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X-Men: Inferno – Excalibur (Review/Retrospective)

With our month looking at Avengers comics officially over, we thought it might be fun to dig into that other iconic Marvel property, the X-Men. Join us for a month of X-Men related reviews and discussion.

This weekend, we’re taking a look at one or two of the smaller Inferno crossovers. These issues are collected in the crossovers companion book.

It’s actually quite impressive to think of the mythology-building that Chris Claremont was responsible during his incredible run on Uncanny X-Men. The X-Men had, of course, been confined to reprints for years before Len Wein revived the concept in Giant-Sized X-Men #1, but Claremont guided Marvel’s merry mutants to the heights of success. I think it’s entirely appropriate that the first issue in his last arc, X-Men #1, remains the biggest-selling comic book of all time – cementing Claremont’s impact.

Even though many people would argue the X-Men only really exploded during the speculation bubble of the nineties, it’s remarkable just how much Claremont and his collaborators were expanding the line. By the end of the eighties, Uncanny X-Men had accumulated several satellite books. Of those, Claremont had the pleasure of working with renowned artist Bill Sienkiewicz on New Mutants, while Excalibur paired the scribe with Alan Davis, one of the most respected artists in the business.

What possessed them to come to New York?

I have to confess that I’m a bit surprised that these two Excalibur issues were relegated to the crossovers omnibus. While they don’t contain any absolutely essential plot points, they do follow the involvement of two of Claremont’s best-loved X-Men characters during the massive crossover – Kitty Pryde and Nightcrawler. While the events do seem a little tangential (with Claremont creating his own “Goblin Princess” in order to avoid entangling his characters too deeply in the story), they do offer a very classically Claremont-ian X-Men story, complete with all the trappings one associates with the author. Even if they aren’t “important”, they feel more thematically in-line with his concurrent work on Uncanny X-Men.

Indeed, the Excalibur crossover is a two-issue celebration of many of Claremont’s recurring themes and images. I’ve argued that Inferno was something of an attempt to clear the pallet, to tidy up loose ends and sort out a few overarching plot threads, and perhaps that’s why the main event feels so… uninvolving, for lack of a better word. Here, free from the obligation to tie up Madelyne Pryor’s story arc and with no obligation to explain who or what Mr. Sinister is, Claremont has a lot more room to breathe. The result is a two-issue storyline that actually feels more entertaining than the rest of the author’s work on the gigantic crisis crossover.

Tough sell…

Fans of Claremont will recognise the familiar plot devices. There’s mind control and body transformation, two of Claremont’s recurring motifs. Obviously these mirror the developments in Inferno, with Meggan’s transformation into the Goblin Princess obviously echoing Madelyne’s into the Goblin Queen, and Captain Britain’s submission mirroring Havok’s similar subjugation. (By the way, I love how Inferno goes out of its way to ensure that the men are just as scantily-clad as the women – while Madelyne’s top seems to defy gravity, Brian Braddock offers a healthy side of beefcake; equal opportunity fan service!) However, we also get Kitty transformed into a literal Shadow Cat and Rachel rendered into a creepy living plastic doll.

Indeed, Claremont seems a bit more free here to explore his love of pop culture. After all, the event is focused on the idea of demons invading New York, so it would be a shame if Claremont didn’t include affectionate homages to all manner of trashy cinema. His work on the title (including the creation of the Brood) suggests an immense fondness for Ridley Scott’s Alien, and I suspect that the movie appealed to Claremont for its feminist undertones. Here, Claremont riffs on other less sophisticated horror archetypes.

They’re Goblin her up…

Kitty Pryde’s reaction to being cast as a cheerleader in a Nightmare on Elm Street bit is absolutely priceless (“I hate it I hate it”) and one could argue that Rachel’s role here as a human mannequin evokes the schlock of Vincent Price’s House of Wax. (Of course, given Claremont’s fondness for Doctor Who, especially in Excalibur, it could be a reference to Spearhead from Space.) I think it’s interesting that Claremont has an eye for classics – even when writing about pop culture. While his examples are obviously dated, he has a knack for latching on to images and ideas that remain in the public mind until today. We know, for example, that Brian is an obvious send-up of Freddie Krueger and Rambo, even if both franchises are nowhere near as popular as they were when the adventure was written.

