acquaintances.
Gatecrasher has a…less than positive past relationship with Brian, and Meggan is immediately ready to throw down. Gatecrasher declines to fight the “formidably lovely” Meggan, and reveals that Technet isn’t here for Brian. To explain, she busts out a hologram of Opal Luna Saturnyne, the Omniversal Majestrix herself. Kurt and Kitty both react with heart eyes to the very attractive and intimidating woman before them. Meggan, on the other hand, knows exactly who she is and is not a fan.
Saturnyne explains that she has hired Technet to hunt down Rachel, and that as “sentient species,” the residents of Earth are required to help. Understandably, Kitty takes very poorly to that idea. She doesn’t recognize Saturnyne’s authority, and makes it clear that nobody is going to be capturing an X-Man on her watch. Unfortunately, Yap uses this opportunity to teleport in the rest of Technet, and switching the odds from Excalibur’s favor to their own.
This team has some great character design– every character looks drastically different from the others, and the combination of their weird body types and grossout powers is a delight. Now that they’re here, it’s time for a fight! Unfortunately, Technet is somewhat good at their job, and incapacitates Meggan and Kitty quickly. Kurt has to teleport away before they can grab him as well. Technet takes the women hostage for use as bargaining chips, and head out to continue their search.
Finally, it’s time for us to check in on Rachel! Real Rachel, this time, not a teammate’s dream. She’s having a hell of a time– escaping from Mojo, unsure of what’s happening, and experiencing every possible emotion. Disoriented, she crashes down in a topsy turvy scene. It’s somewhat similar to the dreams Kitty and Kurt had– she’s on a soundstage (this one hosted by a Mad Hatter type), full of odd characters, and Rachel’s still wearing chains from her escape. When she won’t play along with this show, the crowd attempts to detain her. Rachel struggles against their grips on her chains, and then the situation gets much worse, as the Warwolves arrive.
They’re hunting Rachel on behalf of Mojo (he runs an entertainment empire in another dimension, and loves to coerce mutants into appearing in his shows). Rachel fights them—her powers won’t work on the creatures directly, but she cleverly uses her powers on other items in the room to do some damage to them. She throws one through a wall, creating a hole she can escape through.
She’s expecting another soundstage, assuming she’s still trapped by Mojo, but she actually emerges in the middle of 616 London! The Warwolves pursue her through crowded streets and into the Underground, making a scene as they do so. Rachel was under contract against her will, and will not let herself be controlled by anyone again– going so far as to kill one of the Warwolves in her attempt to escape them. The death of one of the creatures makes them back off, but their howling grief attracts the attention of Gatecrasher, sending up a signal for Rachel’s location.
Meanwhile, Kurt’s arrived at Brian and Meggan’s lighthouse after being the only one to escape Technet. Brian is a drunk, unconscious mess, so Kurt does exactly what every drunk teen does when their friend is shitfaced: add some water! In Kurt’s case, he more so adds Brian to the water, throwing the man into the sea with a very “if he dies, he dies!” mentality. He doesn’t know Brian well, and doesn’t really have any sympathy for him.
Brian wakes up, assumes someone is trying to murder him, and is shocked to find Kurt there. Kurt doesn’t feel bad, and tells Brian if he wants an apology? He needs to earn it. Kurt recaps the earlier fight over coffee, and asks for Brian’s help to save Meggan and Kitty. Brian is willing, but also feeling pretty fatalist about the whole thing.
Sure, he can save his friends now, but they’re heroes—they’re going to sacrifice themselves eventually, and it won’t even make a difference in the end. Kurt gets mad. Yes, the people they love are dead–and it isn’t fair that they’re dead, or that Kurt and Brian have been left behind. But Kurt says that the only way forward is to be loyal to the memories of the people they lost, not to throw everything away because of it.
In addition to what readers have already been told about his sister, Brian is dealing with some serious trauma from his past. Back in his solo series, he died and was resurrected, and he remembers the whole terrifying experience. But what’s haunting him is that he knows that one day he’ll die for real. Or even worse—he won’t die, and will have to keep going on as his friends and family die, and he can’t help them.
Back in London, Rachel has found a very cool jacket to cover at least part of her costume, and is wandering the streets, wondering how to proceed. She wanders past a store called Fantasy Fare, where they have a copy of Excalibur (the sword, not an issue of the comic we’re reading) on display. Personally, I love when they say the name of a movie in the movie, so this works for me! She gazes as the sword and thinks about how she misses her team, even though she’s the one who left them.
