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Dec 29

Excalibur #10-15

Posted on Tuesday, December 29, 2020 by Paul in x-axis

EXCALIBUR vol 4 #10-15
#10-12 by Tini Howard, Marcus To & Erick Arciniega
#13 by Tini Howard, RB Silva & Nolan Woodard
#14 by Tini Howard & Phil Noto
#15 by Tini Howard, Mahmud Asrar, Stefano Caselli, Sunny Gho & Rachelle Rosenberg

Excalibur may be the most divisive of the current X-books. It certainly has plenty of ambition, which buys it a lot of goodwill. There’s a lot going on in this series, and there are a couple of interesting ideas being raised. But there are a lot of issues with this series that frequently make it a bit of a slog.

Although I’m going to review “X of Swords” separately, I’m counting this book’s tie-in issues as part of its regular run. “X of Swords”, after all, is basically an Excalibur and X-Men story which spills over into the other participating titles. From Excalibur’s point of view, it’s an arc about Saturnyne refusing to accept Betsy as the new Captain Britain, attempting to restore an all-Brian Captain Britain Corps instead, and winding up with an apparently-destined Corps full of alternate Betsies – seemingly wiping out the original in the process.

And, true, the crossover is also pretty important for Apocalypse, a regular character in Excalibur. It leads to him being reunited with his lost wife on Arakko, and leaving the book. But that plays more as a pay-off for storylines developed in X-Men. His desire to make contact with Arakko provides the motivation for everything he’s been doing in Excalibur, yet somehow the story itself still feels foreign to the book.

It’s not Excalibur‘s fault that the pandemic forced a lengthy break between issues #9 and #10. Objectively, that was a terrible place to pause. Issue #10 is an alternate reality story in which the real Excalibur don’t appear at all; it starts in media res with Excalibur in a London that’s now at war with Krakoa, all of which turns out to be a pocket reality created by Jamie Braddock as part of a campaign to create new Captain Britains by creating splinter timelines in which random people take up the job. It’s quite a clever issue on its own terms, with the disorientation serving a purpose and the reveal working quite effectively. But it’s not the best place to restart after a lengthy hiatus.

But… with hindsight, what the heck was all that stuff about heretical Captain Britains about? I don’t mean thematically – it’s pretty obvious what the point is thematically, and I’ll come back to that – but in terms of the plot. It’s far from clear why Jamie is trying to create these Captain Britains, or what he gets out of it. If he’s trying to create a rival power base, how did they end up in Saturnyne’s hands? Why do the alternate Captains show up in later issues trying to kill Jamie, and then just vanish from the plot completely? Perhaps they’re going to return at some point, but their abrupt disappearance is just weird.

Thematically, of course, I get why they’re there. One of this book’s recurring themes is whether Betsy is the real Captain Britain or just a stand-in who wouldn’t give the role back. All of which begs the question of what being the real Captain Britain even means. Although it’s clear that Saturnyne mainly wants Brian back for romantic reasons, she also makes the point that you can’t be a valid Captain Britain just by volunteering for the job. That’s the point of Jamie’s divergent Captain Britains – a bunch of characters who aren’t even British and have no particular connection to the place may get the powers by picking up the fallen amulet, but in no meaningful way can they serve the role of a national hero.

Saturnyne claims that Betsy is in the same camp. She doesn’t have the traditional mythical origin story. She’s a mutant, which could lead the public to reject her. But just as problematic, as a mutant, she’s Krakoan; she’s claiming to be the national hero of a country where she was born, but doesn’t live any more.

In theory this idea is quite interesting. One of the intriguing aspects of Captain America is what it even means to represent a country as diverse (in every sense) as America, and whether that’s a role that can meaningfully be performed at all. Notionally, there ought to be some mileage in asking what it means to represent Britain and – by that yardstick – whether Betsy is able to serve that role. If the role has a symbolic function above and beyond merely doing superhero things, what sort of person can serve that role?

