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Jan 8

Excalibur #22-26

Posted on Saturday, January 8, 2022 by Paul in x-axis

by Tini Howard, Marcus To & Erick Arciniega

(Deep sigh.)

I mean, you can’t say it’s phoned in. It’s an elaborate thing, Excalibur. It’s going for a complex mythology of Otherworld, it’s clearly trying to be a big epic that repays effort. It’s done a reasonable job of extricating Betsy Braddock from a decades-long cul de sac, and that’s undeniably a positive. It’s not lazy. You don’t produce a book as odd as this by going the obvious route.

But does it actually work? Um.


Look, I’m willing to grant Excalibur a couple of things. It’s a fantasy book, which is not really what interests me about the X-books, and it’s fair to say that no matter how well this was done, there’s a pretty good chance it really wouldn’t be my thing. And it’s a UK book written by an American, which gives it a wonderful range of opportunities to irritate me that won’t apply to most readers. So I’m probably not the ideal market even for the book that Excalibur is trying to be. I’ll give you that. I’m trying to make full allowance for it.

And making that full allowance, no. No.

I admire the effort. I like the art! Marcus To is doing some very good work on this book, and he’s largely responsible for the sense of scale it has. He’s been tasked with drawing a range of distinct Otherworld locations and that he does very well. I think the dark modernist design of Sevalith is fantastic. He’s good at selling the intended emotion of a scene even when the logic of it all doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Excalibur looks like the comic it means to be.

But as a story, it’s just all over the place. One way that magic-based stories can go wrong is when they lose touch with internal logic, and wind up as a string of arbitrary things happening in a row. That’s certainly one of the problems we have here – things need done because they need done, things work somewhat out of the blue, Gambit can just power a train all of a sudden for no reason – but the problems are more fundamental than that.

The core story involves a war in Otherworld as Merlyn tries to reclaim his throne with the help of Arthur. One panel implies that Arthur is being brainwashed but then that’s all kind of forgotten about. There’s an anti-mutant vibe to the whole thing, somewhat arbitrarily tied to the idea that Arthur’s son Modred might have been a mutant. In a frankly weird storytelling choice, Modred himself is completely absent. Merlyn repeatedly claims that the mutants are invaders, but it’s consistently played as if we’re supposed to reject that reading and see Merlyn as a reactionary force against the glorious pluralist tolerance represented by mutantdom.

Which… what? Mutants can stand for all sorts of things, but within the logic of Excalibur‘s own story, Merlyn is right. They entered Avalon under the leadership of Apocalypse, they overthrew the government, and they installed Jamie Braddock as ruler. And then they went around declaring that it was mutant territory, even though no mutants actually lived there. True, they overthrew Morgan, who wasn’t the rightful ruler… but by that logic, Arthur is the rightful ruler. You can’t play the mutants as the metaphor for modern tolerance when the plot is that they’re colonists who annexed a territory for Krakoa. It doesn’t work.

And yes, there’s a part of me which wonders if this is meant to be a twist where eventually the mutants are confronted with their attitude and so forth but… I don’t really think it is. I think the plot just doesn’t support the story that the book is now trying to tell. Plus, why are other parts of Otherworld so bothered about mutants all of a sudden? It’s not like any of them are living there – on the contrary, Excalibur spend much of their time telling other mutants to stay out because it’s so dangerous. Frankly, it would have been a more interesting story if the mutants actually had colonised Otherworld and we’d tried doubling down on the implications of that.

Merlyn is one-dimensional, and the explanation for how he and Roma ended up in their current roles is just weird. The idea that Roma and Saturnyne colluded to reboot Otherworld to get rid of the oppressive Merlyn is a nice idea in theory, but bumps up against the problem that Roma and/or Saturnyne have been depicted as the rulers of Otherworld, with Merlyn as an increasingly obscure background character, since somewhere in the 1980s. You can’t just say “well actually he’s still around so Roma was never really going to be in charge” when she’s been unambiguously in charge for over thirty years.

