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Apr 9

Excalibur #1-9

Posted on Thursday, April 9, 2020 by Paul in x-axis

Excalibur is a real mixed bag.

It looks great – let’s get that out of the way first. Marcus To is dealing with a large cast, a dense plot, and a wide range of locations, and he’s handling all that very well. He’s very good at establishing a setting, which is important for a book that’s trying to play up the tensions between Krakoa, England and Otherworld. There are clarity issues in this series, but they’re in the exposition, not the visuals.

The magical theme is potentially interesting too. Magic has been a part of the X-books for decades – most obviously, it was a core part of New Mutants thanks to Illyana – but it also exists on the fringes of the X-Men’s world, peripheral to all but a few characters. And characters like Apocalypse, Rogue, Gambit, Psylocke and Jubilee are hardly associated with magic.

But it’s that clash which is supposed to be at the heart of this. Apocalypse’s basic plan is to try and establish a mutant beachhead on Otherworld, for reasons that have been strongly hinted at but (for present purposes) could also just be plain expansionism. The rest of the cast are open to manipulation in that regard precisely because they don’t understand any of the mechanics of this, and so they can’t really follow the plot. That conflict of worlds, with the mutants (particularly Apocalypse) in the ascendant thanks to the wider X-Men direction, makes sense.

Excalibur is also an unusually dense book – there’s a lot going on in most issues, little of it spelled out too directly. A lot of material is being juggled, and there’s clear ambition in the plotting. Up to a point, what’s happening is meant to be a little bit obscure. And some of the character angles play out clearly enough – Apocalypse is manipulating everyone, they’re somewhat aware of it, only Gambit seems to really push back in the way you might expect. Jamie Braddock’s impotent Caligula angle is quite fun too.

And yet there’s a lot about Excalibur that annoys me. Yes, the magical theme and Apocalypse’s manipulations require the plot to be a little hidden – but even allowing for that, things are often not well explained. What was the point of that extra coven in the first issue? Why did they bring a comatose Rogue to the Excalibur lighthouse? (The answer is “because its connection to Otherworld might help wake her up”, but this isn’t clearly explained for some time, and it still doesn’t explain why they’re in a little boat.) Why doesn’t Cullen Bloodstone, a monumentally obscure character, get a proper introduction to explain his gimmick? It’s literally what the data pages are there for.

More fundamentally, though, I’m left unconvinced by the book’s view of magic, or of Britain. I’m not convinced Tini Howard really gets either of them.

Magic is, for the most part, treated as a foreign world or a convenient power source, rather than as anything particularly meaningful or symbolic. We have data pages trying to take things like “As above, so below” literally and concluding that symmetrical symbols have power. But that’s not what “As above, so below” means in this context – it’s meant to be a claim that the same patterns repeat on different scales. This is supposed to be why astrology works – the patterns in the stars will be replicated on the smaller scale of human lives. It doesn’t work, of course, but it’s what the phrase means. And I’m left with the impression that Howard has heard some rudimentary elements associated with magic, but doesn’t actually understand them, even to the superficial degree that I do.

Then there’s Britain. If you’re going to do a story where Betsy becomes Captain Britain, and has the challenge of filling that role despite her competing loyalties to Otherworld and to Krakoa, you really need to have a reasonably coherent view of what Britishness is. Excalibur doesn’t have one. It has no discernible awareness of, or interest in, any of the issues surrounding British national identity in 2020. Instead, it takes place in a world where the Queen apparently does things personally. And the book’s take on Cullen Bloodstone seems like a tenth-generation copy of vague ideas about what the aristocracy are like.

And the druids. Oh god, the druids. Howard seems to think that druids were some sort of culture that have survived in secret to the present day. But modern druidry isn’t secret; and if you’re talking about ancient druids, they weren’t a society, they were a priest class. You could have a surviving hidden Celtic tribe which has druids, but they can’t be the whole tribe on their own.

Which is really my problem with Excalibur. It’s undoubtedly dense and ambitious in its plotting and structure. But when I stop to consider what the story is actually about, I’m driven to conclude that it’s about various things that the writer doesn’t really understand terribly well. I’m impressed by the complex edifice, but I’m not at all convinced by what it contains.

Bring on the comments

  1. Mikey says:

    My biggest issue is simply just panel-to-panel coherency. I’m never entirely sure how or why certain things are happening.

    Marcus To is great, though.

