One of Once & Future‘s great strengths as a comic is the rules that its creative team has built into its setting. Legends and stories have certain core elements that must remain constant: You cannot have Beowulf without Grendel and his Mother. Nimue always betrays Merlin. King Arthur will return to Britain in its darkest hour. But, ironclad as the framework for legends can be, within them there is tremendous space. Space for variation, space for mutation.
SPOILERS AHEAD for Once & Future #20!
With Once & Future, illustrator Dan Mora, colorist Tamra Bonvillain, and writer Kieron Gillen have pitted humanity (in the form of elderly monster hunter Bridgette McGuire and her once-hapless grandson/successor/Percival/Beowulf Duncan and their allies) against these rules and variations and the legends bound to them. The comic’s last story arc closed with Merlin and his murderous undead Arthur getting one up on them through clever gaming of their legend and its corners.
Here’s the thing though: Merlin stretched the rules, he didn’t break them. Mucking about with another permutation of the Matter of Britain saved his Arthur and got them damn close to the Britain they wanted (read: an extradimensional hellscape where Arthur can butcher all the Saxons he wants). But that alternate legend did not vanish. Now there’s another King Arthur knocking at the door. And while Arthurian lore’s mutability means that the King can wear many forms, both of Once & Future‘s Arthurs hold to the immortal (sorry) words of Connor MacLeod: there can be only one.
Action is eloquence. And stillness can be action
Once & Future #20 sees Mora and Bonvillain go all-in on a full-on Excalibur-scale battle. It’s a blast to read and it offers some neat character bits for Once & Future‘s villains amidst the brawl. Arthur postures so that he might bury any doubt. Merlin draws himself inward and hopes that he hasn’t written the doom of his own schemes. Galahad, poor constantly-maimed-to-the-point-that-he’s-a-Cronenbergian nightmare Galahad, is forced to do something other than hurl himself at his foes. As he bears witness to the might of the parallel Arthur’s tokusatsu action hero-esque Lancelot, the centaurian Grail Knight is, for the first time, ill at ease. And for the first time, he questions.
Because Lancelot? When Lancelot goes to work, he goes to work.
Mora and Bonvillain have given Lancelot a stylish grace that the undead Arthur and his forces have always lacked, and enough power that he can single-handedly turn the battle in his Arthur’s favor. His radiant blue armor makes for a terrific contrast to the grody reds, purples, and browns of the undead Arthur’s hordes, drawing the eye to him and emphasizing both his visual uniqueness and his pose. When taken in conjunction with the swordplay Mora and Bonvillain had him show off in his earlier appearances in Once & Future, his victory is apparent even before he strikes a single blow. It’s terrific, terrific visual storytelling.
Gillen continues to match Mora and Bonvillain beat for beat and step for step. In addition to the great big battle (which, in the vast differences between the Arthurs and their ways of war, recalls Gillen’s love of tabletop games), he gives protagonists Duncan, Bridgette, and Rose a moment of relative peace to resolve some tensions before dropping them right back into chaos.
As I wrote at the start of this review, Once & Future makes a point of following the rules Mora, Bonvillain, and Gillen have built for the setting, visually and narratively. But by the very nature of that setting, there’s always space for a bend. The undead Arthur and the tokusatsu Arthur echo each other (particularly in their organic “crowns”), but cannot be mistaken for each other. Beowulf and his monsters were their own sort of earthen and grody. For all the ways that myths have clashed and bled into each other in Once & Future, they have maintained their own coherent styles.
So when a new one pops up, as happens at the end of issue #20? It’s as exciting as it is novel. I’m very, very curious to read how Duncan and company will react to this latest curveball. I’m very, very curious to read Galahad beyond his fanatical commitment to his myth. I’m very, very curious to see more of the new Arthur and his court.
Once & Future is, month in and month out, an absolute pleasure to read. Bring on issue #21.
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