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Once and Future #1 review: the myths of a nation

Arthurian legend. Dan Mora. Kieron Gillen.

Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora
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“But…Arthur…isn’t he a good guy?”

We live in…strange times, to say the least. There are a lot of shifts taking place across the globe and there’s a sense of things spiraling out of control. The darkness of the past feels like it’s looming ever more, ready to consume the future, as people wonder what the heck the future could even be. Once and Future is a really fun, action-packed, joyous adventure comic. It’s one of the most purely enjoyable and kinetic stories, with a load of humor and a lovely tone of levity, that you could probably pick up this year. But it’s also fundamentally a book of the moment. It’s a book that is also about all of the above notions, packaged into an accessible, all-ages adventure serial that people can enjoy.

The basic concept is essentially this: A retired monster hunter, Bridgett McGuire and her grandson, Duncan McGuire, who’s clueless about his gran’s monster-hunting past, must work together to face a threat steeped in Arthurian legend.

That’s simple enough, yeah?

But beyond that, there’s a lot of fascinating, interesting things in play here, baked in as both obvious text and subtext. The Arthurian legend is one with universal appeal and one with resonance even now to a great many and as the title indicates, this deals in the mythos. And while it is fun to dabble with and does offer a fun sandbox to play in, especially for adventure fiction, it can be used as a vehicle for a whole lot more. The creative team of Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain and Ed Dukeshire absolutely realize this and the book is a perfect showing of that.

The myth of Arthur and the entire legend built around him is a key part of British culture; it’s this thing many feel a great sense of ownership of. It’s this iconic legend that speaks to certain ideas or values and like any and all myths, it’s a saga that’s been written, rewritten, re-rewritten again and again, a bundle of complex contradictions, revisions and changes to suit the times and audience. And a myth like that can be very useful due to its sheer strength. It inevitably affects identity or image, as all vital myths and stories of a nation do. And so if you’re looking to discuss the nation and the idea of the national identity, the myth can be a great tool to do that, given it’s shifted and changed as well. It’s not static, much like national identity. You’re always changing and evolving in a world where the future is ever-arriving. And so that’s, essentially, what’s it’s about.

The approach feels especially timely in a world where Brexit is a thing, where conversations examining Britain’s place in the world and its identity now are happening. And it also really works as a “well, how do we make this old, rusty tale of the old matter in the now?” You do it by using it as a vehicle to examine British national identity, as Once and Future shows. But for all that seemingly heavy subject matter, the book is actually rather light and fun, which is purposeful. It’s not exactly looking to depress you more than you already are looking at the news. It’s looking to engage with ideas of culture and identity, sure, but do so in the adventure serial genre, so that you can laugh and come away with an experience that entertains you as much as it points to what’s happening now.

And thus we open on a bunch of nationalists nicking the all-healing scabbard of King Arthur. Here you have people who’ve bought into this myth, that’s so tied up in and with Britain and they have their own re-written, warped view of it, which they use to do all that they do. They’re people who’d like to return to “the good ol’ times,” “the golden days,” when everything was supposedly so much better and “greater” (it wasn’t). They have static, discriminatory ideas and are terrified by the prospect of change, grasping very hard onto a warped narrative of an ancient past to find validation and comfort. These are people obsessed with the past, yet they’re also individuals who’ve completely taken the wrong things from it, missing the point and having no true grasp of it. Antagonists obsessed with the past and warped narratives, eternally static and incapable of change — you’ll find these are not uncommon in Gillen’s oeuvre.

But beyond that, moving past that, we’re introduced to Duncan and that’s when the fun really kicks into high gear. Duncan, our lead and point-of-view character is a real goofy klutz. Smart? Sure. Brave? Absolutely. Messy? Hell yes.

Giving us a sense of the protagonist in this intimate but absolutely awkward and messy scenario of a date, the team clues us in on Duncan’s character. And then we witness the birth of the Gran-Duncan super-team of monster hunters fairly quickly, with Duncan going out to find his Gran in a forest, after she’s run off from her retirement home. As Duncan yells out loudly (lovely work by Dukeshire, as always) for his Gran, the tough old lady digs up a whole bunker’s worth of weaponry, packed with everything from swords to silver bullets. Once Duncan gets his eyes on that, the book really establishes one of the most fun things about itself: The seemingly pragmatic and tough old Gran just does or says extraordinary things and Duncan reacts to them in over-the-top ways. There’s a real, wonderful playfulness there, as you can tell the creative team is having a blast here, cracking up at Duncan and the hilarity of his dynamic with his Gran as they pull the book together. Usually these sort of narratives are used with old men and the role Duncan has, as the sort of rookie dude-in-distress, is given to women. But there’s a real nice inversion here, as well as a fun familial tie, allowing the book to tackle a dynamic that’s rarely seen in an adventure context: Grandmas and Grandsons. There’s almost a bit of Doctor Who in there, as gran is the seasoned heroine of a great many adventures and Duncan is the new, clueless companion with starry eyes, total shock and utter confusion about him. There’s a wackiness to it all and Duncan’s perspective really gives the book a spirit that makes it truly charming.