  2. Scott Brewer says:

    I really wanted to like this book but I’m too often frustrated by the characters acting in bizarre and inexplicable ways. Betsy doesn’t seem to have a clue how to lead, Jubilee keeps endangering her baby and hunting sentient creatures is deeply disturbing. I never thought that Gambit would be the sensible one in a team.

  3. YLu says:

    The best thing about this book is all the weird magic stuff. I don’t mind that “as above so below” isn’t being used in quite the same way it traditionally is or any of that. I don’t care how faithful it is to actual mysticism and stuff, just that it’s a suitably interesting system in its own right.

    The worst thing about this book is how weirdly passive everyone is. I don’t mind if they’re confused, but I’d like it if they could act in response to that confusion more. Have them try to seek more info, or strategize, or struggle for initiative, or something. But instead there’s a lot of “What, that just happened? Grr. Well, okay. What’s next?”

  4. YLu says:

    “Why did they bring a comatose Rogue to the Excalibur lighthouse.”

    I’m *pretty sure* the idea is that they want to plant one of Rogue’s flowers at the lighthouse location, to form a gate to Otherworld.

    I don’t think it’s the most satisfying answer. (Why can’t they cut one of the flowers off her and carry it? Is the idea that they’re part of her?) But there it is.

  5. Evilgus says:

    Agree with Paul’s assessment – this comic is frustratingly inconsistent.

    – It has an excellent cast of popular characters, who compared to the other new HOX titles all get roughly equal panel time – but it doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with them individually. They all appear to be slowly being transformed into Apocalypse’s acolytes, with Gambit as the cynic?

    – For a book about magic, it’s not very magical. I like Marcus To’s art which is solid on the characters, but it doesn’t have the imaginative flight of fancy required. Though I wonder if this stems from the plotting itself he’s working from?

    – Betsy Braddock as Captain Britain. We should be being sold on this latest transformation. Instead she seems to have fallen into the role, is unsure and indecisive, and appears to have no agency in her own title, just being dragged along by the current. She’s not a character I recognise.

    – The setting of Britain itself. It’s just odd, when the mutants establish a new world for themselves, to have these characters running around a specifically real world location. And I’m possibly being unfair, but again an American writer doesn’t have a handle on the culture. I’m not convinced that the writer has also done her full research into Excalibur (the comic) lore – it feels very grab baggy and inconsistent in tone with what has preceded it, and invites comparison. Should we really be pinning the magical Otherworld down with something so banal as a map?!

    Everything ultimately feels very shoehorned as rushed, rather than organic. Plotting is too busy and the art can’t keep up, or the plotting is full of holes the art can’t cover. I can’t decide which.

  6. Karl_H says:

    At first this felt like one of those cases where a writer injects their own personal metaphysical belief systems/practices into the story, which can feel forced. But Paul has a point about it showing only superficial understanding of some of its ideas. Either way, I’m not too crazy about it.

  7. Voord 99 says:

    To be fair, that druids are a whole society is Marvel canon. No doubt Howard was riffing on that Sub-Mariner story from 1941 about a secret lost tribe of druids living under the sea wearing transparent glass diving helmets.

    (Sub-Mariner Comics #3 – it’s on Unlimited. This will amaze you, but the plot involves the Nazis having fooled the underwater druids into allying with them.)

  8. sagatwarrior says:

    For a book called “Excalibur”, it has very few of the themes that carried over from the original book. Its nice to see Meggan, Saturnyne,the lighthouse, but I wish they used this time to at least connect it the past, see more familiar faces, and (possible some more villains) rather than use it as prop to for new characters (i.e. Generation X 2017). Hopefully, they will find time to characterize Betsy’s (not completely) new role as Captain Britain, after spending nearly 20 years as a ninja, and having spent only a couple of months in her old body.

  9. Nu-D says:

    I once had a friend of a college friend who was writing the next Ulysses. The three of us got together for beers one night, and the “writer” ended up asking me a whole lot of questions about Jewish mysticism, which I had an undergraduate-level knowledge of at the time. I drunkenly babbled my half-baked understanding on the topic.

    Three weeks later he sent me a chapter of his book to review. It was chock-full of his half-recollections of the stuff I barely understood and had rambled on about. He had no idea what he was writing about, but that didn’t stop him from stuffing his “book” full of it.

    This review reminded me of that episode, many years ago.

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