Excalibur will possibly end before it reaches issue #30—although that seems crazy with how much material Tini Howard and Marcus To have introduced, enough for a whole franchise! An entire comic company could be launched from all the elements of their Otherworldly worldbuilding—and X-office contributions, generally. So hopefully, Marvel backs off a bit on its recent kneejerk habit of just rebooting everything without strong in-universe reasons or respect to fans of titles whose stories are never resolved!
That said, this series hasn’t been without its flaws, and its first six issues are its weakest. They still contain much of interest and lay diverse seeds of potential for future storytelling—besides the fact the art is beautiful.
But if the series were to end, it would be a real shame—avoidable if it relaunches with the same creators under a title like Captain Britain and Her Majesty’s Mutants or something. (I’m not a fan of the word “witchbreed,” which is meant to be pejorative anyway; neither is it very compelling.) It’s clear to anyone following Excalibur that the creative team is just getting started with the epic they obviously want to give us. Although that is a bit strange to say after 23 issues!
On the other hand, it’s no surprise if you consider the worldbuilding tasks this one book has set itself.
Maybe because of what seemed odd roster choices the series did feel like it took some time figuring out what it wanted to be and do. I know the team Tini came up with is composed of some of her favorites but getting off the ground in the super-compressed* opening arc, the ways they were brought together often felt overly contrived, just a bit more so than the usual team book.
As to the rest of the series so far, X of Swords was primarily the fruit of Tini’s collaboration with Hickman, and it was stunning. Following that, issues #16-23 did much more to focus on depth of character while beginning to explore different aspects of the newly expanded Otherworld. Individually, these stories and scenes therein have been some of the best and most compelling of the Krakoa era.
And yet. There’s just so much material that, again, it feels like a whole line of comics could handle it all more consistently and fruitfully. Marcus To’s artistry, so elegant and perfectly balanced between lightness and gravity, has been a real boon in making it look so consistent. But considering the various directions each issue could take the title combined with the unfortunate reader expectation that its run will be limited, Excalibur sometimes feels overstuffed, its momentum uncertain—with no one element able to fully breathe. The exception here is clearly Tini’s recasting of Betsy’s character, taking her back to her UK comics roots, which most modern fans, even those who started reading in the ’90s, won’t recognize.
I think it’s the best thing that’s happened to the character in decades. But especially in the first arc, it might’ve come across as just one among many unexpected elements, most of which were a bit awkward—excepting Betsy’s “accolade,” as well as the surprisingly humane sentiments from Apocalypse.
Again, if there was even just one more Otherworld-focused title all this could be resolved. If we had, say, Captain Britain, focusing on Betsy and her conflicting roles**, and then a series focused on developing and exploring Otherworld and mutant magic (through Rictor and Meggan), that would really help decompress, unpack, and more satisfyingly regulate the narrative threads of this series.
Alas! (We’ll see where things stand in a few months.)
**To be fair to Tini, this is something no previous writer of Captain Britain ever got a handle on either!
*There’s so much compression in the first arc, the framing of the narrative barely hangs together. E.g., what’s Saturnyne’s beef with Morgan before the story starts? Are we supposed to assume Morgan’s ambition was to seize Otherworld territory beyond Avalon? Otherwise, why would “the white witch” care exactly? And what was the dark sorceress hoping to gain beyond Camelot? There’s nothing in her backstory suggesting she has further Otherworldly ambitions—in fact, her usurpation is out of Arthuriana, not Marvel.
And why would Saturnyne be any more okay with Jamie in Morgan’s place? Saturnyne’s absence here is intentionally mysterious, compelling us to keep reading. But the reader might be left wondering if she just got left out of the first arc because it was already so stuffed.
This aspect of the narrative framing is just one problem with the story’s compression. But I think if we’re just supposed to roll with the lack of narrative reasoning in every other scene of this first arc—that’s kind of irritating!
