Waiting for the Hook in Once & Future #1 by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvillain

Kieron Gillen’s writing, like the best pop songs, is built around strong hooks. Narratively, he comes up with these earworm motifs that just lodge themselves into your brain. His earworm that haunts me the most is Phonogram’s “music as magic” but there are a lot of people who groove on his D&D as life riffs in Die or the superhero as pop star licks of The Wicked + The Divine. Usually these earworms are present from the power chord openings of his comics but Once & Future lacks that strong statement, that announcement that tells you to hold on for dear life on this journey that we’re beginning with Gillen.

As Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvillain introduce us to Bridgette and her grandson Duncan, Gillen’s writing feels less specific and less idiosyncratic than his other comics do. The general tone of this book is a cross of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with a sly reference in the book thrown in about hunting all of the vampire in England) and Scooby Doo where Duncan is a bit more Shaggy than he is Fred. As an ancient scabbard is stolen from an archeological dig, Bridgette escapes her retirement home and begins a search for the thieves, dragging her somewhat hapless grandson into this grand adventure. It’s an interesting take on the odd couple paradigm, putting two people with different personalities and skill sets together to meet a common goal, but it is still an odd couple story that’s been told time and time again.

Throwing out references to Joss Whedon, Hanna-Barbera cartoons and even old Neil Simon plays should express some of the broadness of Gillen’s writing here. This broadness creates a story that feels like it’s more setting into a genre mold than really staking out any new territory. As a fantasy, specifically building on the legend of King Arthur, this issue labors hard at world building without really giving any sense of the stakes of the story other than some very generic fantasy “end of the world” language thrown in at the end of the book. The dynamic between Bridgette and Duncan is fun as they play off of each other as Bridgette acts in some very non-Grandmotherly ways but this is an issue that misses that strong hook to kick of this story. Gillen’s writing delivers some very well-worn fantasy elements and lukewarm threats

The creative stars of this issue are Mora and Bonvillain as they infuse the story with its pulsing energy. Mora’s drawings shape the personalities of these characters, from the determined actions of the grandmother to the completely shocked reactions of the grandson. It’s clear that one of these characters knows exactly what kind of world she’s stepping into while the other is ultimately unprepared for any kind of disruption to his normal and safe life. Through Mora’s work, we “read” these characters as much, if not more, by their expressions and by how they fill the space instead of what they do or say. Mora’s characters act and emote on the page.

That character acting is emphasized by Bonvillain’s vivid coloring. The way that she manipulates colors also changes the ways that you read this comic, from the eerie yellowish lighting in the opening sequence to the vibrantly contrasting blues, greens and pinks. Even shifting her colors affects the ways that you read the comic, moving us from a more familiar reality into a world of magical creatures and then back again by the end. Bonvillain’s choice of colors reflect more narrative decisions than realistic ones, contributing to the ways that we’re experiencing the totality of Gillen, Mora and Bonvillain’s work.

Ultimately, as many first issues tend to be, Once & Future #1 creates expectations of what is and will be possible over the course of this story. This issue sets a level of expectations that it struggles with to achieve. Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvillain’s vibrant and exciting artwork opens up this this shifting world without ever explicitly calling attention to the heavy lifting that they’re doing. The story itself introduces some characters, provides a bit of a hint of the conflict (you can learn more about what this story is about thanks to the PR for it than you can from the comic itself) and sets up a classic odd couple/buddy cop type of story to follow. It’s a visually delightful introduction to this world that falls short when it needs to let you know why you should care about what’s happening to this world or to these characters.

Once & Future #1
Written by Kieron Gillen
Illustrated by Dan Mora
Colored by Tamra Bonvillain
Lettered by Ed Dukeshire
Published by Boom! Studios