Thursday, 30 September 2010

(Don't) Give Me One Vision

I've never really understood why so many people love Alan Davis. At best, I think he's a slightly above average artist, and one who has failed to develop much for quite some time, but it's the respect people have for his stories that baffles me.

Admittedly, this is probably at least in part because I first came across him during his tenure on Uncanny X-Men and X-Men. It seemed obvious to me that writing both books and drawing one of them was too great a workload (his artwork was more impressive when he wasn't writing the books as well), and his run is generally considered a disappointment. "He wasn't a good fit", as Chris B told me yesterday.

Of course, I wasn't disappointed, or at least not in Davis himself (I was certainly disappointed in other respects). I couldn't be, I hadn't seen him in action during the alleged golden era of Excalibur he reigned over.

So, this week I sat down and read the first volume of Excalibur Visionaries: Alan Davis (an example of Marvel hyperbole that might be enough to make even Stan Lee blush), to see if I could work out what all the fuss was about.

Turned out: I couldn't. Well, kind of. Davis is certainly faithful to the original direction of the book, which as I've mentioned before seemed to spring into being entirely as a way for Chris Claremont to indulge his dimension-hopping pseudo-fairy-tale side, so that the actual X-Men proper could get on with being X-Men, without having to stop every ten minutes to listen to Kitty Pryde blather on about mystical kingdoms thick with "bamfs". The split allowed at least this one X-fan to breathe a sigh of relief, even if the bamfs were genuinely cute as all hell:

Excalibur is no less lunatic. Within the first issue, their lighthouse base has been blown to pieces by a militant canary suicide bomber who talks like Tweety Pie (his name? "Hard-Boiled Henry", though naturally he pronounces it "Henwy"). Every plot line involves either what Davis believes constitutes British mysticism (despite being English himself, Davis' first nine issues on the title make very little real use of the setting, beyond a few insider references, such as naming somewhere after Walmington-On-Sea) or a ridiculous cross-dimensional set-up. Or both. Terrible puns abound. An issue in which Captain Britain is (briefly) put on trial by the Captain Britain Corps is named "Witless For The Prosecution". An Iron Man and Punisher from a universe in which the dominant life forms are lizards are called "Dino Steel" and - and this is painful to write - "Punisaur".

Even when the action gets going, and the Anti-Phoenix and Necrom show up to destroy, well, everything, there's still time for Captain Britains on motorbikes and unicycles (the former sprouting the world's least convincing Brooklyn accent). I have to admit, some of these jokes are actually so bad they're good, or so incongruous I laughed out loud in sheer surprise.

The problem is that the book keeps undercutting itself. It is notoriously difficult to write something which needs to be both funny and project a sense of risk and not have the two elements work against each other (see posts 1 through 376 477 of my series "Fuck off, Russell T Davies"). Davis can't manage the trick. The result is a mildly diverting, sporadically amusing romp of no real substance, even in a nine-issue arc that's building to a threatened apocalypse.

I don't mean to sound too down on it. It's a very '80s book, with all that entails, and on that level it more or less works. Interestingly, though, these issues are from 1991 and 1992. I can't help but wonder how much of the love old hands profess for this run has to do with the book in isolation, and how much of it comes down to Excalibur's defiant silliness acting as a respite from all the ludicrous muscle-flexing and blood-letting that was creeping into the other X titles. In an era where Rob Liefeld could destroy one of the twin towers without pausing for thought, I can see how the (by modern standards) lightweight Excalibur would come as a welcome relief. I wonder how many people actually read Excalibur without reading at least one other mutant-related book, actually, and whether it genuinely could stand on its own rather than as aside.

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