“Well Mike, I guess this is just a magical land. I HATE magical lands.” – Crow T. Robot, Mystery Science Theater 3000, season 8, episode 13 – Jack Frost
In his most recent newsletter, Once & Future writer Kieron Gillen described the series thusly:
“It really is an exercise at seeing what new bizarreness I can get Dan (series illustrator Dan Mora) and Tamra (series colorist Tamra Bonvillain) to on a month by month basis.”
This is accurate. Once & Future has never lacked for high-octane spectacle, nor for Mora and Bonvillains’ gobsmackingly gorgeous art. Even restricting focus to volume 4’s story, Monarchies in the U.K., Once & Future features an aquatic, superhuman, tokusatsu-inspired Lancelot and a gargantuan fire-breathing lion and his knightly rider barreling after our heroes and their Mad Maxed car. There’s also the fae folk, an unexpected Gorgon, and the murderous, undead King Arthur who’s lorded over the book from issue #1. As a thrill-power-packed adventure, Once & Future has never been less than a blast.
Amidst the battles and the chases and the ever-increasingly horror of poor Sir Galahad’s existence Bonvillain, Mora, and Gillen have also woven a thoughtful treatise on the nature of self-determination/identification and role-playing. It’s a recurring theme of Gillen’s, one that he’s explored in work ranging from The Ludocrats to Eternals, and one that Bonvillain and Mora make their own through character and worldcraft. Consider the following page, wherein poor, poor Galahad has yet more misery heaped upon him.
Mora and Bonvillain play their obliviously mutilated Galahad against the shining, superheroic look and feel they have established for Lancelot and his incarnation of Arthur’s court. Earlier in volume 4, they emphasize Galahad’s increasing disconnect from humanity by having him literally feed on hay in a grungy stable. When the time comes for his ill-fated meeting with the parallel version of father, however, Mora and Bonvillain whiplash his humanity back through. Even mauled, even with eyes that glow eerie, solid green, Galahad’s heartbreak and astonishment are plain on his face. Mora frames him so that the eye immediately goes to his expression, and Bonvillain contrasts his dark, bloody, rotting bio-armor with the mystic forest that surrounds him. When they introduce Lancelot’s version of Galahad, they apply similar techniques, this time to emphasize the new Galahad’s physical perfection and inhumanity compared to good old zombie centaur Galahad.
It’s clear, strong comicscraft—and it meshes beautifully with Gillen’s script, which sees Galahad question the purpose he was born for, which he was maimed and remade like a magical RoboCop for. Where Once & Future‘s protagonists (elderly monster hunter Bridgette, her grandson and Percival/Beowulf Duncan, and their former government liaison/Gawain/Duncan’s beloved Rose) have questioned themselves from the start, grown and changed and adapted, Galahad has stubbornly clung to being Galahad even with all that the role has cost him. Seeking out Lancelot marks the first time he’s done anything remotely for himself. The fallout of their meeting looks to have major consequences for Once & Future‘s most pitiable and horrific knight.
Indeed, “Monarchies in the U.K.” sees Once & Future‘s antagonists in a host of fascinating places. At the conclusion of “The Parliament of Magpies”, Merlin and the undead Arthur won. They merged mythical Britain with the modern United Kingdom and declared war on every Saxon who would dare to claim their land.
Where Arthur has thrown himself into conquering and ruling (both opportunities for further Saxon slaughter), Merlin cannot quash his doubts. Like Galahad, he is shaped by the story and idea of “Merlin” as much as he is Merlin. Unlike Galahad, he has both knowledge and perspective—and he is acutely aware that with the transformation of the U.K. into a full-blown magical land, the legend of Arthur will kick into overdrive. The King Arthur tale is a vast and multi-faceted story, one with a king for all seasons. Each king is certain that he is the true Arthur, and what would a king be if he tolerated imposters, no matter how mighty they and their damn-near-superheroic knights might be?
So, naturally, Merlin’s Arthur will fight the other Arthurs and their Merlins. And with that fight comes fear. The fear that this will all have been for nothing, the fear that Merlin will have failed a vow he made long ago, in the last moments of a pyrrhic battle. “Monarchies in the U.K.” offers a brief look into what may be the origin of the Arthur legend, a look that offers fascinating, humanizing context to Once & Future‘s cunning, ruthless Merlin.
Amidst the dramatic colors of mystical Britain and the inhumanity of Merlin, his Arthur, and their rivals, this flashback is visually astonishing. Bonvillain and Mora deliberately dial down their styles, past even the ones they deployed in previous story arcs’ quieter moments. Once & Future has never looked like this, and it’s downright jarring to see. The man who might be Merlin is just a man. The man who might be Arthur is nobler and warmer than any of his present counterparts. Mora’s body language reveals the intimacy of the friendship Gillen describes in their dialogue, and Bonvillain’s precisely muted colors give the sequence the feeling of memory. On its own, it’s a damn good comics page. In context, it is tremendously effective in illuminating Merlin—what drives him and why—and in, to a point, humanizing him.
Once & Future‘s pleasures are both immediate and long-lasting. Mora has continually shifted protagonist Duncan’s body language as he gets used to monster hunting and puts on some muscle. Bonvillain weaves color into everything, from battles to text, shaping the mystic and the familiar and, as of this act of the story, blending the two together. Gillen balances gloriously kinetic absurdity with insight and precision in his charactercraft. Taken as a whole, their work marks Once & Future as a comic that can move from Merlin’s revealing flashback to a supernatural Arthur vs. Arthur sword battle after having started off with Duncan walloping a band of fairies with a horseshoe while fleeing by car.
It’s good stuff. Writing about Once & Future is always a joy.
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