What’s more, the idea that Otherworld can just be rebooted like that, and Saturnyne can simply prepare new domains for Merlyn and Roma, undermines the reality of the whole thing. And that’s fine for the immediate purposes of the story, but bad for the wider book, which (a) really wants us to care about Otherworld, and (b) actually devotes much of the final issue to an out-of-nowhere angle with Betsy standing up for the importance of Otherworld as a place that really matters.

There’s fundamental connective tissue missing. The last issue declares out of nowhere that Britain and Krakoa are on the brink of war, which… what? The book’s whole approach to the United Kingdom is frankly mystifying. From the look of it, the relaunch will be focussing more on Otherworld, and thank god for that. Whether Howard likes it or not, the character she’s telling her story with is Captain Britain, and if you’re going to do stories about what it means to be Captain Britain, you need some sort of thesis about Britishness. What does it mean? What does representing Britain mean?

Regrettaby, Excalibur leaves me with the distinct impression that Tini Howard has no real understanding of British identity, and no real interest in the topic either. Since her core theme seems to be some sort of battle against reactionaries, I suspect the idea that Britain is withdrawing from dealing with mutants and so forth is meant to be some sort of Brexit allegory, but what it amounts to in practice is the baffling idea that – without any explanation – meaningful political influence attaches to a weirdo who is openly a member of a mystical coven. Which… again, what? What does any of this have to do with the iconography of the British right? The iconography of the British anything? If Reuben Brousseau is meant to represent Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage or Jacob Rees-Mogg… I mean, that’s like claiming that Dr Druid symbolises Donald Trump. You can say it, but it’s bollocks. And if Reuben’s not meant to represent that then… why does he matter?

What exactly was the point of the STRIKE subplot? They’re resurrected as a cliffhanger ending, they declare their intention to go to Britain and sort it all out, and then it just doesn’t happen. Maybe it was an editorial change, but it read abysmally.

Most of the cast have nothing to do. Theoretically Jubilee has an arc where she worries about Shogo, and Rictor has an arc where he wants to consolidate Apocalypse’s achievements, but nothing’s actually happening with either of those. Why is Gambit in this book at all? Why is it even a team book?

I want it to work, I really do. But by this point I’ve lost patience with Excalibur entirely. It looks good, but it’s not good.

Bring on the comments

  1. Josie says:

    I never read Excalibur, but I saw people making similar criticisms of this book’s very first arc. I can’t imagine why anyone (beyond completionists like Paul) have stuck around this long, or why Marvel keeps publishing it.

  2. Taibak says:

    Can I also just say, that I’m having a hard time thinking of characters less suited for a book about Britain than Rogue, Gambit, and Jubilee.

  3. Mike Loughlin says:

    Josie- Excalibur has been highly inconsistent, but it looked like Tini Howard was playing the long game. I was curious as to why things were happening, and how events would be resolved. The joke was on me; turns out either Howard was not a great plotter or her plans had to be altered. Probably both.

    That said, I liked some of the individual issues, some of the character interactions, the sense of mystery, and the art. It was a more interesting book when Apocalypse was a cast member. The book had its fans, too. It just added up to a whole lot of nothing.

  4. Scott B says:

    I wish someone else was writing Knights of X, it’s going to be just as bad.

  5. Uncanny X-Ben says:

    Honestly I wish we could have gotten a fantasy X-Men book that was a) good and b) leaned into the fantasy instead of weird UK nonsense.

    Make it a Dungeons and Dragons and Mutants book.

  6. Luke says:

    Thanks for making it through this one, Paul. I agree with Mike – I liked quite a few of the individual moments and I liked Betsy’s development, plus the art was good… but it made no sense and itbfell off a cliff after X of Swords and Apocalypse left.

  7. Sabin says:

    This is my skim book. Wow. I’ll be honest. I didn’t know half of that was going on. I think I liked it better when I didn’t. What a mess.

  8. Dave says:

    “Can I also just say, that I’m having a hard time thinking of characters less suited for a book about Britain than Rogue, Gambit, and Jubilee.”

    Two American teenage girls (one time-displaced) and a German?
    I kid, mostly.

  9. Evilgus says:

    @Dave: hah! 🙂
    But original Excalibur kind of felt more like an X-Men book to start, with Captain Britain attached. Before it grew into its own thing.

