Monday, 10 December 2007

Grumble: Frank Tieri's New Excalibur

This is a bit of an updated version of a large post I put up on Comic Book Resources earlier in the year. A couple of people have requested that I post it up here.

Responses to Chris Claremont's Excalibur relaunch of 2005, under the title of ‘New Excalibur’ have been polar, to say the least. I personally did not initially mind the title, as it at least brought an Excalibur title back from the dead – which was set in Britain. The cast wasn’t quite what I wanted, but it showed some promise. Unfortunately, through a combination of editorial requested changes and the untimely departure of Claremont from the book through ill-health the book began to lose its way.

The finest example of this – in my opinion - being the wild contrast of approach in Marvel hiring Frank Tieri to fill in for Claremont, during his absence.

Here is that post in full:

So, now that Frank Tieri has finally finished his seven issue fill in run on New Excalibur I have been thinking quite a lot over what has transpired, and wanted to bounce around some ideas with you guys over the overall successes and failures of the series. I considered doing this over Christmas, but with the final issue yet to hit the press that seemed a little presumptuous. So, now we have the finished article, and yes that means that if you haven’t read #16 there’s going to be spoilers.

For those of you who didn’t know Frank Tieri took over New Excalibur as fill-in writer with #9 after Chris Claremont was taken ill, and unfortunately had to take some lengthy leave. At the time Claremont left he had only solidly written up to #5 (Or was it six?) and Frank Tieri was quickly announced as his temporary replacement. However, Tieri chose not to write issues #6-8, which Claremont had plotted, as he did not feel he was the right person to do them justice, and so that fell to New X-Men writer Chris Yost.

As Tieri took over the title it sat, still very much in its infancy as a title, but just about having established its setting and the purpose of the team. It wasn’t perfect, but even re-reading #8 recently, I feel it was probably the most complete and grounded issue up to that point, and felt like the title knew where it was and where it could go.

Now, upon taking on New Excalibur Tieri did an interview for Newsarama promising that while he was ‘filling in’ this run wasn’t going to be ‘filler’. I might be paraphrasing slightly there, but that’s how I remember it. He promised two guest appearances of characters who would feature during his run, and have the possibility to stay with the team beyond it: Chamber and the Black Knight. He was certainly good at talking the talk in interview and genuinely built up a bit of interest from readers who wanted to see those characters, but who did not necessarily buy New Excalibur. New readers are always good.

So, with his tenure at an end this month, how did it all pan out? Did it live up to the hype?

The one thing which impressed me the most about this run was that Tieri seemed to have a genuine interest in working on individual characters, some of whom had received some criticism in how they had been written in the series so far. The obvious example would be Nocturne. Now whether it was from the dialogue which Claremont gave to TJ or the redesign that Michael Ryan came up with for her, a number of fans here and elsewhere were quite unhappy with TJ’s portrayal. As an eXile she was always sure of herself - capable and mature for her years. The dimension she came from was infinitely tougher than the traditional Marvel universe. Both it, and her time with the exiles, had shaped her into a seasoned warrior; an Amazon like fighter, who was very much capable of taking care of herself. This was not so much the case on New Excalibur. She seemed much more vulnerable here, more under threat. And certainly younger in attitude and appearance.

If there is one thing that Tieri did for Nocturne it was to give her back some of the spark she used to have, showing her unafraid of a little confrontation and a bit more outgoing in conversation. He also brought back the Hex Bolts, very much absent in this series, so far. Now while some fans will argue over the scientific logic of that being possible I see that as a vast improvement. In New Excalibur so far Nocturne has pretty much been a one trick pony in battle. Her possession ability is greatly useful, but there’s only so many times it can be done without wearing thin, and also it gives her a little bit of much needed firepower, in battle. At least she has a way of defending herself now.

The Juggernaut is also a strong example, of this kind of development. His transition to ‘good guy’ may have happened a couple of years ago now, but it was a shift which did leave an awful lot more questions unanswered. This is a guy who drew his power from being the earthly avatar of a demigod, who has killed people, and has committed continuous criminal acts over a very long time. How does somebody like that go straight? Can they even? I don’t think you can entirely blame Claremont for continuing to paint Cain as a reformed criminal suffering serious guilt and rage issues. That was where the character was, when he inherited him. Maybe in time Chris would have taken Cain down the line of being manipulated by Cyttorak (as Tieri has done) but let’s be honest, he did not really have the chance to do much of anything with him during his initial run.

If nothing else, what Tieri has done is to force those questions out into the open, and give Cain a clearer sense of inner conflict for the future. He’s always going to be drawn to Cyttorak’s promise of power, almost like a drug. Can he ever reform from that? Can any team he’s on ever truly trust him? It certainly makes the Juggernaut more interesting than before. It also kind of brings the Cyttorak section of his life to a close for the time being.

