III. #3: “Three Covenants”
You could say Apocalypse and Rictor forge a covenant in this issue, but I’m not sure what the other two are! Maybe another one is Betsy’s agreement with the Queen? Pretty silly to call that a covenant, especially given how blandly it’s presented. (Is it supposed to read so silly?)
A. Rictor—at last!
Julio Richter—who has a very unlikely Germanic surname that really should’ve just been his codename, instead of Rictor*, which has no meaning—debuted in 1987’s X-Factor #17 by Weezie and Walt Simonson. The first Spanish-speaking mutant of any prominence, he’s been given a background story through the lens of a sensationalistic gringo view of Mexican society.
*The word it looks closest to is rictus!
That said, there is an element of fatalism to his family relations that does strike a chord with aspects of some of my own childhood friends in Houston who came from families in northern border states like Chihuahua, where there are fewer resources and less security, where life lived so close to the wealth of the States means ordinary people grappling on their own, for generations now, with a heavily militarized narco-state.
I don’t know much about Julio’s hometown, the metropolis of Guadalajara, which is much further south, but to Mexicans and foreigners alike it’s widely considered a cultural mecca and is quite progressive. Untraveled gringos living in fading middle America typically have some difficulty imagining the modernity and dynamism of so many Latin American metropolises, even of smaller towns as well. But while one of Mexico’s earliest and largest drug cartels was based there, it collapsed 40 years ago, after which cartel power moved to those northern border states where it’s been ever since.
All this is to say that I find Julio’s background as a teen merc from a middling cartel family cringey and insultingly cursory, especially given the lack of any other prominent Mexican representation at Marvel.
(As presumably a Mexican-American, the new Ghost Rider might be an edge case, but his background feels like it’s been portrayed with such a lack of cultural specificity, much less interest—after Felipe Smith’s time with the character—that it seems wrong to say anything like prominent representation has been achieved here; certainly, no one should be patting themselves on the back just because Jason Aaron’s recently made him rather famous for driving a demon car and being a nice older brother.)
Julio’s what we’ve got, and he is, despite his inveterate moodiness, a lovable old standby. If only he was more prominent, more consistently stewarded by Marvel creators over the past 30 years.
With this current Excalibur fans hopefully need not worry any longer.
His publication history starts off with him as a teen merc captured by Cameron Hodge’s the Right, who forcibly exploited his powers to terrorize San Francisco. However, X-Factor took him in the next issue as one of their trainees, along with Boom-Boom, with whom he formed a close friendship, saving his life from the black hole of depression—coming from an emotionally and morally broken patriarchal family and then tortured as a teenager into using his powers destructively. (In fact, he was abducted twice by Hodge early on, and then once again in 1990’s X-Tinction Agenda.)
Not long after joining the New Mutants with Boom-Boom, he met Cable, who clearly became a surrogate father figure to the whole team, but most particularly and poignantly to Julio himself.
Longtime Rictor stans will recognize, then, that Big Daddy A is stepping in in Cable’s absence. (Notably, Shatterstar doesn’t pop back up until after X of Swords.)
Since the latter days of the original X-Force title, Julio has returned to the limelight only intermittently, but at least in his initial sojourn back to Guadalajara, he was accompanied by his new best friend and future lover Shatterstar. He was, unfortunately, one of the mutants depowered by M-Day, although PAD’s X-Factor did give him a home when no other series was likely to. Fortunately—perhaps surprisingly to newer readers—he was repowered by Wanda Maximoff five years later in the all-but-forgotten but worthwhile Avengers: Children’s Crusade miniseries.
As seen in this arc, Julio is able to project “vibes,” vibrational frequencies great and small—it’s not always earthquakes. But the Rictor we see in Excalibur #3 really has lost control. And it’s perhaps too easy an out to simply portray him as so constantly moody!
But how was he brought so low? It’s never clearly explained, but we do know that Shatterstar believed him dead at the start of 2019’s Age of X-Man. Still, some more clarity on what led Rictor to this low point would’ve been nice!
It’s strange, though, in Excalibur #3 that he asks for anonymous advice from Krakoans online, rather than calling on any number of mutants he’s known his whole adult life! (And many of whom have experience with powers gone wild.
(Of course, if this happens only when he steps on soil, why doesn’t he leave his apartment by the front door and keep to the sidewalk, at least for the time being? And does Krakoa even count as earthly ground when it’s really a buoyant salt-water organism? Better not to ask too much of logic here!)
