Since the start of the Dawn of X era, there has been a certain bubble of exuberance among X-fans. This is understandable — after almost a decade of being neglected by Marvel, the franchise was finally put to the forefront of the company’s publishing lineup. Furthermore, the DOX writing team has managed to work together to create a series of titles that truly capture the communal core of the X-Men. This shared excitement was punctuated this month, when details of the Hellfire Gala were revealed. With a planet-sized party on its way, the celebratory momentum of the X-Men and its respective fanbase is palpable.
The issue with this wave of excitement is that has left little room for criticism. On social media and other online platforms, the sense of elation has often felt impenetrable. To have any sustained criticism of the X-books seems to be a condemnable offense at times. This is not to say that reading comics, or any literature for that matter, should not be fun; rather, any piece of art should always be consumed critically. Art, media, and literature are all productive forces in our society — they shape, and are shaped by, what goes on around us. One of the values of critique is that deconstructs the discursivity behind the art we consume daily. The X-Men party bus has been a great time for those that are privileged enough to ignore the glaring problems it contains. As a comic critic myself, I too have got so caught up in the anticipation that I have failed to fully regard the oppressive configurations of power within the current X-Men titles.
The title where this problem is most evident is Excalibur. I have, so far, given this series a lot of praise. I am not taking this back — I still find the art and prosaic writing impressive, and the creative team has brought a number of gripping moments to the DOX era. However, I have not deconstructed the narratives of British nationalism that exist within the series in the same way I have in titles such as The Union. It should not have taken me until Excalibur #19 to recognize this.
In Wednesday’s issue, we see various members of the Captain Britain corps demanding the restoration of 616 Betsy Braddock, following her demise in X of Swords. As they argue to Saturnyne, each Captain is seen decked out in the Union Flag. Indeed, in a week that has seen the UK government come closer to passing a police reform bill that essentially illegalizes public protest, these panels do not land well.
As a British citizen, I have seen images of police committing acts of violence against people fighting for basic democratic rights, day in and day out. A video online has circulated of a British resident being arrested for spreading ‘anti-Police views’. In London, a vigil for a woman who was murdered by a police officer was aggressively disrupted by the MET police force itself. Uniformed British powers of authority and force are very clearly not the good guys, they are the bad guys. To see Excalibur ignore this reality at best, or, at worst, twist it—is outrageous.
Excalibur #19’s problems ultimately take root in the imperialist foundations of the title itself. Created by Chris Claremont and Alan Davis, Excalibur has historically been a series that merges the superhero symbol, British mythos, and contemporary British identity together. The team is principally led by Captain Britain, and base themselves in the Otherworld—a pocket-realm that serves as the convergence of the multi-verse.
The basic principles of the book thus carry a lot of problems — the center of the multi-verse being an idealized British land, for example. A single-issue review is not necessarily the place to do an in-depth analysis of Excalibur as a whole. However, it is important to emphasize that the title itself is inescapably sustained by British-colonialist ideals. Howard’s and To’s run is no exception. When 2019’s Excalibur began, it went some way in at least transforming the title by asking what the Otherworld could do for Krakoa. Whilst this narrative by no means detached the text from its imperialist roots, it at least positioned pseudo-Britain in a secondary, subservient role to an independent nation. Yet, since X of Swords, the power dynamic has reverted once more.
The growing tensions within the series come to a head in Excalibur #19. Beyond the uncomfortable images of the Captain Britain Corps, there are multiple character dynamics that land terribly. It was great to see Rictor, who has been oddly quiet in the series so far, finally get characteristically pissed off. Nevertheless, the suffering he had to endure to reach that point was wildly uncomfortable to read. Indeed, to have a Mexican member of the team essentially starve himself to save a British soldier invokes horrendously racist and colonialist meaning.
The unequal and racialized relationships within the issue are further compounded by Kwannon’s confrontation with Betsy. Marcus To and Erick Arciniega do some beautiful work in artistry and paneling within these pages, and Howard brings back an interesting perspective on bodily experience that was brought up by Leah Williams in X-Tremists. However, the fight quickly descends into Kwannon essentially forgiving and consolidating the traumatic experience of losing her physical autonomy for the sake of saving Betsy rather than doing so on her own terms. Rather than going some way to unpack Betsy’s and Kwannon’s history, all Excalibur #19 does is problematize it further.
The glaring imbalances of power and imperialist narratives in Excalibur #19 overall call for a reinspection of the series overall. Tini Howard is certainly a talented writer. However, this does not excuse, nor compensate, for the problems with the series. It is time that white readers and critics listen to the wider fanbase, and reconsider how they perceive Excalibur.
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