Spanning 1989-1991, The Cross Time Caper was where Excalibur began its descent into mediocrity. Their introduction, gathered in The Sword is Drawn, presented superhero adventures with a surreal comedic tone, featuring an awkwardly matched cast whose interactions were as much fun as the odd foes they faced. Alan Davis’ superbly intuitive art was attractive, and with very few exceptions there’s little to recommend anything here where he’s not involved.

Chris Claremont’s plot has Excalibur board a train that’s shunted across the dimensions to different worlds with different outlooks. It’s meant to be whimsically funny, but even at the time it came across as rambling, and time hasn’t rendered it any more entertaining. When the brief sequences set back on Excalibur’s Earth are more interesting than the feature spectacle, there’s something severely wrong. Highlights are stories featuring incompetent galactic mercenaries the Technet, and one where Nightcrawler is recast as Warlord of Mars. Davis co-plots, and both creators have a ball throwing in everything they’ve ever loved about old-fashioned fantasy stories. In X-Men continuity Claremont had already established Nightcrawler’s love of swordfights and swashbuckling fantasy so it’s a magnificent match for character as well as creators. Unfortunately, it also highlights how uninspired so much of the surrounding material is as we meet yet one alternative Captain Britain after another. The idea of a Nazi version, for instance, is inherently interesting, yet you’ll not think so after reading the story, and as for the manga pastiche, what were they thinking?

A continuing notable feature is the characterisation of a still young Kitty Pryde, mooning over supporting character Alastaire Stuart, who in turn has his sights set on her team-mate Phoenix, and a Judge Dredd pastiche has its moments. Having long worn out its welcome, the way Claremont and Davis conclude the title story is clever, but it’s thirteen chapters, and under half of them show any inspiration. Bizarrely, once it’s concluded Claremont immediately turns in another alternate universe story warping reality, this drawn by what seems like a mouth-watering combination of Barry Windsor-Smith inked by Bill Sienkiewicz, but neither was inspired.

Of the assorted other creators providing fill-in work, and there are a lot of them, the best art is provided by Colleen Doran, Rick Leonardi and Dave Ross, while almost the only coherent guest writing is the work of Dana Moreshead. Some of the other art is so poor, so distorted and so lacking in the basics that it’s not of professional standard.

Only Davis emerges from this collection with any real credit, and it’s a shame that pages and pages of his wonderful art (sample page) are sunk in this at times almost unreadable content. If you really must have this, at least minimise your cost by sourcing cheap used copies of The Cross-Time Caper Books 1 and 2.