Once and Future

King Arthur’s been done to death.

Reinventions, reinterpretations and reworkings of Arthur’s legend are everywhere in modern fiction. Yet the timeless popularity of this story doesn’t stop authors continuing to put their own ‘unique’ spin on things, mixing up classic tropes with fresh new ideas.

The latest creative team to take a bash at breathing life into Arthur’s withered corpse are writer Kieron Gillen, creator of Wicked & Divine and artist Dan Mora.

Their take? It’s 2020. Art’s been dead for a fair while. What’d happen if someone brought him back to save England once again? Seems like a pretty nifty idea. Let’s see how it plays out…

The Gillen effect

Although the general industry reponse to Once & Future has been positive it seems that we all approached the book with a little trepidation.

Why? Well, Mr Gillen is a pretty ‘Marmite’ writer and we all harboured rather strong opinions on his style and approach. What Gillen would we get in Once & Future - The smug, pop-culture machine-gun of The Wicked & The Divine or the sharp, witty creator of Star Wars’ Dr Aphra?

Evisceration! That's what you need!

Thankfully, for me at least, it appears the worst of Gillen’s sensibilities have been toned down, making Once & Future probably the most accessible work he’s produced so far.

Thank heavens for that.

“Gillen’s writing is far less obnoxious in this” - Tom

Pendragon meets the X-Men

Most of us had less baggage when it came to the artist on Once & Future, Dan Mora. He’s a talented, dynamic artist with a style hewn directly from mainstream Marvel superhero books. He draws clean lines, with a hint of manga in his pointy, expressive faces. There’s no doubt this guy can draw.

“Utterly mainstream. I like that!” - Kelv

Although the art is of a consistently high quality I can’t help but feel it was a case of “the wrong man in the wrong place”. Everything was too clean, too smooth, too polished for me. I missed the scruff and dirt of a more expressive artist.

The other guys could see my point but they were more admiring of Mora’s art than I. Kelv loved it, Jake called it “perfect” and Tom was also highly complimentary of Mora’s work.

Colour me impressed

Mora’s crisp line work is supported by a really rather glorious colour palette by Tamra Bonvillain. Both Tom and Kelv were reminded of Dave Higgin’s original colour palette for The Killing Joke (before Bolland re-coloured it all - BOOOOO!) - earthy browns, greens and greys are shot through with neon greens, blues and pinks and some genuinely lovely, subtle lighting effects. It’s wonderful work and lifts the art to another level altogether.

Once and Future only has eyes for grandma

Tell me a (new) story

And the story itself? Thankfully it’s not just another re-telling of the grail story, and for that I am eternally grateful.

It’s a face-paced, thoroughly modern chase set in and around a (fairly recognisable) Bath, Bristol and the South West of the UK. It’s stuffed to the gills with zombies, mythical creatures, secret societies and gun-toting grandparents with arms caches buried in the woods.

Curiously it doesn’t feel very… British though. Both Gillen’s writing and Mora’s art conspire to smooth everything out, stylise it and ‘Americanise’ the whole thing. It’s a rollicking, easy-to-follow tale that could also work as a pitch for a Brit-themed ‘ArthurWorld’ theme park.

“If you were American you’d love this” - Jake

Anyway, It’s definitely on the light and frothy side of things, giving a pulpy twist to the old Arthurian story beats.

Duncan the dull protaganist with a bright future

The protagonist, Duncan, is a pretty bland lead. He’s a somewhat bizarre mix of rugby-player build and geeky glasses. I assume this was to give him a Clark Kent level of dorkiness. It’s not a massive surprise when ol’ Dunc turns out to be a bit more than he initially seems.

It’s Duncan’s hardcore gran, Bridgette, who proves to be one of the more interesting characters in Once & Future. She’s sarcastic, caustic and a dab hand with a surprisingly wide variety of weaponry. The book is always more interesting when Bridgette is around.

Hail to the king

And Arthur? It seems that resurrection hasn’t done him any favours as he’s returned as an ultra-nationalistic zombie/vampire blend with a cool line in spiky headware. Art’s seriously limited perspective on what makes a ‘genuine Briton’ is something that Gillen leverages with aplomb. Of particular note is the sequence where Arthur realises that modern Britain isn’t quite as ‘pure’ of bloodline as he might’ve hoped.

