Erick Arciniega (Colorist), Tini Howard (Writer), Tom Muller (Designer), Cory Petit (Letterer), Marcus To (Artist)
December 4, 2019
This review contains spoilers for Excalibur #3, and contains discussion of past depictions of suicide within the X-Men franchise.
So far, the Dawn of X has had everything anyone could want. Mutant culture, intergalactic politics, piracy, family bonding; all that’s been missing is a giant dragon, and Excalibur #3 addresses that void with gusto. The plot advances on two fronts, on an expedition in Otherworld and in Krakoa, as -A- begins his new work. And as the story moves forward, the characters each have a little more room to breath, airing their different fears, and working together to find paths forward. My favorite Dawn of X issue of this week, Excalibur #3 is a magical adventure with heart, that balances action, intrigue, and strong emotional stakes.
In Otherworld, Captain Britain leads her teammates to rescue the former Captain Britain, her twin brother Brian, while struggling with the growing pains of a title she doesn’t feel she can claim. To Betsy, Captain Britain remains Brian’s name and role, a feeling underlined by a possessed Brian calling her a “pretender,” but even as Shogo, Jubilee, and Gambit help her find Brian, his mind remains somewhere she cannot reach. The ties that bind are a central idea in the interactions between these characters, as Betsy, Jubilee, and Remy work together, yet remain somewhat at odds over their conflicting priorities to those they each love the most. It’s an interesting dynamic to see a team so pulled in different ways, but finding common ground in the shared worry.
Of the cast in Otherworld, it is Shogo who has become the most surprising and engaging to me. In his transformation into a dragon, Howard pulls on a common idea in folklore of the magical potential of children, who believe more purely and earnestly than adults. In Otherworld, Shogo is unlimited by the magical rules of Earth, transformed into a dragon simply because he wants to be one, eager to fly and cause childlike mischief, and to use his newfound form to help his mother and her friends.
The art this issue is strong in many ways, but it’s the thoughtforms Betsy conjures to communicate with Shogo that drew my attention the most. The thoughtforms are as genuinely adorable as the human Shogo, warm and rounded and sweet. And as cute as they are, Shogo has become something much less cute and more fearsome, and Marcus To and Erick Arciniega are able to flex their creative muscles bringing a full size dragon to the page. The artists capture the detail and complexity of a dragon spanning the width of a page with such assuredness, they make it look easy.
On Earth, Rictor finally enters the story, as -A- seeks him out to extend his hand in help, requiring Rictor’s seismic powers to further his agenda of mutant prosperity. In just a few pages, the creative team captures a sense of not just who Rictor is, but how he has classically experienced his depression. The details of the introductory scene with Rictor communicate his emotional state well; isolating himself from his loved ones on Krakoa and surrounded by empty bottles, his room is full of computer monitors displaying footage of mutants leaving for Krakoa and mutant message boards discussing out of control powers. Early in his appearance, he tries to step outside as he sees kids playing, but loses control immediately and has to retreat inside to shelter in a box full of dirt. However, while this characterization is undeniably good, I was a little frustrated at first to see the story return to this well, when so many of Rictor’s character arcs have been defined by his depression.
Much of my caution comes from the fact that in the past, many X-Men stories about mental illness have felt voyeuristic or motivated by shock factor to me, including the depiction of Rictor’s two suicide attempts in X-Factor (2005), or, more recently, the introduction of Doug Ramsey in All New X-Factor or Ruth Aldine in Uncanny X-Men (2018). Yet, by the end of the issue, I found myself less cautious, and more excited about the direction Excalibur is taking Rictor’s story. Tying his mental health to his powers is nothing new, nor is Rictor’s intentional isolation and rebuffing of psychic summons from Krakoa, but the intentional way in which -A- speaks to him and offers help and Rictor’s wary acceptance of that offer is.
When you can call something by its name, it becomes knowable. Excalibur is a book that acknowledges the importance of names, both those we give ourselves, and those that we use for others. In the first issue, -A- chose as a new name a Krakoan glyph, unpronounceable and unknowable by any but mutantkind. In this issue, he does the opposite. Upon meeting Rictor, he speaks to him kindly, promising that while his depression is a “monster…that sits on [his] soul,” he need not fear it alone in this new age of mutantkind. What could be a small line becomes bigger in context: while Rictor has been depicted as someone who struggles with depression throughout his publishing history, this is the first time on panel his experience has ever been named for what it is, and that the word depression has been used. Once something has a name, once it’s knowable, it becomes something that can be spoken of, known and understood and fought, instead hushed up and pushed aside.
In a sharp contrast with the opening of the last issue, when the mutant formerly known as Apocalypse watched mutants drown because he didn’t believe those who couldn’t help themselves deserved his saving, when -A- comes to find Rictor vulnerable and suffering, he offers his help. Howard, To, and Arcienega’s -A- has been one of the Dawn of X’s most unexpected delights, and the possibility of an arc in which Rictor learns to accept help and -A- learns to offer it is as engaging as any of the ideas offered so far.
This issue boasts one of my favorite data pages yet in any X-title, in a cleverly designed page displaying an in-universe Reddit inspired social media site for mutants. Muller’s design and Howard’s words maximize the potential the data pages hold. Muller’s design has been excellent throughout all eight books to utilize the data page format, but this page in particular is one of my favorites because of the design heavy nature of this page’s format, and the way it maximizes the space of one page to fit many text boxes in an easily legible format.
This page shifts the scope of data pages we’ve seen so far in the book, which by in large have focused on building a schema of mutant magic from the ground up, and looks at the more mundane ways in which mutants live their daily lives. Details like social media are engaging forms of world building because they contextualize the way people in universe live in the everyday, and this data page expands the world of the X-Men by showing a new way in which mutants interact and detailing how this forum in used to better contextualize the advent of Krakoa in a social context. The data page shows a thread, heavily implied to be one Rictor initiated, that cleverly demonstrates the use of mutant specific forums, and gives a window to an emotional state Rictor doesn’t articulate on panel.
Last issue, I worried that the book had lost some of the momentum and excitement of the first issue, but after the third issue, I’m reassured. My favorite issue of the series so far, Excalibur #3 is a potent blend of magic, mystery, and sentiment, that brings a strong emotional core to the forward momentum of the magical plot. Family, lost, beyond reach, or shunned, dominates in the minds of the characters, and this makes rooting for each of the mutants disconnected from loved ones now beyond their reach east. Excalibur #3 cements Excalibur as a book that has a sense of itself and has established a unique voice and premise that individuates it from both Marvel’s current offerings, and the long continuity of X-Men comics that have come before.