Friday, July 01, 2005

Excalibur - the Pete Wisdom years

Excalibur was one of those inoccuous titles. It chundered on for years, not rank like early X-Factor, but never soaring.

It was second-string X-Book. All the popular mutants like Wolverine or Storm were in Uncanny X-Men or X-Men, which meant that it, like its soulmates X-Force and X-Factor, was populated with past-it or never-were X-Men. At this point, that meant luminaries like Kitty Pryde, Nightcrawler and Amanda Sefton. Excalibur was supposed to be set in Britain, but, as a general principle, US authors have absolutely no idea how to write British characters. They simply don't have the exposure to foreign culture that, Kingdom of Bhutan excepted, almost every country has to American culture. Confused ideas about politics, people and accents make British characters a painful part of Marvel's output. Accent, particularly. American writers seem to think Dick Van Dyke's chimney-sweep is a template to be copied, rather than a weird, laughable embarrassment. Coupled with a pre-occupation with aristocracy, an inability to distinguished Scottish from Irish (witness Banshee in Generation X), a belief that the middle ages hang on in the English countryside and simple ignorance of the existence of Wales.

All of which perhaps explains why there were so few British characters in Excalibur. The writers didn't know how to do them, so they didn't bother.

And then came Warren Ellis.

Ellis' speciality is horror. His complex tales of secret government organisations, alien experiments and violent disembowelment were a little different to the superhero fare which Excalibur readers were used to. Ellis carried it off with a deft touch, despite numerous problems - particularly inconsistent art and a stifling number of crossover events. One, Age of Apocalypse, starts half-way through a plane flight. Readers who weren't interested in other X-books would have been baffled. Another, Onslaught is spuriously linked with a climactic story which ended in issue #100.

Above all, Ellis' Excalibur run is a love story. Kitty Pryde, the teenage goody-goody had been failing to live up to her initial promise. Her chaste affair with Colossus had been more off than on for years, and Colossus at this point had deteriorated into a simple minded, discredited fool who would soon be despatched alongside the Legacy virus, an AIDS storyline which had also run its course.

Her new boyfriend, Pete Wisdom, was a bad-tempered, cursing, smoking former secret agent. A mouthpiece for Ellis' views, he could be over-the-top, but Wisdom gave a freshness to Excalibur which the X-books had long since lost. Pryde and Wisdom was "The African Queen" in comic book form, with Wisdom's Bogart giving new life to Pryde's Hepburn, while being, to some extent, civilised himself.

Pete Wisdom was English, but not the lazy, inaccurate form beloved of Americans. Wisdom's England was that of six pints of lager, a chicken vindaloo and a fight in the car park. He developed a mortal enmity to Lockheed, Kitty's pet dragon, who not only developed a London accent, but embarked on a campaign of harassment against Wisdom, at one point threatening to incinerate his clothes. Wisdom, regularly calling Xavier baldy, had an obvious contempt for the pomposity of the X-Men, who spent much of the nineties spouting on about Xavier's dream, which as far as I can tell involves giving a press conference every three years and smacking other mutants the rest of the time. And a school where young mutants hone their peacekeeping skills in something called the "Danger Room."

Wisdom also had a love-hate relationship with Moira MacTaggart, playing up English-Scottish rivalry. This didn't work so well, partly because Ellis didn't have quite the same feel for a Scottish character as an English one.

With horror, romance and comedy, this was just about as good as it gets.

And then Ellis left. Ben Raab took over, Wisdom started speaking like Dick Van Dyke, Kitty and Pete split up. Ellis, and Wisdom would reemerge at X-Force for a few issues, but it wasn't quite the same. Within twenty issues, Excalibur was cancelled. And that's what a change of writer can do.