Once & Future started with a band of British racists trying to revive King Arthur so that he’d slaughter everyone they hated and feared. Unfortunately for the racists, Arthur saw them not as comrades, but as Saxon dogs — vile foes to be wiped off the planet. Unfortunately for the rest of England, Arthur’s fury was not confined to the racists. Accompanied by an undead court and a Galahad born and raised specifically for the occasion, Arthur set out after the Holy Grail. If he were to claim it, he would be able to remake Britain in his image. And given that this Arthur is a murderous undead wraith, well… Yeah. Getting the Grail would be apocalyptic.
Fortunately for humanity, Arthur’s twisted court was opposed by two heroes: Bridgette and Duncan. Bridgette is the monster slayer, a hardcore hunter with decades of experience and a decidedly unflappable countenance. Duncan is her grandson, a sweet-hearted, dorky museum curator who also happens to be Percival (not the Percival, but a Percival). Since, in some iterations of Arthurian lore, it was Percival who claimed the Grail, Duncan can counter Galahad. It’s just one of many duties he’ll have to take on as Bridgette’s successor, duties that she’s covertly prepared him for his whole life.
Though Duncan’s deeply hurt by Bridgette’s manipulations and secrets, he steps up. Standing alongside Ducan and Bridgette is Rose, the UK’s covert liaison to them in their role as monster hunters and a fellow newcomer to the world of living stories—with whom he’s struck up a passionate romance. Between the foiling of Arthur’s initial play for the Grail and the magical fun of repetition, Duncan’s life has reached an equilibrium of a sort. He slays fantastical monsters. That’s the job, and it’s a job that needs doing.
But, while defeated, Arthur is not out of the game. Merlin is in play, and while this Arthur isn’t quite his Arthur, Merlin is Merlin. He helps Arthur. He knows the story. And he’s all sorts of devious. He sicced Beowulf and Grendel on our heroes. When that didn’t work, Grendel’s Mother made for a heck of a backup plan. And hey, if he and this Arthur can work together despite their incongruities, they can make an alternate Grail work to their ends.
Meanwhile, Mary — Bridgette’s estranged daughter, Duncan and Galahad’s mother, and Merlin’s apprentice/Nimue — is making moves of her own. She loves her sons and wants to do as right by them as her plans will allow. She despises Bridgette and wants her to answer for what she has done. She moves in the shadows of the capital-S Story, trying to stay one step ahead of its sharp turns and sudden reversals.
The end of Camelot — or perhaps more precisely, the transient nature of Camelot — is a major, major part of Arthurian lore. It was. Then it was not. The wheel turns. Change is constant. The ultimate status quo is no fixed status quo. For volume 3 of Once & Future, ‘The Parliament of Magpies’ Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain, and Kieron Gillen take that notion and run with it to glorious results.
I’ve written a fair bit about ‘The Parliament of Magpies’ in Once & Future‘s individual issues. Taken as a whole, it remains a gosh-darn delight of a modern fantasy comic. Mora and Bonvillain’s mystical realms and marauding monsters are unmatched. Their increasingly mutilated, increasingly terrifying Galahad is a stupendous creation — all the more so for the smarm of his early days giving way to a horrific but oddly endearing knightliness. Gone is his smug sneer. In its place is a sincere, albeit fleshless and disturbing, chivalric poise.
The layers Bonvillain’s color work brings to the sheer Forklift Driver Klausery (Fair warning, Forklift Driver Klaus is very funny, but also VERY gory and thus probably NSFW) of Galahad’s eventual undead centaur form, from his oozing flesh to his thriving maggot colony, are a thing of demented beauty. On a less gruesome note, her bold work on Once & Future‘s magic gives it a terrifically tangible force. Through Bonvillain’s colors, Once & Future‘s magic is not a phrase that levitates a feather, it is POWER made manifest.
Dan Mora is, put bluntly, one of the best artists in western comics currently working. His creatures, from Galahad to Grendel to the dragon who plays a supporting role in ‘The Parliament of Magpies” last act, are distinct, full of character, and move splendidly. His human characters are a similarly expressive bunch, whether in action or during the book’s increasingly rare moments of stillness. And those who are in between the two, like the Sentai-Esque Lancelot, are particularly special. Mora has consistently brought his all to Once & Future. That remains wonderfully true for ‘The Parliament of Magpies.’
I’ve written about Kieron Gillen’s longtime interest in roles and their players in both my coverage of Once & Future and his other work. And as he did in The Ludocrats, Gillen is using Once & Future to consider the terrifying prospect of narratives devouring their players, both literally and metaphorically. Just as Bonvillain and Mora have made Galahad a bit more charming as he’s become increasingly more maimed, Gillen layers in some genuine pathos to a character whose commitment to the bit (i.e. being Galahad, the Perfect Knight) was initially quite loathsome.
Unlike Duncan, who has a life beyond Percival, Galahad is Galahad. And that’s it. He’s a prisoner to the role, shifting and changing as the story shifts and changes, never knowing what — or who — he is losing in the process. It’s pathetic in the “inspires pathos/pity” sense, and it brings some welcome humanity to the often-insufferable “Perfect Knight.” Conversely, ‘The Parliament of Magpies” last act introduces a major real-world political figure whose obsessive belief in his own narrative is deeply loathsome and has dire consequences for Britain. It also leads to the arc closing on a note whose sheer acerbic daring demands applause.
It’s a hell of a moment, and the dramatic narrative upending it unleashes on Once & Future is tremendously exciting. The wheel turns. To apocalypse. To change. To doom?
Once & Future is one of my favorite comics. It’s a beautiful, brainy, thrilling treat of a book, and I cannot wait to see what Bonvillain, Mora, and Gillen will do with it next.
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