Erick Arciniega (Colorist), Tini Howard (Writer), Tom Muller (Designer), Cory Petit (Letterer), Marcus To (Artist)
October 30, 2019
From the first page, Excalibur feels immediate. True to the new status quo the Dawn of X has given us, Excalibur #1 is steeped in X-Men lore, without being unnavigable to an unfamiliar reader. And what’s more, this issue feels like opening a door — or better, a gateway — to a corner of X-Men mythos that’s not just new, it’s unexplored. This is a first issue with a lot of meat on its bones that feels slow in parts, yet quietly rearranges the rules of magic in the Marvel Universe with a clever deftness that sets the stage well.
So below the cut-off, as above.
At the heart of this issue is the Braddock Family. Betsy, of course, steps into the central role, surrounded on all sides by her human twin Brian and mutant brother Jamie, her mutant sister-in-law Meggan, Brian and Meggan’s daughter, Maggie, and the late, unpleasant specters of the Braddock parents. And of the Braddocks, who dominate the story to such a degree that most of the characters on the cover of this issue feel comparatively sidelined, it was the one I least expected who I enjoyed the most. Jamie Braddock stole every page he was on, in a mix of charismatic bravado and his clash of ideas with younger sister Betsy. Artist Marcus To and colorist Erick Arciniega give us a lively, carefree Jamie Braddock, with excellent details, such as his lounging body language and expressive mannerisms, that make Jamie command attention on page. The contrasting relationships between the three Braddock children are complex and messy, tangling familiar familial bitterness with the current cultural divide between humans and mutants.
Entering the Dawn of X, a big question on the table was how human-mutant families will navigate Krakoan citizenship, and the conflict implied by it. Is there room for human spouses of mutants, like Kyle Jinadu, Izzy Kane, or Brian Braddock, on Krakoa? Can mutants who care for their aging human parents or human children offer the safety of Krakoa to those in their care? Or for mutants honoring the ties that bind them to humans, must a choice be made?
Howard uses the Braddock family well to begin exploring these questions. It seems like there’s not room for Brian — who, while a brother, husband, and father to mutants, is still a human — on Krakoa for more than a visit, and while Jamie may choose not to leave Krakoa, Meggan chooses to not move there at all. There aren’t yet neat answers, because there never are with families, but there is also a tentative tone to these interactions; they don’t yet need to be final answers, because things are still too new on Krakoa. These are questions which will remain and evolve as Krakoa and its newfound citizens find their footing. This is still a nascent nation, and this issue effectively captures the transitory feeling of flux that Krakoa must be steeped in. Mutants are still coming through gateways and out of the Hatchery and finding new names that fit them better. There is not yet consensus, not even among siblings, as to what the relationship between humans and mutants should look like in this new age. As Excalibur begins to tackle these questions through the Braddocks, it’s clear that Krakoa in general and the cast of Excalibur in particular are poised at the threshold for further change, making this an ideal book for looking at a developing mutant culture.
Another way this issue centers the transitory nature of this period is in looking at mutants renaming themselves. The names we call ourselves and each other matter, because every name carries weight. Names are a huge element of self-expression for many, and narratives about choosing a name resonate with many readers. The twin plot threads of Betsy wanting people to stop calling her by the name Psylocke and Apocalypse asking that people now only call him by the Krakoan glyph -|A|- introduce this idea right from the start, though they are by no means the only two mutants taking the opportunity to redefine their identities. The question of names is an interesting one because the X-Men is a franchise that classically has centered questions of identity. But even further, this title is investigating the idea of “mutant magic,” and in magic, names have real power.
