The X-Men are weird.
Yes, that’s kind of the whole point of them, strange unpredictable alterations to the human genome fighting an evolutionary war against prejudice and extremism, but it’s easy to miss just how much they diverge from that clear, platonic ideal that we’ve decided defines the franchise. Perhaps most notably, do you remember just how many demons the X-Men fight?
Way back in the Lee/Kirby days, the X-Men met Professor X’s murderous brother, the Juggernaut, empowered by the demon Cyttorak. The fourth ‘All-New All-Different’ X-Men story revealed that the Xavier mansion housed an artifact that entrapped an entire race of demons. Sorcerers and demons manipulated Ilyana Rasputin in Limbo to the point she could become a demon, herself. Demons attacked Kitty Pryde on Christmas, Forge could summon demons due to shamanic demon-fighting training in his youth, Dracula tried to seduce Storm twice, Cyclops’ wife sold her soul to a demon for revenge, Nightcrawler’s foster sister/girlfriend once created a demon and Nightcrawler is a demonic-looking mutant who was later revealed to be a member of an entire subspecies of demonic mutants who maybe inspired many legends about demons, despite demons actually existing in Marvel continuity!
The point is, for an ostensible science fiction series, there’s a lot of magic in the X-Men.
Despite the clear niche that the X-Men have carved for themselves, they wander into the weird and supernatural often and one of the characters who most represents this bridge is Betsy Braddock. Though known to X-fans as Psylocke, Betsy was originally introduced in the pages of Captain Britain, tying her to the worlds of both magic and mutation. Not that this was seen as a contradiction by Chris Claremont, who joyously transferred his creation over from Marvel UK to the pages of Uncanny X-Men and The New Mutants. Soon Claremont would fully tie the two together by creating Excalibur, a team-up of Captain Britain characters with some of his favorite mutants for worldwide publication.
Now Excalibur is back and it’s taking a hard look at the place of magic among X-Men whose technology is more than sufficiently advanced.
Writer Tini Howard‘s concepts of mutantkind finally having the opportunity to create for its own sake in the Krakoan era are immediately compelling and shows why this Golden Age of mutants is dramatically rich, even without any aspersions on its validity. Into this circumstance Howard throws Apocalypse…or .
Apo- has always sought to do what he feels is best for mutants and their evolution and so it is unsurprising that he focuses his attentions almost immediately upon how the Krakoan paradigm can be expanded into the realm of mysticism. There are elements of this characterization that don’t align perfectly, but Howard barrels through such questions for now, ensuring that readers discover her take on together. In this, operates with the gravitas worthy of a mutant of his stature. Impossibly ancient and granted what is essentially a pardon for all his past crimes (as fascinatingly unsettling as the near universal acceptance of that concept is), makes for an interestingly foreign mindset. He sees things differently, in strange yet never unreasonable ways. He feels very much like a monument, fitting to his Kemetic roots and, while Howard obviously adores writing this alien mastermind in all his strangeness, it is who drives the plot, however subtly.
Far be it from me to disrespect someone’s preferred mode of address, but I think I’ll follow Tini’s lead and leave to mutant tongues. Forgive me if I refer to him as Apocalypse for the rest of the review.
In any case, while Apocalypse is a strong and engaging character for this series, this is very much Ms. Braddock’s show. Though Apocalypse and Morgan Le Fey (of all people!) have moments in the sun, Betsy’s perspective is our default throughout the issue and this is a very good thing. Despite wrestling with some strange and not entirely relatable troubles, Betsy is written in an incredibly clear and enjoyable way. Admittedly, we’ll need a little more time with her to get to the core of her character, but a couple of friendly jabs at and from her brothers do a lot to clarify Howard’s vision of the character, whether she’s a personal favorite or ‘that one who’s Asian but not really because Chris Claremont was weird’.
That actually is important. Psylocke has been canonized as one of the central X-Men–undeniably in the second string behind the franchise’s biggest names like Wolverine and Jean Grey–but, of that batch, she’s had less exposure to the non-comic reading audience and more arc and plot dependent characterizations. It’s a big deal to define Betsy at all, much less after she reverts back into her pre-Revanche body.
Luckily the rest of the cast is rather familiar. Besides Trinary (good for her, sticking around), who plays a fairly simple role in this post-revolutionary world, the cast is basically made up of the 90s X-Men starter set. Sure Gambit and Rogue have settled down and Jubes has a kid if you haven’t been paying attention, but they hold essentially true to core.
Perhaps the most interesting question that the issue doesn’t fully address is Rogue’s idea of paradise. Rogue’s done a lot of growing over the past fifteen years that separates her from her evergreen identity, but, especially with characters getting some serious recontextualizing here at the start of a big relaunch for the brand, it’s enticing to wonder how Rogue balances all this mutant pride with having a, to be honest, difficult mutation. We hear Anna Marie decline the use of power dampening tech, but one doubts that it’s as simple as that. Rogue is different from most mutants in that she actually suffers on a physiological level rather than having a gift that she has to hide in order to avoid the scorn of a society that doesn’t understand her. There is a lot of commentary, written by smarter and more qualified people than I, about Rogue’s relationship with mutation as a metaphor or analogue for queerness and for disability and, while Howard side-steps the issue for now, the care that she takes with Rogue and Gambit’s interactions leave me eager to hear her takes on the subject. Hopefully we’ll see a little bit about that before too long.