B. Dual Loyalty
Why do Morgan and Marianna think news of the new Captain Britain being a mutant would be scandalous? After all, as Captain Britain, Brian lived and worked with mutants in Excalibur for years, and his wife, with whom he has a child, is both mutant and fey. Here, it’s a little confusing that this isn’t clarified upfront, but next chapter, we will in fact see some added nuance:
There’s now a Captain Britain who’s a citizen and current resident of a different nation—which, yes, happens to also be a mysterious far-off island of terrifying mutants. However, the most fraught theme this evokes—dual loyalty—is never really explored in this series in a way that would be at all relevant or additive to how analogous situations play out in the real world.
Hilariously, Coven Akkaba still doesn’t seem allowed to call on Morgan’s magics to fight mutants—which makes no sense in terms of this ancient sorceress’s strategy or lack thereof. (And why would Morgan know anything about modern Britain’s super-secret intelligence department Black Air? More on them below.)
C. Brian Enthralled
Inside Camelot, Brian’s in chains but fully possessed, howling for Betsy’s blood, and the only army we see is Morgan’s—and they seem completely prepared for battle, which would be … amazing, I guess, if this weren’t all so compressed, it’s hard to take notice. So, Morgan rallied her forces upon seeing Shogo cruising by. After all, we—strangely—don’t see Saturnyne’s army this issue, so there’s no reason they’d be so ready.
Brian appears among Morgan’s host, looking very dark. He and Betsy clash swords, and she even mentions Jamie, going against Jamie’s narcissistic wishes and causing her brother to falter a moment. However, he won’t recall this.
At last, Shogo unleashes his green dragon fire, scattering Morgan’s forces before ferrying the trio to safety. Morgan mockingly toasts Betsy, telepathically. Given how quickly she falls in this arc, her grandstanding comes off looking very cheesy in retrospect.
Next issue, Coven Akkaba reveals that dragon fire is in fact inimical to Otherworld, and this occurrence has torn a hole in reality, unleashing its “Unseelie* beasts” upon the Earth—well, the UK’s tourist sites anyway and Braddock Lighthouse. (*This is Scottish for “malevolent” in the context of anything fey.)
This issue’s data page is a communique from MI-13’s Black Air department reporting on activity detected in Otherworld—all of it relating to Excalibur and mutants. (But wouldn’t they already have been monitoring the much bigger spectacle—so far—of Morgan’s putsch and Saturnyne’s response, which, again, is strangely absent this issue?)
Back in the lighthouse, Apocalypse makes a verbal entry in his Grimoire, his journal of magic, which he seems to have been working on for centuries, but it’s not stated one way or the other.
Apparently, the crystal remains of the long-dead druidic mutants that will empower the gate into Otherworld are already sputtering out of juice—or, wait, no, he’s saying these crystals have nothing to do with mutants:
In any case, this is Apocalypse’s cue to seek out Rictor, “master of stone.”
He convinces Rictor that he’s just afraid and depressed, but Krakoa will change all that—and he will be there along the way to help him.
This is the best part of the issue! Apocalypse, shockingly, at his most humane. (The fact that we don’t see the actual scene where he has a heart-to-heart with Rictor does however undercut this scene.)
But Apocalypse leads Rictor not to Krakoa but to the lighthouse—where Pete Wisdom has just arrived looking for the new Captain Britain, to recruit her in service to her Queen.
So who’s Pete Wisdom and what’s Black Air? Since Wisdom’s last appearance was in 2014, you may have no idea who he is!
Besides once having been a prodigious smoker—and now avid lollipop fan since Marvel can no longer represent smokers on the page—Wisdom is known for being the British man in black with the “hot knives” for fingers, which mutant ability is aptly named. These swift digits can incinerate incoming bogies as well. They can also act as projectiles—not his fleshly parts, just the semisolid thermal energy shooting from them—and if he finds himself thrown from a rooftop, his knives’ thermal generation will slow his fall. He’s also just a very seasoned field agent excessively experienced in the wetworks department, leaving him hollowed out and spiritually deadened at a young age.
A Warren Ellis creation, Wisdom debuted in Excalibur #86, and though primarily a supporting character of that series, he did go on to star in a couple of minis (Pryde & Wisdom and Wisdom), as well as later issues of X-Force volume 1 and throughout 2008’s Captain Britain and MI-13.
