The comic industry has a short memory, as titles are hyped on the approach to their first issue and often forgotten shortly thereafter. On to the next is the typical mindset, with what’s new leading the way for readers, comic sites and beyond. Post Hype Machine is a recurring column on SKTCHD built to move against that trend, as it will exclusively be looks at – that’s right, I’m not calling it a review, I’m calling it a “look at” – titles in their second arcs or later, but in full.
One of the core ideas in Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain, and Ed Dukeshire’s Once & Future is that the only way you can battle storybook monsters and great evil is to become part of the narrative yourself. When you’re facing creatures and figures from Arthurian legend and beyond, it isn’t enough to have a big gun and the will to use it. By becoming one of the characters yourself – through narrative overlaps between your story and theirs, or sometimes when someone reads from an original copy of the epic poem a character belongs to – you become a “dab hand” at opposing these fictional figures that have reached our very real world, as series co-lead Bridgette “Gran” McGuire puts it.
Once & Future is fundamentally about family and Brexit Era Britain and secrets and an assortment of other things. More than that, though, it’s about the power of story, as Gran, her grandson and warrior-by-necessity Duncan, and their ally slash guide Rose ward off the infection of storybook heroes in our world. 1 Doing so requires the aforementioned need to become part of the narrative yourself, something that can greatly complicate matters. Take Duncan as an example. He’s Percival from Arthurian legend – a virginal, purely good hero – but also Beowulf at other times, a mash-up that confounds even a seasoned veteran like Gran, as her grandson uses the legendary sword Excalibur to dispatch a particularly unfitting foe.
“The stories really are all tangled up,” Gran says with a shocked look on her face. The surprise stems from decades of practicing her craft. When two stories are present in one, the work is complicated to say the least. And she knows this.
That, in some ways, was the challenge I was facing as a reader of Once & Future. While this title started off as what I believed to be a clear modern spin on the ideas of Arthurian legend, with classic Gillen meta-commentary and exceedingly glorious art from Mora and Bonvillain along the way, its second arc started to lose me as other tales took up residence within the narrative.
As Beowulf — a Germanic hero taking part in events set in Scandinavia – and related characters like Grendel entered the picture, I started to lose the thread of this deeply British comic series. Yes, Beowulf was told in Olde English and is believed to have roots in the country itself, but after a first arc that was initially announced as a limited series, 2 that story’s presence made me wonder whether the second arc was a testing ground for what the title could be rather than a defined idea of what it was. I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Did Once & Future really know what it wanted to be?” as I read it.
The exemplary third arc disabused me of that notion, proving to me three things in the process: that Once & Future is a great comic; that the surrounding environment in the world can impact stories; and that perhaps the key to understanding it was – like the characters within the title itself – realizing what story I was a part of all along.
You see, while Once & Future is a treatise on story itself, exploring nationalism, family dynamics, sacrifice, and more in the process – heady and dense subjects for any title to take on – it’s also much simpler than that. Above all, Once & Future is a rip-roaring blockbuster, an action comedy retrofitted with clever ideas and even cleverer execution. Once I recognized that in the third arc, I said goodbye to the hang ups I had and got down to doing what they wanted me to do all along: have a blast reading this comic.
This all culminated in the final page of issue #18, the finale to the title’s third arc. It’s a pitch perfect showcase of everything that makes this series special, from the exemplary and well-defined pair of Gran and Duncan making the best of it or the imaginative (and fitting) direction for the United Kingdom 3 to the endlessly astonishing line art of Mora or the potent colors of Bonvillain. In that moment, everything crystallized, turning a story about stories with the potential for greatness into just that: a true great. I finished reading that issue and instantly knew I had to write about it.
The interesting thing is how much has changed in terms of my relationship with a second arc I once believed to be troubled and the series overall since I made that decision. One of the core tenets of the series is that there are many different versions of these storybook characters the cast deals with. Which one it is can change everything, from appearance and personality to memory and relationships. Properly addressing one or escaping another requires figuring out which iteration you’re contending with. With something like Beowulf being rooted in oral retellings of the tale, format and circumstance can complicate matters. It turns out that’s the case for Once & Future as well.
I know that due to my reread of the series, a task I took on when I decided to write about it. Binge reading the series made the second arc feel less incongruous with what preceded and followed it, elevating that arc and the series in the process. Part of that stems from how much reading a chunk of story differs from taking it in chapter-by-chapter. But context matters too. That’s when I considered the situation from which those issues were operating. The finale to the first arc was released in January of 2020, the debut of the second came in March, and because of the pandemic and related comic industry complications, the second issue didn’t arrive until July. It felt choppy as I read it in single issue format for obvious reasons; it was choppy due to the state of the world. 4 Like any great blockbuster, bad pacing can impact your experience, and Once & Future’s was created by its circumstances.
But upon my reread, its flow was restored, the varying chess pieces were reconnected, and all of the issues I had were resolved as I gleefully, energetically devoured its totality. Gone were the staccato rhythms and vaguely lost feel I had as I originally read it, replaced by a propulsive, immersive read. And the wild thing is, I almost considered dropping the book once upon a time to no fault of its own. The thing that sustained me was that Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvillain art. Their work together was so exemplary I didn’t want to miss out — I regularly would just type their names out in all caps in The Pull as my explanation for why it made my list — even as I felt wayward within the story itself, a failing that proved to have been created by the situation as much as anything.