I. Recap #1: “The Accolade of Betsy Braddock”
We’ve already taken a look at Excalibur #1, but in this piece and next week’s we’ll cover the opening arc. So, let’s quickly recap that opening chapter, this time including some reflections from subsequent issues. This is useful because, seriously, so much happens in this establishing narrative that it’s hard to clarify without reflecting on it in writing—and it also just features so many flaws that are worth reflecting on as consequences of 1) narrative hyper-compression, 2) the too-quick contrivance of a new team roster, and 3) lack of real-world awareness (in politics, geography, and culture; in this case, the UK’s).
A. Morgan Le Fay and Coven Akkaba
Morgan is revealed as the ruler of Avalon, with King Arthur missing, and the “White Witch” (whom we’ll soon find out is Opal Luna Saturnyne), is pissed about this new status quo; her army is besieging Camelot. Going forward through the next five issues, we don’t see this level of force outside its walls—which seems inconsistent.
Morgan’s scrying pool is overgrown with Krakoan flowers. She doesn’t yet know what they are, but she’s furious and wants it to stop. Shortly, she appears in Britain to pressgang a coven of amateur magic-users into doing whatever it takes to destroy the Krakoan (or “witchbreed”) gate attempting to open its way into Avalon; they seem an unlikely lot to go to war against Krakoa. Her underestimation of mutantdom seems a little odd given that she’s not wholly unfamiliar with modern Earth and its superheroes.
In the epilogue, coven head Marianna Stern joins up with the Coven Akkaba, antimutant magic users appearing here for the first time. First, she sacrifices her old coven-mates, perhaps leaving their spirits or some mystical form of them back in Camelot with Morgan. Or maybe their life force is now stored within the crystals* she carries? (Her words and the art here bring up more questions than answers.) These crystal rods look just like Apocalypse’s.
Throughout the rest of the first arc, we see the crystals that Apocalypse is interested in are the remains or just(?) the bones of mutants. Presumably, then, the ones he already has in the Grove and Marianna’s share similar natures and are not purely the product of mutant remains. But it’s never well clarified if they require great age to form or even if any mortal remains will do.
B. Betsy Braddock
Betsy leaves the family estate (and thus her brother, sister-in-law, and niece) to live on Krakoa; she feels awkward about it, feeling rather estranged from her old friends and teammates despite—or actually largely because she’s recently been reborn in her original body and is clearly dreading an encounter with the woman whose form she used to inhabit, the Japanese assassin Kwannon.
Also, Betsy’s other brother, Omega reality-warper Jamie Braddock, has just been reborn, and he’s still an ass. (He’ll soon be the royal ass of Avalon—once Morgan’s removed, thanks to the schemes of Apocalypse.)
Apocalypse, leaving behind the new nation’s festivities, enters his Grove of Theoretical Gates. Prior to X of Swords, it will become clear he’s trying to find a way to Arakko, lost in the breach that swallowed half of Okkara after it was broken in two by Annihilation’s Twilight Sword. (While perhaps he believes the circumstances are right now, we probably needn’t worry too much about why he hasn’t tried this before now! Maybe he has?) This is also his first show of interest in (mutant) magic (at least in terms of publication).
Though the Krakoan gate into Otherworld is closed on Krakoa’s side, it’s open in Camelot—except there it’s been “throttled with some sort of magical ward.” This is Morgan’s doing, but the Krakoans don’t know that yet. So Apocalypse enlists Betsy’s begrudging aid in retrieving her brother’s amulet*, to see if it might serve as a “focal object” to open the way. (*Called the Amulet of Right, it’s what confers the status and power of Captain Britain on whomever it’s bestowed.)
D. Wheels in Motion
Returning to the family estate, Betsy finds Brian about to depart for Avalon, having been called there. She joins him, forgoing Apocalypse’s imposing request. Both are surprised to find Morgan, who demands Captain Britain’s unquestioning loyalty—and uses dark sorcery to enthrall him.
Apocalypse sends poor Trinary, appearing in the Dawn of X only here as a mere errand girl, to fetch happy couple Rogue and Gambit—who don’t forget has a personal grudge with Big A as an erstwhile tormented Horseman.
Apocalypse’s notion is that Rogue’s absorption powers will “dampen” whatever power the ward has over the gate. This is interesting because her abilities haven’t really been shown interacting with magic.
