Distilled Essence: Alcoholism in Excalibur

Distilled Essence: Alcoholism in Excalibur

A while ago I was listening to a podcast on the drive to work, and in it, the hosts took time to discuss the very first Excalibur story The Sword Is Drawn. It’s a great book, and the start of an even greater series, but I’d rather leave the discussion of the overall story to

A while ago I was listening to a podcast on the drive to work, and in it, the hosts took time to discuss the very first Excalibur story The Sword Is Drawn. It’s a great book, and the start of an even greater series, but I’d rather leave the discussion of the overall story to that episode and instead focus on the nature of Brian Braddock and Meggan’s relationship. Much was said over the course of the episode about Brian’s alcoholism, how it stems from the trauma he’s undergone, and also how it informs his life, and the decisions he makes in it. What wasn’t covered in depth though is the way his alcoholism affects Meggan.

Meggan is an empath—that is, someone who can mentally read the emotions of others—and more so, as of this story, an empath largely unfamiliar with the world. She’s been shut away, mainlining pop culture in isolation for years and, as such, has a very skewed sense of what makes for a healthy, adult relationship, or even a rational adult conversation. When paired with Brian Braddock, who has died multiple times, gotten better multiple times, and who drinks to cope with those facts, the resulting combination is a dangerous one, and I do not say that lightly.

In the first scene featuring the two together in this book, Meggan is stumbling upon Brian as he’s just heard news of his sister’s apparent death. Brian reacts in typical fashion, by cracking open a bottle and wallowing in his grief. Given the situation—I’m very close with my sister, and I’d absolutely be heartbroken in Brian’s shoes—the act itself isn’t the problem. No, the problem comes when Meggan attempts to soothe Brian’s pain. It’s a doomed effort; the pain of losing someone dear to oneself is something that does not fade quickly, if ever. It’s still a noble one, though, and Meggan’s compassion in this scene is beautiful to behold.

Unfortunately, in the very next panel, Brian flies off the handle. He yells, throws a full bottle of liquor, calls Meggan a cow, and launches into a series of further insults against her character before shouting at her to go away. It is an utterly unacceptable, childish fit, and had he delivered that same speech to any other member of the team, he’d likely have had the sense slapped into him immediately.

Imagine Brian calling Rachel Summers a cow. Imagine the hole in the earth where he would’ve once been standing.

Meggan, horrified by his anger, flees into their shared bedroom, where she collapses on the bed, crying to herself. She apologizes to the empty air, for making him cross, complaining that she’s “always saying the wrong thing and doing worse.” This moment is where the scene crystallizes. When Meggan flops herself on the bed, she’s apologizing for the act of showing compassion! These are textbook markers of a codependent and furthermore abusive relationship. Brian was absolutely awful to her, and here she is apologizing as though it’s her fault. She’s not angry. She’s not upset with him for the way he treated her. (See also Superheroes and the Gender Politics of Anger, by Jessica Plummer.) She’s remorseful. It sticks out, if you’re paying attention, and it’s a very heart-wrenching scene, which does an effective job of anchoring the reader’s compassion for Meggan. Unfortunately, it also takes the focus away from Brian.

That focus briefly returns as Nightcrawler appears, dropping Brian into the water to wake him, before launching into an absolutely deserved tirade about his horrible, nihilistic self-destruction. It’s a wonderful scene, because Kurt really cracks through every flimsy excuse Brian’s able to put up, and just strips the man down, forcing him to take some personal responsibility. Unfortunately, it’s an address of the symptoms, not the underlying cause, and worse, it’s also the only time the book takes to hold Brian accountable. Brian never apologizes to Meggan, and no one ever tells Meggan that it’s not her fault, that none of it is. In fact, when Brian and Meggan later reunite, they embrace and kiss, happily.

She utterly believes in him, no matter how horrible he is to her.

It’s telling that we still view Brian Braddock as a “good guy” despite scenes like this. He’s still largely treated as a hero, albeit somewhat of a buffoon, at least through Excalibur’s early years. Alcoholism has cropped up again and again in comics—Tony Stark, Carol Danvers, Hal Jordan, Flash Thompson—but it’s almost invariably treated as a simple obstacle that is easily overcome. “I drink too much” has become the synthesized narrative of the portrayal of alcoholism, and the resulting solution is for the character to stop drinking. Then, hooray! They’re cured!

With Brian Braddock, especially under Claremont’s hand, that’s for once not the case. Braddock’s alcoholism is a recurring problem with no real solution, in the way that alcoholism itself is. It’s not a quantitative problem; it can’t be solved by simply limiting the amount of alcohol consumed. It is a legitimately recognized mental disorder and one of the chief problems it creates is in interpersonal relationships. I dislike the myth of “angry” drunks and “happy” drunks. There are drunks, period. Sometimes they’re happy, sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they’re even sad, depending on the context of their lives around them, their own emotional state, and their hang-ups. They may even be predominantly one of these ways, but distilling the description down to “angry” drunks or “happy” drunks puts the onus on the alcohol, when those traits were present prior to the imbibing. It’s part of the ongoing narrative of not holding an alcoholic responsible for his actions.

And Brian is responsible—I am not defending his actions in the above panels at all—if anything, exactly the opposite. I want to provide the context of them, so that we can discuss what is the really fascinating portion of this scene: Meggan’s codependency. See, the thing that Brian does? Throwing his bottle, shouting insults? That’s abuse. It’s a loud, violent temper tantrum, and furthermore it’s on the part of a man who by nature of his abilities, can seriously hurt a person. He doesn’t (he’d be irredeemable after that), but only barely. Even so, the situation is bad. Consider Meggan’s background, her isolation and her complete lack of self-identity. This is a character whose appearance reflects what people think of her, and now Brian is carelessly calling her a cow, cruelly belittling her. He’s so invested in the idea of hurting her in that moment that he’s out of his chair, he has to force himself to direct that violent action elsewhere, to the bottle. Through all that, Meggan is the one apologizing, because she knows he’s in pain. And yes, he is hurting, given the apparent loss of his sister, but that’s no excuse.

The intersection between alcoholism and abuse is a difficult thing to discuss. As you’ve likely gleaned from these paragraphs alone, each subject is by itself a complex and nuanced problem to deal with, and the point where they overlap is doubly so. As a child of both, I can tell you two things. One, that the way this plot thread is handled throughout this issue is an absolutely excellent and accurate portrayal of the insidious nature of both, how they worm their way into a relationship and redefine the parameters of it, so that those within it have trouble even properly recognizing what the problem is. The second thing I can tell you is that had this book taken the time to reinforce with Meggan that Brian’s actions were Brian’s fault, a younger version of myself might have started learning a lot sooner how better to navigate the troubled waters of her home life. That no one did is, sadly, just another part of what makes this arc so very, very accurate.

Nola Pfau
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