The trouble is that while the plot unavoidably raises all those issues, there’s little if any sense in Excalibur that Tini Howard has any particular interest in the answers, except in the sense that they pose a practical obstacle to Betsy being what she wants to be. While these issues largely stay out of Britain itself, the fact remains that Excalibur shows little grasp of Britain let alone of what might or might not qualify Betsy to represent it. It’s a book where Betsy tries to talk down British soldiers by saying “In the name of Queen and Country…”; in previous issues we’ve had the queen getting directly involved in government and a story about foxhunting (which hasn’t been a hot topic in Britain for over 15 years).

Like it or not, if you’re doing a story about what it means to be Captain Britain and whether Betsy is that person, you can’t really get away from the fact that these are fractious times for British identity, that the nationalist Brexit project has dominated national politics for the last five years, and that there’s a pretty good chance that within ten years, there won’t be a Britain to be a Captain of. And approaching the question in 2020 in terms of the self-actualisation of Betsy Braddock seems, well, tin-eared at best.

Excalibur also suffers from a persistent lack of clarity that mars key moments. The plot is complex, and often in ways that seem unnecessary. Sure, looking back you can see people working towards the ingredient of a spell or whatever, but those ingredients are in themselves arbitrary, so it’s not like you ever had any real chance of figuring out what was going on at the time. It’s frequently difficult to follow what’s happening, simply on the basic level of cause and effect. The end of issue #15, in which the Captain Britain Corps return, is horrendously botched, because it’s next to impossible on a first reading to understand what’s happening or (more to the point) how it relates to anything that went before. You can figure it out with hindsight after reading the data page that follows, but by then it’s far too late for the moment to land.

Some of this, to be fair, is the result of Excalibur being overambitious with its plotting; it certainly gives the book a sense of being planned, but there’s a balance between writing a dramatic story where the readers can try to puzzle out what’s happening, and simply setting a crossword puzzle, and this book doesn’t always get that balance right. Sometimes the abstractions of the plot wind up detracting from characters reacting appropriately; I’m still far from clear why all these characters agree to go on missions for Apocalypse in the first place (especially Rogue and Gambit). Issue #14 is the point where “X of Swords” veers into surrealism, but even allowing for that, the wedding scene is simply bizarre; nobody’s reactions are remotely convincing.

Apocalypse and Rictor’s relationship works well. Rictor’s cult like devotion is a nice contrast with the rest of the group. There’s some subtlety in the combination of Apocalypse manipulating the others, and simply being a believer in his own hype – and Rictor being the one who bites on the direction being offered to him, when the others maybe weren’t so in need of that. And there are positives in the way the book tries to make sense of Otherworld; granted, it has little to do with anything much that’s come before, but Otherworld has been presented so inconsistently that I can’t get too bothered about taking a blank slate and trying to make it into some kind of functioning society.

The art is good – despite a rotating cast of artists and colourists, particularly during the crossover, it does keep a fairly consistent tone. Regular penciller Marcus To does a good job of playing up the emotion and humanising complex plots. And his Otherworld feels lived in rather than purely symbolic, something that this book very much needs to ground it. Phil Noto and Mahmud Asrar are certainly strong artists to be used on fill-ins

But Excalibur is a frustrating read. It’s harder work than it ought to be, and it’s telling stories about a country it never seems to understand.

Bring on the comments

  1. Brendan says:

    Great review! I’ve enjoyed Excalibur the most of the X-books I’m reading because of its ambition. As a 90s kid, I always liked Apocalypse and enjoy I’ve enjoyed this take on his character.

    The problem with the Captain Britain Corps is they’re functionally Green Lantern-Captain Americas. That’s a messy mash-up. To further dilute the idea, every corps member (or nearly every member depending on the story) are alternate versions of the same person. An Army of Brian Braddocks is as tedious as having an army of Hal Jordans.