Dan Mora is, of course, the absolute rockstar of this book. There’s a lot of great work being done here, but this is very much his stage, as he raises the bar once again. Starting in 2016, every year he’s come out with a Klaus tale alongside the legendary Grant Morrison. And every year, he has only gotten better and better, as with the challenge of every script and the practice of a whole year, he levels up again and again. His best and most stand-out work to date remains last December’s Crying Snowman one-shot. But it has major, major competition in this debut of Once and Future. This is sort of the next step in the evolution of the dynamic artist, as he’s joined by Tamra Bonvillain’s beautiful and vibrant colorwork, while re-teaming with his consistent letterer partner, Ed Dukeshire, from Klaus.

Mora’s always been an incredibly energetic artist, as his images leap out at the audience with kinetic power, but his greatest gift has long been the character performances he nails. He can do that slight grin, or a playful chuckle, or that little glare. His grasp of body language and the sheer range of expressive nuances he can capture, that’s a huge part of what makes him such a rich, satisfying storyteller to witness. And here, he just lets loose. Every Duncan reaction is almost cartoonishly over-the-top, but he totally sells it. From the speed-running that could be accompanied by absolutely loony smoke and close shots of emphasis, it’s a wild hurricane of movement and energy. Mora might just be the best artist in the business for capturing movement and he’s matched really well with Bonvillain here. Bonvillain, who did standout work on Doom Patrol, just brings out the best of all these pages and lands all the beats of exhilarating action and the comedy with great care. Her use of bright colors and the balance between the mundane and the mythic is great to see. There’s also really nice use of purples and pinks here with the blues — it’s just a gorgeous looking book.

It’s also curious to see Dukeshire letter a Gillen script here, as the latter tends to work with Cowles for the most part. The Klaus combo of Dukeshire and Mora really click nicely with Gillen for sure, as Dukeshire ties together the entire work with flair, from every Duncan scream to a slick mic-drop moment with Gran. There’s, interestingly, not much use of captions here, apart from overlaying ongoing dialog of one scene over another, which makes the book a bit closer to WicDiv than something like Die amongst Gillen works. If Hans is the expansive vision over which Gillen and Cowles’ captions sail to anchor the reader, Mora is the energetic runner given a free pass to just run like hell, as he’s given full room to explode with kinetic action on the page. It’s always fun seeing the little differences in combos, all approaches just as valid and intriguing as any other, to suit different creative sensibilities.

Ultimately, the big revelation of the issue, which really operates as the basic setup of the narrative, the “pre-quest,” if you will, is that the nationalists are trying to bring back Arthur. Good ol’ Arthur, here to save Britain and take it back to the good old days! Nationalists trying to acquire power and enforce the might of old, with King Arthur, this icon, this face of the myth, standing as the representation of this past, is a very…Gillen idea. Arthur isn’t framed in heroic terms here, but as a warlord who conquered and was pretty darn shady, as figures like him can and do tend to be, especially given how old he is and what period he lived in. The notion of spinning Arthur as the antagonistic force of the past that must be confronted and taken on, as the prided upon myth of a nation, part of its identity, but embodying parts of it that can must be discussed, with the nature of his narrative being fundamentally in question, that certainly feels fresh and new. To my recollection, there hasn’t been this sort of a spin on Arthur, as most are more interested in him in heroic terms, flawed or otherwise, archetypal and young or old.

Once and Future #1 is a really fascinating debut of an action adventure serial loaded with fun, wonder and horror, that also feels very prescient and the best of the genre it’s trying to tackle. Yes, it’s got your magic sword scabbards, your grand old mentor archetypes and even the classical Questing Beast, but it is about more than that and there’s a lot there for those who’re willing to dig. If you’re looking for pure adventure thrills, this has them. If you’re looking for something more than just that, it does offer that. It’s a wildly different endeavor in tone, style and execution than a lot of Gillen’s other efforts right now; for one, it’s not as formally rigorous as, say, Peter Cannon or WicDiv, but it is a purposeful change of pace that still feels incredibly Gillen, while being this state-of-the-art blockbuster comic from the wondrous visions of Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvillain, with Ed Dukeshire being a great draftsman. This is definitely a spin on King Arthur that’s fresh.

Once and Future #1
Is it good?
An exhilarating and kinetic debut full of adventure, Once and Future is a ride that is as prescient as it is fun. Gillen, Mora, Bonvillain and Dukeshire make a lovely team.
One of the most fun and funny books you can pick up, loaded with cartoonishly over-the-top reactions and great charm
Gran and Duncan make for a hell of a combo and have just about the best dynamic
Mora is doing some of his best work here and Bonvillain is a fantastic colorist who's a great match
The take on the Arthurian legend is genuinely compelling and fresh
It can feel a bit decompressed for some, excellent as it is
10
Fantastic
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