Gambit wants to hold off, though, and get Jubilee, whom he says was the last to see Betsy. This just seems like a forced excuse to get Jubes on the roster! (Regardless, that’s cool, because who doesn’t love a little Jubilation? She needs a place to shine now that it’s no longer 1992.) Actually, Apocalypse manages to probe her mind and trace Betsy’s psychic footprint to Camelot. (Um, sure.)
Back in Camelot, Brian momentarily resists Morgan’s enthrallment to get Betsy to take his amulet.
Simultaneously, Apocalypse makes psychic contact with Bets, directing her to disrupt the Camelot side of the gate with one of her psychic blades, in this instance a broadsword—which is unusual for her, perhaps presaging her imminent transformation into Captain Britain.
Her blade breaks the gate, preventing passage through it from Avalon. But in the process, something slips into Krakoa—an Otherworldly power suffusing the gate’s Krakoan flowers, whose vines writhe toward Rogue, the mystical force animating them now suffused through her, sending her into a coma. That’s what it seems like, anyway. Upon waking up later in the arc, she says it was the absorption of Krakoa’s life energy that overwhelmed her—and it may or may not have been Apocalypse who put her into a coma. He’s definitely responsible for containing her form in this glowing flowery bier. However, from the art in this issue, it’s not clear that there’s a transparent lid over this sarcophagus. (It’s interesting that in Moira’s ninth life, Moira ended up in another Apocalypse-made stasis casket.) Of course, Gambit is distraught, furious at Apocalypse’s seeming heedlessness.
Again, there is a lot of detail here that’s never been clarified. Rogue’s coma isn’t really mentioned again after this arc.
Using his own sword, Brian, with his last remaining will, sends Betsy back to Krakoa at the moment that she dons the amulet’s necklace; perhaps he teleports her by mystically knighting her, or something. Back in the Grove, she stands revealed as Captain Britain, psychic longsword now hung from her belt.
II. #2: “A Tower of Flowers”
Two young mutants drown off the coast of pre-Roman Celtic Britain, which seemingly minor event Apocalypse himself witnessed—not intervening because, y’know, Social Darwinism (which clashes with communalist sentiments expressed in his own Grimoire during this arc). These youths are unnamed, but they look like younger versions of the druids who appear later this issue.
Present-day, we find this drowning occurred just off the coast from the site of the Braddock Lighthouse, somewhere in western Cornwall, to which our fledgling Excalibur team is sailing aboard Kate’s sailboat* (before she acquires the Marauder); thus, there’s a new wrinkle to Excalibur’s mythology—which we’ll see more of when the modern druids show up.
However, besides the fact that the modern druids want to aid Excalibur in protecting the land, especially from Coven Akkaba, no deeper historical or mythological connection is made, so…
*And why, oh why, did they not travel by gate to, say, London, or Braddock Manor, and drive on down instead of spending what would obviously be months of travel time sailing across the Pacific and the Atlantic in this dinky little sailboat??? I’m sure it’s for the fun visual, but seriously, Gambit and Betsy, each with loved ones in peril were okay with this? Right.
A. The Lighthouse
Kate says she’s not been back since the lighthouse was destroyed—in Excalibur #50, in the battle with Merlin we covered in our first look at Excalibur’s history. Meggan rebuilt it in 2018’s X-Men: Gold Annual #1, but it hasn’t been seen since.
They’re unable to spot the lighthouse though, and the ship is attacked by a pod of selkies. Captain Britain dives from the boat, swimming for the inhospitable, wave-smashed rocks of the Cornish shore (meaning Betsy in her armor and cape must be a super-Olympic swimmer), thus luring the monstrous ladies away.
Her next astounding feat is telekinetically lifting the glowing comatose Rogue in her bed of flowers up, up, and away to set her down on the same high rock, still a ways below the coastal promontory far overhead. Somehow, Gambit and Jubilee make it to the rocks as well and climb up the near-vertical cliff-face. Wordlessly, Kate has already sailed on. This is all very compressed. (And enjoy the selkies here; they don’t reappear again!)
