I’m compelled to start by saying that I love this book and trying to figure out how to talk about it without spoiling it is nearly impossible. Once & Future as a series is consistently throwing new ideas and characters at you that change the whole shape of the story. I have to mention a few of those big twists to cover the scope of what all happens, but I’m going to leave the ending alone because, boy howdy, is it a wild ride.
If volumes 1 and 2 of Once & Future (previously reviewed on NFNT here) were all about setting the stage for Arthurian legend to be real in our time, volume 3 is the crescendo that builds at a furious pace. Up to this point, the story has been set over days or weeks, but this volume happens, basically, in one stretch. While it’s a lot to keep up with, this is not at all to the detriment of the story. In fact, it’s pretty satisfying to follow the pace of this book and reach what is a pretty jaw dropping, cliffhanger ending.
In Once & Future, Vol 1: The King is Undead our hero Duncan learns that the Arthurian legends he’s studied his whole life are real and his cranky-but-loveable grandmother Bridgette is actually a butt kicking, gun toting, secret keeper of the mystic peace. The “stories” are real and it turns out their family is tied to them, specifically the Grail. The Grail, for the sake of this series, is now Chekov’s Gun being introduced here in Act 1. Once & Future, Vol. 2: Old English has Duncan reluctantly embracing his role, and his former colleague/romantic interest Rose is now a mystic asset partially tied to the stories, too. Enter Beowulf and his mythology to the greater mix. There are lots of roles being assigned to different members of this group as if they are being cast in the legends themselves.
In this volume, the pace somehow picks up and introduces The Green Knight. He kills a bunch of Nationalists in a biker bar and finally Rose stands up to him. She winds up becoming Gawain to prevent Duncan from being tied to yet another another character, as he’s already Percival and Beowulf. This is somehow the least crazy thing that will happen in this volume. Merlin is in Otherworld watching Arthur fall apart (literally) as his time is running out. Galahad is now officially an abomination, he’s a centaur of nightmares with maggots coming out of him and when his mother Mary (Nimue, Elaine, Guinevere) sees what’s become of her golden boy she vows revenge on Merlin. We meet the government contact that Rose has been in touch with and finally get some idea of how “the accord” works between Bridgette (and those before her) and the British government.
This volume also delivers the only thing that was truly missing from the first two in terms of building an epic fantasy tale: a dragon. There is a knight introduced here—that I won’t spoil because it’s a fantastic moment—but it leads to a four-way standoff with the Grail on the line until the dragon changes all the odds. We finally see the Grail and the chase is good and truly on to keep it from Merlin and Arthur. This is about all you can say without giving away some of the most fun, crazy, and satisfying parts of this book. The ending of this volume almost convinced me it was time to start collecting the individual issues of the comic, as I can no longer wait for the collected volumes.
The writing from Kieron Gillen has been compelling and intriguing through this whole series. He has crafted the Otherworld to feel familiar to fantasy fans, while the modern day characters seem relatable and real. The historic pieces of this story don’t require you to have a working knowledge of Arthurian lore, but for those that have some recollection of these tales, it helps color the world. Dan Mora’s illustrations also create a memorable, unique, and detailed world that I really appreciate. All of the real world settings feel textured, lived in, and familiar. Otherworld is like something out of a 1970’s or 1980’s fantasy novel or heavy metal album cover. It’s so distinct and stark that it helps you immediately feel the shift from our world to somewhere supernatural. The character design and execution is also fantastic across the board. Bridgette looks and feels like a grandmother, Duncan is rumpled and tired, the Otherworld characters are all different from one another while still belonging to the same imaginary world. This is a good time to give a shout out to Tamra Bonvillain who is the colorist here and has made some bold choices that really make this pop off the page and stick in your memory.
The thing that sets most enjoyable, successful comics apart from successful prose novels is great design: both in story structure and illustration. They are outlined well and the illustrations show thought out planning. This series is designed well on both sides of the credits and it’s easy to recommend to fans of fantasy, history, legend, knights, etc. There is nothing romantic or sexual in these books, so in terms of content advisories, you’re really only contending with some violence. This series would be suitable for teen readers and older. It is hard to say how many volumes you may be committing to by investing in this series, but this feels like a story that has a definite end point planned and shouldn’t run indefinitely.
Once & Future, Vol. 3: The Parliament of Magpies
By Kieron Gillen
Art by Dan Mora
BOOM! Studios, 2021
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)