Just a few pages into the second issue of Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora’s Once & Future, there’s a fascinating twist on multiple elements of different King Arthur legends that illustrate some of the bigger, more complicated ideas about British identity that the comic is grappling with.
Here, Arthur isn’t just a mythologised historical figure, he’s a tangible being and the person a group of xenophobic nationalists have fixated upon due to their belief that he’s the key to the grand magical scheme to take back the country.
When I spoke with Gillen during San Diego Comic-Con a few months ago, he was adamant that while Once & Future certainly touched upon social and political ideas, they aren’t what he wanted to define the book. They’re core elements of the fantasy he’s woven together, but he really wants everyone reading the series to understand that for all of its commentary, Once & Future is ultimately a story about a nice young man and his tough as nails grandmother.
Below is our edited and condensed interview.
I was actually having a conversation with a friend of mine about The Kid Who Would Be King, and his concern about the film having Brexity undertones. And I said, “What do you mean by that?” And he was like, “Well, we’re clinging to these Arthurian legends in this time” – and his opinion was it was just subtext in this film, but reading the premise for your book, you decided to make it barely subtext – bordering on proper text. So, talk to me about the headspace you were in.
Kieron Gillen: I mean, the story, like, the future’s...yeah, it’s like...I had the idea well before Brexit. Cause it’s about an examination of the concept of British identity and the history of the island and our relationship with myth. And it became more acute in the last few years. I feel like now it’s really the time to tell that story.
You have all this established lore to work with, but what were the kinds of specific things you wanted to do with Arthurian legends to set Once & Future apart?
Gillen: Please don’t print it like this. Arthur’s the bad guy. It’s explicitly me doing The Mummy, but Arthur as the Mummy. So that kind of like, “How do you make that invention the last colonialist?” And then, “Oh, I know what I’ll do. I’ll do the British myth.”
Historically speaking, [the UK’s] been an immigrant nation. The idea that there’s only one British identity...is erroneous. So that’s kind of in there? One of the things that’s in there is how [the Arthurian lore] is twisted, all the time. And it’s definitely like – and I haven’t seen The Kid Who Would Be King – it’s Joe Cornish. I refuse to believe it’s a pro-Brexit film.
Not that it was pro-Brexit, but that it was tapping into a particular energy in the moment. That’s why a movie like that, a studio would think, “Ah yes, now is the time to push a film like this.”
Gillen: Ah. It’s definitely like – there’s an energy there. And the concept of the myths and realities of Britain – one of the things Jamie [McKelvie] talks about a lot is that we’re not really talking about the history of empire as much as we should be.
How so? What parts are lacking there?
Really? Do they not take you to the museum and let you know where all the things came from?
Gillen: No, it’s not – “Hmm. They were gifts, I guess.” There’s more to that. I forgot the name of the operation – when the colonial era was basically coming to an end. There was an official cover-up. It was to make sure the empire looked better in hindsight. There were official, instructional papers that would have described what we were actually up to. Which makes it much easier to deny. That.
How is that changing these days? The conversation about that revisionist history pushed by the colonial powers?
Gillen: Oh no, for example it’s like, “They were actually happening” – they were all, you talk to people from other countries, you get more perspectives and you can sort of see how that would actually impact people. You know. I feel like that’s probably the major difference.
Bridgette witnessing the nationalists resurrecting something. (Image: Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain, Ed Dukeshire/Boom Studios)
What larger potential as a folk symbol does Arthur have that you think hasn’t been capitalised on?
Gillen: I think the proper narrative, it’s almost like Superman. In that kind of...Superman always responds on time, Batman always responds on time, and when you get the idea of a superhero, you get this firm idea of who he is. And people don’t really...kind of reject playing with it? So, there’s the Arthur they’ve got in their head and the people more concerned with the true Arthur? That’s the line that’s most – “This is based on the true myth” – there’s no truth of Arthur. He’s a mix of ideas that have been mashed together. You can’t just say, “That’s the real Arthur” – a bit of it came from here, a bit of it came from here...Parsifal was the grail-finder for a while, and then Galahad was, and Lancelot, and then “We need a French character” for the French myths? It’s a living tradition.
I’ve been less about reading individual stories and more like, “Okay, what’s the difference between the Parsifal myths?” And when do they stop as “history” and start to be “romance”? What are the forms people use...that’s the more interesting thing. How did the idea – and this, to answer your question – how the idea of Britishness has kind of been reexamined and recreated throughout history. And that is...the dangers of more conservative thinking is basically, you buy into it—there’s never been a golden age of Britain. It just hasn’t happened. And the cause of the golden age, is like, Victorian invention, maybe? The way we think about things we think are true – fundamental building blocks we’re trained to see the world – are all quite relatively modern inventions. But even, as I was saying earlier, this is also my fun book.
What makes it fun for you?
