The Alchemy of Excalibur: Race, Magic, and the Mutant Metaphor

Howard and To Excalibur 22 cover by Mahmud Asrar

Earlier this year, in a piece for our Breaking In! series, I wrote, “The mutant metaphor means that the X-Men have the potential to represent people of marginalized genders and sexualities and people of color and especially people at the intersection of those identities. They didn’t under [Chris] Claremont, not fully, and I’m not sure they can under Jonathan Hickman.” Now, six months later, I’m even less convinced.

I’m even less convinced because, two years after HOXPOX, “mutants and the creators working on their books remain… predominantly white.” Because Vita Ayala is the only person of color writing an ongoing X-Book. Because of how Leah Williams and David Baldeón’s X-Factor ended. Because Tini Howard doesn’t feel comfortable writing trauma that isn’t her own. Because Trinary still doesn’t have a name. And because of the most recent issue of Howard and Marcus To’s Excalibur.

Excalibur #22 includes one of this era’s infamous data pages at the end, reintroducing Agents of S.T.R.I.K.E.: Tom Lennox, Alison Double, Kevin Mulhearn, and Vicki Reppion. These are characters who have existed for decades. They are also all white. It’s not clear how big of a role that they’ll have in the already predominantly white Excalibur book, but the data page set off alarms in my head. In addition to code names — Ghast, Albedo, Xanth, and Rubedo — each of these new-ish mutants is assigned a “humor” — black, white, yellow, and red — which correspond to the colors that practitioners of scientific racism assigned to human beings.

Data page from Excalibur 22 by writer Tini Howard and artist Marcus To depicting mutant Agents of Strike along with information about their new code names and code colored humors

In the 1700s, Carl Linneaus, botanist, physician, and “father of modern taxonomy,” separated humans into these groups — African, European, Asian, and American — and assigned them those colors — black, white, yellow, and red. Each of these colors and most of the mutants’ names correspond to the four stages of the alchemical process: nigredo, albedo, xanthosis, and rubedo. This being the British magic X-Book, I understand why the creative team would tap into European (rather than, say, Middle Eastern and North African) alchemy (a word that originates from Arabic). I get it. I do. However, this is a superhero comic book written by a white writer featuring a predominantly white team of American and British mutants whose cultures have perpetuated race science more recently than they have practiced alchemy. As a reader of color, I don’t get to divorce the two, and if Howard doesn’t feel comfortable writing about the trauma of people like me, then I don’t feel like I can trust her with a concept like this. A concept that, in the hands of a writer of color drawing on their own tradition (like Arabic alchemy or the Medicine Wheel used in many Indigenous teachings), could be radical.

Instead, there are four white mutants whose hair colors correspond to their color-coded humors: black, white, blond, and red. Imagine if, instead of hair, the physical feature from which they got their names was their skin.

Existing characters like Lennox/Ghast, Double/Albedo, Mulhearn/Xanth, and Reppion/Rubedo get new life, even if just briefly, in Excalibur. But to revitalize them and European alchemy is to prioritize and privilege whiteness. This is not just on Howard or To or any of the other creators who work on X-Books: it is structural. The same systems that the mutant metaphor can be used to critique — racism, sexism, and other inequities — are upheld by the X-Office, leaving the promise of the X-Men unfulfilled.

3 thoughts on “The Alchemy of Excalibur: Race, Magic, and the Mutant Metaphor

  1. Bottom line: once again, am NOT looking forward to whenever MCU mutants finally appear. Considering how many recent comics have been mined for more recent films, this is likely what they’re going to tap for anything at least past the first wave of X-projects. Judging from this, I doubt I’ll be in attendance.

    1. Ms Double also appears to have albinism… can we truly assume from one panel (and I believe old Ct Britain comics were b&w) that she is also ‘white’/caucasian/of european descent ?

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