I really enjoyed the first volume of Excalibur when I first read it. Well, that’s not totally true — a more accurate statement would be that I really appreciated the first volume of Excalibur during that first read. The book felt fresh, with Howard’s writing being unlike anything else I’d ever read in an X-Book. Marcus To’s art lent itself really nicely to the story being told, and kept the fantasy elements front and center. The book clearly was not written for me, but it felt like it was at least doing what it was doing well, and even if I didn’t fully understand or connect with the story itself I could appreciate the skill behind the story being told. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for the second volume of the book, as the story begins to feel like it’s falling apart.
The volume opens with a two-part short story featuring Cullen Bloodstone, which focuses on the cast of the book hunting Warwolves for some vague reason. And pretty much right away is the biggest problem I had reading this entire collection — I really just don’t understand why any of the story is happening. It feels like a lot of the book is Excalibur running from one weird adventure to the next, with very little to connect anything that happens. Ultimately the point of it all is to set up the X of Swords crossover, but it ends up making all the members of the team that aren’t Apocalypse or Captain Britain feel unnecessary.
Getting back to the Warwolves story, this just isn’t really enjoyable to read. Part of it is that Wilton Santos fills in on art duties for these two issues. While Santos is not a bad artist, he’s also not a particularly great one, and makes this arc tiring to read in a way that Marcus To doesn’t when he comes back on the book. But it’s not just the art — the entire conflict of the two-parter revolves around Cullen Bloodstone switching tunes every other page with the mutants. One page he’s inviting them over for a hunt, the next he’s trying to kill them for using their powers. And when that’s left on a cliffhanger between issues, the cliffhanger is resolved by him just changing his mind again and inviting them to eat and sleep in his mansion, before the mutants then decide he’s lying to them and turn on him. The entire story feels like it was written with the ending of “Cullen tries to kill Excalibur after they successfully kill the Warwolves” in mind, but had little thought put into why he would do that. It was really not an enjoyable experience.
The rest of the volume is all drawn by Marcus To, which is definitely an improvement, and is all about Otherworld entering in conflict with Krakoa over the events of the first volume. This story would already be a bit confusing just because of the nature of Otherworld, but when the middle act of a three-part story actually takes place in an alternate reality and doesn’t reveal this until the last few pages of the issue, it makes the entire arc feel unparseable. The entire story being told feels messy, and with no real connective tissue to help ground the reader in the events that are taking place. It’s a really frustrating reading experience.
There are some good parts to this collection, though. For instance, the issue mentioned above is actually really well-written and a fantastic chapter in the story by itself. Its only sin is that its placement in the story makes the overarching story it interrupts lose all of its momentum. This is a really fun alternate universe, and the story does an excellent job showing Betsy’s own inner turmoil and conflict. I wish there was more of this level of care for the rest of the cast, but this single issue is still really strong by itself.
Overall, I’m really disappointed in this second volume of Excalibur. I went into it with pretty high expectations, and I didn’t feel like any of them were really met. There was almost none of the freshness that I felt in the first volume, as it was replaced with a frantic pace and a constant sense that I was missing something. Ultimately, this all serves as a prelude to X of Swords, and I only hope that after the crossover this book will get a clearer sense of purpose.
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