Not to your taste Art?

Women’s rights

Aside from Bridgette, the other women in Once & Future are really rather disappointing. Duncans super-smart botched date, Rose, is utterly wasted, relegated to the role of decorative candelabra and sidelined by a telling off from Bridgette that amounts to ‘This is really important. Just do it and don’t argue’. We also also get yet another flavour of the sexy fascist which, while fitting nicely with the pulp feel, just feels a bit lazy.

Unfavourable comparisons

The biggest problem for me, and it is a problem for a number of reasons, is that while reading Once & Future I couldn’t let go of the feeling that I’d read something similar, and much better, very recently.

Injection - by Ellis, Shalvey & Bellaire - covers a lot of similar ground to Once & Future but eclipses it with such a sense of foreboding and dread it’s hard not to just dismiss Once & Future as populist fluff. Jake picked up on the Injection thing too, while Tom noted some parallels with Matt Wagner’s Mage, which we read a while back.

In summary

If you like your Brit-Myth action spliced with some superhero whizz bang styling then you can’t go far wrong with Once & Future. I just wish it was a bit… dirtier.

  • Kelv & Tom - 4 stars
  • Dan & Jake - 3 stars
EVERYTHING

Welcome to the 80s, where everything is cool.

The prevalence of retro culture in modern entertainment has gotten a bit much of late. Yes, we enjoyed Stranger Things, yes we approve of the upped mean tempo in popular music thanks to the return of the synthesiser. But it’s getting to the point where any time someone is looking for a different angle on things they reach for the box marked nostalgia. I suppose part of this is the age of creators, I feel like we are all turning into our parents who disapproved of the music we were listening to and said “no you really should listen to this it’s much better”. I’m going to stop using the ‘we’ here and admit to being guilty of attempting to break my children into the movies I saw and loved as a child; it was my father who lent me his vinyl copies of The Doors, The Yardbirds and Television. All of which is my way of saying EVERYTHING just wasn’t original enough to fly with this group.

Stay Still

I wanted to bring something from Karen Berger’s new imprint to the group. She left DC’s Vertigo Comics some seven years ago and that line is now dead, as creator owned mature reader titles are not what new corporate owners AT&T want, even if there is still a market for them. Now she has Berger Books out of Dark Horse, for whom EVERYTHING is writer Christopher Cantwell’s second series following 2018’s She Could Fly. The fact he was here collaborating with artist I.N.J. Culbard is what mainly got my attention; Culbard is a mainstay in 2000AD, where he featured in half of 2019’s progs thanks to Brink, his SF strip with writer Dan Abnett. Culbard’s sparse style appeals to me greatly. His characters are expressive and slick and his clear storytelling always leads the reader along nicely.

Shirley

EVERYTHING then, (finally) is the story of a new shopping mall opening in a small American town, and although this seems to many a good thing, it turns out there are shady/mysterious/insert adjective here goings on and the staff may or may not be robots! I think I can say this in a review as the cover has manager Shirly with lasers coming out of her eye. I mean, it’s right there isn’t it? Actually, the cover is pretty nice. Said laser is a spot varnish and the cover also has French Folds so it feels like a premium edition. Dan and Jake missed the feel of the book though as they went with digital editions, but were glad to have done so as this saved them £££ on a title they really didn’t click with! Kelvin’s girlfriend Laura said it was a page turner but he has now completely forgotten he read it at all, which is never good!

Everything everywhere

I think I’d return to the series to see where it went (I was annoyed actually that I’d missed this was only part one of the story) but it didn’t set the world on fire for originality. I’m hoping my meh-ness with all things retro doesn’t spoil the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984!

-Tom ⭐⭐⭐

I wish someone else was drawing this as I might enjoy it more, although it still thinks it’s cleverer than it is
-Dan

I’m struggling to know what to say. I’m trying to get a handle: it’s not great at all?
-Jake ⭐⭐

Give you none of the chills found in Twin Peaks and I don’t actually care what happens next.
-Kelvin ⭐⭐⭐

Batman '66 Volume 1

POW!

So there’s one good thing from us all being under lockdown and unable to get to the pub. I’m actually able to make these meetups remotely via the magic of Houseparty!