Let’s not let that downplay Mora and Bonvillain’s contributions at all, though. To call this a star making turn for Mora is to perhaps underrate him; he was a star. His efforts in Once & Future position him as one of the best in the business, period. His character acting enlivens the cast, whether it’s the scathing looks he gives Gran or the rare mix of terror and competence he adorns Duncan’s face with. While he thrives at the little things, the big ones are not lost to him, like when Rose finds her role in facing off against Gawain the Green Knight or when Arthur reveals his presence at the end of the third arc. Mora is the perfect blockbuster line artist, with the big being built off the small and vice versa. He’s a master at astonishing with spectacle and immersing us in character in equal measure, a difficult thing for many to do.
Meanwhile, Bonvillain perfectly complements him at every turn, giving each scene a fizzy energy that breeds joy and excitement in readers without them even understanding why. More than that, her colors are so crucial that they’re even used as shorthand for when the situation changes for our heroes. A greenish tint with lens flare-like effect hits the atmosphere whenever the creative team needs to imply that it’s all about to go down. Bonvillain uses colors as code here, delivering key storytelling elements with the decisions she makes on the page. With another colorist, this book could have been good. With Bonvillain, it’s undeniably great.
That partnership kept me reading the title in a time where extenuating circumstances conspired against it. I’m glad they kept me around. Whether it was the third volume’s greatness fueling it or some semblance of scheduling normalcy returning, I’ve been fully onboard as of late, recognizing it as the certified banger that it is. And one intriguing part about it is how it accidentally acts as a fantasy mirror to James Tynion IV and Martin Simmonds’ The Department of Truth, 5 as the power of belief can turn fiction into reality in both. Unlike its dark twin, though, Once & Future appeals with set pieces and humor — as well as astonishing art in a more traditional sense than what Simmonds brings to the table — responding to the insanity of the situation in a way that fits the book. You can either laugh or cry, they say, and Once & Future endeavors to do the former, even if the stakes are certainly high.
That power of story element is such a treasure, though, especially considering what Gillen does with it here. It’s something that has been a consistent interest for the scribe, and he takes it a slightly different direction in Once & Future. While it proved to be less Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt — any meta nature is kept to the plot itself rather than influencing the storytelling — and more of its action blockbuster cousin, it’s fascinating to see how Gillen deploys elements of these historic tales to set up future beats for the book. Whether it’s the first arc and its use of the Questing Beast — destined to return at the most annoying moment and, sure enough, it does just that — or the hanging thread of Rose’s inevitable showdown against Gawain, 6 the rules of story are cleverly leveraged by the writer throughout. Even better, they’re not just cheap tricks; instead, they act as levers to be pulled for character growth. 7
The interaction between fiction and reality even connects into our real world, as the turbulent recent past of the United Kingdom is present within Once & Future. The antagonistic side of this series is rooted in nationalism from the start, with the initial baddies who pair up with the probably bad but might end up being good-ish Mary/Nimue/Elaine being white men looking to unleash King Arthur in hopes of using him as a tool against those unlike them. Arthur himself is enthusiastic about this cause, even if his vision of who that includes is perhaps a bit narrower than they might prefer. He proves that by killing the lot of these Anglo-Saxons, as he puts it, with Gran describing the legend come real as being “very much for Britain for the British.”
It only builds from there. Brexit and its root causes are prevalent throughout, before it culminates in Gillen’s honestly incredible positioning of an always in shadow but 100% is actually Boris Johnson as Bors, the third knight who teamed with Percival and Galahad in retrieving the Holy Grail. 8 It’s a genius turn, because it both fits the rules of the comic and its themes. After all, is there any better example of belief in fiction creating real, often negative change than what populist leaders like Johnson do on a regular basis?
That element is an aspect of the story, but I don’t want to make it sound like reading Once & Future is to exhaustingly engage with real world ideas like Brexit. I’ll be honest: I’d say my understanding of Brexit as an idea is fairly decent for an American, and even then, I’d come up woefully short if you quizzed me on it. I know enough about what led to it for my awareness to enhance the experience of reading of this comic. But I also know little enough to confirm that if you’re just looking for an outrageously good looking comic that is wildly enjoyable to read, it works in that regard too.
That idea — and more broadly, my experience with this series — reminds me of one of those random sayings people have about comics: the reader is the final collaborator. So much of what I’m talking about here is reflective of how true that idea can be. It isn’t just how a reader feels about a title, but the context from which said consumer is engaging with the comic. Push the fader for release frequency down, the experience changes. Turn the knob to a different format and the same thing happens. It makes sense. Art is subjective. What we get out of a story is a product of who we are to a degree.
Perhaps few comics better exemplify and reflect that idea than Once & Future, as that premise is baked into its very identity. Our experience is not unlike series lead Duncan’s: resist it and you might not find the greatness that’s truly there; become part of it, and you’ll realize just how dab a hand the drivers of these stories really have. After too much of the former, I gave up and finally understood what I should have already. That Gillen, Mora, Bonvillain and Dukeshire have been crafting a blockbuster of the highest order in Once & Future, and that it pays to embrace the story you’re a part of rather than waiting for the one you might have expected.
Who prove to be not quite as heroic as one might think!↩
Even if that was likely a ruse all along, as BOOM! Studios loves to play the stealth ongoing game.↩
Let’s just say the fear of outsiders that has defined the country to a degree as of late will be…intensified.↩
To say absolutely nothing of my own state of mind during that window.↩
A title that came later, but still operates as a thematic partner to Once & Future.↩
She’s got a year to get very, very good at fighting!↩
My favorite example: when Rose decides to get in on the action and becomes a dragon master. Okay, it might be more of a dragon mom slash friend, but either way, it reveals a whole new side of her to readers and an astonished Duncan (which he even references).↩
In one iteration of the story, that is.↩