Betsy’s insistence that others no longer call her Psylocke is directly tied to the lingering discomfort between Betsy and Kwannon, the woman whose body Betsy wore as her own. Between Betsy being ill at ease using a name both women could feasibly share claim to, and in showing Kwannon’s disinterest in making nice with Betsy, this issue does the best job since restoring Betsy and Kwannon each to their original bodies at acknowledging Betsy’s guilty conscience, without erasing Kwannon’s experience to center Betsy’s. Avoidance doesn’t absolve anything, and so Betsy will have to work a little harder to make things right with Kwannon. This has only been one issue of Betsy in Excalibur, and the first issue of Fallen Angels, led by Kwannon, won’t be out for another two weeks, so the story between these two women is still evolving. But hopefully as this title continues, there will be further exploration of the racial politics of a white British woman using the body of a Japanese woman as her own, and the lasting ramifications of Betsy using a body not her own.
The changing of names feels equally significant for -|A|-, now at the dawn of mutant magic. Across multiple cultural traditions, the idea of names having power has existed since antiquity. In particular, to know the true name of someone in a sacred language is to have power over them. In choosing a Krakoan name, -|A|- is going one step further past the distinction between human and mutant names, and choosing a name that isn’t just mutant, it’s uniquely Krakoan. It’s secret and knowable only to his people, but on Krakoa it is not something he hides.
I can’t pronounce it either. None of us can.
That name is for mutant tongues alone.
— Tini Howard (@TiniHoward) October 30, 2019
This character decision is so intriguing because while it tells us a great deal about -|A|-, it also opens up the world he is ushering mutants into. -|A|- is a newfound catalyst of change. For so long, he has challenged mutants to be strong or to die trying. Now, as his message to magic users at the beginning of the issue explains, mutants no longer need to fight to survive. Instead, he now challenges them to thrive. The idea of mutant magic initially felt silly to me, when there are so many mutants in canon who are already magic users. But -|A|- reframes mutant magic as a part of a mutant culture that’s not yet been allowed to emerge; mutant magic is a history “[mutants] will earn back from [humans]” and it is a “young god born again with a sword in hand.” This is fundamentally exciting world-building, in that it promises the unknown. There are no back-issues to reference, we are entering territory that has never been chartable, and what shape this mutant magic might take is yet uncertain.
The magical feel to this issue isn’t limited to Morgan le Fay or -|A|-’s discussions of magic. Artist Marcus To and colorist Erick Arciniega imbue every page with an otherworldy feel. Particularly on pages set in Otherworld, among Earth’s covens, and near Krakoan gates, the art lends an ethereal, magical tone to the book. The purple of Betsy’s telepathy and the greens and blues of Morgan le Fay’s sorcery look immediately distinct, but there is a similarity in the bright vivid tones of magic and mutant ability that hint at the emerging middle ground of mutant magic.
And there can be no discussion of mutant magic without touching upon the data pages which flesh it out. In Excalibur #1, the data pages look a little wordy at first, but ultimately are where the most exciting ground is being broken in this issue. Tom Muller continues to do a fantastic job in designing data pages that are clean and easy to read, regardless of how much text they may contain. In this issue in particular, his redesigned X logo is used to great effect. And equally as effective as the design in this issue’s data pages, is the text they contain. What Howard does very well with these pages is utilizing them for world-building- the information in this issue’s data pages doesn’t advance the plot of this individual issue forward in a clear, linear way. Rather, it builds the world of mutant magic up around these characters, and gives the ideas room to breathe. While the old world magic of humans functioned along a paradigm of “As above, so below,” the new emergent magic of mutants is inverted, and teaches “So below, as above.” This inversion suggests a connection to the upside-down No-Places we’ve seen hiding within Krakoa, and the dark underneath of Arrako, and is an exciting direction to follow the revelation of Krakoa and -|A|-’s past in Powers of X. Instead of pushing this information into heavy dialogue that would slow down an issue’s narrative, the data pages give readers a glimpse at texts such as the Krakoan Grimoires to convey the central ideas of the new magical paradigm.
Of the three Dawn of X books so far, Excalibur has been the one that surprised me the most. It’s a more deliberately paced, exploratory book than I was expecting, and it’s a book that feels different than so many X-Men comics that have come before. But it’s for these same reasons that I’m already anticipating the next issue.