    For Rogue, Gambit and Jubilee, they made sense in a cast as close associates of Betsy who could question her, and as spare prominent X-Men. (Rictor: no idea). But none of these characters really did much in that regard, including in the Kwannon/Betsy bodyswap resolution arc. None of the character’s history was drawn upon to tease out nuance.

    If you’re looking to explore Britishness with Betsy as Cap Britain, they should have used Fantomex. An antagonistic Frenchman, likely sceptical of Krakoa, can play into machine Vs human Vs mutant story, and has a romantic subplot with Betsy in the Asian body, so could have explored ramifications of that change. Or bring on some other British or European characters. Oh for Paul Cornell, Si Spurrier or Kieron Gillen to write something like this.

    Magic was just a convenient plot excuse to bounce character from location to location. I would love to see Howard’s plot notes on the book. Paul’s ultimate analysis, that there’s no narrative connective tissue, is spot on.

  10. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    I’m not British, so Britain being misrepresented like any other non-US country in the Marvel universe didn’t bother me much. But even taken at face value the British part of the plot doesn’t amount to much. Betsy is supposedly torn on how to be Captain Britain who’s banned from Britain, but it’s lipservice – a line here or there that doesn’t amount to anything.

    Considering Knights of X will pick up where this lets off, I’m willing to overlook the STRIKE subplot as setup for something that will make it to KoX. Maybe. But even with that caveat, Peter Wisdom is given too much space in this book, considering he doesn’t factor into the overarching plot at all.

    And I’m not against fantasy epics, but Excalibur doesn’t hold together. The scenery is nice but the worldbuilding isn’t there. And the plot is thin, incoherent or both.

    I’m still somewhat interested in KoX? Maybe? I don’t know.

  11. Taibak says:

    Dave: Fair point. 🙂

    But I’d say that in the original, Kurt, Kitty, and Rachel made the point that they wanted to keep being superheroes but felt they didn’t have any place else to go. The series played into that by showing Kitty and Rachel adjusting to life in the UK and by exploring the team dynamic by having the two distinct groups learn to work together.

  12. Dave says:

    Chamber would have been an obvious choice to put in this line-up. Did he just disappear from New Mutants?

  13. Allan M says:

    I think Dave raised a good point, that also flags one of the fundamental failings of this run. No, the original Excalibur didn’t have anything much to say about British identity. It also didn’t bring up the subject. Nobody was making Brian’s suitability to be Captain Britain a plot point, whereas Betsy’s suitability is the main motivation for both of this series’ main villains (Clan Akkaba and Saturnyne). Clan Akkaba keeps insisting that Betsy’s loyalties are split between Britain and Krakoa. Are they wrong? Right? I have no idea what Betsy thinks about Britain.

    So it didn’t matter if Kurt, Kitty and Rachel weren’t British because the tone and focus of that run was on kooky fantasy adventures and slapstick humour. This run is about very serious fantasy adventures (which doesn’t really suit Gambit or Jubilee). And British identity is both a central plot element and a topic where Howard doesn’t seem to have anything to say, so they are doubly extraneous.

  14. Mike Loughlin says:

    One of the developments I liked was Rictor becoming interested in “mutant magic” (another underdeveloped concept) and being Apocalypse’s protégée. Tying his powers to ancient druids was a bit weird, but I think there were storytelling possibilities there.

    Uncanny X-Ben, “Mutant D&D” may have been the best approach to this version of Excalibur. We have a quest (trouble in Otherworld) with multiple realms. Saturnine acs like a dungeon master, sending the heroes off and setting up obstacles. Betsy, the leader of the group is a warrior, Apocalypse is a wizard, Rictor is an apprentice wizard who takes over when his mentor leaves, Gambit is a thief, Rogue is another warrior who can take on the abilities of anyone in the party if they become incapacitated, Jubilee is… honestly, I’m not super-familiar with D&D so I don’t know what her purpose would be, much like within the comic itself. Leave all the British stuff aside and focus on how their quest affects Krakoa, or maybe prevents a war. I’d rather have read a comic like that.