Technet sneaks up on her here and grabs her, with Bodybag sucking her inside his body (his powers are gross! it’s very cool). He’s also carrying the bodies of Kitty and Meggan, and Gatecrasher instructs him to get rid of them—not by eating, it is made very clear. I enjoy the team dynamics we get to see here– Technet works together, but Gatecrasher is a terrible manager who’s herding cats, and the team is always having a terrible time.
As Technet gets ready to return to Saturnyne with their catch, trouble arrives in the form of the remaining Warwolves. It’s always fun when two sets of enemies fight each other, and it’s convenient for Kurt, who’s on his own in this. He reluctantly steps in, but only because he’s worried a civilian might get injured. He tricks a Warwolf into slicing open Bodybag’s body bags, and freeing Kitty, Meggan, and Rachel.
Unfortunately, the side effects of Bodybag’s powers mean that the three of them are all a little out of it. Kurt’s outnumbered and about to get torn into by a Warwolf when Brian shows up with an assist! It looks like Kurt’s tough love lecture worked, at least in the short term. Brian tries to intimidate Technet, but as they point out, they’ve fought him before—and weren’t impressed then! Brian gets thrown through a window, the first of MANY times in this series where he will be used as a human wrecking ball. It never gets old!
The three sides continue to brawl. The Warwolves are dangerous, but the variety of Technet’s powers—strength, energy bands, manipulation of minds and bodies—are great in a fight like this. Another mark against Excalibur is that, as Kurt realizes, the Warwolves and Technet are functional teams, while our heroes are just acquaintances who happen to be in the same place at the same time.
Kurt, showing his tactical skills, realizes that the different enemies can be used against one another both as weapons and distractions. Slowly, the tide starts to change in Excalibur’s favor. Technet, able to see that the fight has turned against them, teleport away while the Warwolves flee through the sewers.
Slowly, the team gets their bearings. Rachel’s depressed—the side effects of the fight, and superhero antics in general (property damage and traumatized people) are weighing on her. Kitty and Kurt, on the other hand, are thrilled to see her—they thought she was dead like the rest of their team. They embrace and cry, and it’s a wonderful moment.
A few days later, the five are gathered around a campfire, sharing memories of the X-Men. When it’s Rachel’s turn to share, she declines—her memories and mind are scrambled, and she’s never sure what’s true or not. She seems at peace with this– she knows herself, and everything else will sort itself out.
It’s getting late, so Brian and Meggan decide to head off to home, but Rachel stops them. She repeats Xavier’s dream, and asks if the rest plan on giving it up simply because the X-Men are dead?
Kurt asks if she expects them to take the X-Men’s place. Rachel suggests that instead, they make it their own, melding it with what she considers the dream of King Arthur—“a world where might served right instead of subjugating it”. She ties this back to what she said in Kitty’s dream– legends are important, and with the X-Men gone, someone needs to control the narrative.
Rachel’s been on the run and afraid her whole life, and it needs to stop now. This is something the others can relate to, and they warm up to the idea. As a team, they all step up to join her in helping people, and stopping others from having to experience the horrible things they have. And so Excalibur is formed!
The Sword Is Drawn is a fun book– less funny than the series becomes, but with plenty of hints that amid the truly traumatic things that happen to our heroes, there will be some laughs. There’s hints of things to come, including the team’s future problems with Technet and Saturnyne, their interpersonal issues, and plenty of motifs and recurring gags we’ll keep seeing. Overall, it’s a good representative of what the series is about, and it sets a good foundation to explain why on earth these five would form a superhero team.
The art is also a perfect fit for the book. There’s an exaggeration to Davis’s style that works well with these larger than life comedic characters (and Davis’s well-known skill at drawing hair is put to AMAZING use with Meggan, who can actually plausibly have hair like this). The fight scenes are dynamic, and make good use of the variety of powersets available, and the crowd scenes feature unique and interesting strangers. The coloring in this book is slightly different than in a normal comic of the period (and from the rest of the series), as the higher print quality of this meant there was more room to play around– some of the backgrounds have an almost scenic, painterly quality to them that looks very cool in contrast to the more traditionally colored characters.
Claremont and Davis (with Neary and plenty of others along the way) brought this bizarre, unique, funny, heartwarming and heartbreaking team to life. Excalibur expanded the depth of what an X-book could be in a way that still impacts modern books, and lives on fondly in the memories of readers–whether they read them as they came out, or if they discovered the stories by digging through back order boxes. In Back to the Lighthouse, I’m excited to share the adventures of this team, and really dig into what makes them stand the test of time. Join me next time for the return of some enemies in Warwolves of London!