    I’m not saying you can’t get a good story out of the concept. But I think a writer needs a very clear idea of what they’re trying to achieve, otherwise the story gets bogged down with all the clutter.

  2. SanityOrMadness says:

    Paul> From Excalibur’s point of view, it’s an arc about Saturnyne refusing to accept Betsy as the new Captain Britain, attempting to restore an all-Brian Captain Britain Corps instead, and winding up with an apparently-destined Corps full of alternate Betsies – seemingly wiping out the original in the process.

    Surely part of the point – and the reason why Saturnyne has to at least *pretend* to be happy with the Captain Betsy Corps – is that there *was* no CBC in the first place, the last version having been wiped out in Hickman’s Time Runs Out (as with the Nova Corps, another Marvel counterpart to the GL Corps, it’s not the only time they were used as Things Be Serious cannon fodder).

    Of course, exactly what is going on in the revival scene is… arcane at best. (Why does Blacksmith Betsy appear to have been CB all along and just get called rather than empowered by Saturnyne’s botched spell? Not helped by her looking identical to MU Betsy as she’s appeared in this book)

  3. Kenny Norman says:

    It’s funny…I honestly agree with everything you just reviewed, but Excalibur is STILL my second favorite X-book out right now, right after Marauders. I like this particular grouping in Excalibur and the dynamics between them.

  4. Allan M says:

    So we begin this series with Betsy hiding the fact that Jamie’s been resurrected from Brian, on the basis that Brian will be upset that his psychopath mass-murdering brother is alive again. Brian ultimately does find out, and is indeed upset for a panel or two. Meanwhile, he ends up with the Sword of Might due to Morgan le Fay’s intervention, is brought to tears at the prospect of having it, and has it buried deep in the earth.

    Fast forward to #13, in which Brian dug up the sword (off-panel), personally witnesses Jamie murdering Jubilee-UK in a moment of pique, and all of two pages later… decides to use the Sword of Might to defend his brother and becomes Captain Avalon? Swears fealty to him? “Finds purpose”, as Betsy puts it, even after their little ruse to trick Saturnyne is over? And Brian does this maybe a minute after Jamie just proved that he’s still a monster? While using a sword which is cursed?

    Brian taking the risk of using the Sword of Might to defend his sister and Krakoa? Sure, that’s good hero self-sacrifice stuff. But why the hell is he making a commitment to Jamie, considering that Jamie just killed someone for fun, thereby demonstrating that Brian’s assessment of him was 100% spot on. Brian doesn’t need to serve anyone. He can go home to his wife and daughter! It’s not just poorly motivated, like most of the cast, it’s anti-motivated. Everything in the story to this point points to Brian not helping Jamie out, and he does it anyway. Is Tini Howard a pen name for Howard Mackie? Because that would explain a lot.

  5. Karl_H says:

    I’ll acknowledge some of this book’s strengths (the art, the pacing, *some* of the characterization) but I was (and am) totally unable to get past the Apocalypse “magick is my long game” retcon. Catching up with the Jay & Miles podcast, I’m in the Age of Apocalypse period, and it’s impossible to read this as the same character. It might be easier to overlook if the magic stuff were anything other than arbitrary and confusing. I’m glad he’s been offstaged and I actually appreciated the way the most recent issue fit into continuity in various places.

  6. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    Well, what he was doing in The Twelve makes more sense when read as a magic ritual than as the science-y thingie I think it was meant to be…

    But yeah, it’s retcons all the way down.

  7. Taibak says:

    Allan: It’s not just poorly motivated, it’s way out of character for Brian. He’s always tried to stay grounded in the real world and has no desire to sacrifice whatever normal elements of his life are left. *Of course* he’d go back home with his wife and daughter.

  8. SanityOrMadness says:

    Honestly, I genuinely thought there was a thing with Brian’s personality being changed by the sword in that issue. But no subsequent issues actually bear that out.

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