Wisdom’s father was a Scotland Yard detective, but young Peter came from an otherwise broken home. But he showed a preternatural aptitude for rising through the ranks of British secret intelligence and received personal recognition from the Queen herself.
Joining the super-secret coterie of spies called Black Air, the ever unlikeable Wisdom found his tribe, tucked away within the so-called Weird Happenings Organization—which bears no relation to the WHO of our own real world (or does it? 😉).
After his debut, he actually resigned from Black Air—a vanishingly small branch of British intelligence that deals with extraterrestrial and/or unexplained phenomena happening in the UK. Black Tom was a member once! (Not so different from Mystique and friends on the US government’s Freedom Force 😉.) This was when he joined Excalibur and begins dating Kitty Pryde…! With his new team, he attacked his ex-employers to expose their dastardly schemes.
By series’ end, he broke up with Kitty and transitioned to becoming a black-ops trainer for X-Force, which had been without disciplined direction for some time. He was ingenious in showing them new, deadly ways of harnessing their powers.
In the Wisdom mini he took leadership of MI-13, and in Claremont’s entirely forgettable New Excalibur formed a new Excalibur team. Wisdom got a better showing in Captain Britain and MI-13, where he regathered Britain’s heroes as agents of MI-13. This is a fantastic limited series that sees the hard-bitten spy fighting against the Skrull invasion of Avalon—and reluctantly accepting help from mad Merlyn.
He was last seen briefly in Si Spurrier’s X-Force title (2014-2015), where he chose his loyalty to mutantkind over what he felt was owed to his government and employers—who’s been secretly surveilling mutants. But now, mutants have founded their own nation, and until quite recently in Excalibur, he’s felt ambivalently toward Krakoa, in his characteristically irritated and irritating manner!
IV. #4: “Fall Back and Think of England”
A. Flimsy Make-Believe Britannia
We open with a scene of antimutant bigotry outside Buckingham Palace. It’s nothing new and isn’t additive really—unless, of course, we acknowledge that the US is an amnesiac culture that needs constant reminding of injustices inherited from our forebears. You could also just be a fan discovering X-Men for the first time!
We see Rictor suddenly—no longer depressed! His powers are in control?! And he’s Big A’s biggest fan?!
Again, this material is too compressed. This isn’t really character development if we don’t see it or even get a focused self-reflection from the character undergoing change. This brief scene is not that!
Also, the super-cursory rundown on the political geography of the British Isles and Ireland is bizarre. Sure, I get that Rictor, who’s never been there before (I think?), wouldn’t know this stuff.
But then why does he—and by extension Excalibur’s readership—need to learn this basic nomenclature here and now? For those who already know this stuff, it does nothing; for those who don’t, it’s not like there’s anything to really learn here.
The optics are unintentionally odd too, with Jubilee so blandly imparting facts about a culture about which, within an actual natural conversation, a Chinese-American would likely have more compelling things to say.
However, Tini Howard’s own understanding of how Britain works appears to be painfully superficial. Captain Britain would first and foremost be meeting with Parliament; the Queen is a cultural figurehead and wouldn’t be making any decisions about Captain Britain’s role. She might provide a stamp of approval, but that’s it. Now, maybe the point here to play up the fantasy aspect of the title, but this is where Excalibur finds itself in treacherous waters: Utilizing real-world governments about which the author knows little is not a recipe for success (which certainly hasn’t stopped American comic writers from misrepresenting societies the world over!).
I really have no idea what serving the Queen means here!
Then we’re “deep beneath the moorlands,” which is a funny phrase. There are a lot of places in the UK that could be labeled such. I’m sure this is still Cornwall, but this deracinated portrayal of another country is starting to grate!
I suppose the earlier crystals at the top of the lighthouse weren’t compressed mutant bones after all or maybe he just sent Rictor and Remy to retrieve more of them—or these buried ones will be older? They sure make a cute duo.
It’s weird that Apocalypse didn’t warn them about the druids; that’s not great leadership. Anyhow, while I’m not going to research druids right now, them grokking to Rictor’s vibration powers is a neat twist. (Again, this story element deserves more attention, and I get why Tini hasn’t been able to include more. Still—another reason for an additional mutant-magic title!)
