Once & Future Review: Kieron Gillen & Dan Mora’s Epic Fantasy!

Potential Spoilers for Once & Future Volumes 1 & 2, issues 1-12.

Written by: Kieron Gillen

Art by: Dan Mora

Coloring by: Tamra Bonvillain

Lettering by: Ed Dukeshire

Once & Future is a rather by-the-books fantasy adventure, and at the same time, not. Writer Kieron Gillen is the best at taking stories and legends we know and love, then turning them on their head. He does this especially well when working on his original stuff like the Wicked & Divine

This leads to Once & Future having some clear weaknesses to go along with its strengths. But altogether, this makes for another hit original series for Boom! Studios, with a third volume coming out this week!

Once & Future’s Amazing Concept

A collage of characters. From left to right, there is a close-up on Beowulf's face, then a monstrous Galahad in the background, Duncan walking towards the reader, and Mary/Elaine/Nimue's face in the background behind Duncan.
You’re in for a wild ride with this series.

The concept that drives this book is its pseudo magic system. It’s not like people are throwing spells, or have special powers. Instead, they treat ancient stories and myths as weapons to use, or threats to be avoided and overcome.

The main story is intricately linked to the tales of King Arthur, but not necessarily the one you know. The King himself is revived by nationalists, which brings forth a murderous version of the mythical hero. This is a King Arthur who slaughtered a coalition of European powers when they sought to communicate with England.

I promise, the metaphor and allegories are more subtle than it sounds.

The Magic Behind the World

Once & Future has a grotesque take on King Arthur, showing him as a skull-faced black knight, with a ribcage you can look into.
No one can say King Arthur doesn’t know how to dress below the neck.

This King Arthur also doesn’t know much about the Knights of the Round. This is because he was revived from a version quite divorced from the legends of the Round Table. This is how the creative team teases how someone who knows the myths and legends can use them to manipulate characters like King Arthur and play out the story they want to live. 

Here, a character can play the part of Galahad if they are the son of a woman playing the part of Elaine and a man like Lancelot. For a specific example, the main character himself, Duncan, has been manipulated into filling the role of Percival. He can now gain the powers and weapons of the role he fills to reenact ancient legends if they play their cards right.

This all makes for a fascinating adventure as you wait to see how the characters use the ancient legends next. It’s a fine line between reading something clever and reading something full of plot holes. The creatives here work hard to make sure everything makes sense, and that it has that proper zing when the characters play by the rules and win.

In the lead-up to that final ‘zing,’ the creatives enthrall you as you see which stories and legends he picks and twists. It’s this weirdly satisfying thing, where the series both modernizes the myths, but also doesn’t. 

Duncan can fill the role of a modern Percival or Beowulf, but Grendel and his mother are very much the mythical monsters you imagine. The creative team isn’t pigeon-holed into redoing everyone or sticking close to the source material, they mix and match with everything.

Once & Future’s Muddled Characters

But, for as much effort and scrupulous inventive detail that the creative team puts into the world and plot, they don’t do as much inventive stuff with the characters. No one is particularly bad, even the evil King Arthur has a cartoonishly entertaining charm. It’s just that none of them are particularly interesting. 

Once & Future’s Protagonist, Duncan

The cast of Once & Future, Duncan, Bridgette and Rose, standing back to back.
Well, Duncan is very pretty at least.

Coming off of the acclaim of the Wicked & Divine, it’s kind of disappointing to see such a milk-toast cast. Duncan is the epitome of a wet blanket, meant to be our entryway into this world. In the first volume, this leads to him being out of his element and reactionary to the plot. He, therefore, becomes a passive character, which is difficult to pull off in an adventure story, it’s not being pulled out quite yet here. 

Duncan’s few choices are of the generic kind, and it stems from this bland choice to make him fill the role of Percival. He always does what he thinks is right, there’s no edge to him, but at the same time, he’s not hopeful or optimistic enough to be this world’s Superman. 

Even worse, by the start of volume 2, he’s yet another sword-swinging, jaded protagonist. He goes from a wet blanket whose always surprised, to a wet blanket whose always sarcastic. 

Once & Future’s Supporting Characters

Bridgette from Once & Future, looking away from the reader.
Bridgette is the real star of this comic.

The rest of the supporting cast isn’t all that interesting either. It’s kind of boring that nearly every character fits into a typecast. Duncan’s half-brother, the Galahad, is the rival who does everything Duncan can do, but without a sense of morality. King Arthur is as I said before, cartoonishly evil. His best moment is when he learns that Lancelot shags his Queen and loses his mind. 

Then there’s Merlin who has nothing going for him by the end of volume 2. Duncan’s love interest, Rose, can’t say much different. She quite literally has no distinguishing personality after two volumes.

The only two characters who are intriguing are Duncan’s mother, Mary/Elaine/Nimue, and his grandmother, Bridgette.

They’re two sides of the same coin, with their relationship to each other and Duncan providing the most gripping character drama in the book. Clearly, there’s been some emotional abuse from Bridgette to her daughter, so much so that Mary has taken on two different identities and mostly forsaken the son Bridgette raised.

Bridgette herself is the only character I would say is absolutely thrilling. Honestly, she makes for a more interesting protagonist than Duncan. She’s this old woman, withered by years of monster hunting, but far from willing to give up and give in. She may fight for the side of good, but how moral can she be if she uses her own family to fill in roles of a story without their consent? Duncan has been forced into this life because she sculpted him to be the center of this metaphysical story. 

It feels fitting that Duncan’s more emotionally satisfying moments come from him rejecting her. He trusted her completely as his guardian, and she had betrayed him from the start.

Basically, Bridgette makes for a better protagonist than a mentor character. I hope the issues that follow volume 2 do something about that.

Dan Mora’s Amazing Art

King Arthur retrieving his sword from a corpse.
King Arthur isn’t pretty anymore.

It would be criminal of me not to talk about Dan Mora’s art. Between Once & Future and Detective Comics, he’s gonna go down as one of the best of modern comics. It’s so incredibly expressive, with room for color and contrast. 

No two characters look the same in this book, which is something I must commend. More than that, with this style that’s halfway between anime and typical comic book realism, the world, and the monsters always have this style about them. 

Grendel in particular looks both mythic and imaginary. His design is consistent, but his size can change to match the tone or emotion of the scene. The same can be said of Grendel’s mother and Beowulf as well, who Mora designs the crap out of.

Mora even manages to make Duncan visually appealing, bulging with muscle yet not a muscle head. And the way he captures emotion, especially Bridgette’s smirk, makes me smirk.

The only character Mora’s art doesn’t quite elevate is King Arthur. This stems from the character’s rather generic design. He’s a skull-faced man with a spikey crown and a hood. I’m sorry to say that while Mora makes him emotive, he’s still a bit boring to look at if he’s not the butt of a joke. He’s like an unfunny Skeletor, which isn’t good.

Concluding Thoughts on Once & Future

King Arthur holds his sword which has Duncan in his reflection.
King Arthur is about to smite a protagonist.

Boom! Studios is really hitting it out of the park. They got real talent in the writing and art department making really good original books. Once & Future exemplifies that, because despite clear and consistent criticism, what it does right is so good that I still fully recommend picking it up in trade. 

This world and the magic behind it more than makes up for a couple of bland characters. This is a story that shouldn’t be missed, with ideas and structures that the creative team should be allowed to experiment with to the fullest.

Check out Once & Future, and if you want to see our thoughts on more Boom! Studios comics, check out our blog and our YouTube channel for more.

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