Magic Is Born From Tension – Excalibur #2 Reviewed

by Noah Sharma

Excalibur was always a strange and complicated series. Giving a home to Brian Braddock and Meggan, characters created for Marvel UK’s Captain Britain, while also finding a place for some of writer Chris Claremont’s favorite X-Men when the opportunity to spin them off arose and the core series turned to a different group of characters, it was essentially a mix, bringing elements of Captain Britain to the American Marvel Universe while both using the popularity of the X-Men to support the series and allow a different kind of mutant title. The latest revival of the book finds itself looking to create the same balance, but things have changed around it. Most obviously, the place of mutants in the world has changed but also Captain Britain has settled into a comfortable but inessential role in the Marvel publishing strategy, to say nothing of how magic and mysticism are more foreign to comics in general than they once were. So where does that leave Excalibur #2?

Cover by Mahmud Asrar and Matthew Wilson

Well, thankfully, writer Tini Howard retains her knack for characterization from the first issue even as she turns to a slightly more plot-driven story. There’s significantly more action in this issue than there was in the first, but Howard sets aside ample time to examine her characters. In fact, I’d say that one of the notable things about Howard’s writing is the degree to which it doesn’t feel rushed.

Comics are a spatial medium. They exist at whatever speed you want to read them but they communicate concepts as complex as time, tone, and significance through their use of space. Often this can leave books feeling overstuffed, plotted out for twenty or twenty-two pages but struggling to fit that one splash or compensating for needed emphasis before a page-turn. Not so here. Two issues in Excalibur feels characteristically vast, touching on numerous sides of the story without any apparent difficulty. Everything seems to fit easily and without trouble and the issue manages to cover a lot of ground. The one area where this is not entirely true is a handful of assumptions the book makes, narratively or visually. Every here and there you’ll wonder where it was established that those characters moved from here to there or why a character changes topics without a reframing action or comment to play off of, but, strange as these moments are, they don’t change how complete and expansive these scripts feel.

Interior art by Marcus To and Erick Arciniega

Excalibur #2 could probably benefit from some more named antagonists coming into play; a lot of the villains are nameless armies. But while this is an unavoidable fact, it draws attention to how the drama of the issue comes from interpersonal conflict rather than pitched combat. There’s little worry that our heroes will be defeated, even as they tell us that they cannot hope to hold off their attackers without changing the terms of engagement, because the goal of the narrative is not to beat them but to overwhelm them. We know they will survive these low-threat engagements but they have weight in the degree to which they force hard choices. The threat of attack puts Gambit on edge, pulls Jubilee between two worlds, and reveals the numerous responsibilities that Betsy feels, both because of and around, her role as Captain Britain.

Even with a lot more action and plot occurring this month, the thrust of the book really comes from knowing what’s motivating our leads and seeing how the situation makes it impossible for them to stay still. Our cast is a group of old, old friends–effectively family–who want very badly to be there for each other, but they all have greater commitments now and the more they realize that they’re torn the more their individual needs become tangled in Betsy’s Otherworldly adventures. That’s some fine plotting.

A big part of what makes Betsy work for me in this issue is likely to put off other readers, namely the swiftness with which she adapts to being Captain Britain. The issue doesn’t make a big deal about Betsy’s stepping into her brother’s shoes as one might expect, but it ends up telling us a lot about her. Betsy is utterly reverent of Captain Britain and she throws herself into the role pretty immediately, but she still doesn’t think of herself as the Captain. To her, she’s just trying to live up to her brother’s mantle, and the closeness of their relationship is hammered home by how naturally she wields her incredible power and authority in his image.

Interior art by Marcus To and Erick Arciniega

Meanwhile Gambit proves a surprisingly effective straight-man to the rest of the cast. Especially with the ‘A++ student pushed to cathartic rebellion’ Marauders iteration of Kitty Pryde guest-starring, Gambit is forced out of his usual jokey, always rolls off persona as his concern for Rogue eats him up inside. It’s not a great look for the beloved character to demand that all the women dealing with a stressful situation through community shut up the minute his man-feelings are exposed when he’s spent the last thirty years cracking wise around situations of life and death, but it feels authentic and there’s also something to be said about all of his close friends ignoring his repeated sincere requests to take his feelings into account. I definitely feel bad for him and it plays in interesting ways with Gambit’s memetic identity as a mutant who’s impossible to phase. As long as he and Jubes get more chances to interact with the conscious and post-verbal members of the cast a little more in subsequent issues, they seem in good hands.

Among these strong personalities, Jubilee is largely the sane one, not contributing to the dynamic in as active ways, but when she comes to the fore its one of the issue’s most affecting sequences.

Howard is doing a particularly interesting job of meeting the challenge that writing a less traditional X book in an era defined by the primary series’ themes. She’s not running from Hickman’s take on the X-Men but she also acknowledges that this is (probably) not the book that’s exploring the true nature of Krakoa, so she instead uses them to both fuel and deepen her own story. The fact that Apocalypse is a respected member of the mutant government and being given a pass by seemingly everyone could just be one of those comic book things, but here we get to see just how frightening that can be. What does it mean when society won’t hold a dangerous politician to account? Where do the lines between the legal and the moral fall on Krakoa? What truly defines the nation: blood, genes, or family?

