There’s an excitement surrounding the release of Once & Future that you normally only find with major Marvel and DC projects. It’s not hard to understand why. The creative team alone is a huge draw, as superstar writer Kieron Gillen is teaming up with two of the best storytellers in the business, artist Dan Mora and colorist Tamra Bonvillain. Then there’s the story pitch, with Gillen, Mora and Bonvillain delivering a new take on the timeless formula of King Arthur returning to save a troubled, modern-day England. It’s a combination that works, mainly because it manages to subvert the usual Arthurian conventions.It often seems as though Arthurian myths scratch the same basic itch as superhero stories. We long for a world where a powerful hero rises out of obscurity to battle injustice and impose justice on an unjust world. Whether that hero wears a mask and cape or wields an ancient, mystical sword, the end result is the same. Once & Future is a book that speaks directly to the fears and struggles of an England wracked by Brexit woes and a general sense of unrest and malaise. In the midst of that unrest, rumors of a long-dead king returning to life are beginning to spread, forcing an old woman named Bridgette McGuire to spring to action.
Once & Future draws inspiration from a number of sources. The title is an obvious allusion to T.H. White’s seminal The Once and Future King, but Gillen and Mora also draw from the historical accounts of King Arthur and the female-focused perspective of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. But despite those influences, Once & Future is just as happy to go in its own direction and defy convention. For example, in this story the impetus isn’t on the mighty blade Excalibur, but rather its long-lost scabbard, which can heal all wounds.
Once & Future also happens to be a good deal funnier than most Arthurian stories. Gillen has compared this series to Star Wars: Doctor Aphra in terms of its general tone and the way slapstick humor is used to offset dark, bleak storylines. Needless to say, Aphra fans will be right at home with this book. Bridgette herself is easily the breakout character of issue #1. Gillen and Mora mine a continuous stream of comedy gold from Bridgette, a sardonic woman who thinks little of bullying her fellow nursing home residents or throwing her grandson into the path of a raging monster if it gets her closer to her goals.
If anything, this first issue suffers because the ostensible main character, Duncan, can’t hope to compete with his no-nonsense grandmother. Duncan is cast as the straight man to the far more colorful and entertaining Bridgette. Beyond his talent for klutzy behavior, Duncan really doesn’t many distinguishing characteristics. He comes across as your typical nerdy male protagonist exposed to a larger world of magic and wonder. He’s the one area where the book isn’t able to escape the usual fantasy tropes. Ideally, future chapters will either give Duncan new layers or make it plain that this isn’t actually his story.
Mora continues to be one of the greatest creative weapons in BOOM Studios’ arsenal. Mora has worked on everything from Klaus to Power Rangers to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in recent years, with each series benefiting from his strong, confident hand and clean storytelling skills. Once & Future is no different. Mora expertly captures the collision between ancient magical powers and dreary, modern England. Part of the reason Bridgette is such a memorable character is that Mora focuses so much attention on rendering her facial expressions and body language.
Bonvillain’s colors are just as crucial in capturing that clash of fantasy and reality. Her use of lighting is especially striking, with the colors conveying a warm, inviting glow during Duncan’s ill-fated date and then building tension and intensity during Duncan and Bridgette’s journey into a haunted forest.