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Indie Comics Spotlight: Kieron Gillen's Once & Future is an Arthurian story with a badass grandma
Kieron Gillen has been working overtime this year. Not only did he wrap his award-winning epic saga The Wicked + The Divine with artist James McKelvie, but he also dove right into DIE (Image), and its companion RPG. Also, he completed his work on Star Wars (Marvel), revived the Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt series (Dynamite) and popped up on Marvel Comics #1000.
His latest, Once and Future (BOOM!), is a modern-day Arthurian adventure complete with knights, swords, stones and even a Questing Beast. On one level, it's a modern-day adventure horror story told from the perspective of Duncan and his grandmother Bridgette McGuire. A retired British monster-hunter who breaks out of her nursing home in an attempt to prevent the revival of King Arthur. On another level, it's a story about the dangers of nationalism and xenophobia.
The story also plays with tropes, by making an octogenarian the hero and her naive grandson, the "damsel in distress." In conjunction with Dan Mora's brilliant artwork, Gillen's characters are breathtakingly lifelike and the story reads like a storyboard for a big-budget film. SYFY WIRE spoke to Gillen about how much research went into Once & Future, how the Mummy and Buffy were his inspiration and why he wasn't going to do the book without O'Mara.
You haven't slowed down a bit since Wic/Div have you?
I really have! I had two baths in the last month. That's more baths than I've had in the last five years. Er... I stress, I normally shower. It's not that I'm the world's smelliest writer. At least, I don't think I am.
But, yeah, I'm aware not that busy for me is still pretty damn busy, but I've been explicitly trying to create more space to step back and see what I'm actually doing. For example, for most of my time at Marvel I was scripting in the morning and working on plotting stuff (and similar) in the afternoon, and now I took all of last week to just dig into DIE.
But in a real way, my only books now are DIE, Once & Future and the forthcoming mini The Ludocrats. Yes, I'm writing an RPG. Yes, I'm involved in other media stuff. Yes, I may have said yes to two more other projects for the new year, and...
Oh yeah. You're right. I am compelled.
The characters seem very personal. Did you base anyone in the book after anyone you know?
In the case of Duncan and Bridgette, a lot just comes from me thinking of my relationship with my gran. I had the idea of the mythology of Once & Future and thought of relationships to put at the center of it, in terms of what I've never written and stuff you don't often see in pop culture. I ended up thinking of my gran — her as first-generation Irish immigrant to England, coming over to work when she was 14, and me as first kid in my extended family to go to university, and the gap in experience between them. I didn't base it on us... but the bits I based on us, I turned up the volume on.
That exchange in the first issue, about her hunting vampires until "she ran out vampires?" That was literally the first thing I wrote in the notebook, and instantly knew she was a character I wanted to see more of. I also knew that we couldn't predict what she could do next.
This is not the Knights of the Round table tale we grew up with. Was your goal to blow away the fairy tales of our childhood?
Oh, I'm not that destructive. What I do as additive, showing another angle on it. Arthur has been used for the last 1500 years in various ways, for various purposes, to talk about the matters of the day (or the Matter of Britain, if you will). This is just another take, another way of thinking about Arthur which is relevant to their times. People always say heroes speak to their times, but I think that includes understanding that in some times, and some perspectives, heroes can be villains.
As the story moved to an ongoing, I've become increasingly interested in the mutability of Arthur. I start in this place, but I'm not going to stay there.
The fact that Arthur is looking for true Britons and kills the first Anglo Saxon he sees is a history lesson in and of itself. How much research went into this series?
That was literally the first thing I thought of when I had the initial "Arthur cast as the narrative role of The Mummy" idea. That was pre-existing knowledge. I am far from an Arthur scholar, but the ironies of that figure's origin and how he's treated as this patriotic English figure is something that's always been on my mind.
But yeah, being me, I've done a fair bit of research. I was less interested in specific stories, and more about how stories changed over the centuries. What remains? What wasn't constant. I knew this first arc would be dancing with the Grail myth, which led to me seeing how much that warped over the years. Hell, even to what the Grail actually looks like. Balancing what elements to turn explicitly into the story to what elements to keep as easter eggs and which elements to side-step was definitely a big part of the process.
How does it compare to the research you did on Wic/Div?
Much less. For Once & Future, I've probably done as much research for the whole thing as I did for a single historical special in Wic/Div. I want enough so you have that thrill like in an Indiana Jones movie or a Hellboy story of dancing with a piece of folklore or myth, but not that it becomes the whole point. The difference is perhaps that more of the theory is made explicit in the story, rather than just used for detail. This is a lot more edited. I've chosen stuff I want to explicitly use rather than implicitly use.
That said, I've been doing another set of research for the second arc of Once & Future too. When I was plotting this arc, I realized that I had to do more - forget about the more obscure stuff - there was so much BIG Arthurian riffs I hadn't used. There's no Lancelot, no Guinevere. Hell, there was no Merlin. Much more to do, hence, more research.
Dan's work is outstanding, what was the collaborative process like?
He's been a force of nature. I was getting twitchy that I hadn't mentioned him yet, as this book absolutely runs off the energy and character he brings to the page. In a real way, I built the concept for him. BOOM! came to me and asked if I wanted to do a book with him, and I then looked at all the ideas I was thinking of developing, and picked the one which I wanted to see him go to town on.
Er... I asked him too. I didn't just presume he was up for high-action horror-adventure.
He's always been a great artist, but there's a thrill to see what he's doing to the page. It's not just even the big action stuff - the opening of issue 6 is just a very grounded scene of people walking towards a building and it's just so exciting to see.
In terms of process, most of it is just getting the hell out of the way. I write heavy, but I'm only rarely calling for stylistic choices — ideally, I'm trying to leave it open for him to push and play. For this sort of guts-first comic, you don't want it cold and calculated. I wanted Dan to have fun, as I strongly believe when an artist is having fun you get the best work. It's certainly working so far.
Tamra Bonvillain has to be mentioned as well, and seeing how they're just clicking together — the otherworld coloring effect is one of the key bits of the comics' visual identity, and it's becoming more striking as we progress. She's got a great ability to set the horror stuff with the right level of unease, and then grounding the human scenes.
And Ed! I'm asking for things which may be impossible, and Ed is just mailing me back impossible files. I can only applaud.
This series is so action-filled, it feels like a movie. Who would you fancast as Bridgette and Duncan?
I am awesomely bad at fancasting. I suspect Duncan may be best cast as an Unknown, though Chris Helmsworth's mix of action lead and comedy chops would do it with the right hair dye. Bridgette has a host of options — basically all our favorite older actresses could nail it. Let's say Jessica Fletcher, because one, she'd be amazing at it and two, I want to meet Jessica Fletcher. Let's go full Murder She Did.