Of course, being one of Claremont’s strongest leading ladies, Kitty Pryde refuses to be cast in the role of the victim in some exploitation horror. I know Joss Whedon has a fondness for the character, and that she in some way influenced Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (as well as headlining Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run), and I can’t help but think that this storyline features everything you need to know in order to understand her appeal to Whedon. Even cast as the cheerleader, Pryde refuses to be a helpless scream queen. “Just ’cause I’m costumed as a bimbo,” she muses, “doesn’t mean I have to play the part.”

We all have our demons to wrestle…

Perhaps because the Excalibur tie-in afford Claremont a greater opportunity to indulge his own style and storytelling quirks, it’s also a whole lot of fun. Claremont acknowledges his own convoluted storytelling and the status of X-Men continuity in a delightfully cheeky way. Quizzed on the relationship between Rachel Summers and Nathan Grey, Kitty simply responds, “Long story. Later.” That sequence where the team follow Rachel to New York is absolutely priceless, and a perfect illustration that Claremont never took himself or his work too seriously.

The idea of Kitty and Nightcrawler being carried across the Atlantic is just hilarious, and while the joke about Kitty Pryde’s problem is a little crass, it’s also a little bit hilarious as well. It is silly – but gleefully so, rather than stupidly so. There are other nice touches. I like the idea that Nightcrawler meets a nice gargoyle – as well as the fact that Claremont explicitly references the actual purpose of gargoyles, to ward off evil spirits – even if it’s not the height of comic book sophistication.

Pryde of the pack…

As an aside, I do like how clearly Claremont characterises Captain Britain as a bit of dick. Over in Uncanny X-Men, his sister carried a bit of a chip on her shoulder that she was passed over for the role of Captain Britain in favour of Brian, and we can see why she might feel short-changed. It’s not that he’s unlikeable, per se, just that he has no emotional intelligence and a complete lack of empathy or awareness of other people.

When Rachel has a freak-out, he isn’t concerned about a team-mate, but upset his rest was disturbed. “Grief!?!” he insists. “Is there no such thing around here as a normal night?!!” Viewing the damage created by Rachel, he is less than sympathetic. “What a mess!” he astutely observes. “Why couldn’t she have used the door?!” Not to mention his complete lack of any sense regarding Meggan, which Nightcrawler astutely picks up on. Claremont always had a gift for team dynamics, and I can tell from these issues that Excalibur certainly offered a compelling one.

Bride of the Demon…

Claremont is ably assisted by Alan Davis on the art. Davis is a modern master, and his work is clear and crisp here, looking absolutely beautiful in oversized. His demon-infested New York ranks as one of the better artistic interpretations of the concept, managing to appear simultaneously gothic and ridiculous, without veering too far in either direction. Even his handful of panels featuring Rachel exploiting her Phoenix powers looke absolutely stunning.

I know Claremont’s Uncanny X-Menrun still has to be completed in nice oversized collections, but I certainly wouldn’t object to a nice gigantic tome of Claremont and Davis’ work on this particular satellite title. Davis is a respected and adored comic book artist, one of the biggest names in the industry. I can’t believe a nice collection of their collaboration wouldn’t sell. Based solely on this sample, I’d be all over it. I find it strange Marvel has been so reluctant to publish these runs, as Claremont was frequently paired with the best artists working in the business.

Spaced out…

It’s ironic that my favourite of Claremont’s work on Inferno would come from a satellite tie-in issue that actually has little to do with the event’s gigantic crossover plot. Still, I think that Excalibur demonstrates that the writer still had considerable energy and enthusiasm for the franchise.

In celebration of Inferno, we’ve taken a look at some of the more memorable tie-ins and crossovers:

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