By Steve Morris
Written by Tini Howard and drawn by Marcus To, Excalibur has one of the strongest creative teams of the entire X-Men line, and follows a group of characters drawn from the ashes of the adjectiveless X-Men run written by Brian Wood when his inappropriate behaviour at comic conventions was only widely known about, rather than dealt with. The team features Rogue, Jubilee, her son Shogo, and Psylocke, joined by Rogue’s husband. Apocalypse and Captain Britain are hanging round on the fringes, but the core of the series is the now-former Psylocke, Betsy Braddock. Betsy is back in her original body, which means she’s a white woman again living in England.
So! We need to lay this card down on the table, don’t we: Betsy Braddock, eh?
Betsy begins the issue living in the family mansion with her brother. Having spent years being an Asian woman with the mind of a white woman, she’s now a white woman again. As the comic progresses we see that she’s immediately stepped back into her British heritage – the katana she used to summon with her powers has become an old-fashioned sword from a period drama, and the issue repeatedly talks about her resemblance to her brother Brian. Heck, did you see the part where she lives in a mansion now? She’s practically a Jane Austen character.
Betsy’s motivation to go back to her brother is in part due to an understated section in the comic where she locks eyes with Kwannon, the woman whose body she used for years and years. When she finds herself face to face with the woman whose life she ruined, she has nothing to say – but luckily she has her one Asian friend, Jubilee, who she can talk to instead. Kwannon walks off, with everything simmering and unresolved. It’s a fascinating short moment, and one which speaks to the years of poor writing for both characters. And really, is there anything more British than a desire to be distracted from a racially awful, colonial past?
The decision to have Betsy take over the body of an Asian woman came primarily from the Asian-American artist Jim Lee, and was done to add representation to the central X-Men team: the mutant metaphor is a poor one if there are no Asian characters front and centre. Despite it coming from that essentially good place, the connotations of the body switch rang increasingly hollow over the years, as the new Psylocke started adopting more and more parts of the Asian identity despite having the mind of a white woman who grew up in Essex with her blatantly Tory family. Far from being a character who could offer authenticity for Asian readers, Psylocke instead became closely connected to cultural appropriation – and decisions to make her a ninja, give her katanas, and so on just seemed designed to take away from the point of the character. She was presented as a cool Asian woman – but, fundamentally, that was only skin-deep.
Tini Howard doesn’t step away from that past depiction and the problems which came to it, and in fact seems to show Betsy as being in the midst of an identity crisis, although an understated one. When she steps through her portal and lands in Krakoa, the first thing she does is ask not to be called Psylocke anymore. She doesn’t want the name that she associates with her lengthy time being another woman, and reclaims her birth name instead. She doesn’t have her psychic knife or the butterfly that used to appear whenever she used her powers – she’s lost all keys to her identity, and has stepped right back until she can work out who she is.
It’s telling, then, that the character ends the issue having assumed someone else’s mantle – the mantle of Captain Britain – although this time that role is handed to her rather than forced on her. Apocalypse (who similarly has decided to revoke his previous persona in order to reclaim a new sense of Krakoan identity) recognises her immediately in the new role: he views her not as Psylocke or Betsy Braddock or anything like that. She’s now “a hero of legend”, and he immediately accepts and declares her as such. That’s a really interesting touch to the comic, and it’ll be interesting to see how his relationship with Betsy continues across the next few issues.
Gambit’s presence in the comic also suggests that this is going to be a recurring theme throughout Excalibur – he also had his identity changed, but that was directly by Apocalypse, who turned Gambit into “Death”, one of his four horsemen. Whereas Betsy doesn’t seem sure who she is or how she should change, Apocalypse is definite in his understanding of adaptation and evolution. He sees Betsy adapt in order to survive, and previously transformed Gambit in a similar fashion. When Rogue is wrapped up into some sort of cocoon, he’s the only character who seems cool with it: again, this is simply change, and Apocalypse understands that differently to anyone else.
Change also seems to be the motivating factor for our villains here: Morgan Le Fey, who literally lives in the old days, and backed up by a group of modern-day witches who claim they want to “serve Britain”. Betsy has made a step backwards into her old life and heritage, but here she faces what the “good old days” actually were: Morgan is merrily prejudiced throughout the issue, with her main concern being that the existence of mutants and Krakoa is polluting Britain’s pool of magic. She tells her cult followers that if they don’t get rid of mutants for her, then she’ll cut off magic from Avalon forever.
That’s right: she’s a high-powered and privileged person in power who is worried about open borders, hoarding all the resources for herself, telling her cult followers to militarise and is all the while blaming people of a different race for everything. In other words: we’ve got a Brexit analogy coming, people!
Excalibur #1: The Accolade of Betsy Braddock
Writer: Tini Howard
Artist: Marcus To
Colourist: Erick Arciniega
Letterer: Cory Petit
Designer: Tom Muller
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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