Excalibur #4 and the Matter of Britain

With every issue of Excalibur, I find myself reevaluating the book as a whole. At the beginning of this arc, this was the Dawn of X title I was most tentative on, loving the concept and liking the first issue, but struggling with the second. Now, as the end of the first arc draws near, it’s become one of my favorite X-Men titles of the past few years, and a comic that feels consistently fresh in introducing new ideas. 

Excalibur #4

Erick Arciniega (Colorist), Tini Howard (Writer), Tom Muller (Designer), Cory Petit (Letterer), Marcus To (Artist).
18 December, 2019

Excalibur #4 takes a terrestrial turn, bringing the story, and its dangers, back to Earth. Captain Britain assembles her team before the British crown, and -A- begins to show his hand. The team splits their time between Buckingham Palace, Krakoa, and deep within the earth, leaving Brian Braddock behind, for the moment, to focus on Rogue’s mysterious coma and the political status of Captain Britain, herself. At times the dialogue this issue can be a little clunky, but it’s forgivable as the issues discussed are engaging and feel new, and the plot speeds right ahead at an exciting pace.

This is the first issue that truly reassures me that every member of its cast is in position for a reason. Over the past three issues, I have wondered why, beyond happenstance, Rogue, Gambit, and Jubilee have filled out the cast of this book. But as -A-’s designs come into focus, the roles set out for Rogue, Gambit, and Rictor grow clear. What I had assumed was a team of Betsy Braddock’s design, emerges as a team of mutants handpicked by -A-. And as Betsy, with Pete Wisdom’s support, shifts her focus to the British crown and the politics of her position as the new, mutant Captain Britain, the rest of the team comes into their own this issue. Particularly enjoyable was the unexpected team up between Gambit and Rictor, two characters who have very little history together, and played off each other very well. Recruited by -A- as “a master thief and a master of the earth,” no two other X-Men could’ve executed their mission like Gambit and Rictor could.

The new direction Howard guides Rictor’s storyline in this issue absolutely soothes my worries of the last issue, that Rictor’s story would be predominated by the voyeuristic sensationalization of mental illness that has dominated some of his past storylines. Instead, Rictor joins the new Excalibur in a much healthier head-space, grateful for -A-‘s listening ear. It’s interesting to notice that compared to his new teammates, Rictor is much more accepting of -A- and his new commitment to mutantkind. He respects -A-’s new chosen name and actively corrects Jubilee when she calls him by another name. Compared to Gambit, who refuses to trust -A-, the dynamic between Rictor and -A- emerges as one of the more interesting interpersonal plotlines of the book. Similarly, the exploration of Rictor’s powerset and recognition of his abilities by subterranean druids is an exciting surprise.

Rictor and Gambit's heist to the center of the earth.
Interior art from Excalibur #4, by Marcus To and Erick Arciniega (Marvel Comics, December 2019).

This issue feels pulled in many directions, but not to its detriment. Instead, this issue builds everything established over the first three issues into a story that is uniquely compelling. Actions take on new significance this issue, as the seeds past issues have sown come to fruition.

Back on the surface of the earth, the new Excalibur must deal with the realities of the human world. Gambit contends with anti-mutant bigotry outside of Buckingham Palace and Jubilee deals with the family drama of the Braddocks on Krakoa, while Betsy and Wisdom face down Marianna Stern for the approval of the British crown. This issue features the return of my favorite Braddock, oldest brother Jamie, lounging around Krakoa and causing problems for fun. Jamie’s unrepentant cockiness, illustrated incredibly well in how Marcus To draws his body language, is a spanner in the works of an otherwise smooth Braddock family dynamic. His appearance in this issue is just as fun as his return in the first issue, because he is so persistently and enthusiastically chaotic. In a cast of well meaning heroes who butt heads over who they should save first, a character who just wants to make things difficult for his own enjoyment is a fun change of pace.

In Captain Britain and Wisdom’s efforts vying for the support of the crown, emerge some of the strongest and the most confusing moments of the issue. Betsy’s split loyalties as a dual-citizen of Krakoa and Great Britain make sense, particularly as she takes on a legacy that has historically served the British crown, as explained in the strongest of this issue’s data pages by Tom Muller. Yet this split loyalty makes little sense for the rest of the team, none of whom are British citizens, but now, as members of the newly minted Excalibur, become accountable to the queen. Betsy’s status as a mutant further complicates her standing with the crown, as anti-mutant bigots make their feelings on a mutant Captain Britain and mutant citizens of the United Kingdom known, in one of the most directly political sequences yet in the Dawn of X. Protesters outside Buckingham Palace throw a bottle at Gambit as they protest the appointment of a mutant to the role of Captain Britain, hoisting signs with language reminiscent of recent xenophobic pro-Brexit slogans such as “We want our country back,” which call for a mutant-free Britain.

Gambit faces down anti-mutant bigots at Buckingham Palace.
Interior art from Excalibur #4, by Marcus To and Erick Arciniega (Marvel Comics, December 2019).

Also in Betsy’s political dealings of this issue emerges the cleverest of this issue’s ideas: that just as magic classically has a cost, the team’s actions in Otherworld’s have consequences on earth that are broader and wilder than anyone assumed. Stern’s revelation of the ramifications of Excalibur’s fight in Otherworld calls into question if the heroes are operating out of their depth, setting up a trial by dragonfire. The ending of this issue is one of the strongest cliffhangers of the Dawn of X so far, building on plot points and developments of the entire arc, to set up a fifth issue that earns anticipation.

Artists Marcus To and Erick Arciniega do phenomenal work in rendering these whole host of monsters introduced in the issue’s final pages, capturing well how grotesque their presence on Earth is. Bristling with spines and heavy with extra heads, the monsters crafted this issue look unnatural from tip to tail, bringing the otherworldly into the familiar world of Marvel-616. As they have been throughout the book so far, the art team excels in the magical, mutant, and Otherworldly visuals that define the book.

To and Arciniega juxtapose the monstrous with the terrestrial.
Interior art from Excalibur #4, by Marcus To and Erick Arciniega (Marvel Comics, December 2019).

However, while Arciniega’s coloring serves the magic and monsters of this issue well, once again in the Dawn of X, the whitewashing of characters of color emerges as an issue. Last issue, Rictor, a Latino man from Mexico, comments that Captain Britain is “a little paler” than he is, but in this issue his complexion is indistinguishable from Gambit’s. It’s frustrating that even as his dialogue calls attention to the fact that Rictor isn’t white, the art does not affirm this. This is an issue recurring across the line, which deserves to be taken seriously by editorial and fans alike, each and every time it happens.

Last issue, Rictor reminds readers that he's not as pale as Brian Braddock, but this issue, he's equally pale as Remy Lebeau.
Interior art from Excalibur #3, by Marcus To and Erick Arciniega (Marvel Comics, December 2019).

In its fourth issue, Excalibur has cemented itself to me as one of my favorite Dawn of X books, unique in its vision and exciting in its scope. Reading the last pages of the issue, I caught myself reluctant to finish, not wanting to wait two weeks to see how the story unfolds. In this issue, an unconventional team coheres more strongly, with political and familial tension building well off the central magical plot. So much of this issue surprised me, while being firmly set-up by the events of previous issues, in a well paced and plotted chapter of a story I enthusiastically enjoy.

Emma Snape

Emma Snape

Emma is an Ohio native who has worked in film production and education, and writes about comics on the side. She loves thinking about the role of visuals in narrative storytelling, both in film and comics, reading comics set in cities she's lived in, and telling people to read X-Force (1991).
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