“Once and Future” #1: a smart, real world fantasy about character over conflict
“You used to hunt vampires?” her bewildered grandson asks.
”Yes, I used to,” she intones.
”Then I ran out of vampires.”
It was at this point that, had I not already been on board, Once & Future would have fully grabbed me. Up until this conversation in the woods, held between a young man and his “weirdly aggressively independent” grandmother, Once & Future was a surprisingly funny, high-concept modern fantasy.
It’s in this one exchange, though, that it proves itself to be a smart, surprisingly funny, high-concept modern fantasy.
Hardly surprising given the talent involved, of course: names like Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain, and Ed Dukeshire are all present on the credits page. It’s a team that almost doesn’t even need to try to make a great comic, yet I’m glad that they clearly put their heart and soul into this. Much like IDW’s Canto, Once & Future takes familiar fantasy tropes and kind of spins them on their head. Where Canto’s adventure takes place in an entirely imaginary world, though, Once & Future is in real-world, modern day Britain. That allows Gillen, Mora, and team plenty of room to have some fun with fantasy elements while still adhering to those same story elements for its narrative.
Because at its center, this is a tried and true quest: there’s a team of treasure hunters, a hidden cache of weapons, a mythical item to be obtained, and monsters. It’s steeped in Arthurian legend, yet in a modern setting where the “promise” of the return of the Once and Future King can be seen as a threat.
What makes this story work are the two main characters: Duncan and his Gran. Duncan is a handsome, talented academic who is also a big, klutzy doof. The very first thing we see him do is try and redeem a disastrous dinner, as he’s spilled wine all over his date’s dress. The way Mora draws him, it’s clear that he’s an attractive, well put together guy, yet he also has an affable, dorky charm to him. He lacks the arrogance that could be used to make him a “tough guy” character, or a typical two-fisted adventure hero. Instead, he’s a guy who is easily embarrassed, doesn’t think too highly of himself, and is protective of his beloved Gran.
And then there is Gran herself. In one of the issue’s funnier scenes, Duncan gets a call from her home where he is told that she has wandered off. Duncan’s date is alarmed and sympathetic, even though Duncan assures her that she can take care of herself. In fact, she only started living in the retirement home so Duncan could have peace of mind. No, see, Gran is independent, he tells his date, and we find out just how independent when Duncan gets a call from her.
She wants him to meet her in the woods so he can help her with something. She promises it won’t take long. In another book, Gran would likely be frail and almost aloof with sweetness. Gillen wisely writes her as a strong, capable woman, even in her advanced years, with the wit, drive, and spark of a much younger woman. She’s not brash or aggressive, per se, but she definitely has a single-minded focus on her mission. Her confidence in her own abilities and knowledge tells us more about her character than any lengthy description from Duncan ever could, as we get a feel of her as a person.
Take the almost off-handed way she talks about the monster that attacks the two of them in the forest. She asks Duncan if he knows what a Questing Beast is, despite the fact that she seems to have kept him from even seemingly harmless fantasy entertainment like Scooby-Doo. She apologizes, as she took some precautions to keep him from ever learning to be dishonest with her, and asks once more if he knows anything about this Beast.
And then it appears.
Where Duncan is understandably terrified at the monstrous sight of a snake-headed creature, Gran is focused elsewhere, almost distracted. Duncan throws everything he can at the monster in an attempt to evade it and, you know, avoid getting eaten, until Gran throws him a simple spear with a red pendant. The monster immediately ceases its pursuit, turns tail, and calmly wanders away. After the beast slinks off, Gran tells Duncan that he won’t be able to kill it until later. It’s one of those creatures that tied to destiny, you see, and if he focuses on it too much he won’t be any good for anyone.
Like the line about vampires, it’s a small detail that nevertheless makes this story feel more real. They didn’t take common fantasy tropes and slap them onto a real world setting. No, this is what would happen if fantasy and legends existed in the real world, but were still covered up by those who knew the truth.
Even more, Duncan and Gran don’t feel like characters in a story. They have actual personalities and a sense of history, of lives lived before the first panels in the book. Gran especially could have easily been handled differently: make her too sweet and frail and she’s nothing more than a caricature, but make her too tough and aggressive and she becomes a parody. No, Gillen avoids any of those traps, making Gran feel like an actual person. Her line about vampires sounds funny, which it is, but more than that it tells us that she has experience in these situations. Just after that, looking at how she handled the Questing Beast, she shows us that she still has it. That’s why, when she tells Duncan why she needs to find the scabbard of Excalibur, we believe that she knows what she’s talking about.
It’s also why, when Duncan asks why she would fear the return of King Arthur, she has a palpable feeling of dread. “Never trust a prophecy that can be taken in two ways,” she says. Arthur promised to return during Britain’s darkest hour, this is true… but what if he’s the one who causes it?
While Gran may have run out of vampires, there are still plenty of monsters out there. The journey promised by Once & Future is exciting enough, but it’s the characters that are going to make it worthwhile.