Other characters have also had some nice moments during his run, such as Dazzler responses to TJ in the last issue, and sage has had her moments two, but I guess for a whole host of new readers the main carrot on the end of the stick was the return of the Black Knight. Dane was a natural inclusion on this title. His placing on board New Excalibur was, in many ways, more logical than some of the mutant inclusions on this team. A previous, all be it temporary, Excalibur member, and one of Brian’s oldest friends. Certainly at a time where Brian should be grieving both the loss of his Wife, and the disappearance of his Twin Sister he could certainly use somebody to confide in – and when the person on the team you know best is Wisdom, you might want to look a little further afield for a confidant.

So yes, a logical inclusion and some strong individual character work. But while that was a strength of this run I do also feel that it was also a weakness.

As I said at the start of this post, New Excalibur is a title which, even now, but certainly six months ago, is still finding its feet. Claremont introduced the purpose of the team, but did not really get the chance to build upon it, to the point which everybody really got it.

The mood of post M-Day Britain was very much intended to be a dark one. For criminals and organized villains Britain looks like easy pickings right now. Hence why Black Air have crawled out of the woodwork, for the first time in almost a decade. Britain was supposed to be in chaos and under a definite threat. And that is why there’s a need for a ‘new’ Excalibur. Claremont’s run showed us this, to a degree, but in order to convince the majority of fans that this was the tone, that really had to continue to be shown in more detail, to hammer the point home.

My chief problem with the seven issues which Teiri wrote is that he did not do that. There were no villains, not even stories set within New Excalibur’s Britain to back up the concept. One of the problems with having such a strong concentration on individual character work in this run, I feel, is that while it has looked a little harder at the characters of New Excalibur it has also, at the same time, detracted from New Excalibur as a Team. The tone and purpose which Chris Claremont had been developing has been kind of pushed away from the book, through seven issues of not having embraced it.

Not totally removed from it just… well, ignoring it and dodging around it, as much as possible.

And to some fans, those who read this title purely to see their favourite character in action, that’s fine. But for people like me, who has always read this title, and its predecessors, for the team and its context, that’s a bit of a let down. For this entire concept to work the reader needs to feel that the UK is under threat. But since #9 it really hasn’t been – and it should be.

This is coupled with my second chief grumble about Tieri’s run. Not only did Excalibur kind of abandon their purpose in the last seven issues, they also lost their sense of place. This is after all, as with all bar one book to use the Excalibur title, a book set in Britain. In the first three issues of New Excalibur that was made pretty clear, in dialogue, setting and through the artwork. Michael Ryan genuinely spent a lot of time getting the background art right, on a streets and houses level. The ‘permanent cloud’ feel which the inks and colours supplied on those issues also really help to establish that, and the atmospheric tone as well.

I think it’s no coincidence that after returning from his break in #6 Ryan never quite reached this level of detail again, bar perhaps #8. When he returned to the book Claremont was on leave. I really get the feeling, as with the so many of his former artists, Claremont left very specific instructions of what he wanted to see in the background. The timing of Ryan’s drop in attention level, and the timing of Chris’ departure seem to be just too close for it to be a coincidence.

It’s not so much that Tieri’s run chose to stay away from DEALING with Britain, in a post M-Day context, it’s more that it avoided dealing with it entirely – removing the stories from the setting at some great lengths – a different continent, even a different time period!As Chris Claremont said during an interview at the launch of New Excalibur:

Originally Posted by Chris Claremont’
“A great many fans made clear that - while they appreciated and enjoyed the stories we were telling on Genosha — they did not appreciate what they felt was the misappropriation of the brand-identity of Excalibur,” Claremont said. “In other words, the Genosha series might have been more welcomed had it been differently titled. To those readers, Excalibur means England-Captain Britain - connections to OtherWorld - a visual and story-telling aesthetic more in keeping with the original series by me and Alan Davis.”

In any Excalibur title the setting is the lynchpin of the book. It’s practically a character itself, and sadly, in this run, it’s a character which has barely featured at all. In fact its only real appearance was to turn up for issues 10-12, to be lampooned and laughed at. You can’t leave it out.

The whole comic book medium is American centric. That isn’t a slur, or a note of condemnation, by the way. Not at all. It’s just from the Golden Age of Comics onwards that’s where the grounding has always been. In fact when Chris Claremont and Herbe Trimpe first wrote Captain Britain in the mid 70s there were no real British Superheroes. Our comic book medium was very different – grounded more in Space, and Sci-fi and detective stories. There had been more popular characters like Dan Dare or Judge Dredd – but these never fitted the Superhero aesthetic. That was firmly grounded with characters with secret identities, operating out of American Cities and overly dramatic alliteration…

That’s where people expect a comic book story to take place, by default. An American city, probably New York, maybe Chicago. It is therefore necessary, when you are writing a story outside of the USA to make it implicitly clear that you ARE outside of the USA. You have to show the differences, you have to make it clear, even if that means romanticising the situation slightly – you have to sell it!

