The Story’s Become a Game and the Game’s Become Bloody
At its core, Dan Mora and Kieron Gillen‘s Once and Future is a comic about monsters, stories, and the feedback loop between them. When British racists decide to resurrect King Arthur to purge England of all those they fear and hate, they’re undone. They get a murderous, undead Arthur who’s maniacally determined to wipe out Britain’s enemies, but by Arthur’s reckoning, those enemies include anyone of Saxon descent. Including the racists. Whoops. The twisted king and his agents are opposed by aging monster hunter Bridgette, her sweet-hearted grandson Duncan, and their newly-activated government liaison/fixer Rose.
On a macro scale, Bridgette is unquestionably heroic. She’s spent decades fighting wayward stories come to life, and will not allow Arthur to unmake Britain. But on a granular level, her actions are a great deal grayer. She loves Duncan; she also set him up from birth as a countermeasure against those who would wield stories as weapons. And her estranged daughter Mary despises her — enough to collaborate first with Arthur and then with a cryptic, sinister incarnation of Merlin.
During a brief alliance between Duncan and Mary against Grendel’s Mother, Mary refers to Bridgette as “the Mother of Monsters.” Between Mary’s role in unleashing Arthur onto the world, her subsequent assumption of the “Nimue” role to Merlin, and Duncan’s status as a monster-slaying amalgamation of Percival and Beowulf, there may be some truth to the charge.
Once and Future starts with monstrous people chasing a story. It devours them. To stop the story, Bridgette spins a tale of her own — one which in turn blooms to become an entirely new story. And that story has monsters of its own: an escalating spiral of monsters. Arthur and his knights led to Merlin. Merlin set the stage for Beowulf. Beowulf brought with him Grendel and his Mother. And as of Once and Future #14, the Green Knight has shown up.
Mora’s Magnificent Monsters
Dan Mora is one of the best artists currently working in mainstream western comics. His layouts are clean and clear. His action — whether the science-fantasy wonders of Klaus, the superheroics of the Power Rangers, or Once and Future‘s brutal spectral carnage — works in skillful concert with his collaborators’ scripts. His human characters are expressive and striking.
And his monsters? My favorite thing about Dan Mora’s art is his monsters. Take the Green Knight, who serves as the centerpiece of Once and Future #14:
The Green Knight isn’t as immediately wrong as Once and Future‘s necrotized Arthur, and he’s closer to a human than either Grendel or his Mother were. But he swiftly reveals himself to be all sorts of terrifying anyway. He wields his giant ax with tremendous force, but Mora gives his swings a light, casual feel. He takes a point-blank blast from a shotgun and just outright ignores the gaping wound that results. And the sickly ectoplasmic ichor (the work of colorist Tamra Bonvillain) he emits recalls Arthur’s own.
But there’s one particular thing about Mora’s Green Knight that makes him such a memorable fiend. It’s his smile — his incessant, merciless smile. Mora uses the sharp angles of the Knight’s helmet to draw his readers’ eyes to the grin and frame it. It’s a brutal, frenzied, and alarmingly sincere expression.
The Green Knight’s ghastly grin wavers only once in the issue, mostly due to physical shock. That it returns once the moment has passed only makes it creepier. Mora’s endlessly jovial, creepily well-mannered marauder is a worthy addition to Once and Future‘s growing rogue’s gallery of warped Arthurian figures.
Stories We Tell
On the writing side of things, Gillen complements Mora’s illustrations with a thoughtful script that has space for both a supernatural bar fight and a pointed condemnation of bigotry’s moral rot. Gillen’s long been fascinated by how people play the parts they do in their lives. It’s one of the most recurring themes in his scripts. Once and Future delves into this on both a fantastical and an ordinary level.
On the fantastic side of things, Once and Future‘s cast has repeatedly used the contours of specific legends to counter their foes. Issue #14, for instance, sees Rose step up to become “Gawain” in opposition to the Green Knight. She successfully stops his rampage, but now she’s part of the story. And being part of the story means riding it all the way to the end, for ill and good.
On the ordinary side of things, Once and Future‘s cast has repeatedly reaped the costs of the stories they’ve sown for themselves. Bridgette’s manipulations seriously damage Duncan’s trust in her, and their love for one another isn’t enough to automatically bridge that breach. Less poignantly, the wrathful hatred and constant aggression of the book’s English nationalists lead them to lonely, often violent, ultimately pathetic ends. To paraphrase Bridgette, the lies they sold themselves end up eating them alive.
Mora, Gillen, and their collaborators continue to be a heck of a team. Once and Future is a blast to read. It’s eerie, it’s brainy, and it’s got a knack for cliffhangers. Issue #15 promises to be exciting.
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