However, it’s a really strange beat to have them embrace Rictor as a hero and fellow druid but then try to kill Gambit, who’s so clearly on team Rictor! At the start of the next issue, he saves Remy using one of the crystals, commanding the earth to catch his plummeting comrade.
[Is it strange that Julio has never been shown celebrating anything particular about his Mexican heritage whereas now he’s a druid??]
[Looks cool though!]
As Otherworld’s “Unseelie beasts” flock through a seeping hole in reality thanks to Shogo’s dragon fire, Apocalypse is at Rogue’s side as she’s about to wake, which he was apparently expecting soon anyway:
V. #5: “Panic on the Streets of London”
Apocalypse explains at the start, the beastly Otherworld invasion—which comes from a fantasyland where people fear mutants but not slavering monsters of all shapes and sizes???—is providing him energy to finish his ritual and open the gate to Avalon.
Instead of awakening, Rogue finds herself astrally displaced into Otherworld, wearing her Savage Land garb! She encounters Rachel as the wolf of mystic (or is it psychic?) fire (and she quickly figures out on her own who’s behind this avatar). She’s led to a giant X surrounded by stone busts of Sentinels—like Easter Island’s Mo’ai. She sees a vision of Apocalypse, and back at the lighthouse, he’s fighting alongside Bets and Jubes against the beasties.
In a couple of pages, we see this Apocalypse vision offer her a sword, which she plunges into her glowing belly, which looses a stream of light—leaving a stone throne behind, very Celtic. A number of celestial objects appear overhead.
Presumably, though, Rogue has unleashed something of Krakoa into the making of this astral throne? Really, who can say; I don’t think it’s ever brought up again. Maybe it’s just supposed to add to the décor?
In the page taken from The Grimoire of A, we see this ritual arena mapped—and I’m not going to pretend I know what it means! But using Apocalypse’s writings to trash the popular use of astrology is fun but stated somewhat turgidly. (Quincunx, however, means an arrangement of five points, although how it’s used astrologically, don’t ask me. Still, this clearly resonates with mutant power circuits like the Five, and we’ll soon see Rictor practicing magic in like-numbered groupings. There seems to be a tradition that views five as divine—just like virtually so many common numbers have been given divinely inspired symbolism throughout human history. Sure.)
And it sure is strange to see him calling mutants “communal organism[s] with shared interest”! This is Apocalypse?!
Apocalypse’s complaint that whatever he’s been waiting eons for might get rushed in light of this invasion is suggestive, but he keeps it close to the vest. But somehow he knew he’d need Shogo to turn into a dragon and breathe fire in Otherworld in order to make his move against Morgan. Wild!
But whatever he’d been planning with Rogue is disrupted by Gambit using a telepath’s help to nudge her toward waking—though it shunted her astrally to Otherworld first. Apocalypse is furious; apparently, he’d been waiting millennia for the alignment of his pieces on the gameboard of “cosmic timing.”
Apocalypse blames Gambit for endangering Rogue, but apparently she can hear the bickering and isn’t happy about the prospect of Big A taking credit for her imminent recovery. At last, she arrives in her body, taking the (second?) oldest living mutant* down a peg—and absorbing his life force.
Surprisingly, Apocalypse commands her to keep going, to kill him in order to complete the ritual. And so she does! It’s sure a frightful look.
(*Apparently, even Big A doesn’t know exactly how old he is: “My own bones are as old [as 10,000 years]—older, perhaps.”)
Anyway, the ritual seems to have closed the dimensional holes made by Shogo’s dragon fire, banished(?) all the Otherworld beasties, and opened the lighthouse gate to Avalon.
Rogue also now knows all of Apocalypse’s schemes, which includes “taking the throne.” This will happen but on Arakko—not Krakoa! (But then, once the Arakkii migrate to Mars, it’s Storm who becomes ruler of that planet, and we still haven’t seen the reappearance of Apocalypse post-X of Swords. Which is fine! Concluding his recent narrative arc remains the most satisfying story resolution of the Krakoa era.)
However, unsurprisingly, there is no further development with Rogue’s temporarily absorbed knowledge.
VI. #6: “Watch the Throne”
We open with Xavier expressing his disappointment with Apocalypse having ulterior motives even as Big A emerges from the Hatchery*. Right. So, Skinny X is sounding just a little naïve here?
*His resurrection seems to be the quickest one to date, even quicker than Xavier’s!
