Fair warning: As this is Once & Future‘s finale, I’ll be digging into the series as a whole. Expect spoilers.
There’s a moment in the back half of Once & Future‘s 30th and final issue that’s going to haunt me. With the unraveling of Britain and Mythical Britain assured and all of Merlin’s plans foiled, the sorcerer departs the series with four facts and a request:
I will never be dead and I will never be free. I’m sorry. I will do this again. Stop me.
Merlin has been a high-level player in Once & Future since his introduction at the end of its first volume, a cunning operator who’s turned defeat into victory more than once—most spectacularly at the end of volume 3, The Parliament of Magpies. But, cunning and mighty though Merlin is (to the point of turning himself into a brilliant red dragon whose ferocity is brought to life by the inimitable duo of colorist Tamra Bonvillain and illustrator Dan Mora), he’s a man trapped by love and the role he’s made himself play. Much like Once & Future‘s ever-mangled Galahad, the once-just-a-man Merlin has made himself into something too close to the mythic. He genuinely wants his king back. And as he is, he has no choice but to try for that resurrection. It’s inherent to him, inescapable. He will always be Merlin because Merlin is all that remains of him.
As Merlin turns to fade away, Mora shrinks him down. His posture is hunched, broken, and all too sadly human despite the sorcerer’s inhumanity. Bonvillain likewise mutes his color palate—the green of his cloak and the orange of his tree branch arms remain of a piece with the Otherworld’s color scheme, but they’re detached from it, left forever apart.
It’s an ending in line with one of writer Kieron Gillen’s recurring notions: that hewing too closely to a role is a great way to end up devoured by it. But where The Wicked + The Divine‘s Ananke sealed her own doom and met the death she’d so feared and The Ludocrats cheerfully defied becoming any sort of boring, there is no way out for Once & Future‘s Merlin, or for his one-time apprentice Mary-who-is-Elaine-and-Nimue, or for her mother—legendary monster hunter and loving-but-mission-focused-above-all-else Bridgette.
It’s a bleak conclusion to a bleak throughline, one that Once & Future has been building since its first issue. It’s also built one of the most consistently thrilling action engines in modern western comics, a world where myth and legend are a playground for Mora and Bonvillain—two of the best artists currently working—to go all in on sweeping, gorgeous action. Once & Future‘s had the Green Knight lay waste to a bar full of white supremacists, Lancelot as a full-blown Kamen Rider-style toku action hero, a car-and-giant-firebreathing-lion-ridden-by-a-knight chase, and—because if there are knights it cannot hurt to have dragons—dragons. Tremendously expressive dragons with the weight and scale and power to carry their myths with ease.
Mora’s creature designs and Bonvillain’s color work for them are two of Once & Future‘s longest-running delights. For this final issue, they bring their all. Lancelot gets a stupendous send-off, one that he’s been building to throughout the last arc. After so long ill at ease, all the energy and tension the Lake Knight’s built up gets to burst forth in a moment that sees his speed and power put to a new use—a moment of simultaneous dramatic and physical catharsis.
Likewise, the final battle between Bridgette’s monster hunters and Merlin features a full-on no-nonsense fist-pumping YES moment:
Rose’s ascension to Arthurhood makes for 1: a tremendously exciting final battle that sees one of the book’s heroes getting to go all out and match her foe blow-for-blow in a way that the nature of Once & Future‘s world didn’t often allow the protagonists, intrepid though they are, to do. 2: a counterpoint to those of the cast who are locked into their roles—Rose and her beloved Duncan have played multiple parts over the course of Once & Future‘s crises, and have adapted and changed in ways that other members of the cast cannot and/or will not. They move with the mystical narratives in play, rather than being moved by them. They’re water, as Bruce Lee would put it, and all the healthier for being able to be so.
In the afterword that follows Once & Future‘s “The End,” Gillen writes that:
Well… about half-way through Once & Future, I started saying that I felt Bridgette was unlike most of the characters I’ve co-created. Books like The Wicked + the Divine always had a hard ending, and continuing beyond it was pointless. Once & Future didn’t feel like that. I found myself thinking of designer and writer Robin D. Laws’ critical dichotomy, dividing characters into either dramatic or iconic characters. Dramatic Characters are mostly what is taught in writing classes – think Hamlet. Iconic Characters –Batman, Sherlock Holmes – are fundamentally static, and we come to them to see them do their thing. While there’s a lot more dramatic backbone in Bridgette than Sherlock Holmes, she’s still a character who one could plug into adventures almost indefinitely…Kieron Gillen in the backmatter for Once & Future # 30
Duncan and Rose, after 30 issues of carnage, chaos, dragons, egomaniacal and breathtakingly foolish Prime Ministers, kings, outlaws, and horrible flesh-eating bastard fairies, get to drive away—free to head towards their tomorrow. It’s a fitting, worthy ending for them. Bridgette, by choice, keeps on the watch. It’s what she knows and it’s what’s necessary. Her love, anger, and all of her sorrows are hers to carry. She will, for all the certainty and certain uncertainty that come with the role she’s chosen to fulfill. It’s a fitting, worthy ending for her.
Once & Future has been a hell of a ride—it was one of the first books I reviewed for AIPT, and I remain proud of what I’ve written about the series. Mora and Bonvillain made the mystical kinetic and thrilling. Kieron Gillen pushed his ongoing exploration of the whys that drive folks in an intriguing direction. It’s been a blast and a pleasure to dig into their craft, and I’m delighted that Once & Future‘s ending matches the fine work this team has done since go.
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