But, especially since we’re focusing on the directions the book takes beloved characters, there is a bit of an elephant in the room–or at least a mutant with the skin texture of one. Put simply, I don’t know that Apocalypse has ever been presented as a magician or sorcerer in any capacity. In fact, in most of his stories he’s leaned pretty heavily into the super-science side of the X-Men brand. It’s a believable wrinkle for the character but one that feels like it really would have come up more often. What’s more, Howard tries to spin ol’ ‘s defining ‘survival of the fittest’ shtick in a new and interesting way, but it feels like a pretty dramatic departure from the sheer level of zeal he threw into the traditional philosophy. Apocalypse feels like a character who could potentially seek to learn how mutants flourish once they’ve proven themselves superior, but I don’t know that I can imagine him content with the concept of peace. It feels like he would at least need to view this as the latest challenge for mutant-kind, and there’s little done here to make that feel less at odds with his traditional characterization.
The final page even reveals some wild stuff about parts of Clan Akkaba that seems wildly contradictory with their usual role. In fairness, this one is both more surprising for its serious change in their core conceit and easier to swallow because, if I am to be honest, I think I am not alone in saying that I’ve never fully ‘gotten’ Clan Akkaba, no matter how many stories I read featuring them.
There’s a lot of stuff crammed into Excalibur #1. I haven’t even touched upon a significant family reunion or the state of Otherworld, but that’s all there too. Morgan is certainly not a likable character under Howard’s pen, but she has a certain love to hate her quality that helps keep an appropriately well trod mythic arc feeling exciting despite how many times we’ve seen it before.
One other thing that’s interesting about the “Dawn of X” books is their use of Hickman’s already iconic prose pages. Howard really makes these feel worthwhile in this book. Sure, some of it is a little confusing, but it is magic, so it doesn’t feel too absurd that it should require some faith and sideways thinking to grasp the true meaning of it all.
Marcus To certainly manages to make this feel like a tentpole book in a line-wide relaunch. Admittedly it’s not so much the aesthetic we associate with first tier action series, but that’s not really what Excalibur is going for. This is definitely going for a weirder and less traditional superhero vibe than X-Men, X-Force, or even Marauders, so it makes sense that the look Marvel went with was one in the spirit of a youthful, ethereal team book just done at a quality to match the Spider-Mans and Fantastic Fours of the world. And, make no mistake, To delivers on that.
There’s a characteristic attention to line weight and what draws the eye that To brings to his books and here it ensures that the whole affair feels sharp, with fine lines on top of bolder superhero bases, still just a little fainter than the model they’re channeling. This really comes out in the inks and, together with Erick Arciniega, the overall effect of the art is one of pointed smoothness, of very clear ideas conveyed without hesitation but through a style that prioritizes the sleek, futuristic ease of the X-Men as heroes and young people. Indeed, much of the cast has an almost elven youth to them that kind of captures the appeal of this series, taking these superheroes and throwing them into the world of fairy tale, in both aspects being young people of incredible gifts stepping off of the trodden path and making a strange and wonderful future.
That means that characters that have a little bit of those folktale archetypes in them–Betsy, Remy, Trinary, not to mention the obvious ones from the Captain Britain side of things–fare especially well. Apocalypse is the odd man out, feeling impossibly ancient and actually immortal rather than the four-color eternal youth of the rest of the ensemble. At times he can look out of phase, almost as if awkwardly stretched over his wireframe, but the simplicity of how he’s drawn and the grandeur of his new attire ultimately keep him an imposing presence, even if it feels like he should be more of a spectacle in himself.
Rogue is a unique case in that she actually looks great, but, petty as it feels to mention it, something about her bangs feels really off. There’s just a flatness that holds the design back. I feel like maybe it combines two older Rogue hairstyles in a way that’s caught between them, but it just doesn’t look like Rogue when you see the whole hairdo. None of this can stop how great Rogue’s wardrobe is–I kind of love that, if we’re going back to the over the top awesome 90s costume, Rogue’s more modern duds have just become her casualwear. Rogue also provides To with some of his best compositions.
Indeed, To seems to be of the school that insists that there be at least one eye-catching panel a page and you can count on that panel receiving a little extra love. The layouts are not anything particularly innovative. I would actually argue that they’re aiming for a certain classic comics simplicity, but To always gives you something to look at, for your eye to gravitate to, and that helps control the flow of the story quite nicely.
Many issue #1s are simply restatements of the book’s premise and Excalibur #1 doesn’t quite break from that. However, that assessment doesn’t fully capture what it brings to the table because, already, Tini Howard and Marcus To are filling this book with a lot of ideas. This is plainly Betsy Braddock’s book, with Apocalypse as a powerful presence both overtly and in the shadows, but there’s also Coven Akkaba, Egg and Jamie, Rogue and Gambit, and a handful of characters who remain in the background or don’t appear at all, as well as big changes for Captain Britain and Otherworld.
Excalibur #1 throws a lot at its readers. I think too much in places and not the right ratio in others, but it’s a lot and a lot of it is very good. The premise requires some authorial gymnastics to justify but it feels good and, whether you’re intrigued by the plot; repulsed by it; delighted; or just confused, the characterization is strong enough to light a way forward. Excalibur collects strange and interesting facets of the X-Men to bring to the fore, using the Hickman era conceits in interesting ways but never being afraid to dream bigger or different dreams than HoX/PoX. If nothing else, I can say that this feels like a Tini Howard book and also a Marcus To book and that is something not to be underestimated, whether as a fan of these creators or a hopeless optimist still in love with the promise of shared world work-for-hire comics. With its eyes towards the future but its heart clearly tied to Kirby, Claremont, and Davis, Excalibur succeeds in bringing some magic back to the X-Men.
Excalibur #1 is currently available in comic shops from Marvel Comics.