  15. Robert says:

    I will say that, Jaime being king of Avalon isn’t unprecedented. The Braddocks dad is from Otherworld so the are half-otherworlder. While Arthur would be king, he is clearly being used as a figure head to allow Merlin to enact his plans. Merlin has always been written as a character that doesn’t really care how much he hurts people if it means his plans succeed and I believe mutants in Otherworld would create to much chaos for his plans so he wants to remove them. I don’t understand why Merlin being a man-behind-the-curtain is a hard thing to grasp for you, as like I said he’s done messed up things before through plans within plans. The Britain plot is just racism and discrimination, nothing more. When Excalibur came out, here in America I would see news on how British citizens were being discriminatory towards Muslim refuges and citizens so idk why you’re acting like it’s impossible for British citizens to act the way they do in this book. In all honesty, this article comes off as someone who doesn’t like the book so they’re refusing to connect the dots.

  16. Chris V says:

    I don’t understand why people are having a hard time connecting Britain removing itself from the Krakoan treaty as an analogy for Brexit either.
    Especially during a time when that is such a topical issue. It’s obvious that this is what Howard is making a comment.

    I’d say that the analogy also works because both sides in the debate actually have a strong case. There are benefits to staying with the Krakoan treaty, but also Krakoa is outright attempting to dominate human nations (Magneto explicitly stated this in the pages of Hickman’s X-Men), so it can be argued that there is a sensible reason to be skeptical of Krakoa. Yet, the sensible reasons to leave the treaty are drowned out by a bunch of loonies which make it hard to take sympathy with their views.
    I think that’s a pretty even-handed summation of Brexit, to be honest.

    There’s this mentality that “Yanks obviously can’t understand the complexities of Brexit”, yet two American presidents (Obama and Trump) attempted to involve themselves intimately in the debate around the vote. So, it’s obviously not an event which is outside of American interests or concerns.

    Is it the most well-thought out commentary on Brexit? Of course not.
    Yet, heavy-handed and confused analogies for real-world subjects is hardly rare for the X-books. The Legacy Virus and it’s relevance to AIDS springs immediately to mind.

  17. Chris V says:

    Oh, and speaking of “heavy-handed and confused analogies”, we don’t need to stretch for Dr. Druid when we had Captain America becoming a Nazi as an analogy for Donald Trump.

    I want to mention I’m not sticking up for this series. I couldn’t read it. I can’t stand Howard’s writing. I have much more problem with Howard’s poor ability to tell her story rather than anything related to Britain.

  18. Dave says:

    “drowned out by a bunch of loonies”

    Who were the loonies? How were they drowning out the government ministers making the case for leaving? Were the ministers the loonies?

  19. Chris V says:

    People like Nigel Farage and David Rees-Mogg.
    The media did a lot to frame the debate around the “leave” side being exemplified by reactionary voices like that, doing a lot to turn the elitist intellectual-types against the “leave” vote, helping to continue to polarize society.
    The more sensible voices in support of the “leave” vote tended to not get much media coverage.
    It made it look like only racists and fascists had reason to support a “leave” vote, and of course upright intellectual elitists don’t want to be associated with such deplorables.

    The same thing happened in the United States around Trump in 2016.

  20. Mark says:

    “Honestly I wish we could have gotten a fantasy X-Men book that was a) good and b) leaned into the fantasy instead of weird UK nonsense.“

    Seconded. The X-Men have done good fantasy stuff before — all the Asgard stuff was good, and my favorite X-Men/Avengers mashup remains the Kulan Gath two-parter. (Though that’d probably run into licensing issues these days.)

    On the other hand there were the leprechauns, I guess … but their overall batting average isn’t bad.

  21. Taibak says:

    Dave: In addition to what Allan said, the early issues of the original Excalibur also touched on Kitty and Rachel adjusting to life in the UK. Plus one of the recurring subplots was Brian, Meggan, and the three X-Men adjusting to each other and learning how to work as a team. It fell by the wayside pretty quickly, but it is something the series dealt with.

  22. Uncanny X-Ben says:

    Mike Loughlin- honestly when the cast was announced that’s the kind of book I thought it would be and was excited for it.

