This article contains spoilers for Excalibur #6.
Tini Howard’s Excalibur might be one of the most ambitious books in the Dawn of X line. Re-establishing Elizabeth Braddock as a caucasian, British aristocrat and extra-dimensional royalty, while introducing readers to Apocalypse’s magical roots, and finding space to showcase the powers and emotional arcs of heavy hitters like Gambit, Rogue, Jubilee, and Rictor is a tall order. In Excalibur #6, Howard truly rises to the occasion and creates a kinetic, emotional, and incredibly sexy ride.
The issue starts off with a bang. Apocalypse is resurrected after being consensually drained to death by Rogue in issue #5, reminding us that Dawn of X fatalities will not be mined for prolonged shock value. In an unexpected twist, the newly awakened Apocalypse grabs the hand of Jamie Braddock and not the presiding high priest, Xavier, marking a clandestine partnership that has developed off-panel.
Marcus To and Arcieniega heavily channel Larraz and Marte Gracia in the opening panels. This gives Apocalypse’s resurrection process a satisfying cohesion with the rest of Dawn of X despite Excalibur being the least grounded in the “real world.”
This art style dramatically shifts as we get a deeper look at what’s going on in Otherworld. Morgan le Fay battles the forces of her unseen antagonist The White Witch. Le Fay’s panels are expansive and kinetic, showcasing the art team’s versatility in contrast to the more static, introspective opening panels. Overall, in this issue, the fantasy elements are ratcheted up from a 10 to a 20. This is driven home by the first data page, which functions as a battle map to show us the status of the battle in Otherworld. All of the books in the X-line use their data pages in such unique ways — X-Factor’s pages read like intel documents, X-Men’s are often world-building catalogues, and Excalibur’s create the ambience of a sprawling fantasy novel or a game of D&D.
When Excalibur appears to face-off against Le Fey, Howard makes incredible use of her panel space. In the heat of battle, we get moments of distinct characterization and power displays in a short period of time. We feel Gambit’s concern for his newly awakened wife, Rogue’s irritation and recklessness after absorbing Apocalypse’s psyche and powers, Captain Britain’s tactical determination to save her brother, Jubilee’s maternal concern and guilt over her dragon baby’s reality-altering fire breath, and Rictor’s returned swagger after encountering a bunch of hunky, bearded druids who claim him as their own.
While the action is thrilling and draws us closer to each member of the team, Howard truly pulls out all of the stops in the back half of the issue. She challenges Betsy Braddock’s Utilitarianism by pitting her against her twin in a battle to the death for Otherworld. As someone who has killed her lover Archangel, her former teammate Magneto, rendered her other brother catatonic and has suggested killing Havok on more than one occasion, Betsy has often killed for the sake of the greater good. While the resolution of this scenario is a net positive, Apocalypse makes another gamble by installing Jamie Braddock as the new king of Otherworld, once again obfusticating his intentions within the greater framework of mutant-kind.
The last few scenes of the issue are incredibly meditative. Rogue and Gambit (in arguably the sexiest scene ever in an X-book) lounge nude in a Krakoan hot tub. Rogue reveals her apprehensions about the Krakoan mandate to procreate and Gambit reminds us that he is actually a pretty great partner. After a rather important reveal that Rogue is completely in control of her powers, the scene races towards its logical, steamy conclusion.
Tini seamlessly grabs the baton from the equally incredible Kelly Thompson who did great work with Rogue and Gambit in their eponymous series and the subsequent Mr. and Mrs. X. To and Arcieniega knock the visuals out of the park while keeping things from feeling tawdry. It’s a truly touching, intimate moment that adds a layer to Rogue and Gambit’s relationship without undermining any established traits from their storied comic book history.
Betsy and her brother get an equally important moment when Brian reveals that Morgan le Fay’s influence has transformed him from a sensitive intellectual into an instinctual aggressor. In a dream, he is made to retake the iconic Captain Britan test by Roma and Merlin to choose The Sword of Might or the Amulet of Right (his original choice) and this time choose the sword. He wakes up holding the sword, ashamed that he chose violence. The scene is a delightful moment of inversion, as Brian was always averse to violence and Betsy’s character arc was always that of someone who had all of the trappings of a princess, but the soul and impulses of a warrior and eventually a killer. For a beat, they stand holding their mismatched talismans, forced to silently confront these diametrically opposed aspects of themselves and how they may have evolved. Brian even notes that Betsy always liked swords before rejecting it and giving it to her for safekeeping. Not only are these logical character moments, but it’s also a great workaround for Brian to return to heroics if necessary while allowing Betsy to keep the mantle of Captain Britain.
As we close out the issue we are left with a scene out of Frankenstein with Apocalypse in the role of the mad scientist. Bolstered by data pages, we are given insight into his endgame: cleansing Otherworld of a malignant property, which is contained in the body of a dissected (but still living) Morgan Le Fey. Krakoan glyphs indicate that Exodus and Jamie Braddock play a role in his plot, but once again we are left uncertain if Apocalypse is truly aligned with anyone besides himself.
This issue is everything that Tini Howard promised Excalibur would be and more. It’s clear what each character is grappling with and it seems that Howard & co. have barely scratched the surface of the conflict in Otherworld. Apocalypse’s presence adds an everpresent unease and suspicion that keeps even the quietest moments between the team intriguing.
That said, the battle between Brian and Betsy could have been drawn out a touch longer and the question of Jubilee’s current emotional state beyond general concern is ripe for further investigation. Watching your baby become a giant dragon isn’t exactly reassuring. But based on this issue, it looks as though Howard is making sure that no stone is left unturned… especially if Rictor has anything to say about it.