How successful was the launch of this new series from Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora? So successful that initial orders to comic shops cracked the 50k barrier. So successful that the first issue went into EIGHT printings. So successful that what was originally going to be a miniseries, was upgraded to an ongoing series. That “Once and Future” comes from one of my favorite writers and a fantastic artist made it certain that I’d pick up this collected edition when it came out. The only catch being that the first volume of “Die” showed me that not everything Gillen is involved with is a complete home run. “Once” is better than that, especially after we find out what its female lead has really been up to.
Said female lead is Bridgette McGuire, grandmother to hapless, innocent, rugby-playing academic Duncan McGuire. She’s been content to live out her twilight years in a retirement home, until she catches a news report about a murder/robbery at an archaeological site where a 6th century scabbard was taken. Wasting no time, she calls up Duncan to the middle of nowhere to crack open up her stash. A stash that’s filled with all sorts of unusual and heavy weaponry.
You see, before Bridgette went into retirement, her primary occupation was that of Monster Hunter. After all the monsters were hunted, however, she thought that was going to be the end of it. Until tonight. Since that stolen scabbard happened to belong to none other than King Arthur himself. Certain people want to see Britain’s Once and Future King back on his throne, but Bridgette isn’t one of them. She knows that the prophecy that he is destined to return in England’s darkest hour doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll be coming back to save it.
Bridgette and Duncan’s efforts to stop Arthur’s return to power make for an entertaining fantasy adventure in this first volume. Solid premise aside, it offers plenty of clever thrills of both the high and low variety. The high-minded stuff involves Gillen riffing on the legend of the King and some of England’s own mythology in general to turn up some interesting conclusions. Such as the reasoning behind Arthur’s rampage when he finds out that the white guys who came to resurrect him aren’t his kind of white guys.
Then there are the funny bits, most of which tend to come at Duncan’s expense. Being our point-of-view character, he’s just as surprised to find out that THIS IS ALL REAL and does his best to carry on regardless. Hapless though he may seem at first, he’s still a capable individual even though the story keeps him busy doing things like keeping his grandma from waving guns in people’s faces to get what she wants.
Which brings us to what was the volume’s biggest sticking point for me at first. While it’s fun to see a heavily armed octogenarian toss around C4 and break out a sniper rifle like nobody’s business, her arrogance initially comes off as overbearing. Some of it is warranted, since she clearly knows what’s going on here. Except she not only fails to share a lot of key info with Duncan early on. Then we learn about his upbringing and find out that not only did she raise him away from civilization, she kept him in virtual isolation as well. I mean, he wasn’t even allowed to watch “Scooby-Doo!”
All of this was enough to make me wonder what Gillen was trying to do with the character. Until we get to the fifth issue and the writer performs an impressive feat of narrative sleight-of-hand and turns what I thought was a bug regarding Bridgette’s characterization into a feature. I won’t go into specifics regarding this, since it is veeeeeeeeery spoiler-y, but it was really impressive to watch the writer pull it off. It even sets the stage for an act of self-sacrifice that sees Duncan take the leap into being a full-bore hero and demonstrate some inventiveness of his own.
Which is all illustrated quite well by Mora. He’s best known to me for his work on Grant Morrison’s “Klaus” miniseries and one-shots, where he demonstrated an ability to convey impressive detail on the page while drawing just about anything. Mora’s work here isn’t quite on the same level since Gillen isn’t asking him to draw stuff that’s too out there. Castles in an “Otherworld” setting are about as crazy as this series gets. He does handle the action scenes quite well, and he’s great with the characters too. Duncan, in particular, makes a great, nuanced transition from hopeless naif on our initial encounter to credible hero by the end. I’m glad he’ll be sticking around for further installments of the series.
In fact, I’m glad we’ll be seeing more of this series period. “The King is Undead” is a very strong start for this series as it plays with mythology in a fun and clever way. Even if the characters take a bit (some longer than others) to fully click, I’m left wanting to see where Bridgette and Duncan’s partnership goes from here. Especially since it’s clear that England isn’t as monster-free as it was at the start of this series. Some of them want to rule Britain, while others just want to come out ahead in the blood feud they’ve kicked off.