Once & Future, Volume 1: The King is Undead
Written by Kieron Gillen
Illustrated by Dan Mora
Colored by Tamra Bonvillain
Lettered by Ed Dukeshire
Stories can be powerful things. A story can inspire strong emotion, whether it’s hope or fear or sadness, in whoever consumes it. Stories can convey nuanced messages and reveal secrets about the deepest mysteries of life, and they can do so in a way that entertains along the way. They can also just be really damn fun.
Once & Future, the BOOM! Studios series by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain, and Ed Dukeshire, falls somewhere in the middle. The series follows Duncan McGuire, a relatively mild-mannered academic, as he’s drawn into a world of adventure by his monster-hunting grandmother, Bridgette. It seems all the stories Duncan had ever heard about King Arthur, Excalibur, the whole bit were true. Now someone’s decided to resurrect Arthur, who Duncan’s Gran says is destined to come back during Britain’s darkest hour — only it looks like he may be the cause of it.
The power of story to impact reality plays an important role in Once & Future. The series hinges on Arthurian legend being true, which Bridgette occasionally reminds Duncan is different from something being ‘real.’ Foreknowledge of those legends is helpful but not required — personally my experience with it doesn’t extend much past Monty Python & The Holy Grail, and I had no trouble following anything that was going on, though I know I would’ve gotten more from some of the references if I had more familiarity with Arthur and his knights. Knowledge of those stories, and the history on which they’re based, amounts to power within the pages of Once & Future, with characters able to accomplish things by believing in the truth of the stories, and by absorbing the themes and details. They’re able to set up (if not outright manipulate) events by ensuring things play out similarly to the legends.
Once & Future is also an interesting allegory for certain current events. The villains of the tale — a group of nationalists intent on resurrecting King Arthur — are characters who, when asked in the opening pages what they want, reply simply, “England back.” After (spoiler alert) Arthur returns, his first action is to put the group through a purity test, tasting their blood, identifying which of them are ‘true’ Britons, and slaughtering those who he deems not to be (which ends up being most of them). Gillen has said that the story of the book was, if not inspired, then influenced by some of the sentiments that fueled the Brexit movement, and there’s certainly a contingent of supporters of the current U.S. president who feel the same way about ‘taking back’ ‘their’ country by removing those they don’t believe to be ‘real’ Americans. It’s hard to miss the relevance of the story being told in Once & Future — and to derive some satisfaction from seeing heroes stand up against the clear racism of the story’s antagonists — once you recognize its parallels to what’s going on in both the U.S. and U.K.
On top of all of that, Once & Future is a fantastically fun fish-out-of-water adventure story. Duncan is an instantly relatable everyman, clumsy and awkward and good to his core. He’s Clark Kent without the superpowers (and if not for the red hair and beard, he’d look a lot like Clark, too). His Gran is a force of nature, dragging Duncan along (occasionally at gunpoint) on a quest he doesn’t even know he’s been preparing for his entire life. There’s a true sense of urgency to everything that happens in Once & Future — you’ll have that in a story about trying to stop the end of the world — as our heroes race from place to place, collecting information and gear, and facing threats living, undead, and literally monstrous. Mora and Bonvillain’s artwork give the goings-on a palpable energy that it’s hard to look away from without finding out what happens next.
Once & Future was a sales sensation when it debuted last year, and having read the first collection it’s easy to see why. It’s a strong premise with an interesting mythology behind it, and it hooks you quickly. It’s the kind of story that’s engrossing, entertaining, and will leave you wanting more. Isn’t that what every reader wants from a story?
Collecting the first six issues of the series, Once & Future Volume 1: The King is Undead is on sale now.