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Meta-Messages – The Claremont/Byrne Crossover “Battle”

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In this feature I explore the context behind (using reader danjack’s term) “meta-messages.” A meta-message is where a comic book creator comments on/references the work of another comic book/comic book creator (or sometimes even themselves) in their comic. Each time around, I’ll give you the context behind one such “meta-message.” Here is an archive of the past installments!

Today, based on a suggestion from reader Smokescreen, we take a look at an amusing piece of meta-commentary by Chris Claremont and Alan Davis about Claremont and John Byrne’s rival Marvel crossovers from the late 1980s.

It is interesting to look back now, when the company-wide comic book crossover has become such an ingrained part of our comic book culture, that there was a time when they were a true novelty. When Marv Wolfman and George Perez began Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, few titles wanted to tie in with the crossover, figuring it wouldn’t be of much use to them. By the time the series concluded, practically every DC comic had a tie-in.

Soon, being the person in charge of the company wide crossover became a real feather in your cap, a tradition that has continued to this day.

But up until 1989, Marvel had only had one company-wide crossover driven by one person, and that was Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter’s Secret Wars II (the original Secret Wars was a slightly different format).

In 1988 and earlier in 1989, Marvel used their annuals for a companywide crossover, but there was no central writer behind either the Evolutionary War or Atlantis Attacks.

That changed with 1989′s Inferno, which spun out of Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run and was coordinated by Claremont (Claremont had been involved in both Evolutionary War and Atlantis Attacks). Later in 1989, John Byrne (who had played a significant role in Atlantis Attacks upon his return to Marvel after finishing his run on the Superman titles at DC Comics) took his spot at the head of the crossover class with Acts of Vengeance, which spun out of the Avengers books, which were both written by Byrne at the time.

One major companywide crossover followed so shortly by ANOTHER major companywide crossover was a big deal at the time, and it was something that Claremont did not let pass without some commentary in the pages of Excalibur #14, written by Claremont and Alan Davis and drawn by Davis and Paul Neary.

The cover of the comic parodied Marvel’s Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe…

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The issue was part of the long-running Cross-Time Caper storyline, where Excalibur traveled all over Marvel’s Multiverse to various interesting alternate Earths.

This Earth is basically a parody of companywide crossovers, with Byrne’s “Acts of Vengeance” crossover being spotlighted in particular (it hadn’t even BEGUN yet, oddly enough, but already Claremont was teasing it – the idea of Acts of Vengeance was that all the biggest bad guys got together and decided to organize a calculated assault on the world’s superheroes by having villains trade off and fight heroes they normally wouldn’t fight)…

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Finally, we see that this world is being controlled by two men, one wearing an X and one an A, who keep trying to top each other…

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In the end, Galactus decides to destroy this Earth because it is just too silly…

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We then learn that it was created by this universe’s Impossible Man.

In any event, this was some cute commentary by Claremont and Davis on the inherent silliness of companywide crossovers (they are awesome, though, even if they are silly).

This is not the end of the Byrne-related Meta-Messages in Excalibur, by the way, but that’s for another time! So don’t discuss it in the comments.

However, if you have an idea for ANOTHER Meta-Messages, feel free to drop me a line at bcronin@comicbookresources.com. Thanks again to Smokescreen for this week’s suggestion!

34 Comments

I always got the impression this was them actually getting back to their proper reality, they just didn’t realize it because they were on some weird Impossible Man created universe in space.

Gotta love the panel with “Claremont” and “Byrne”, both of them surrounded by their favourite fetish characters (the White Queen for the former, She-Hulk for the latter). Claremont wasn’t trying to be too subtle with the parody here…

Issues like this is why I couldn’t stand Excalibur, despite the gorgeous Alan Davis art. Too many gags, too confusing, too self-referential. It all felt like an in-joke I wasn’t privy too. Worse, it took characters I cared about – Kittye Pryde and Nightcrawler – and from the X-Men and squandrered them in a sideshow.