Night falls, and the hapless quartet is still on their rock surrounded by the selkies in the waves below. Now, Betsy somehow expects them to walk up the cliff, each holding a side of Rogue’s bier (which is certainly what it seems like) to reach open land. (Why didn’t she just use her TK again?! Who knows, but she rarely ever uses this ability anyway, despite having developed it about 20 years ago. Strange.) Also, if walking is all they had to do, why did they wait so long???
Gaining the top of the coastal promontory, they’re startled by the sight of shadowy figures in green cloaks. One of them telepathically transmits his memories of recent local events, startling Betsy. She sees a vision of Marianna and the Coven Akkaba encircling the lighthouse as it goes up in flames. The druid tells her they’re antimutant bigots whose mistress Morgan draws power from them, requiring the Coven to seek more for themselves and thus for her. He says his people believe Betsy to be a protector of Britain’s land.
Whatever Coven Akkaba’s ancient lineage, they just come across as smarmy and snooty without ever feeling like a real threat. This scene is the most violence and sorcery we get from them, and it’s over quick.
Perhaps from witnessing these events, the druids already know Betsy is Krakoan. But if they’re locals who’ve been around for millennia, you’d think they’d have met by now—during Excalibur vol 1!
But after the lighthouse is magically reformed, Betsy tells her teammates who they are; her explanation might also tell us why they’re just appearing now: “They haven’t survived this long by being seen.”
To the druids, helping Betsy means letting the Earth here “bear the fruit of Krakoa”—and so Rogue’s bier roots itself in the soil, and before the mutants realize what’s happening, the earth around Rogue ripples and a wall of earthen material buttressed by thick roots shoots up into the night sky, Rogue in her bed rising too, all in a moment: The lighthouse stands tall once more—green and vegetal. (Marvel in the past few years has had a serious animate vegetation theme going: the Cotati in Empyre; everything in Percy’s X-Force; and Man-Thing’s recent one-shots, which are tied into the Krakoa era, as well; Strange Academy …) A light shines from the top—Rogue, still comatose, but shining brightly. This is pretty cool as a visual.
The data page shows a schematic of what’s just happened. There’s a gate at the bottom of the lighthouse, labeled as Focus I*—recalling Apocalypse’s desire for a “focal object” in Excalibur #1, to open his gate—and presumably whatever energy it focuses feeds into Focus II near the top, just below the “Theoretical Yield,” the comatose Rogue—still suffused with Otherworldly power.
Below the diagram, Apocalypse notes that the remains of two anciently dead mutants have “reformed into large crystal structures, containing the power of the ages within.” But what the hell does this phrase mean? The ages—and whose ages—have power?! I guess the Celtic youths’ bones aren’t as powerful as those he has Rictor and Remy retrieve in issue #4 since toward the end of #5, he says they’re 10,000 years old—rather than just 2,000.
This is a really cool visual, but none of the other Krakoan gates require anything so recondite. In fact, I feel this is the biggest flaw of Tini’s first arc: Trying her hand at esotericism, she comes across in these pages as obscure rather than truly evoking something mysterious but ultimately graspable.
Without comprehensible reward, these moments are just ethereal obscurantism. Maybe that’s why, thankfully, she forgoes this in later issues! When Tini uses Tarot symbolism throughout X of Swords, that works, the mystic vein in her scripting actually quite powerful and compelling.
B. Ridiculous Parenting & Goofy Witches
Waking from a nightmare in a vegetal lighthouse bed, Jubilee panics about Shogo being on the same island as Apocalypse and hurries back home. I’m not sure why she didn’t just go home in the first place—seriously! After all, she or any one of them could’ve very quickly gone to get more help in defending the lighthouse—so weird!
Betsy’s own dream puts her in Otherworld where she sees a wolf made of mystic fire*, a magical sword floating next to it. Seeing her, it trots off, leading Betsy to a statue of Apocalypse in the wilderness. Bizarrely, in either hand, it holds a plate of fresh fruit. She eats a slice of grapefruit(?), thinking to herself that she wants to embrace a more open attitude than she’s typically displayed (throughout her publication history). She wants to follow, accept what’s offered her, learn, and “glut myself at this altar.”