Marcus To dynamically renders the battle for Camelot. Though Bets reconfirms that she’s only fighting to free Brian; Apocalypse shows up to tell her otherwise.
He talks Morgan into staking her throne on a contest of champions—Bets, who can resurrect, vs. Brian. But despite being a little miffed at Apocalypse, Rogue seems to be a Big A apologist now and assures CB that his plans won’t result in her actually having to kill her brother.
That Apocalypse himself doesn’t make this appear at all clear upfront does make for good suspense before our first arc climaxes—and lo and behold, Betsy does end up killing her brother with his own sword!
With the distraction of this grisly spectacle, Apocalypse sneaks brother Jamie onto Camelot’s throne and calls on Jubilee riding Shogo to attack Morgan’s forces with dragon fire—now without melting through reality since an Omega reality-warper* now rules Camelot! Nicely tied off, Big A!
So it’s Jamie who completes Apocalypse’s schemes as the new king simply taps his brother on the brow and wakes him from death! Brian is not happy to discover who his savior is.
(*Does this beg the question of why he wasn’t deployed at the start to simply take Morgan’s throne with a snap of his fingers? Well, hmm. Maybe Mad Jim Jaspers—surprisingly now a resident of Otherworld as well—would’ve got wind of this too-easy conquest? Meh—unconvincing? After all, he hasn’t yet expressed any real issue with his erstwhile enemies and fellow kind ruling in Avalon these past two years.)
Promised exile, the defeated Morgan is instead imprisoned by Jamie. In the last excerpt from the Grimoire here, we find out that Apocalypse has always been interested in the malignant genetic “Component Y”—and it’s discovered that Morgan has it, upon her dissection in Camelot’s dungeons!
According to Apocalypse, Component Y is one of the most dangerous things to mutantkind. But to this day we’ve heard nothing further on this mysterious subject.
We also get reiterated here Apocalypse’s sense of mutant solidarity—which I think we’re meant to believe he’s always cherished. Now, X of Swords is successful in convincing me this makes sense going forward, but it’s pretty hard to swallow at this point!
At the close, it is nice to briefly see some further relationship development between Rogue and Gambit, reaffirming their disinterest in breeding, Krakoan law be damned. (Not that there are any teeth to this rule; after all, Scott and Jean (and Logan for that matter) aren’t trying to breed either.
Meanwhile, Brian’s near breakdown is affecting. Reversing his blandly noble origin as Captain Britain, he’s now been given the Sword of Might—representing a will toward violence in the one who chooses it—rather than the Amulet of Right—which he’d already given to Betsy.
It’s interesting that he made this choice in a dream and woke up with the actual sword. But oddly, Merlyn and Roma were envisioned there as well—which is weird since father and daughter aren’t even speaking nowadays; they seem to be mortal enemies.
Regardless, Brian believes Morgan’s enthrallment of him killed his pacificism—which is what I’d call “recoiling from violence” even though that’s not exactly consistent with Brian’s own publication history!!! Still, this change in status quo does speak to a darkness in his character fans will recognize.
And he’s of course still a good guy, thoughtful enough to know that publicly wielding this sword will inspire Britain’s fickle public to goad him into killing his sister. Not that he would, but it’d be an even uglier scene. So for now, Brian will be a stay-at-home baby-daddy. A model hubby!
Just to be safe, he gives Betsy the Sword of Might to lock away somewhere. Well, he is forced to wield it one more time, throughout much of X of Swords—but since then, we haven’t seen it. Meanwhile, Brian himself has played a supporting part as a stalwart family man. And frankly, there’s likely not a single X fan who would balk at his happy fate.
Instead, there are just plenty of online incels fuming about their ’90s pin-up ninja getting her own body back and taking her brother’s place—looking like a figure out of classic high fantasy.
Betsy’s ascension as Captain Britain is certainly the highlight of this first arc. And it makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, if not for the beauty and consistency of Marcus To’s art, much of the rest of the narrative wouldn’t hold together nearly as well as it does.
How the machinations of Apocalypse stand in so perfectly for Tini’s authorial hand is a bit too neat, but it does strengthen satisfyingly tie together an otherwise overly compressed and contrived opening arc—and issue #6 is the strongest of the bunch for what it allows the series to achieve going forward. It doesn’t hurt that it also gives us the mini-epic’s best character moments all around.
The pieces are now all in place for the build to X of Swords!
NEXT TIME: Marauders #2-6