And as I made it to the Dalston Monsterzz get together, the gang suggested I made the next pick. I’m very happy to say that I had a book on my shelf waiting for its moment!

Apologies that the quotes below aren’t grammatically great. This writeup is comprised of my notes on people’s thoughts as they spoke.

Hope

Jake

I love Batman from the 60s! I can watch film over and over again. It’s perfect in its way, wondered what the point of it would be… new ideas… but in the end it was alright…? Bazooka Joe bubble gum, with the comic inside of the wrapper! Read it, chew the gum, wrap it up and bin it. Reasonably decent approximation, dialogue spot on, look was quite nice although it varied.

Bazooka Joe

Got to London bit and I kinda think I’ve got this now… 80 issues of this???

Who would carry on buying this?

Why?

Nothing wrong with it, nothing terrible, kind of a useless thing. Comfort reading novelisations of Doctor Who. Same creators doing it. But never read others doing it because it tips into fanfic.

These kind of read that way…

So difficult to finish, not hard to read… It was alright and yet not alright at the same time

⭐️⭐️

Dan

(I wouldn’t have bought it!)

Pretty much similar lines to Jake - why? All the way through…

Most definitely not for me… So full of nostalgia and a weird thing to make a homage to something that already seemed pastiche. A piece of art without a particular audience. But didn’t have any trouble reading it. Blitzed through it! No thinking about it. Nothing complicated, or fear that I’d be lost in it. Apart from the London 2-parter, it’s just little episodes that go along and nothing to it.

But also wondered why you’d even buy it? GMTV went on strike, before school there was an episode of Batman on. A very particular time for me. A very specific feeling

Some of the art, and some of it is quite nice. Ty Templeton is a lot clearer and cleaner and professionally done (they’re all professionals). Liked Joe Quinones’ art. Thought it was Fraser Irving, who I like. I like London (DO YOU?!?). Yeah I like it but I just don’t want to go there…

There are moments that are lovely and fun.

I didn’t want to burn it or frustrated. Didn’t feel bored. Barely remember anything about it or anything of value or import. Aside from the best bit of art being Allred’s recreation of Cesar Romero’s moustache which freaked me out as a child. It did really take me back.

(Jake adds that Harley Quinn’s recreation was extra creepy).

Red Hood

Maybe there’s an undercurrent of subversive messaging that I didn’t notice. Not to demean anything it’s hard to do comics, but it feels like this is not quite got a handle on it. Maybe it’s too challenging. It would have been too weird to make it too creepy but it would have been fascinating.

I’d also ask why people bought Batman Damned? But these are two completely different ends of the spectrum, although both follow.

Like something made of Bakelite. You tap it and it’s hollow. The Batphone!

I don’t have you Kelv for making me read it ✌️

⭐️⭐️

Tom

I’m pleased to say I did enjoy it more than you two. Seemed the perfect thing for Kelv to whip off the shelf and say “This is what we’re going to read!”

When it arrived I felt I didn’t like it - the matt cover is too dull but then the pages are gloss and more vibrant. I thought Jeff Parker had done a fantastic job of capturing the voice. The commentator and the actors, that it reads so smoothly. I’ve never read much Jeff Parker before, but he’s done anything that feels vaguely out of time. Atlas for Marvel and he wrote Johnny Quest. Felt like I’d slipped on a cosy pair of slippers. It was a pleasure to read.

It was created to be digital, so every panel is half a page. There’s always a middle break, which probably helps with the reading of it. A fixed tier system that helps with the flow, so I was just whizzing through it. Kind of reminded me that this isn’t the Batman that the current readings know of today. Reminded me of 90s Batman - not the dark stuff, but the period where drawn Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan on Detective. No crazy shadows, but a bit more daylight.

Meow

When I went to write something about it yesterday, I couldn’t remember it of course! Artwork a mixed bag… Quinones I don’t mind but it does it look like Fraser Irvings where the colours hold the shading. Can work in different styles so clearly went for this - a thick outline and shaded flesh tones.

From my point of view I felt it was a great success! Thinking of it on a monthly basis for 99 cents, in cheap bite sized chunks you’d probably be happy to buy it like that and keep going like that. Nice covers by Allred of course. Good casting! Jonathan Case was very good as well.

