Graphic novel review: Once & Future (V1: The King is Undead and V2: Old English) by Kieron Gillen + Dan Mora + Tamra Bonvillain

(cover image courtesy BOOM! Studios)

There are rare and special times when you read a graphic novel when you realise, within mere frames of the story’s commencement, that you are reading something very, very good indeed.

That here is an adventure very worth taking, one with a wholly engaging story that compels you to keep turning the pages with the sort of happily manic obsession, artwork so lusciously alive and evocative that it feels like you could step through the page into the world it depicts and characters to vividly realised that having a scintillating conversation with them, as you run from grave danger naturally, doesn’t seem at all out of the question.

Such a graphic novel is Once & Future, with writing by Kieron Gillen (The Wicked + The Divine, Star Wars), art by Russ Manning Award-winning Dan Mora (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Klaus) and colouring by Tamra Bonvillain, a continuing series from BOOM! Studios (issue #17 is due March 2021) which is well nigh close to being the perfect graphic novel package.

It is readily apparent on the very first page of the story.

The artwork leaps vivaciously off the page while still conveying real narrative gravity, with a prologues unfurled that suggests terrible things are afoot, the kind of lead-in that you get in a series like Indiana Jones or National Treasure where an obliquely-referenced moment presages some diabolically intense things to come.

As far as whetting the appetite goes, it is brilliantly well executed but it is a mere taster for what follows when we are taken to a nursing home, a rather lovely and stately one at that, wherein sits a number of elderly folks watching the news, though some want to watch, naturally enough, Bake Off, though they are quickly warned off this by one feisty lady whose word is the end of all discussion it seems.

(image courtesy BOOM! Studios)

That woman, all scornful putdowns and witty but stinging retorts, and a vibrant joy to spend any and all time with because she is so goddamn, fabulous, spiritedly intense, is Bridgette McGuire who, it turns out, is a retired monster hunter.

Yep, beneath that lavishly styled grey hair and attitude is a woman who has spent her life hunting down vampires, taking out nasty fay folk and keeping Britain safe from it’s not so mythical self (though it would like to believe the monsters are well and truly locked in shadows of make believe and dream-like shadows; SPOILER ALERT – they are not) and who, as fate would have it, is not done yet.

But she’s getting older, and so she enlists, at gunpoint no less (you have to LOVE this woman; she is beyond funny and badass awesome), her museum curator grandson Duncan, her only living relative, to stop some British Nationalists, who have full Brexit and then some, from bringing back a monstrously hateful undead King Arthur via a just-unearthed scabbard that once belonged to a little known sword known as Excalibur.

The hope of these demonic-conjouring extremists, the ranks of which include some very surprising figures, is that they will bring back the real Britain, the one of the Celts, where Anglo-Saxons and all later visitors to England’s fair shores are most definitely no longer welcome.

It’s something so horrifically awful that Bridgette can’t stand stand by and let it happen, and so she enlists an understandably shocked and surprised Dunca, who learns all the stuff of myth and legend, which exist in a fetid place of stories known as Otherworld, is determined to make its unwelcome presence felt in what its inhabitants such as Arthur refer as the “Haunted World.”

(image courtesy BOOM! Studios)

Epic, dramatic and fantastically larger-than-life in almost every respect, Once & Future has a story so big, so expansive and so imaginatively expressed that it draws you in completely and absolutely, its heady mix of myth and history, of dysfunctional family dynamics, of love borne in the weirdest but most bonding of circumstances, enticing in ways that, rather fittingly, feel almost magical at times.

The compelling narrative is given vivid life, by Mora and Bonvillain, whose artwork is so in-your-face exhilaratingly gorgeous that you don’t know where to look much of the time.

That may seem like something that would draw you out of the story but it doesn’t, the richness of detail and its colourful vivacity emboldening the words, emotion and action of the narrative in ways that make it more exuberantly alive than it already is.

Once & Future is also brilliantly, engagingly and smile-inducingly funny, thanks largely to Bridgette who humorously reprimands action-slowing and quite understandable gobsmacked reactions of Duncan and would-be date history professor Rosa when they see fantastical things like levitating “unearthly demon ladies” or spirits floating in an abbey where none, logic would suggest (but oh how wrong logic is!), who calls a spade a spade with ruthlessly amusing efficiency and who is simultaneously able to fight the baddies while bemoaning the toll it takes on her regrettably ageing body.

Duncan, is of course, the straight man to much of what Bridgette does, and quickly grows into his familial role as a member of Arthur’s court (but one of the alive and anti-Nationalist ones, thank you) who realises very smartly that quip-ready and hilarious though she may be, that Bridgette is eminently capable and very much ready and willing to take on all the monsters in her, and Britain’s way.

As urban fantasies go, Once & Future is a superlative piece of entrancingly frenetic, funny and imaginative work, a thrillingly beguiling mix of destiny and death, hate and dysfunctional love, of history and myth, stories and reality, of captivatingly good words and gloriously vibrant art that draws you so fully that coming back to a world without Bridgette, Duncan and monsters to be bested seems wholly unpalatable.

Good things there are more issues, and monsters, to come …

(image courtesy BOOM! Studios)

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