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‘Once & Future’ #22 has spectacular narrative construction (and a fire-breathing lion)

Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain, and Kieron Gillen continue to be one of the most joyously reliable creative teams in comics.

Once & Future is a comic about things going wrong and it has been from the start. Be it well-intentioned ruthlessness or bigoted knuckleschmuckery, the plans of the book’s players have rarely gone the way they were meant to go. Major victories have come from luck as much as cunning. For all that Britain’s stories and legends are allegedly these great, immutable, powerful things, there is so much variety to them. There’s space for friendly dragons and monstrous dragons, space for an Arthur who is one with the land, and an Arthur whose knights are Sentai-style costumed superhumans.

Make no mistake, knowledge is mighty in Once & Future. And stories are mightier still. Both can and have shaped the comic’s world. But there are a thousand and more ways to get to an endgame. A frantic scramble is, on some level, inevitable.

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It’s inevitable, and it makes for a rollicking great comic.

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The highlight of Once & Future‘s 22nd issue? Sir Ywain. Sir Ywain and his gargantuan fire-breathing lion. On a craft level, the knight and his beast are a prime opportunity for colorist Tamra Bonvillain and illustrator Dan Mora to do what they do best: create stupendously striking monsters. Take a look. Their work demands awed goggling:

Once & Future
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Bonvillain’s use of close but distinct shades of orange marks Yvwain and his lion as a duo while preserving their individual visual identities. Unlike poor, unfortunate, Fire Marshall Bill-alike impromptu centaur Galahad, Ywain and his lion are separate entities who work closely together, not a gloriously stitched-together atrocity. Furthermore, the duo’s vibrancy makes them stand out. They command the eye, even in the pink-hued Otherworld. It’s a really great piece of colorwork from Bonvillain in a book where she’s consistently done splendid work.

Likewise, Mora’s lion is further proof that he’s the absolute best in western comics when it comes to monsters. The lion isn’t as elaborate as Grendel and his Mother were or Galahad is, but the simplicity of his design means that Mora has space to emphasize his sheer power, be it through rippling muscles or the way he glares before letting loose his fearsome flame breath. The lion is several hundred pounds of angry, mystical death given flesh, and Mora gives him (and his rider) marvelous character and menace.

Once & Future
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That menace proves crucial to issue #22’s success. While Yvain and the lion are far from the biggest problem that Once & Future‘s heroes (nerdy-museum-curator-turned-monster-slayer-Percival-and-Beowulf-Duncan, his grandmother and mentor-in-slaying Bridgette, and their onetime-government-liaison-turned-fellow-knight-and-Duncan’s-beloved Rose) are dealing with, they are the most immediate. And their sheer relentlessness makes him a potent, kinetic metaphor for the heroic trio’s current predicament. They’re boxed in and badly outgunned. They know this, and Bridgette may have a way to turn the tide, but that way’s got risks and mysteries of its own—and in the meantime, there’s still the matter of the GIANT FIRE-BREATHING LION, with said GIANT FIRE-BREATHING LION playing the part of the multiple murderous King Arthurs and the UK’s being pulled into its Otherworld and the Gorgon and Bridgette’s past actions coming back to haunt her so on and such forth.

Once & Future
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It’s an excellent piece of narrative construction from writer Kieron Gillen, a micro-tension (i.e. an immediate conflict largely confined to the present issue) that highlights and lays out the structure of Once & Future‘s macro-tensions (the ongoing conflicts that have shaped the book since its first issue).

It’s craft to be admired, with the caveat that there are some frustrating wobbles in Once & Future issue 22’s script. There are a few lines of dialogue that feel overly cute and quippy—enough so that they clash with the tension of the moments where they’re spoken.

On a less immediate note, Once & Future‘s currently juggling a lot of ongoing storylines all at once—and as was the case with some of Gillen’s scripting in the middle of The Eternals‘ “Only Death is Eternal” arc, I’m a bit worried that the plates could drop badly. With that said, “Only Death is Eternal” did not drop the plates. At all. Gillen has reliably proven himself adept at weaving hosts of disparate story threads together into a satisfying whole, and while I can see the possibility for Once & Future to go sideways, I’m confident that (and excited to see how) Gillen will bring everything together when and how he means to.

I dig Once & Future immensely. It’s always a treat to review. A toast to issue #22, and here’s to issue #23. May Bonvillain, Mora, and Gillen and their book continue to rule.

Once & Future
‘Once & Future’ #22 has spectacular narrative construction (and a fire-breathing lion)
Once & Future #22
Mora, Bonvillain, and Gillen continue to be one of the most joyously reliable creative teams in comics. Once & Future's 22nd issue has elements that give me pause, but hot diggity the craft and construction and energy this book has.
Reader Rating1 Vote
8.9
Dan Mora is the best of the best when it comes to beasts and critters and monsters. Exhibit A: the GIANT FIRE-BREATHING LION.
Furthermore, Mora's action is clear and kinetic. Duncan, Bridgette, and Rose are harried throughout the issue, and it's as thrilling as it is tense.
Indeed, the narrative construction is really, really elegant. Our heroes have been backed into more than one corner over the course of the book, some of which are only becoming apparent now. It's really terrific craft.
Gillen's usual razor-sharp dialogue drifts a bit into the overly cute here. It's zippy, but not the snappy he usually is.
Furthermore, Once & Future's juggling a whole lot right now. Gillen's reliably landed sprawling stories, but there are moments where it seems like everything could come undone.
9
Great
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