I don’t like the presentation and I did enjoy it a lot. I’d probably read this than modern Batman!

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Me

I very much needed a really bright, breezy easy read that was nothing more than colourful and kitsch fun. There was no real jeopardy in these stories. The voices were all accurate and lit up my imagination. The sequences were more action packed than 1966 TV budgets and special effects could ever conjure.

Good heavens

OK I agree with the others that it’s a difficult proposition, and I’d never made the investment into this title before. I only got the hardcover from the cheap bins at London’s MCM Comic Con last October! It’d been sat on my shelf for months since, until it was my turn to pick.

What Jake said about being reminded of Bazooka Joe is cool, because it perfectly captures the essence of bubble gum fun.

It’s right this isn’t deeply engaging, dramatic and intense. I needed the escapism that didn’t add to my already deeply unsettled emotions today. Holy Heartwarming Fun!

⭐️⭐️⭐️

(And I have to say I’m tempted by the nearly 1000 page Omnibus collection…)

Omnibus

Dalston Monsterzz

Preamble

A rather unusual Comic Book Club meet up this time around, what with everyone under lockdown due to the spread of COVID-19. Instead of our regular pub-based get-together (I miss you so much cheesy chips!) we tried out a virtual meet-up via Houseparty.

Although not entirely successful due to network connections reaching breaking point we all managed to get our thoughts across. We had a good few laughs, Jake nailed his G&T, Tom dug out a beer from somewhere and Kelv made a glorious return to the fold after more than a year’s absence.

Welcome back Batman :-)

Dalston Monsterzz

So, this one was my choice. I spotted Dalston Monsters on some random recommended list and immediately loved the strong graphical vibes I was getting from the cover. The accompanying hyperbolic blurb made it sound super cool. It came across a bit like a trendy YA novel mashed up with raw, underground punk styling. I was very much looking forward to something a bit… new.

Sadly, I don’t think that was entirely what we got.

London calling

Nothing says cool urban quite as much as a gas tower

This is definitely a London-centric book. Dalston is a real place which Kelv, one of our resident Big City ‘specialists’ along with Mr Hayes, described as up-and-coming and ‘chock full of hipsters’.

The book plays up this aspect, setting out a landscape populated by influencers, trend manipulators and monied real estate barons busy buying up everything in sight. Meanwhile the youth are, as ever, bored out of their minds and have turned to petty crime, hollow socialising and increasingly outlandish gangs to pass the time.

Monster magnets

On top of all this urban upheaval, throw in some vaguely Tim Burton-esque monsters (The candy-striped stilt legs and gaping tooth-filled maws feel almost like direct homages) strutting across the skyline as if they’ve always been there.

I don't think your friends like me

Some seem to have a direct connection with these mysterious beasts, whereas others treat them as a nuisance - much like a fox that rummages through your bin bags at night.

“This feels like an art school project or a side hustle to the agency day-job” - Kelv

Some of the gangs mentioned previously have ‘tamed’ these monsters and use them to propel themselves over the rooftops of Dalston. Seeing these bandy legged beasties striding between buildings has the potential for some seriously exciting set pieces but these don’t ever seem to arrive with the impact their introduction promises.

The brick wall of disappointment

Of the 4 of us only Tom avoided the ‘brick wall of disappointment’ after making it about 10 or so pages in. At this point in the book both the art style and broad narrative had bedded in and it was clear how things were going to play out. Tom blitzed through it super-quick, put it down and then promptly forgot about it. The rest of us didn’t find it quite so simple.

Jake’s issues seemed to stem from recognising many of the archetypes set out in the book and feeling rather uncomfortable that he adhered to many of them himself. You’re so much cooler than that Jake - stop beating yourself up mate ;-)

“For a millenial thing it was a bit Gen X to be honest” - Jake

Kelv’s initial excitement over the cover styling soon dissapated as he struggled to engage with any of the characters. None of them felt like they had any depth or meaning.

In your/their face

It’s kind of impossible to talk about Dalston Monsterzz without mentioning the seriously quirky art. The overall look is chunky, solid and pretty dynamic. There’s a fair amount of movement in between panels and Tom really liked the flow of the pages as they see-sawed between talking heads and weird monster-driven action.

