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More Great Stories From the Marvel Archives!

Last month I wrote about some of the great Marvel Premiere hardcovers I’d been reading, collecting some classic Marvel comics from days gone bye.  I had so much fun reading those that I decided to dive into several other Marvel trade paperbacks that had been sitting on my “to-read” bookshelf.  These aren’t quite as snazzy as the premiere hardcovers, but they’re some slick new collections of some great old comics.  Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Excalibur Visionaries: Warren Ellis — This three-volume series collects some of Warren Ellis’ earliest work for Marvel comics, helming the continuing adventures of the British X-Men spin-off, Excalibur.  Chris Claremont & Alan Davis’ original run on Excalibur was one of the very first comic book series that I ever fell in love with.  It was also the series that taught me how sometimes the magic of a comic book is due to it’s creative team, as once Claremont & Davis left the book, the subsequent writers/artists could never capture the spark of their run.  Those were some bad comics.  Just when I’d about given up on the series, Alan Davis returned (this time as artist and writer) for a lengthy run that tied up many of the loose ends left hanging by his original issues with Mr. Claremont.  Those were some GREAT comics!  But once Mr. Davis left the book, Excalibur again plunged right into the crapper.  It only took a few issues for the follow-up writers/artists to destroy the book (killing Cerise, replacing Captain Britain with the moronic “Brittanic”) and I dropped the title.  But I would always keep my eye in the book, and I did occasionally pick up some future issues.  Several of them were written by Warren Ellis, and while I didn’t like the direction in which Excalibur had been taken, those Ellis issues weren’t bad.

Cut to present day.  I’m a HUGE fan of Mr. Ellis’ work.  He initially caught my attention as the writer for Wildstorm’s Stormwatch, The Authority, and the incredibly amazing series Planetary (read my review of the series here), and he’s also written some really top-notch Marvel comics, particularly in the Ultimate universe.  (His Ultimate Galactus story ranks among my favorite super-hero comics of the last decade.)  So when I saw that Marvel was collecting his early run on Excalibur from 1994-96, I was intrigued.  What would I think of those issues, looking back on them today?

All in all, not bad!  This is definitely not the Excalibur team that I fell in love with, and these stories don’t hold a candle to Chris Claremont & Alan Davis’ work.  Still, it’s interesting to see these sort-of proto-Warren Ellis stories.  These days, I think Mr. Ellis has an incredibly distinct “voice” to his writing.  In these Excalibur stories, one can begin to see the emergence of that voice, even as Mr. Ellis was telling fairly conventional super-hero stories (and also dealing with some of the silliness of the X-Universe at the time, such as the Age of Apocalypse).  It’s fun to spot some of Mr. Ellis’ favorite stylistic touches, such as the preponderance of scenes set in pubs, and characters referring to one another as “you horrible git.”  It’s a little weird to see the Excalibur characters hanging out in a bar, but somehow, under Mr. Ellis’ steady hand, those scenes work.  They serve to humanize the characters, without undermining their believability.  The cold-blooded, heavy-drinking Pete Wisdom is a typical Ellis creation.  It’s fun to see this character butt heads with the Marvel super-team, and I really enjoyed Wisdom’s relationship with Kitty Pryde.  (Though I will note that I hate the depiction of Colossus from this time-period.  It’s not Mr. Ellis’ fault, as he inherited the some-what crazy Colossus who had betrayed the X-Men to join Magneto’s acolytes, and in many ways Mr. Ellis’ stories helped redeem the character.  Still, as a fan, I remain invested in the Kitty/Colossus relationship introduced by Byrne/Claremont, and I was really happy to see Joss Whedon restore that pairing in Astonishing X-Men a few years ago.)  Mr. Ellis also paid far more attention to the series’ British & Scottish settings than any of the previous writers on the title did.  It lends a nice little extra touch of authenticity to the stories.

These aren’t groundbreaking comic books by any stretch of the imagination, but they were certainly a fun read.  I’m happy to have finally read this run of comics!  Props also to Marvel for including some other Warren Ellis Marvel work at the time, specifically the Starjammers mini-series and the Pryde & Wisdom series.  The Starjammers series is only peripherally collected to Mr. Ellis’ Excalibur run, but it’s a great read and it was fun to have it included.

Captain America: War and Remembrance — Although they were only on the title for nine issues, I have often heard that Roger Stern & John Byrne’s run on Captain America was a highlight of the series.  I’ve been meaning to track those comics down for some time now, so I was pleased to pick up a recent new reprinting.  When writing about Mr. Stern’s run on Avengers, I wrote that the stories had aged rather well — that they were a nice blend of the innocence of early Marvel comics with the growing maturity of comics in the ’80s.  This run, from about a decade earlier (these issues were originally published in 1980 & 81), hasn’t aged quite as well, but it’s still a fun read.  These issues just feel a little “older” to me than some of these other reprints I’ve been reading.  There’s a stylistic simplicity to the stories, including the extensive use of captions and thought balloons, regular re-caps summing up the previous issue, and the reliance on stories resolved in one or two issues, that dates these comics for me.  Still, Mr. Stern definitely has a phenomenal grasp on the character.  When I think of Steve Rogers/Captain America, it’s 100% the character depicted in these stories.  And John Byrne’s art is terrific, as always.  His work in Captain America, inked by Joe Rubenstein, isn’t quite as dynamic as his break-out work in X-Men or his work a few years later in his long, phenomenal run on Fantastic Four, but it’s still pretty terrific.  I’ve always respected Mr. Byrne’s clear story-telling abilities and his competent draftsmen skills.  He’s always seemed like an artist who can draw absolutely anything, and in these stories his work is just as solid whether he’s drawing the English countryside or an enormous tanker about to ram into New York harbor.

The other things that dates these comics, for me, is the endearingly quaint focus on Marvel Universe continuity.  It’s a hoot to see all of the little editorial notes, letting us know in precisely what issue of which series events being referenced took place.  I miss that sort of thing in comics today!  It’s also interesting to see the narrative hoops that Mr. Stern must jump through, early in these stories, to correct what he felt were errors on the part of a previous Captain America writer in terms of details of Cap’s origin.  These days I feel that a writer would just ignore any aspect of previous stories that they disagreed with.  In a way, that’s a simpler solution, although it’s neat to see how Mr. Stern was able to come up with an in-continuity “fix” for those story points he felt were in error.

I should also comment how bizarre it is to see that, in these stories, Steve Rogers has a day job in a commercial illustrator!  That wasn’t an aspect of the character created by Mr. Stern, so the fault isn’t his, but it’s certainly weird to see Captain America laboring at his drawing table after a hard day fighting super-villains!  This aspect of the character has been long-since dropped, and that’s probably a good thing…

This is a great run of comics, and it’s too bad that a variety of factors forced the duo to leave the series after only nine issues (and before they could reveal what the heck was in that army letter that seemed such a big deal in one of the sub-plots!).  I can’t say that I was totally blown away by anything I read in these pages, but it was a nice glimpse at some truly “classic” Marvel comics.  And, by the way, I need to give major props to Stern & Byrne for introducing the very Jewish love-interest for Steve Rogers, Bernie (Bernadette) Rosenthal!  (I’ve enjoyed Bernie’s recent appearances in Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run, though I’m sorry the former glass blower has now become a lawyer.  How boring!)

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