(*Maybe it’s psychic fire since this Rachel projecting an avatar into Otherworld—as revealed in issue #5. Hopefully, one day, a romance will develop between her and Betsy; they’d be a real power couple! We’ll return to this speculation later in the series.)
After all, she has been “a yawning hunger” her whole life, but she’s never been allowed herself to be open to the potential she might see around her if only she were more, I don’t know, humble, less arrogant. This is the paradox of the very privileged: Their appetites are never satisfied, and yet they don’t know how to accept and share the bounty of a good meal; when they’re aggressive rather than lazy, they always hunger because they don’t know what satisfaction is: nature’s wealth shared with others.
Maybe I’m misreading this cryptic scene, but I don’t think that’s a misread of Betsy herself. (Again, crypticism isn’t a Tini strength—though I’m hoping that she refines her hand in this and returns to it later on in her career.)
Engraved on one of the plates is: “He will use us / We can use him”—which I think means that, of course, Apocalypse will, as ever, use others as a means to his own ends. It’s also an invitation to contemplate how the rest of mutantkind might return the favor. For the most part in this first arc, however, it’s Big A who’s using others.
Betsy wakes to Shogo munching on her hair! (It still makes no sense that Jubilee returned with him rather than staying in Krakoa and sending more help to the lighthouse. But this is comics, baby! And babies get to be part of the peril and suspense too, no matter how random-seeming—as we’ll see by chapter’s end…)
The druids return, then, to say they recognize Betsy’s ascension to the title and office of Captain Britain. Now they seek her aid in fighting off Coven Akkaba, “commanders of the ley”—who just at that moment attack from the sky.
We get a beautiful double-spread of the battle, showing the new Captain Britain wielding her psychic sword and shield in their first melee. She’s simultaneously in telepathic communication with Apocalypse, who explains the origin of Coven Akkaba:
Both Apocalypse and the Coven come off sounding despicable, and these dark human mages are clearly both his ancient creation* and responsibility—but he’s not (yet) present for the fight against them in defense of the lighthouse. So, obviously, Betsy is peeved. (*Just don’t expect any further Coven history in this series.)
But then—BOOM, BOOM, the Big A shows up after all. KRAKABOOM. His fists thunder with energy, felling the humans. Betsy isn’t happy about the unasked-for help! So much for accepting what’s offered; clearly, this irony is intentional. (I do like the subtlety with which this Betsy-theme is handled in the title, but again, an embarrassment of riches has occasionally obscured it.)
Still, she relents, accepting that he’s right: she needs to take the fight to Camelot. Betsy convinces Gambit to accompany her; after all, even though this is all still so mysterious, Rogue is apparently too valuable to Apocalypse in her present state. (Remember, any Captain Britain has access to Otherworld.)
Jubilee, though, draws the line at leaving Shogo and wants to take him back to Krakoa. Surprisingly, Betsy just pulls her through her personal Captain Britain portal to Otherworld instead!
And so, Jubilee’s worry turns into sheer terror when she finds herself no longer holding her son—confronted, instead, by a giant dragon.
The ancient druid lullaby closing this chapter clearly foreshadows Shogo’s transformative fate. However, beyond X of Swords, it doesn’t seem like much more has come of this. Maybe Shogo still isn’t ready to fly above the safety of Jubilee’s arms. That would make sense—he’s just a baby! It’s just a playtime activity whenever they visit Otherworld.
Next issue, we find that apparently, Shogo happened to be thinking of dragons when he was whisked through a portal that he would’ve barely had time to register beforehand. Oh, well—maybe he intuited it, even before Jubilee knew what was happening(?)!
Wouldn’t Jubilee be freaking out more that he might be permanently stuck like this? She also appears to have been okay enough in letting him fly away to do recon on Camelot—which is wild.
It’s neat that dragon Shogo can communicate through images (telepathically transmitted, like Artie Maddicks? They should get together for a playdate!!!).
Of course, Jubilee is now okay with her son carrying the trio on his back to scope out Camelot again—which last time we saw was under siege, although it looks quiet and peaceful now. Where’s Saturnyne’s army? Or was it a pro-Arthurian guerrilla force? Who can say?
NEXT TIME: Issues #3-6—from contrivance and wobbliness to surprising success at the conclusion