Once & Future is the kind of sprawling, engrossing, chaotic tale that you don’t see every day. It’s incredibly well plotted and while it may have resolved itself in five volumes, it feels much larger than that. Now that the story is finished (at least for now according to author Kieron Gillen in the afterword), I think it is easier to give the series the endorsement it deserves because of how well it sticks the landing. The story itself is incredibly ambitious and reviews of the first volume might not have been overly effusive. To see the scope of it now in retrospect, the amount of weaving Gillen did to bring it all together and to do it in such a satisfying way is no small feat.
Once & Future, Vol 4: Monarchies in the U.K. opens with all of the United Kingdom pulled into The Otherworld, where Duncan and Bridgette are trying to find a place to hide long enough to regroup. They decide on Bridgette’s ancestral home, which here is actually the Grail Castle. Early in this volume another Arthur and Merlin step into this world and now there is a battle over who is the “true” king. This Arthur brings new knights with him, like Eliold and Yvain. Turns out that William Shakespeare was the greatest monster hunter of the accord and this is where all the talk of “stories” really coalesces. His secret armory is as much collected writings as it is weapons, but Bridgette is after his quill. This is about the time Mary shows up and complicates how Bridgette planned to get the upper hand in Otherworld. She is looking for the water god Leir or Lear who is now trapped in the waters of Leicester. This should be more than enough for one book, but Lancelot seems torn as to which Arthur to serve and then another Arthur and his army show up as a battle for the land ramps up. This volume concludes with Bridgette, Duncan, and Rose finding the person who is tied to the quill, Robin Hood.
Once & Future, Vol 5: The Wasteland introduces Robin Hood’s terrifying band of merry men and he inducts our three heroes in the group. They wind up discovering a new steampunk Arthur while Mary is at Grail Castle working her own angles. Did you forget the Green Knight was part of this story? I did. He’s back and book five doesn’t have time to waste. Bridgette’s new plan is to get the waters of the Lethe, which are waters of forgetting, and use them on the whole of the U.K. so that everyone forgets they know about Arthur and the stories, and hopefully pull them out of The Otherworld. Mary and Lancelot find poor, broken Galahad and try to get him to reach the Grail inside the castle, but it’s futile. December 24th rolls around and a bolt of lightning delivers a sword directly into a stone and proclaims “Whoever Draws This Sword Shall Be the Rightful King of England”, changing the plans. Now our heroes have to guard the sword from all the Arthurs, but they have some help in Sir Hempleworth from British Intelligence and some of his soldiers who have survived. While they hold their ground, Galahad finally reaches the Grail, but it costs him his life. This brings Mary back to her mother and the revenge she seeks against the first Merlin.
The rest of the story is told at a fever pitch and it is all spoilers from here out, so I will simply say that even after introducing so many story lines and so much folklore, Gillen doesn’t forget to close a single thread. The amount of story arcs that get a fitting and fulfilling conclusion is actually really impressive. There are big plot twists, but none of them feel unearned. It is just a series of payoffs for storyline after storyline, some of which were set up in volume 1 and just left till now. I cannot think of another book I have read like this that manages to tidy up all the things it set out on the table in a way that demonstrates a clear plan and deliberate execution.
Dan Mora had to come up with so very many creatures, villains, and monsters for these books it is equally impressive he kept them straight. All of the different Arthurs have their own unique look and feel while also being tied just enough together that you know they are the king of their timeline. The pace of the narrative at times is driven by the energy and composition of the panels, which Mora won’t get enough credit for. This series owes a great deal to his attention to detail and ability to build multiple worlds or timelines that all reflect each other while standing on their own.
This series is best suited for older teens and adults due to occasional swearing a lot of fighting. It’s just bloody enough to not recommend to young teens, but there are enough high concepts here that it might not appeal to that age group anyway. That being said, you don’t have to be an Arthurian expert or remember how Beowulf goes to enjoy this. It is equal parts history lesson, literature class, and heavy metal album. Recommending this to libraries who might have been on the fence early is easy now because we can say definitively it is only five volumes altogether and they are worth it. It starts out complex and, while that does not really change, it gets easier to follow and the through line becomes a lot more clear. This is a worthwhile addition to an adult collection that wants something that is not superheroes, but has a tinge of familiarity to it. It is a pleasure to read and a truly satisfying conclusion for those who make it to the end.
Once & Future
By Kieron Gillen
Art by Dan Mora
BOOM! Studios, 2023
Vol. 4: Monarchies in the U.K. ISBN: 9781684158294
Vol 5: The Wasteland ISBN: 9781684158621
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)