New Excalibur, in all honesty, had not yet managed that when Tieri came on board – but it was getting there. Again, my problem with avoiding this, as with the function of Excalibur as a team, is that by doing that you force it aside, and away.

The original Excalibur painted a very definite picture from its very start. Partly that was down to the incredible detail of Alan Davis’ art, but it’s not something which only he can do. It’s just good attention to the differences. The things which mark America and Britain apart. And sometimes it’s the smallest things – Cars, products, shops, and advertising hoardings. Rain! The little things that, as you walk down any street, give away where you are.

We had that in the first 3 issues, but we haven’t really had it since. During Tieri’s tenure we haven’t really had it at all. It really does need highlighting, and making plain to people. Without that you just end up with that horrible compromise, very much like scenes from #13, where you have very generic American buildings, painted brightly in glorious sunshine, with the very occasional British landmark thrown in in a lame attempt to fool the reader. The artwork doesn’t need to be precise; it just needs to be obviously British, and to embrace the feel of the environment. That’s something which I feel has been absent over the last seven issues. And in some cases the errors which occur I find to be a little frustrating. In general British buildings aren't as tall as you’re used to across the Atlantic, and in many cases a few hundred years older. I find it even harder to excuse not knowing how to draw London in particular. It's not like there aren’t a million guide books out there.

I can live with some of the smaller less important things. Chamber’s hospital from #9 did not look like a British hospital. Did that matter? Not really. But whilst it may have escaped Frank’s attention, British jails are old, and grimy, the guards are NOT armed with rifles (Firearms are only carried by specific firearms units in the UK, as gun licensing is infinitely stricter here), dressed like US Marshals, and the prisoners do not wear jumpsuits or have their hair shaved. Tieri might not know that. He’s not British, sure. But even a quick search under the words ‘British Prison’ on Google yielded me with these results:

Granted, these photos are quite old, but worryingly enough our prisons really haven’t changed a lot in the last 50 years…

I can also brush aside the logic of Wisdom and Sage leaving Camelot and making a journey on horseback, across desert landscape, which takes minutes when it should have taken hours. But it should perhaps be pointed out that there is no desert terrain in Britain. It’s a damp and green country. And especially when you consider that Camelot would have stood in what at the time was part of Wales it’s even more ridiculous. Wales is probably the dampest area of the UK. It’s full of wet, green, hills and valleys.

Definitely no deserts.

As a Brit I could buy into Claremont's run as feeling mostly like it was set over here. It didn't look right in many places, but the tone and surroundings fitted. Tieri's run felt like it was set in New York, complete with American style Penitentiaries, and American Villains. I found that very distracting, and big step backwards in terms of the title's identity.

But, I suppose, in all fairness Frank Tieri is not British, and I’m sure that some will argue that he would not know things like this. Some might argue that I should not expect him to.

The problem for me is that Marvel’s Britain is a very specific environment. I think New Excalibur has an awful lot of potential within that. Whoever is writing the book has a vast landscape to play with, much as say Warren Ellis has on Newuniversal. Marvel’s Britain is practically a universe in its own right. It had an imprint with more titles then the New Universe ever had, and ran on and off for 20 years. There is plenty potential waiting to be tapped, and re-invented after almost a decade of obscurity, and most of which would not have effected any of Claremont’s existing plots, but could have spawned British-based stories to reinforce the themes and setting of New Excalibur.

Sadly that didn’t happen.

When I think of the best Marvel stories set in Britain recently, I think of 21st Century Blitz by Ed Brubaker in the pages of Captain America, Paul Cornell’s Wisdom limited series, and Christos’ Gage’s recent Union Jack series. All three of those stories embraced Marvel’s Britain with respect and firmly ‘got’ what it looked like, felt like and meant to be there. And only one of those writers is British…

To me, while Chris Claremont’s New Excalibur felt to me like it was also part of that same landscape Frank Tieri’s New Excalibur simply did not. And I think that’s a shame, because Tieri is by no means a bad writer, he just chose not to research that landscape and work within it. His New Excalibur neatly avoided contact, maybe through fear of getting it wrong, maybe because he just didn’t have the time. Who can say? But I feel that’s a real shame.

The stories told instead were not exactly bad stories. It’s just that, to me, they did not feel as if they really fitted into this book. The Chamber issue, first off, barely featured Excalibur at all. It actually surprised me that this issue did not work as I had hoped. On paper it’s all there – A British mutant, depowered by M-Day, returning home to appear in a book about Britain in crisis because of M-Day. On paper there is no reason why that should or even could go wrong.

