The number of reprints indicated in the cover gallery at the end of this collection reveal that Once & Future – written by Kieron Gillen and with artwork by Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvillain (colours) – was something of a hit when it came out in floppy form. Indeed, it even bagged the Best New Series gong in the 2019 Broken Frontier Awards. However, as a pacy, dimension-spanning supernatural mystery that takes place over one long and very eventful night, it probably makes for an even more thrilling experience to tear through it in a single sitting.
At the heart of the story is straight-laced academic Duncan McGuire, who finds himself dropped into a morass of mythical mayhem by his spirited gran, Bridgette – a woman with a past, it’s safe to say. Across the six frenetic issues, Duncan has – metaphorically – to turn M People up to 11 and search for the hero inside himself (until he finds the key to his life).
The McGuffin that launches the story is a miraculously preserved bit of Dark Ages kit unearthed on an architectural dig in the west of England – an item that a band of sharply cheek-boned English nationalists are prepared to kill for. Their plan is to return King Arthur from the Otherworld in which he moulders and, in doing so, to restore Britain to whatever it is they think it should be.
But when Arthur turns out to be not quite the blue-eyed boy that everyone was expecting, it’s not long before the world as we know it is in mortal peril. Fortunately, the Irish diaspora is on hand – in the form of the McGuires – to save the English from themselves…
After a few early wobbles, Duncan seems to adjust remarkably well to the strange new direction his life takes. However, things soon start to strike much closer to home. As the long night wears on, he learns a few things about his family history that would certainly enliven the average episode of Who Do You Think You Are?
The engine that drives Once & Future is an interpretation of myth – the idea of deep magic embodied in the form of stories. As you might expect given some of Kieron Gillen’s back catalogue, the story makes good use of archetypes, embodiments and recurrences. On the micro-level, the pages hop along with quippy verve and their fair share of Nasty Moments. And with Bridgette largely driving the story, it even moves towards an age-positive vibe that makes a refreshing change from the culture’s prevailing gerontophobia.
The book’s pace and energy are also due to the artwork of Dan Mora. His vivid characterisation and dynamic figure work energise even the most conversational scenes, and he shifts up into another gear altogether during the action sequences, where his manga-tinged inflections come into their own. Tamra Bonvillain’s colouring also plays a big part in the storytelling, piling on the otherworldly weirdness that runs through the book.
Originally presented as a six-part mini-series, Once & Future has now been rolled out as an ongoing title (circumstances permitting). If Gillen, Mora and their collaborators can keep up the energy level and raise the stakes from the first storyline, it’s going to be a while before Bridgette finds herself back in the TV lounge at the nursing home.
Kieron Gillen (W), Dan Mora (A), Tamra Bonvillain (C), Ed Dukeshire (L) • BOOM! Studios, $16.99
Review by Tom Murphy