@Kellogg I did not notice anything like that, but then I only read the first ten issues or so. Thought those were quite strong.

Kellogg, Cross Time lasted way to long but at least we got great Alan Davis art, so looks amazing!

Correction: I meant “away from the X-men.”

As I think about it, I wonder if, in the late 80s/early 90s, on X-Men (and to an extent, New Mutants) Claremont was under stronger supervision and in Excalibur he had freer rein? It was out of the mainstream of the Marvel Universe – almost aggressively so, as shown above – and so less need to conform to whatever house style Shooter or his successor expected from flagship titles. Excalibur reads like Claremont unedited.

I also think there was a lot of Alan Davis influence in the goofy plots. I read an interview somewhere where he said he preferred whimsical science fiction to straight ahead super hero books (despite his genius for the latter). You can see that clearly in Clandestine, which he writes.

And lets not forget that Excalibur was pretty much a continuation of Captain Britain (which Alan David had also written, alongside Moore, Delano, Thorpe etc): beside Meggan and Captain Britain, the setting and several villains were imported from that series, and so was the whimsical mood.

I only read Excalibur for a couple of years (I pretty much gave up superhero comics altogether for most of the 1990s), but I remember at the time it felt like a breath of fresh air when compared to the other X-titles, which had gotten increasingly dark and agsty with stories like Mutant Massacre, Fall of the Mutants, Inferno, etc. I was glad there was at least one title that didn’t take itself too seriously.

Yes. But since it was a continuation of something I never read – and was unlikely to ever read, given it wasn’t widely available in the US – just reinforced the idea that it was for insiders. ie, not for me.

Not sure I knew that that was Byrne and Claremont when I first read the issue. Now that I know, I kind of wonder where Byrne’s short haired fetish girls are.

I agree with Kellogg. Even though Tuomas is right that post-Mutant Massacre the main X-books got too dark, self-serious, and angsty, Excalibur was problematic in the opposite extreme. Not only was it a bit too goofy, but it just wasn’t anywhere as funny as it seemed to think it was. Or maybe my problem is that like you I didnt get a lot of what it was referencing, which kept me from being able to fully enjoy the jokes. The humor had something of a self-congratulatory air that I just found off-putting.

Are Claremont and Byrne still friends? Or do they hate eachother?

One major problem with Excalibur was that Claremont didn’t clearly explain a lot of things from the British series. For example, I was completely confused by what the Crazy Gang were supposed to be- robots created by Arcade? I also couldn’t figure out if Saturnyne and Sat-yr-9 were supposed to be the same person with the name spelt differently or alternate reality counterparts of the same person. Of course, I later found out the answers but it was annoying for Claremont to refer to stories that weren’t available in the US at the time and not explain things.

It’s nice that Claremont throws himself under the same bus as Byrne.

Never read this but clearly I should. Crazy stuff and that art! Wow.

@Bengan
They worked together on JLA 94-99 in 2004.

I loved this book when it came out but I’m kind of afraid to revisit it. I’d only been reading comics for a couple of years when Excalibur started coming out. I was only reading a handful of books, and didn’t think in terms of different comics being written by different people, so while I actually did notice some of Claremont’s writing tics (I remember my best friend and I joking about people saying “to coin a phrase” and “no quarter given”) I had no idea they were a specific person’s style, as opposed to just the way comics or possibly fiction in general were.

Decades later I’ve read probably thousands of comics by dozens of different creators and whenever I read Claremont’s stuff, every “bang, you dead” and “nigh invulnerable” is like an audible thud. I vaguely recall Excalibur being a little better than his usual stuff because I don’t think his characters speak as stiltedly when they’re trying to be funny instead of cool, but I’m afraid that if I pulled out my old issues, I’d just think “I used to think this was the best book around?”