But then there are the faces. Needle noses and puffy, pronounced mouths make every character look like they’ve just removed their face from an active wasp’s nest.

The gangs of London

These visual tics are just so prominent that they become incredibly distracting. It’s hard to look at anything else on a page when your eyes are drawn towards each and every bizarre face present. Jake eventually came to terms with the noses, Tom got past it after some initial reticence and Kelv just couldn’t get it to click. I spent the entire book wishing the faces would go away as I found them really quite distressing.

Over familiar

Probably the biggest problem we all had with Dalston Monsterzz is that it looks and feels like so many other books of this ilk. We struggled to find anything that made it stand out from the pack.

“Reminiscent of a whole bunch of other stuff although I can’t think of the names right now!” - Tom

We’ve read a fair few Nobrow books in the CBC - Nobrow being the publisher - and it almost feels like Dalston Monsterzz is hewing dangerously close to some kind of ‘house’ style. From the beautiful binding, high quality printing and embossed cover to the colour palette and lettering, everything screams ‘Guardian reader favourite’.

A beautiful book as always. Nobrow have the know-how

In the end, at the end

So, in the end I don’t think that we could really recommend Dalston Monsterzz. Tom definitely enjoyed it more than the rest of us, giving it 4 stars. The rest of us couldn’t summon up enough enthusiasm to give it anything more than 2.

Maybe Dalston just isn’t as cool as it thinks it is?

“Anyone want to take a stab at explaining what actually happened at the end? No?” - Dan

Silver Surfer: Black

What a rush! What a high! With the strength of Kirby, Buscema, Moebius and Lim behind him, Tradd Moore’s craft cosmic has reached giddying heights in Silver Surfer Black.

To my knowledge this is the first Marvel Universe title to have been given the Treasury treatment in a very long time, showing just how much confidence they have in the book. And rightly so, every page deserves time pored over. It’s a thing of beauty, and Dan said as much… before totally slamming the story it illustrates. Being dropped right into an ongoing epic was not how he wanted to start the book, nor was he looking for the writer de jour Donny Cates’ new cosmic character to be the obstacle to be overcome. Dan’s approach then was to just turn off from reading the speech balloons and simply enjoy the visuals. All that is, apart from the repeated shots up between Surfer’s legs.

Hotch crotch

Jake enjoyed the story although called it meandering, and I was pretty keen on it myself, though it does fall into some pretty standard superhero tropes. Cates obviously has some grand plans for the surfer and is taking him in a new direction. I heard on one comics podcast that his powers could now be compared to that of DC hero Deadman’s, but there was no evidence of that here. What we do get is some new powers, some insane throwdowns and appearances from other iconic cosmic entities.

Of course, the tale of the surfer began originally in The Fantastic Four trilogy of issues 48-50, with Marvel legends Stan and Jack at the height of their creativity pitting the FF against “God” in the form of celestial being Galactus. The Surfer is the Herald of Galactus, searching for planets for his giant master to consume. That story was one of the first US comics I ever read, in the form of a UK newsstand pocketbook. For the purpose of this review I revisited it, in colour for the first time. Other than the blatent sexism in the writing of Sue Richards, I believe it holds up as a classic.

Back in …Black, it was inevitable that Galactus would show his enourmous head at some point, and this was a highlight of the story for me thanks again to Moore deliving what Kelvin called “fucking incredible art”.

I Hunger

Cates makes a point in the backmatter of the collection that he rewrote the last issue after he had heard of the passing of Stan Lee. He wanted to deliver the best ending possible, and also made reference to another notable Surfer story: Parable, by Lee and French Master Moebius, quoting directly from that story to bolster the Surfer’s morale.

I think this collection is worthy not only of the Kirby/Lee legacy but also of the treatment given it by Marvel. They knew this series would look the biz blown up and, by the power cosmic, they were right.

Mind bent

-Tom ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I might look at it again, but I’ll never read it again
-Dan ⭐⭐⭐

Enjoyable but ultimately a bit style over substance
-Jake ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Utterly bonkers and trippy. I loved how utterly hokey it all is, Just how cosmic Marvel should be.
-Kelvin ⭐⭐⭐⭐