Once upon a time Excalibur was the X-Men’s British arm, comprising mutants from all over the place in lighter-toned adventures than was the norm for Marvel’s Eighties books.
As of this week, I don’t know what Excalibur is. Sure, original Captain Britain Brian Braddock is in there, but he’s more a supporting character to his sister Betsy, who by the end of the issue has taken on her brother’s mantle, for the second time. Rogue and Gambit seem to be signing up, along with Jubilee, the villain Apocalypse and someone I don’t recognise who’s on the cover but not in the issue. A bit of Googling tells me it’s Rictor from X Force and the like, who’s never made much of an impression. Oh, and an intro page indicates Apocalype’s apparent lackey Trinary is a member. No idea… it’s all very random, but sometimes that makes for a great superhero team, think the Champions, and The Outsiders… er, let’s move on.
What the characters have in common is that they’re all invitees to the big party on Krakoa which, we’re told, is a paradise. Betsy’s our point of view person, packing her bags, saying goodbye to Brian, sister-in-law Meggan and their daughter, Maggie, and walking through a portal. On the other side it’s one big metahuman rave (but without Superboy).
Apocalypse, meanwhile, has his attention brought to a portal that can’t be traversed. it leads to Otherworld, the Arthurian alternate Earth that’s the source of Captain Britain’s powers. On the other side, witch queen Morgan Le Fay is fair ticked off because plants from Krakoa are clogging up her scrying pool. She enlists the members of a coven in England to sort things out.
Or something. The Otherworld business confused me, and I’ve been reading about the place since it was introduced in the UK’s Hulk Weekly in the Seventies.
What didn’t confuse me was writer Tini Howard’s treatment of Betsy and Brian – the characterisation is very much on point, with Betsy’s convoluted history with the X-Men hanging heavy over her, and Brian the protective, supportive twin, delighted to have back the Betsy he grew up with. Rogue and Gambit are sweet together, too. We don’t see much of Jubilee and again, Rictor is absent. Apocalypse is a strong presence, with a running gag involving his preferred new name, which is in the Krakoan language, X-peranto (I shall persevere with this until it appears in the books!).
Someone else who gets a new name is Goldballs, who now wants to be called Egg which, Betsy points out, is never going to stick. He takes her to the creepy mutant Hatchery where her creepy mutant brother Jamie has been reborn. A lunatic with immense power, you wonder why Xavier would want him back, then remember that as of HoX/PoX Prof X basically Magneto.
That’s my big problem with this book. While there’s a telling look on Gambit’s face at one point, no one is out and out questioning the idea that the Krakoan rave is the Best Thing Ever. Or that throwing your lot in with megalomaniac super-villains, simply because they’re mutants too, is a great idea. Who needs puny humans, eh? Just why are they all committing to a new life on a living island who, you may recall, has tried to eat the X-Men on many occasions. If Apocalypse is to be believed, they’re basically at one big sex party.
I don’t blame Howard, the grand design is Jonathan Hickman’s, as is obvious from the text pages scattered through the book even if you miss his ‘Head of X’ credit.
We get a flowery speech from Apocalypse, an Excalibur roll call and declaration as to what the book’s about, the coven’s Invocation of the Gods and, most unreadable of all, the Krakoan Grimoires.
Thanks to designer Tom Muller they look as nice as text pages likely could, but they really are tiresome to read. I’ll say it again; comics are a union of words and pictures, if there’s story to be told, it should be in comic strip form.
I wish Howard were allowed to take a few mutants and just tell a story away from the HoX/PoX business. Get Betsy, Rogue and co back in the UK with Meggan and Brian and show us the effect recent mutant events have had on the world. Then forget it and have nice whimsical adventures for awhile. Sure, I’m an old fart fan, but if you’re calling a book Excalibur, take what worked there, update it as necessary and have fun. I simply don’t want to read another adjunct to the Cult of Xavier and Magneto.
The good stuff: characterisation, as mentioned earlier, especially Betsy, whose reaction to Jamie 2.0 rings very true; the coven, their leader is intriguing; Rogue being possibly inhabited by Brian’s patron goddess Roma; the art by illustrator Marcus To and colour artist Erick Arciniega, with page after page of good-looking, powerful people… mostly standing around, admittedly, but hopefully To will soon be let loose to produce wild action sequences.
Oh, and look who’s hanging around Braddock Academy as Brian blithely sends his teenage charges away to Mutant Love Island.
It’s Pete Wisdom, former Excalibur and MI:13 member, who always adds a little spice – I expect Howard has plans for him.
Letterer Cory Petit is a solid craftsman but I wish he weren’t having to use the Ultimate Marvel storybook font, it looks so kiddie-ish. Mahmud Asrar draws and Matthew Wilson colours the cover and it’s strong, but oh boy, could everyone please cheer up? What a pouty bunch!
I’ll try the second issue on the basis of the creative team and my affection for Betsy, Brian and Meggan, and in the hope that the Krakoan cult stuff is dialled right down and the Otherworld business quickly dealt with. I’m ready to be surprised and, as they say, delighted.