Comic Book Evangelist

May 17, 2014 at 10:40 pm

I reckon it is well worth your time to re-read your old Excalibur issues, even with the negativity from previous posters. I did so a few months back and enjoyed them even more than I did the first time around, especially the issues from #41 when Alan Davis both writes and draws. It is during that run we see the origins of Phoenix and Meggan (and see her true form), learn the reason Excalibur was formed in the first place and have fun with Nightcrawler as he forms his “Uncanny N-Men”.

Perhaps the problem with the humour is that it is quite “British” in nature, with a heap of wordplay, satire and general silliness. I saw it as the equivalent of the hilarious TV series Fawlty Towers and Monty Python’s Flying Circus and so loved it ! I know this sort of humour is not as popular in the USA as it is in the UK and Australia (where those of us born in the 70s were raised on a steady diet of UK comedy shows like the aforementioned, along with the Goodies and Kenny Everett) and that may account for the difference in opinion.

Perhaps the problem with the humour is that it is quite “British” in nature, with a heap of wordplay, satire and general silliness. I saw it as the equivalent of the hilarious TV series Fawlty Towers and Monty Python’s Flying Circus and so loved it ! I know this sort of humour is not as popular in the USA as it is in the UK and Australia (where those of us born in the 70s were raised on a steady diet of UK comedy shows like the aforementioned, along with the Goodies and Kenny Everett) and that may account for the difference in opinion.

Interestingly enough, I love British humor. I actually like British humor better than American. Ab Fab, The Young Ones, Blackadder, Keeping Up Appearances, Man About the House, The Royle Family, and many others. Whenever a British show is remade as an American sitcom I tend not to like it. I love the British version of the Office but can’t sit through even one episode of the American Office. I can’t speak for the other naysayers, but it wasn’t any perceived Britishness on my part that kept me from finding it funny. The self-congratulatory, extra goofy inside-joke vibe that bugged me didn’t seem particularly British to me. Brian Azzarello’s Doctor 13 had the same vibe to me, and he’s from Cleveland.

How is it both Claremont and Byrne would write wonderful stories in the 70s and 80s, but haven’t done much that impressed me since the ’90s? I mean, just look at Claremont’s current Nightcrawler series – it’s just page filler. Just like Byrne’s Triple helix and Star trek

I reread the entire 125 issue run a few years ago, and I thought it held up rather well. My favorite eras were the Alan Davis / Mark Farmer and Warren Ellis.

There are some rough patches like the three issue Avengers West Coast story and the fill ins between Cross Time but I liked the series as a whole.

I do like how DC got Claremont Byrne Austin on the JLA and those three had the great idea to sabotage the franchise with a horrible vampire arc. They were so bold and just having a fun go with the characters

@LGBoex Like all of us, they got older and time marched on. No one stays on top of their game forever.

@kdu2814
While it is true they did the JLA arc, I’m not quite sure you can call what Chris and John did was working together.

John came up with a plot for a JLA story and it was then that Mike Carlin requested Claremont script it. John said okay but he insisted on plotting/penciling every issue before Chris even saw a single page. If I remember right, JB and Chris maybe talked once on the phone during that period but even that might be a mistaken memory on my part.

The art looks really well suited for a comedy book moreso than a superhero one.

” I agree with Kellogg. Even though Tuomas is right that post-Mutant Massacre the main X-books got too dark, self-serious, and angsty, Excalibur was problematic in the opposite extreme. Not only was it a bit too goofy, but it just wasn’t anywhere as funny as it seemed to think it was. Or maybe my problem is that like you I didnt get a lot of what it was referencing, which kept me from being able to fully enjoy the jokes. The humor had something of a self-congratulatory air that I just found off-putting. ”

I suppose Wolverine and the X-Men would be history repeating itself…

Like some of you, I never “got it” either when I was reading these as a teenager; I also remember the Cross Time Caper almost driving me from the book back then because I felt like I was missing something.

Today, getting the bits, it does make a difference and for a decidedly different read IMHO. Not understanding the Byrne/Claremont relationship back then but knowing it today does alter how the issue itself reads (and knowing more about comics in general alters how the arc reads and how I interpret what they were trying to do with it, which was way over my head at the time they wrote this), so maybe give it another shot if you haven’t looked at it in a while.

