‘Yes, the world is haunted. Haunted by these feral stories.’
King Arthur as the big antagonist force. That’s a big, juicy premise to play with. And that’s what Once and Future #1 by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain and Ed Dukeshire laid out. And with #1 doing the heavy lifting of laying out the characters and their dynamic, this second installment delves a bit more into the mythology of Arthurian Legend.
Right out the gate, what stands out is how much slower this book is compared to some other Gillen outings, where in it decompresses and really takes its time. That may definitely hold it back for some in the immediate, but it is a bit of a different beast compared to the rest of his creator-owned works. It’s pulpy adventure serial. It’s Gillen doing a proper bombastic blockbuster and with Dan Mora, no less. That requires a bit of a different approach.
Mora and Bonvillain, fitting right into this plan, really spend careful time on each panel and allow the readers to be immersed in this world. Mora’s expressive storytelling is stand-out, of course, but Bonvillain really gets to set the mood with her color choices and they’re fantastic. Her use of light is utterly remarkable. Her signature style is visible through everything and makes for a strong combination with Mora. Combine all that with the various textures and the way they’re colored, the spiritual greens and the level of atmosphere Bonvillain brings to the book and you have a gorgeous title. Mora may be exceedingly good at the spectacle and bombast, comparable to anyone working currently, but he exceeds at body language and emotion. It’s what he showcased so wonderfully in Klaus, able to bring delight and warmth to any panel, moving from creepy and horrifically cold to comfortingly hot.
And he really gets to run wild and showcase his comedic chops here, indulging in exaggerated reactions, contrasting expressions and more, aided by Gillen’s script and Dukeshire’s lettering work. The book has legitimate charm and a sense of breezy, comfortable fun to it, making it an easy, engaging read. Mora’s world-building continues here, as we get a look at some of his design work in the issue. We’re met with his ever-growing Arthur, we bear witness to his Ladies Of The Lake and Arthur’s sword. All of them work within the framework of this horror-heavy urban fantasy set-up the book runs with. Arthur is a freaky zombie man, a cross between Mr. Bones and Skeletor and wildly more terrifying than either. Here’s this supposedly mythic hero of legend and he’s this blood-licking monster without mercy. There’s, oddly enough, a lot of Mora’s Krampus from Klaus in the bare bones of Arthur’s design here. The Ladies Of The Lake being these beings of horror, covered in grey skin, with glowing red eyes, is also a choice that fits and the rags that they dress up in fit the aesthetic of the book.
As should be evident, there’s a sense of dilapidation of the past or an erosion of the past, which comes through visually. But that begs the question, is that a good thing or a bad thing? In this instance, it’s a good thing, especially given it’s a Gillen book and the work acknowledges that the fawned over past isn’t all that good in reality, even if many would like to believe so. The past is gone because it had its time. Things are better now and we’re on the path forward, to the future. And the past? It haunts us like a specter, a ghost that threatens to tear us and our future apart. Or perhaps, more aptly, the ghost of the mythologized past is what does it. Myth and actuality are not the same. Stories are just that– stories. That isn’t a line to deflate them or demean them. Stories are great and powerful things. But it’s important to acknowledge that they are just that, the designs of an individual put to paper or oral tradition, which then was put to paper. They’re written by people. And people are just that, people. So be wary of stories, they’re mighty beasties and if you buy into a harmful one, you might find the beast bites harder than you expect and you come away far more scarred than you might’ve imagined.
And so the feral story, the story that we constantly tell ourselves, of the great king Arthur and his mightiness and heroic qualities — it’s finally here now to bite us for all our idiocies. And who better to represent and stand for people obsessed with a past that never was, with a false narrative, than nationalists. There’s prescience in the choices here, pulled off in the way adventure fiction does best. In a lot of ways, Once and Future strikes as almost Gillen’s equivalent of Moore’s ABC works. Moore had done his big, formalist structural exercise in Watchmen and then went on to produce a suite of stories decidedly unlike Watchmen. Gillen’s finally wrapped up The Wicked + The Divine and this book feels very much like him breathing in and breathing out, grinning and saying ‘Let’s have some fun!’ It’s a bit like his Tom Strong or Top Ten, if you will, although tied together into his constant exploration of the past, the myth of it and the harm of pursuing it endlessly rather than being able to let go and move to the future can have.
Once and Future continues to be really fun and enjoyable, dabbling in the Arthurian Legend in a way that feels genuinely fresh and interesting. Dan Mora continues to unleash a whole world of fantastical horror here, as Bonvillain brings it to life with tremendous effort as Dukeshire whips together their artistic efforts with Gillen’s script. The dynamic of Duncan and his gran is pretty hilarious and there’s almost a bit of William Hartnell’s Doctor to her, she’s this tough old lady that feels she knows best and will not be convinced otherwise. The theme of past haunting the present and thus the future eternally lingers here, from the moments with the female antagonist and her obsession with the loss of the past to a literalized past in the form of Arthur and his knights. This is a creative team that’s really having a grand old time making a blockbuster adventure comic and it is definitely one of the most fun titles you’ll come across.
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