Publisher: Image Comics / Skybound Entertainment
Writer/ Co-Creator: Brandon Thomas
Artist/ Co-Creator: Khary Randolph
Colorist: Emilio Lopez
Letterer: Deron Bennett
From the creative minds of critically-acclaimed writer Brandon Thomas (Horizon, The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury, Noble,Voltron ) and phenomenal artist Khary Randolph (Tech Jacket, We Are Robin/Robin War Mosaic, Charismagic) comes a brand-new story set in a world of a secret order of magicians with a rich Nubian aesthetic. This mixture of our modern world with a clandestine mystic organization is set apart with its rare and beautiful Afrocentric veneer. One of Excellence’s greatest praises I can give is its “show, not tell” format of storytelling. Virtually devoid of exposition or needless historical backstory, readers are given the benefit of the doubt to figure out things and get a sense of how this universe works as the story naturally progresses. This, however, is a double-edged sword. While I understand, on a basic level, how the world operated, I’m still in the dark about this arrangement between Aegis (the secret sect of sorcerers) and the unsuspecting random “charges” – like if they are some form of guardian angels – and their degree of influence/impact and exact purpose on the wider world.
On a side note, there are some superficial parallels between Excellence and the Star Wars mythos. The cosmic Force is substituted for all-purpose magic, futuristic light sabers for crude wooden wands and the Jedi order for Aegis (made up off an All-Black male fraternity). This is not a purely one to one comparison or execution, merely a point of reference.
Excellence tells the very personal and tragic tale of Spencer Dales, scion of a high ranked black magician named Raymond, who is part of a shadowy, yet (seemingly) benevolent, society assigned to help selected, inconspicuous individuals as dictated by the unseen powers that be. Born with a low Midi-chlorian count, Dales is a routine disappointment to his father, Raymond is more concerned about his legacy and implied social status than nurturing love and affection towards his only son. This divide between patriarch and progeny is a tale as old as time. Complicating matters is his surrogate brother Aaron Miles, Spencer’s “better” in every way and recipient of the fatherly love and admiration Spencer so desperately craves.
Under this less than ideal upbringing, the story of Excellence is majorly told from Spencer’s biased perspective. And we are periodically treated to his evolution throughout “Kill the Past”. We see firsthand how this constant passive rejection and discontent festers a hatred for Raymond and the regimented society Spencer lives in from childhood to adulthood. Despite this, Spencer’s inherent need for his father’s recognition and approval (that when won, is often swiftly lost or undermined) acts as a powerful internal conflict. This is also seasoned with his understandable jealousy towards Aaron.
Spencer could easily be likened to Anakin Skywalker; a well-meaning nascent protagonist whose idealistic, though misguided, the path brings him to a “dark” side. It’s hard to find scenes where Spencer isn’t brimming with petty angst, anger, resentment, or some other negative emotion. He’s perpetually burdened by an immovable scowl. Although, thanks to the well-articulated context and narrative, Spencer is a very complex character. You may often find yourself rooting for him in one way or another; either to change and see the error of his ways or sympathize with his plight and hope his suicidal vendetta is brought to fruition. His actions are impulsive, selfish, vindictive and rage-fueled; yet in other cases tactically intelligent. He indeed shines with his resourcefulness, cunning and dogged determination to win.
As the story progresses, hypocrisy within Aegis and its regimented infrastructure come to light, with Spencer being poised as the rebellious agent of change. Like a Chinese finger-puzzle however, the more Spencer fights against this system and society he lives in, the more entrapped he becomes to their rules and restrictions. Alternatively, Raymond cunningly breaks the sacrosanct rules and manipulates people and events, almost to the deliberate (or inadvertent) detriment of his own son. But we will have to wait for the revelations to Raymond’s motives, whether they are towards some greater good, vainglorious personal interest or misguided benevolence.
Randolph’s art is superb, colored by Emilio Lopez. Utilizing an abundance of vibrant colors, sparse monochromatic lighting and accentuating deep shading, every panel is effervescent and beautiful, even in the stillest and smallest scenes. There is an admirable level of detail that brings each page to life and brimming with gravitas. In terms of character portrayals and facial expressions, Randolph consistently imbues his art with raw emotions and fluid animation in each and every character, requiring little to no dialog to speak volumes.
Meanwhile, the story’s fight scenes are exciting, white-knuckle action sets. Throwing in homages to Naruto and Street Fighter for kicks, the battles are just shy of those in Marvel’s Dr. Strange in terms of execution with the obtuse elements of magic. The heated battle between him and Aaron was electrifying, heightened by the bitter blood between the two. These conflagrations are used modestly with the drama, but as things come to ahead, I would not be disappointed if confrontations escalate in quantity and scope.
I would also like to take a moment to express my love of the language in Excellence. While there is an appreciated absence of “made up” words and terms, or dialects, characters don’t speak like if they are reading from a script. Everyone feels genuine, authentic in their speech. Everyone has a distinct personality and it does not come off forced or like a caricature.
By “Kill the Past’s” conclusion, Spencer is more resolute in his mission than when he started those years ago. His relationship with his father seems to be a definitively irreconcilable one, and his relationship with Aaron a dubious, if not very one-sided affair. This has left Spencer pretty much alienated from everyone, making his fight against the system and his father a needlessly Sisyphean one. Blinded by his own self-centeredness and inability to forgive or forget, Spencer may be an aspiring revolutionary anti-hero at best or an unyielding and foreboding harbinger of doom at worst.
From a story perspective, the intriguing action-fantasy that is Excellence is a compelling, though not innovative, exploration into the effects of unrealistic expectations of children by their parents. Either they become emancipated from those incredible standards and become fully self-actualized (usually as a force for good) or become abysmally consumed with resentment and wrath that turns them into an instrument of absolute destruction (of themselves and their targets). Supplemented by a great script, dialog, and art, this cautionary tale thrives by focusing on a very small (all Nubian) cast of characters, and not getting overwhelmed or distracted by unnecessary world-building.
Whether or not Spencer ultimately succeeds in his goals isn’t the crux of Excellence, but rather what kind of man he will be when he gets to the end will keep me eagerly anticipating the next volume of this refreshing new series that should not be overlooked.
Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics or video games. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and video gamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.