In any case, thanks Brian for featuring this.

This is one of my all time favorite issues of Excalibur. Lots and lots of brilliant parodies & visual gags by Chris Claremont & Alan Davis. I’m especially fond of the panel when Kitty Pryde told off a Dalek :)

Smokescreen – you may be right. For example even rereading this entry as an adult, I got a lot more out of it than I ever got out of reading Excalibur as a kid at the time. You not only needed to know a lot about the British Captain Britain comics but about Marvel history as well. For example I recently read the Silver Age Captain America, Avengers, and Hulk, so I recently know about Rick Jones’s weird, masochistic codependent relationships with superheroes and how he was so desperate to be partnered with a superhero he was almost like an abused wife. That knowledge makes the jokes above work pretty well, whereas as a kid I wouldn’t have gotten it because Rick Jones was very different by then.

LGB, I think Byrne and Claremont just brought out the best in each other (Cockrum did the same for Claremont). Apart, they’re not as effective by a long shot.
I agree that as a couple of people said above, Excalibur relied a lot on obscure continuity and didn’t really explain it well.

@T-no “almost” about it. This site has pictures of several times Hulk hit Rick:
http://www.supermegamonkey.net/2008/03/how_is_rick_jones_still_alive.shtml
And that’s not even all of them.

I also didn’t get everything that was in EXCALIBUR at the time, but that didn’t make me like it any less.

One of the many perks of a publisher respecting continuity, like Marvel still did at that time, was that stuff hinted at that I still didn’t know only made me want to know more.

Also, Alan Davis was and still is a god to me. I’m not the kind of fan that favours art over writing, but If there is one artist that makes me like everything he does, that artist is Alan Davis.

And Chris Claremont was at least a demigod to me. Yes, I kept noticing that his stories over at Uncanny X-Men were not as good as they used to be, but it always seemed like the new series he started, like Excalibur and New Mutants, started with him “fresh”, as it were.

But yeah, it took me some re-readings to get some of the references. For instance, Goliath being locked into a monumental height is a reference to a an old Avengers storyline, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, I think. Hank Pym used to get trapped at an enhanced size. This story plays with alternate timelines, and I always imagined that in this Earth Hank Pym’s problem only worsened.

As for Byrne and Claremont’s relationship, my understanding is that it’s quite bad today. It seems like the list of comic book people that aren’t on Byrne’s hate-list is very small. I remember him saying that it was a mistake for DC to try to reunite him and Claremont.

I always thought of them like another Lennon/McCartney partnership, or Lee/Kirby. Creatively, they bring the best out of each other, but the relationship is unstable, was unstable from day one, and it only got worse with time.

Not the only reason they’re not as good today, though. The sad truth is that most creative people have a peak period of 10-20 years. They’re rarely as good later. It may not be that their talents have diminished, but that tastes and the world change too much, and few of them are able to re-invent themselves and keep fresh. Some of them, like Alan Moore, were so good at their peak that even later they’re still impressive, but there is always a reduction.

I agree that a more fun title like Excalibur was needed. The problem with it is that most of the Captain Britain mythos is pretty lame. Heck, other than when he got the Union Jack costume look, Captain Britain is pretty lame. Slightly grumpy, but not excessively, and blander than the blandest Steve Rogers after that. Megan was more interesting than Captain Britain was. Ill defined powers, ill defined world. More fit in with fantasy and Dr. Strange than a science superhero world. Endless threats that all sound the same and aren’t distinct enough visually to be memorable.

I bought The Cross-Time Caper out of quarter bins several years ago and gave it a whirl. I was profoundly underwhelmed.

I’m extremely surprised to see so many people saying they don’t care for “Excalibur”. For my money, the Claremont/Davis run and the just-Davis run are some of the best comics ever made. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, I guess. I read these when I was a kid and they have stuck in my mind for life.

I hate the new article format.

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