Gillen: Well, it’s supposed to delight. It’s a scream of a book. But if you could compare it to any of my books, I’d compare it to Doctor Aphra. And it’s got the kind of energy and the characters have a sort of amoral joy to them. But it’s like, Bridgette, who is one of the two lead characters, she’s...imagine someone as ruthless as Aphra is, but absolutely, effortlessly straight. She’s more...in D&D terms, Aphra is chaotic neutral at best – chaotic evil is more close to it. But this one, she’s more lawful neutral. And the question is whether she’s lawful neutral or lawful evil. Because [Bridgette’s] absolutely, like, “I represent the world.” And her grandson has no idea her grandmother is a monster hunter. And he’s lawful good. He’s an absolute sweetheart. And he’s one of the most genuinely nice characters I’ve ever written? And there’s a really fun dynamic between them there.
And that’s fun: How do stories get their power? What are the lies we’ve told ourselves about people from Britain, how does that actually shake through today? And this is the next thing I want to research, not for the book, but because I want it, I want to research the history of the word nationalism. Because nationalism was only a 19th century invention. So our modern concept of nationalism gives us a rethink – “Are you from a country?”
What function do nationalists play within the story?
Gillen: They’re kind of like opening...they’re Nazis. But Nazis in their own terms. With that said, they find the ancient artefact which can awaken one of their Arthurian myths. So they think it’s going to allow them to basically gain power and get to reshaping in a way that more suits them. And also other things aside, notice I’m British. I like British versus England and all that falls inside. I mean British-Irish? Duncan was born in Britain, his background is Celtic stock, if you will. So there’s a lot about that built in there, structurally.
I’ve been talking with a lot of other writers and creators of content, in general...trying to figure out how to phrase this in an elegant way...let’s say hypothetical – let’s say all of the hype around the book is just because of your name above it. Let’s say we assume that it’s not. In what ways could other publishers be trying to replicate the buzz around a book like this? How can the competition look to, in your opinion, the way Boom is really handling Once & Future?
Gillen: This is something that is really interesting in terms of, like, what is debatable. As a writer, it’s like, how do you choose the same conversation? And with Divine...we said, “Oh no, we’ll act like it’s a big deal.” The word I use is there’s a degree of swagger to it. We’re coming off, you know – “It’s no big deal.” And we’re pretending it’s as big a deal as other books. Kind of a move that leads to me self-effacing, but no, “We’re Wic/Div, best book on the stands.” And you try to keep a straight face as you say that.
The vibe comes through, just look at the covers.
Gillen: It’s like, “Hello. Here we are.” And Die is a very different kind of book. I mean, like, the stuff we did with the trailer I thought was interesting. But, like, there are so many elements...which you simply cannot control. With Wic/Div, it’s because we came off the back of The Avengers. So we’re...it was a very acclaimed book. It was a very good time to do a big, posh book. And then Die is of course, my book after Wic/Div. So that immediately has a buy-in. And this, to be honest, at the same time, is...the fact when something is hot, it’s easier to stay hot. This is the thing I really learned properly on Wic/Div.
This would impress me so much as a creator [for instance when] doing Phonogram for no money and starving. How much easier it is to sell more copies when you’ve sold copies. Cos there’s more copies around and people find it more. More people have read it instead of just mention it. And we put as much hype into Phonogram as we did to Wic/Div. It’s just that we were in a place to actually capitalise on it.
When people don’t like marketing, they think of it as kind of their jobs, but they don’t enjoy it. And so my solution is if I’m doing it, it has to be something I kind of dig. So, we did the whole producer system for Die, but in reality, no one wants to do this RPG system. And that’s stuff to do with the newsletter and how to present your truest self in a way that you’re out there. And that’s kind of like...it’s basically ranting at this point isn’t it, I guess?
It is, but as obvious as it may seem you do pick up on the earnestness, and it’s there – when it’s not, that’s when people balk.
Gillen: The thing I do, I don’t tend to overhype. I know with Wic/Div, I said I’d add swagger to Wic/Div? But at the same time, I don’t. I never actually said Wic/Div was any good. I just say what Wic/Div is. And it says a lot about the comic book.
This is the thing about better marketing: The marketing has to come from you. This is the reason [why] we talked so much about the politics of the book worries me, because it doesn’t quite represent the book. And that’s the thing. What is the book? And with Die, okay, that’s goth Jumanji. Which is small, but it’s a bleak book about intellectuals, about emotions and how people explore fantasy. And we’ve...Once & Future is about identity...but it’s really adventure fiction. It’s really about how people choose to tell stories, but also how they choose to shoot monsters in the face.
As the story continues to unfold what other influences might we see begin to pop up in the plot?
Gillen: Like I said, Aphra. This is kind of like a more contemporary take on archaeology. A fictional archaeologist book but with very different leads. That’s where the juice is. I rewatched Excalibur, I watched that as a kid. That was definitely in the mix. And I mentioned The Mummy and Indiana Jones. Those are the big elements. But it’s also very me. Like, when you get to the magic system and see how the magic works, you’re like, “Ohh, right. This is Kieron doing post-Wic/Div.” There’s a kind of connective tissue, there.
Connective tissue in terms of...
Gillen: Intellectually. This is the stuff Kieron thinks about. And that’s fine, because...okay, when I come to writers and I love that voice, I want to hear the voice and how they see the world. But people return to themes like Grant Morrison, or Warren [Ellis] – they return to stuff they dig. And that doesn’t make them weak, that makes them them.
Once & Future #3 hits stores on 16 October.
Featured image: Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain, Ed Dukeshire (Boom Studios)