  23. Ben says:

    @Taibak what about Marrow, Maggott, and Cecilia Reyes? The All-New All-Different X-Men of What If? #179

  24. Josie says:

    To be fair, Marvel tried doing a series about British mutants in Britain and it was called Captain Britain and the Mi13. (Okay, it wasn’t overly mutanty.)

  25. Taibak says:

    How many mutants were in Captain Britain and MI:13 and Wisdom anyway? Was it just Pete Wisdom, Maureen Raven, and Faiza Hussein? Did Marvel ever decide if Meggan was a mutant?

  26. Miyamoris says:


    Beem a long time since I read that series but I think Faiza wasn’t a mutant. Not sure about Maureen though.

  27. Chris V says:

    You are correct. Faiza got her powers accidentally from the Skrulls during the “Secret Invasion”.

  28. Dave says:

    Chris V: ‘Loony’ Farage was judged to have out-debated sensible Nick Clegg:
    But anyway, he wasn’t part of the official ‘Vote Leave’ campaign once the referendum was actually on (Dominic Cummings, though, was part of it and is much more obviously loony, but wasn’t heard from by the public).I
    I’d contend that there was no ‘drowning out’, and debate in the media was generally quite rational.

    Mark: Kulan Gath issues are in the Epic collection of the relevant era. I’ve also got them in a pocket book. So Marvel has no problem with reprinting them.

  29. Chris V says:

    Dave, this isn’t the place for any sort of political debate, and I should probably drop it.
    However, I have a number of British friends, all of which supported the “remain” vote.
    The way they react to the people who voted “leave” shows me some sort of breakdown between media presentation of “leave” voters versus the reality.

    I see the same sort of reaction to Trump voters in America by Liberals.
    I’m not a Trump-supporter by any means but there was an extreme amount of bias as to how Trump supporters were presented in the media and the effect it had on debate.

    As far as Farage, I was more referring to his earlier remarks as to a “fifth column” living in Britain with reference to Muslim immigrants, rather than his direct comments as to why a “leave” vote made sense.

  30. Loz says:

    It’s an entire comic run built on the ‘Spiderman: One More Day’ idea that magic doesn’t have to make sense. And that would matter less if the characters acknowledged that but they go along as if it is all perfectly logical. It doesn’t matter to me so much that Howard is writing about a country that she clearly knows nothing about, that’s SOP for Marvel writers.

    According to her Wikipedia page she wrote a few limited series in existing universes for people like Boom! and then was snapped up by Marvel as a hot talent and put on this book. That seems a sudden and steep rise, has anyone read any of that stuff? She’s apparently taking over Catwoman and I will be looking at that for at least a few issues to see what she’s like on a more down to earth title.

  31. Josie says:

    Brexit was a pro-bigotry vote. Nigel Farage is an open bigot. There’s no debate.

    Moving on . . .

  32. wwk5d says:

    “The media did a lot to frame the debate around the “leave” side being exemplified by reactionary voices like that, doing a lot to turn the elitist intellectual-types against the “leave” vote, helping to continue to polarize society.”

    Actually, a majority of the media in the UK tends to be conservative and was biased to being pro-Brexit. Not all, but the majority was (and still is).

  33. Jack says:

    The only thing I’d add to the discussion is a more specific comment on the idea of identity in relation to Betsy and the tension between her British and Krakoan dual nationality. This is an area open to the metaphorical comment on the idea of being non-English while also Captain Britain. Or perhaps being non-Leave/non-government aligned politically in the situation borrowed by the book.
    Like, if we’re going to use Brexit as a borrowed analogy, may as well go for the idea that Krakoan could stand for being N.Irish/Scottish/Welsh. Especially with Pete Wisdom hanging about in the book and the replacement of Brian, who is a pretty normative character where representations of British identity is in this context.
    The book seemed to teeter on the cusp of doing something with this a couple of times, but it was as messy/vague and underdeveloped as much of the rest of the material.