But it did. And it did firstly because Tieri focussed almost the whole issue on healing Jono, via the Clan Akkabba – a set of villains who he did not even explain properly in the issue (Even though many readers WILL know who they are). And secondly because at no point did Tieri bring this story back to Britain, M-Day or Excalibur’s role with either or both. This issue felt like such a waste to me, in the end. Maybe the hype of interview raised my expectations a little too far, but I just felt this issue to be such a huge wasted opportunity. Chamber and Excalibur could have meshed so well and so easily, but instead this issue comes off as little more than a writer using a book which doesn’t fit to save his pet character. That too is a shame.

The follow up arc with the Black Knight pleased me much more. Setting up this in-depth explanation of the character in a quite organic way was great. But ultimately I felt let down here also. So much work put in only to have Dane leave in #15 – still not having helped Brian to open up about the recent losses of both Meggan and Psylocke. Such a waste. Even if Dane was going to stay beyond #15 Tieri should have taken this opportunity.

Instead the Camelot arc serves to do little more than send up Great Britain, make Pete Wisdom look like a fool, and unfortunately shows several inconsistencies with past Arthurian legend in Marvel Comics.

I have to say that considering Tieri very deliberately wanted to stay away from areas Chris Claremont had been working on the decision to deal with something so tied into Otherworld, Merlyn and the Captain Britain mythos did surprise me. But it did seem, as the story panned out, that Frank probably did not realise this. For example much as though Tieri acknowledged that Captain Britain would someday meet Arthur’s ghost, he did not at any point acknowledge the past between Brian and Merlyn. Merlyn, whose role as monarch of Otherworld Brian now possesses. Merlyn who brought Brian back to life after he was killed by The Fury. Merlyn who turned Brian into Captain Britain in the first place…

This story comes across as Tieri trying to do something wacky – much like I’m sure he sees in early original Excalibur. This is probably his version of a similar concept to characters like the Crazy Gang, and stories like the Cross-time Caper. Sadly, and I think not realising, he has picked a legend already amply covered by Marvel, and linked more to both Excalibur and Captain Britain than he realised.

As I said earlier I do not fault his Juggernaut arc too much. It’s been well-written and really HAD to be done, to give Cain the edge he really should have had ever since he first tried to reform. I’m fairly pleased with that. If I had to criticise the only fault I could find with it, in all honesty, was that it was a bit rushed. To move from one issue showing that Cain is a bit down about no longer being quite so ‘unstoppable’ now, to the following issue running off to Asia to return to being under Cyttorak’s thrall is a bit of a leap of faith to ask of the reader, in that space of time. Especially as through the rest of the series there hasn’t really been any hint of this.

But like I say, the addition to Cain as a character is definitely welcome. I may have been a little rushed, but at least it’s been done.Having put down New Excalibur #15, and having re-read what I have written over this post I actually find myself surprised with how much I didn’t like about Frank Tieri’s run. I can recall my defending several issues of this run on this very forum, and yet overall I was disappointed with it. That is odd. I also believe that Frank Tieri is a good writer. When I think what else of his I have read lately I think of the The Darkness/Wolverine one shot which I thought was great, or Civil War: War Crimes which I read last week. I was particularly impressed with the sheer strength of character work on both Tony Stark and Wilson Fisk. Very strong, greatly enjoyable.

And I think that’s when it hit me.

Anybody who has ever attended a Creative Writing Class will know that one of the first things you are taught is to take your character and ask yourself three things:

  • 1) Who are they?
  • 2) Where are they?
  • 3) What are they doing?

As far as New Excalibur is concerned I find it a little disappointing that, by and large, Tieri didn’t get much beyond question one. But maybe it was his skill at asking that which was the larger part of his brief on this run. Frank Tieri is incredibly good at writing character pieces. He's done that on several Marvel titles, and he certainly did that in New Excalibur. Give him a story to write in a set up which everybody understands, and accepts, and he’ll do a great character led story. But when it comes to actually creating a setting, or reinforcing one in people’s minds, I don’t think that’s his strongest suit. Even in War Crimes he didn’t really deal with the background of the story – it is partially taken as read that because you’re reading that book you’ve probably read most of the rest of Civil War, too. Re-establishing the setting and context is not as important there.

Tieri did a lot of good character work on individuals for New Excalibur, but not so much for the book itself, in my eyes. I think it’s clear he was picked as fill in to perform what he’s good at. Unfortunately I think New Excalibur, in that fledgling state it kind of became trapped in during Claremont’s absence, really needed something a bit more.

Well, That’s my incredibly long winded take on it all. Anybody else? Discuss. It’s been eating my brain for a few months, and I needed to share.

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