REVIEW: X-MEN: DIE BY THE SWORD #3
WRITER: CHRIS CLAREMONT
PENCILS: JUAN SANTACRUZ & CAFU
INKS: FRENANDEZ, PEPOY & FERNANDEZ
PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS
I was so looking forward to this mini-series. Despite the fact that I have very little working knowledge of the Exiles, or the new incarnation of Excalibur, it appealed to me on many levels: Chris Claremont will always have a place in my comic-loving heart for his legendary X-Men stories that got me addicted to comics in the first place; it features three of my favourite characters of all time in Captain Britain (Brian Braddock), Psylocke (Elisabeth Braddock) and Longshot; and those covers by Jelena Devic-Djurdevic are just spectacular.
And yet – you can probably guess what’s coming next – as an overall package, the whole thing is really rather a let-down.
The concept is the sort of epic adventure that Claremont is traditionally known for, and therefore the back-story will take a little getting-through: the Omniverse, its guardian, Roma, and the Captain Britain Corps, are under attack from the combined forces of James Jaspers, the Furies, and Merlyn, Roma’s father and previous incumbent of the Starlight Citadel, who appears to be intent on re-claiming it. Meanwhile, during a party to celebrate their defeat of Albion (see: New Excalibur #18-24), the Excalibur team are visited by their colleagues from the dimension-hopping Exiles – presumably so that Betsy can let her brother know that she is still alive – conveniently just in time to face a surprise attack from a new enemy, Rouge-Mort (a bizarrely-dressed masked warrior), and her band of soldiers. Captain Britain is badly wounded in the battle, and so, deciding discretion is the better part of valour, both teams teleport back to the Exiles’ Crystal Palace base. (For the record, it’s a giant floating thing, not to be confused with a residential area in South London or the long-underachieving football team). While Brian fights for his life, news comes through that Roma is under attack. So, once again, the whole future of this, and all the other multiple Universes, is under threat, and only one – no, wait, two – team(s) can save the day.
Issue 3 really gets down to basics – instead of focussing on the grand, epic scale of the story, we get a very simple narrative split cleanly into two parts: first is a fairly standard battle sequence in front of the Starlight Citadel, with the Captain Britain Corps struggle valiantly against Jaspers and the Furies; the second features a number of dialogue-heavy scenes on the Crystal Palace as the two teams formulate their plan to save Roma and the Omniverse (oh, and there’s some phantom married couple thrown in there overseeing everything, who I believe Claremont brought in to previous issues of Exiles to play a major part in the formation of the new series, but we are provided with no such information about them here). This sort of stuff is all perfectly normal for the middle act of a story such as this – after setting up the grand themes and placing the characters in the right positions, the plot starts to move along quickly to set up the big reveal, the story complications, and then the resolution. The only thing that’s missing here is any sort of cliff-hanger.
I really try not to use this word too lightly, but Chris Claremont is to me a true legend in the world of comics, and specifically anything related to an X-title. He was writing the X-Men long before I stumbled across their adventures, and was responsible for such classic stories as ‘The Dark Phoenix Saga’ and ‘Days of Future Past.’ When I first bought an X-Men comic, he was starting to tell what is still my favourite X-story, several years in the making, in which the X-Men disappeared into the Siege Perilious, which spawned about 40 issues worth of stories in a way that I still think is pretty unique (trust me, there is no way I have room to explain all that here, but try taking a look at Uncanny X-Men from about #240-280). He is the master of developing epic plot stories that build slowly for months on end, before exploding into some sensational new adventure. I will always remember him as one of the greatest comic-book writers of all time.
While plot is the star attraction of Claremont’s work – and the idea here is serviceable enough – the dialogue and some of the basic pacing has always been rather laboured. This was never a problem for me when I was a young teenager, but generally the art of comic writing has moved on a bit since then, and I am used to something a little more sophisticated. The whole thing reads almost like a fairy tale, where every character action requires a treatise to explain it. Thankfully so far we have been able to do without Betsy waxing on about the “sum totality of her psychic powers” every other page, but there are clichés aplenty (“you threaten my little lady-friend, Bub, you answer to me!”) and preaching is rife throughout – “It’s no more than a momentary salvation… but sometimes that moment is all the time a hero needs.”
Now, there will still be plenty of fans out there who still love the way Claremont writes a comic book – and for them, this series will probably give them everything that they are looking for. But this style just doesn’t do it for me anymore. It is far too convoluted where it doesn’t need to be, while other important character development moments are skipped over completely, giving the impression that they are just serving a structural purpose, rather than really caring about each other. I desperately want these characters and stories to have grown up, but instead the whole thing feels very much stuck in the late 80s and early 90s.
The artwork is also a little disappointing. Juan Santacruz is doing some of his first Marvel work here, and it bears enough similarities to the great Excalibur alum Alan Davis to appear the right choice for this particular title. Some pages from this issue are actually his best work so far, especially in the early depictions of Roma, Saturnyne, and the pre-battle at the Starlight Citadel, and he portrays emotion fairly well. The action sequences are passable, but not particularly dynamic. As a storyteller, it’s a reasonable start, but as an artist that’s going to excite the reader, it falls short. Perhaps I’m asking for too much, but I really want to be moved by the art in some way that just doesn’t happen here.
(Oh, and one other minor artistic point: that fantastic cover to this issue has absolutely nothing to do with the interior. Dazzler and Longshot don’t actually interact at all in this issue; in fact, Longshot isn’t even in it.)
Now, we are still only half way through this series, and with two issues to go there is plenty of time for Claremont to pull something out of the bag that is truly original and exciting, setting up the New Exiles series (which is due to start with a new #1 after this series), and possibly closing the New Excalibur one (rumours seem to suggest that Paul Cornell will be taking over the Excalibur reins in one format or another, but no news is forthcoming on that score yet, and perhaps never will be.) Claremont certainly deserves to be given that chance. But at this point, I’m really not all that hopeful. As a package, it doesn’t appear to have been given the love and attention that these great characters deserve. At this point, the future of the Omniverse does not look particularly bright.