The Xavier Institute: Cross Time Capers And The Impact Of Alan Davis
by Tony Thornley
Welcome back to our deep dive into X-Men stories past, present and (if I can get that darn time machine to work) future!
So one of my blind spots in X-Men history are the myriad spins offs the franchise has had. Though I’ve been a reader of the core franchise for twenty plus years, there were only a few spin-offs that I really read religiously. That will be one of the points of this column actually- I definitely plan on going into the past and reading stuff like the original X-Factor run, classic New Mutants, and the Liefeld years (year?) of X-Force. But today I’m going to take a minute to talk about the spin off that I’m personally the most mad that I missed—Excalibur.
Excalibur launched in 1988 with a one-shot by Chris Claremont and Alan Davis called The Sword is Drawn, and a regular series that followed quickly after. It followed Kitty Pryde, Rachel Summers and Kurt Wagner, who were out of the battle that supposedly killed the X-Men (which launched Uncanny X-Men into the infamous Outback Era, short version: there is no short version). In mourning for their assumed dead friends, they leapt into action to defend London from an attack and were joined by Captain Britain (brother of their fallen teammate Psylocke) and his girlfriend Meggan.
The most famous storyline in the series history is the Cross Time Caper, an absolutely bonkers storyline by Claremont, Davis and several guest creative teams in a variety of fill-in issues. In this storyline, the team finds themselves jumping across the multi-verse thanks to their android friend Widget and Rachel.
Now, for the purposes of this column, I’m going to be talking specifically about the two collections titled Excalibur Classic: Cross Time Caper (book one and book two). These two collections span Excalibur #12 through #28. This is a funny choice, because the Cross Time Caper actually spans from Excalibur #8 to #24. Someone in the collections department at Marvel probably should have read these a little closer than they did.
Because of this, the first arc of the story isn’t present in these two collections, and the reader will be starting en media res. Excalibur is already travelling through the multi-verse on a train they confiscated from a Nazi version of themselves, and you have to catch yourself up. Luckily though, it’s a fairly universal concept in comics, so the mechanics aren’t very important.
In the course of the arc, the team goes on to explore multiple other dimensions. This ranges from an England ruled by magic and void of technology, to a John Carter-like alien landscape, to an Earth dominated by a planet-wide road race, until finally ending up in Otherworld.
Here’s the thing about this story- it all hinges on one presence. When Alan Davis is involved, this story sparkles. His art drives the weirdness, but also grounds it in Kitty, Kurt, and the gang. Davis makes sure the story stays centered in its greatest assets.
In the case of the fill-ins, they’re of varying quality. For example, the road race mini arc is split between two artists- Dennis Jensen and Rick Leonardi. Jensen draws his issue in three different styles, and it’s jarring, despite the backflips Claremont tries to go through to justify it. One page, it’s Marvel’s house style at the time, the next page is hyper-cartoony, and the next is a Manga/anime page. It pulled me, as a reader, out. But Leonardi’s issue, while not as mind-bending and innovative as Davis’s pages, works MUCH better, and is much more consistent. However, Claremont’s script is full of his excesses in that story. The most notable fill-in though was in #27, an issue by frequent Claremont collaborators from this era—Barry Windsor-Smith and Bill Sienkiewicz. It’s the best looking issue in the two collections that isn’t done by Davis. However, something about having two creators so distinct working together kind of made it lose something. It’s good, but it’s not the normal “great” that they would do individually. In all the fill-ins aren’t BAD, but something about having Davis at his side kept Claremont from going too deep.
Now there are also two inventory issues sprinkled through these two volumes (specifically issues #20, and 28). The first was a fairly forgettable lark by Michael Higgins and Ron Lim, but the second was a fun one and done issue by Terry Austin and Colleen Doran. It depicts a date night and actually did a lot to build up Brian and Meggan’s relationship in a way that Claremont really hadn’t yet. I ended up skipping through much of #20—skimming it mostly for Lim’s always-enjoyable art—but really enjoying #28.
The Davis issues though are absolutely amazing. The first mini-arc, with Excalibur battling magic in a strange, warped version of London, is full of sight gags, imaginative touches, and fantastic world building. A single issue with a warped Marvel universe is FULL of meta-gags and innovative alternate reality ideas, so many that I think What If…? would be put to shame (the power-swapped Fantastic Four, while only appearing in a few panels, was a particular highlight of the issue). The highlight arc of the story is the John Carter pastiche, with Nightcrawler filling the swashbuckling hero role. It’s fun, it’s pulpy, and it’s a perfect Nightcrawler story (though Kitty and Rachel get some fantastic moments too). It really captures the core of both the concept and the characters in a limited number of issues. It’s really a shame that Davis took an extended break from the book after this arc wrapped, because his work here is SO GOOD, and it was clear that the book was fueled more by him than by his co-creator.
This was the perfect book for Davis’s quirky sensibilities. I remember his run on Uncanny X-Men and X-Men that immediately followed the run I talked about last column. It was trippy, surreal and heavily Excalibur influenced, and it didn’t work nearly as well as this story does. It shows that Alan’s DNA was woven into this series, and it truly made it a wonderful read. I’ve come to appreciate Davis more and more recently, and rediscovering this series is a HUGE part of that. Marvel could use a bit of his weird today, and I actually salivate thinking of a book co-created by Davis and someone like Al Ewing, Si Spurrier or Kieron Gillen.
This is a series that a younger me completely missed and would have loved. Thank goodness for digital comics though, because I was able to come to love it as an adult. Though there are some warts in these two collections, a fan of Marvel books in general would absolutely love this, and it can’t come highly recommended enough.
Excalibur Classic Volumes 3 & 4: Cross Time Caper Book One and Book Two are available now in stores and digitally.
As for last week’s column, you can find that here.