Howard has made no secret of her love for writing Apocalypse and it’s clear why in this issue. Though his history with magic and exact philosophy are a still a little fuzzy in relation to previous incarnations of the character, Apocalypse definitely possesses the importance and potency that he’s had in many of his best tales. Whenever he speaks there is authority and, even when his rhetorical prowess is challenged, he always controls the flow of ideas in conversation and in the narrative as a whole. It’s clear this issue that, even if we don’t know what Apocalypse is or was truly planning, he easily could control the fate of realms and may well be doing so, with the rest of Excalibur as his pawns.

Interior art by Marcus To and Erick Arciniega

There’s also some fascinating, if volatile, mixing of Apocalypse’s philosophy with greater questions of political identity, both fictional and real. The ethically shaky ground that Krakoa occupies as an extreme but theoretically justified response by an oppressed people is used to heighten the tension of the story as well as soften some complicated real world issues of identity and Apocalypse acts as an accelerant, pushing through the awkward questions of authorial intent and support and confronting us with propositions that seem both just and dangerous in their careful, piecemeal delivery

Make no mistake, Captain Britain is a weird concept. More than most nations, the unity and totality of the United Kingdom is a fractious and political topic, especially today. To unite the mythic traditions of the UK as a natural magical force is a political choice and to name their champion Captain Britain, under the authority of Merlin no less, is even more of one. That’s the backdrop of this character and, regardless of anyone’s opinion of it — especially Americans’ — that’s what Howard had to work with. So the decision to have Apocalypse wade into even the most theoretical form of that question makes for something with real power.

At times it feels like it may even tip over the line, into the realm of political discomfort, but Howard largely steers the ship away from those rocks. Yes, there are some complicated interactions with druids and a couple quiet acknowledgements of inheritance that need to be unpacked before they can be safely ignored, but one senses that Howard is at least aware of this, if not necessarily choosing or not choosing to deal with them. Questions of religion and land recall the pragmatic elements of Western culture that we prefer to gloss over with favorable legends, but that’s not the book’s purpose and it hopes to leave us with the power of real identity politics without wading too deep into those waters.

Indeed, there’s a lot that’s played close to the chest. A series of dreams and visions demonstrate how Howard’s writing can be both legible and mystifying, where clues are presented in such a fashion as to inform but not provide meaning. She seems to enjoy this as a superpower of serialized storytelling, but only time will tell exactly what it all means. In the meanwhile, we’re left with the experience, for good or ill.

Oh! And there are Selkies! Imagine that! Selkies in my Marvel comics!

In short, someone smarter and better at managing their time than I could likely already write some fascinating scholarly articles about this series and, that usually means that an X-Men story is doing something right.

Marcus To bears the brunt of the issue’s packed structure, leaving him less room than usual to glory in the script and give it room to breathe in his page arrangements. Nevertheless, he delivers Howards’ story in such a way that you might not even notice that, and he positively insists on selling the biggest moments, even if they might get a slightly smaller panel than one senses he might have liked. Indeed, the more you look at this book the more you notice how many invisible tricks To uses to make this dense script feel natural.

Much of what was true last month is true now. The characters look beautiful but active and the fantastic elements of magic and mutation pop with ‘throw down your backpack and watch after-school cartoons’ energy. Apocalypse still has moments where he looks off, but he pulls off that robe like nobody’s business and emotes very well for a 5,000-year-old mutant with no pupils.

Interior art by Marcus To and Erick Arciniega

And, probably even more than usual, I can say that To’s artwork here is anime AF. There are plenty of artists whose anime influences are incredibly clear, enough that the look has gotten a bad name among some circles, but Excalibur #2 doesn’t look like anime, it feels like anime. Sure, there are elements of To’s style that draw on manga, but this fundamentally looks like a very pretty American superhero comic. Instead, the emotions and movements are conveyed in a visual language that will be immediately and subconsciously familiar to fans of shōnen and mahou shōjo anime. From Captain Britain casually leaping off a tower to Apocalypse’s telepathic visage appearing behind her to Jubilee being pinned by reiastu to the very framings of numerous panels, the book translates many of the most effective visual tropes of anime effortlessly.

Erick Arciniega proves more than able to swing from the the eerily restrained to the brilliantly saturated and to light either one by the glow of countless mystic and mutant powers. He doesn’t really have a lot of tricks this issue, more just a solid grasp of what he brings to this book, but there will be moments when a certain color grabs you so distinctly that you’ll stop to appreciate just that. The colors in this issue are really sturdy, always willing to do what the story needs, and then, every here and there, they get tired of going unnoticed.

Interior art by Marcus To and Erick Arciniega

If it feels as though Excalibur hasn’t quite ‘clicked’ yet, that’s largely because I don’t know that it wants to. Rather than tell this story safely and cleanly, Tini Howard is really going for it, leaning into the complicated emotions that it brings up and the uneven history of her characters and setting. She and Marcus To are working together beautifully and the result is notably dense and delightfully enthusiastic. It feels like every two pages are a new concept and, as long as enough of them get expanded upon in future issues, that’s pretty awesome. The characters are bold and natural and it leaves you with a lot to think and theorize about.

Admittedly, its atypical willingness to really play with the tension of serialized comics means that some elements may not bear out, but I think one of the best signs in this issue’s favor is just how exhilarating it is, even though it, by most metrics, is very much the classic ‘slow down and clarify’ second issue. Excalibur‘s second issue really defines where this series is deviating from the classical norms in favor of something tense, beautiful, and thoughtful. It may put off some readers, but this seems like the kind of series that will be remembered by its people for a long time.

Excalibur #1 is currently available in comic shops from Marvel Comics.

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