I remember when I was in fifth grade, our teacher, who was a huge Indiana Jones fan, brought in a copy of The Last Crusade for us to watch one afternoon before break. After we watched the film, and my young mind was blown by everything I had just seen, our teacher went into a long discussion about the Arthurian mythology and grail lore that was in the film. That movie, as well as the discussion after, lit a fire in me and sent me running to the local library as soon as school was over (Sorry kids, no internet when I was in 5th grade, for I am old) to check out every book I could about knights and Arthur and the Holy Grail. For a while I was quite out of control, begging my parents to take me to every Renaissance festive so I could watch the knights and pretend, for a moment, that I lived in that wonderful fantasy world.
It’s a credit to my parents that they didn’t just leave me behind at one of those festivals, although honestly, I probably would have been thrilled at the time.
My fascination with Arthur and his knights waxed and waned over the years. Occasionally some new take on the Arthur story would get released and I would find my interest sparked back up again, only for some other thing to soon win my attention away (usually comics or girls). Still, I always find my way back to the Arthur myths, and when I heard BOOM Studios was publishing a new one, I knew I’d have to check it out.
Here’s the blurb: When a group of Nationalists use an ancient artifact to bring a villain from Arthurian myth back from the dead to gain power, ex-monster hunter Bridgette McGuire escapes her retirement home and pulls her unsuspecting grandson Duncan, a museum curator, into a world of magic and mysticism to defeat a legendary threat.
Bestselling writer Kieron Gillen (The Wicked + The Divine, Star Wars) and Russ Manning Award-winning artist Dan Mora (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Klaus) explore the mysteries of the past, the complicated truths of our history and the power of family to save the day – especially if that family has secret bunkers of ancient weapons and decades of experience hunting the greatest monsters in Britain ‘s history!
There’s going to be some spoilers from this point on, so be warned.
Right off the bat, it’s pretty obvious that Gillen has done his research. He clearly has an understanding of the original Arthur stories, and by that I mean the really, really original Arthur stories. Gillen’s interpretation of Arthur seems to pull not only from the stories of Geoffrey and Malory, but also, and more intensely, from the far more ancient Welsh sources of the Arthur myth. Thank you to my medieval Arthurian literature professor for this insight. See kids, liberal arts degrees do have value! This more ancient focus means a couple of things for the portrayal of Arthur in this comic. First, it means this Arthur has a lot more ties to the supernatural than what we are probably used to. The ancient Welsh Arthur had no problem slipping between realities, something that comes up several times in the comic. Gillen’s Arthur has difficulty existing in our world, and frequently has to work through magic and proxies to achieve his goals. It also serves as an interesting way to limit the power of a foe that should be able to wipe the floor with our heroes quite easily, but we’ll talk more about them in a minute.
This Arthur is also much, much more radical than later portrayals of the king. Ancient Welsh Arthur was a warrior without equal, whereas his later, more British portrayals would frequently depict him as a decent warrior, but nowhere near as talented as many of his knights, especially knights like Lancelot. Welsh Arthur used his supernaturally unstoppable powers to not only fight monsters and dragons, but also outsiders, particularly Saxons, and it is this quality that the terrorists in the story desire most of all.
You see, King Arthur has been brought back to the land of the living by this group of terrorist as a way to help them ethnically cleanse all foreigners from the UK. However, what many of them don’t realize is that to Arthur, and to the leader of the terrorists as well, this means anyone who isn’t Welsh including Anglo-Saxons. Their goal is to create a new Briton empire, lead by the power of King Arthur, and they will stop at nothing to reshape the world in their own image.
Gillen, himself a Brit, is clearly tapping into the quite noticeable anti-foreign sentiment at work with the UK (and sadly other nations around the world right now as well) with this work. His King Arthur is a eugenic extremist, obsessed with purity of blood and driven to expel any who vary from his understanding of what it is to be a true Briton. One of the terrorists who helped resurrect him is killed by Arthur almost immediately because he had Saxon in his blood. As I said before, this action comes as a shock to some of the terrorists, but also to many of the readers who might think that everyone from the UK is basically the same; most people of Anglo-Saxon descent living in England today probably wouldn’t see themselves as outsiders. However, most people who consider themselves natives probably wouldn’t have to go too far back in their own family tree to find immigrant roots, and that’s part of the point that Gillen seems to be trying to make.
Now I know there are some people that feel like politics have no place in comics, despite the fact that comics have been political since their inception, and will take issue with what Gillen is doing. If that sounds like you, I encourage you to still give Once and Future a chance. The politics in this book are just under the radar enough to not overwhelm the story, while at the same time being just apparent enough that the message is clear to the reader. It’s a political book, but it’s also a fun adventure story. It’s a fine line to walk, but I think Gillen does an excellent job with it.
Speaking of excellent, while Arthur and the Arthurian myth is a big part of Once and Future, the real focus of the majority of the book is actually the relationship between our heroes, ex-monster hunter Bridgette McGuire and her grandson Duncan. Both of these characters are by-the-book archetypes straight out of Joseph Campbell. In the hands of a less talented writer that is all they would have been, but Gillen is able to not only embrace their archetypal nature, its actually an important feature of the characters.
The world of Once and Future is one where myth and story have power, and people who want to connect themselves to that world, for good or ill, have to play along with the roles required of them. Bridgette clearly knows this, and as the series unfolds it becomes obvious that not only is she much more aware of what is going on than she wants people to believe, but also that she has played a much bigger part in the shaping of the myth herself than she wants anyone to know. I won’t spoil everything, but I will say that this is a book that definitely will benefit from a second read once you get through it.
Once and Future was originally meant to be a stand alone mini, but it gained so much praise and attention that it has become an ongoing series, and issue 7 just came out before the lock-down. This series is going to heat up quickly, especially with BOOM recently signing an exclusive contract with Netflix. If you passed on this series originally, I really recommend that you grab those first issues while you can, because this book is not only a great read, but has some serious speculation buzz already surrounding it.