Updating the adventure genre for today’s readers is no small task, but Kieron Gillen’s captivating story combined with Dan Mora’s dynamic art means Once and Future succeeds as exactly the kind of escapist, fun sequential storytelling was created for. Gillen already established a high standard for adventure-based stories with his stellar work on Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, which is akin to Indiana Jones in space but with a female lead who is also Darth Vader’s go-to archaeologist. Set in modern England, Once and Future explores England’s greatest legend—the prophesied return of King Arthur.
Museum curator Duncan McGuire’s understanding of his family and his own place in the world gets turned upside down courtesy of his grandmother, a feisty nursing home resident whose background is more perilous and colorful than Duncan knows. While having a protagonist transform from “ordinary Joe” to “hero” courtesy of a hitherto unknown family history is nothing new to adventure stories—Luke Skywalker is a fine archetype for that—Gillen upends convention, starting with the reveal that Bridgette McGuire is actually a retired monster hunter.
Gillen’s smart plot works along two fast-paced storylines, one involving a mysterious group that steals an Arthurian-era artifact and the other that returns the McGuire family to its historic path as protectors of the realm. Fortunately, depth of character doesn’t take a backseat to the action sequences, as Gillen and Mora balance the poignant and sometimes humorous introductions of their characters with well-delivered bits of background that make them immediately endearing. Bridgette calmly informs the other residents watching the TV that changing the channel will result in broken fingers, and they believe her. Duncan is a history nerd and a rugby player who is admittedly a klutz when he’s nervous, as evidenced by his date’s wine-soaked dress. These moments are brought to life by Mora’s subtle facial expressions that belie mischievous intent in one scene and transform embarrassment to resignation in the next.
Mora’s cinematic art and sublime panel construction propel the issue with the same seamless sense of motion as an episode of your favorite TV show. When you reach the last page, you’ll be sorry it’s over. His gorgeous work with the Klaus books established his storytelling abilities, but it’s his work on Buffy: the Vampire Slayer that provides the right combination of ass-kicking attitude and dry humor that shines through in this first issue. Readers will cheer for Duncan as he runs for his life with a Questing Beast (a monster right out of Arthurian legend) hot on his heels while chuckling at Bridgette as she calmly searches through her weapons stash. Mora works magic with monsters, and his interpretation of the Questing Beast’s combination of a snake’s head, lion’s body, hind’s hooves and a pack of questing dogs in its belly is chilling and fabulous. Tamra Bonvillain’s striking colors elevate Mora’s delicate linework and set a tone both ominous and inviting that is especially effective considering the book's nightime setting.
Mora deftly delivers the gravity of Gillen’s last scene, using a well-constructed series of close-ups spanning Duncan’s unsteady emotions as his grandmother conscripts him into the family business. It’s an engaging moment that not only sets up the rest of the rest of the storyline but provides genuine concern for Duncan’s future at the hands of a mission-driven Bridgette.
Once and Future is a daring adventure that moves the genre forward using a legend of the past. Unfortunately, it’s only scheduled for six issues, so readers will just have to enjoy it while it lasts.