    I don’t expect a superhero book of this lineage and type to drop some top tier commentary or be real world accurate or anything, but if you’re going to play with British identity and politics as your background and themes, there’s a specific opportunity here that doesn’t typically arise.
    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with running around with the union flag as your costume, but if you’re going to dip into Britishness as material in a book which features a conflicted personal identity main character who now also is an Krakoan Brit, there’s stuff there.
    I think this book’s a shame overall, I don’t feel it succeeded at the fantasy stuff in pacing/sense, the character stuff beyond a few moments with Betsy and possibly Rictor, and both the logic and imagery seemed muddled. I can’t say I enjoyed it and I’ll be waiting for a lot of reaction before picking up the follow-up series.

  34. No says:

    Brexiters are just MAGA with different accents.

  35. Dave says:

    “Actually, a majority of the media in the UK tends to be conservative and was biased to being pro-Brexit. Not all, but the majority was (and still is).”

    Print media, yes. TV, no way.

  36. Taibak says:

    Miyamoris: I don’t see any reason why Maureen wouldn’t be a mutant. There are a handful of psychics in the Marvel Universe who are portrayed as basically analogues of real world psychics. I don’t think they’ve ever explicitly said this until Tom Corsi and Allison Double were resurrected, but if their powers are innate I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be considered mutants.

    Presumably that would include Maureen Raven too. Paul Cornell never said one way or another, but if Maureen was born with her powers and they developed naturally, she’d be a mutant.

  37. joshua corum says:

    This book was awful from beginning to finish, the art being the only tolerable aspect. I truly don’t understand how Howard continues to be given work when, at least the Marvel stuff, is all on the same level.

  38. Newkid says:

    Yeah this series was a bit of a misfire.

  39. sagatwarrior says:

    I guess people who are still interested in Elisabeth Braddock post-Psylocke just wanted to see how well she was doing. However, I don’t know if taking the mantle of a male hero is going to be any better. As many have said before, having other X-Characters such as Gambit and Jubilee felt completely off in an Excalibur book. And it was weird seeing the X-Men deal with concepts like Otherworld when it has mainly been dealt with in the original Excalibur. I think if they were going to do a book like this, it should have been set up properly during the Dawn of X / Powers of X period. Having the X-Men do fantasy and magicks has worked in the past, (such as the original Inferno, the X-Men time in Asgard, Conan and Kulan Gath), but you would need to bring in powerful magic characters such Doctor Strange to lay the ground rules. Part of the problem of having X-Men do fantasy / magicks is that for so long since the 90s, the X-Men have been grounded (partly) in science. They should have created a situation where science failed, but only the work of magic will resolve an issue.

    But I am rather surprised that this title lasted as long as it did.

  40. Luis Dantas says:

    Having some form of alegory for Brexit in a Marvel comic could be fun. But that is very much not what we had in this volume of Excalibur.

    To be fair, it would also probably be quite the headache, even if to this day I stand uncertain of how it can be controversial at all – or even have been seriously discussed in the first place. Brexit is a lot like Trump and our own Bolsonaro in that it is a solid lampshade of how voters have lost their minds.

  41. Uncanny X-Ben says:

    They had Fisk as the perfect “people vote for obviously bad guy because he promises safety and prosperity” stand in but then they ruined it by having him cheat to win.

  42. wwk5d says:

    This title was just a mess. Lovely artwork aside, probably the worst title in recent years after X-Corp and Fallen Angels, and maybe as bad as Children of the Atom.

    To be fair, there were some interesting ideas here, but the execution of it was just really, really bad.

  43. Mo W. says:

    @wwk5d – So I guess Knights of X details Marvel released this week did not win you over?!

  44. […] O’Brien reviews the misplaced effort of Tini Howard, Marcus To, et al’s Excalibur #22-26; and the misjudged weakness of Benjamin Percy, Joshua Cassara, et al’s X-Force […]

  45. brent says:

    About every six months I’ll run across something in Excalibur that makes me think, “huh? Is that a thing they do in jolly old England?” And I try to remember if Tini Howard is British or not and Google it. Then I wonder if she researched whatever it was that thing that she wrote or just made it up. Then forget about the whole thing (as I try desperately to forget the book exists) and do the whole thing over again in 6 months. I know getting some things so wrong has to be irritating to say the least. As an american I’m asking: wouldn’t a writer from the UK be a better choice for a writer on a book about the UK? I don’t think it could be much worse.

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