If you think your morning commute couldn’t get any worse, imagine if a Gorgon showed up in the middle of your town and turned you to stone with a stare. That is a very real possibility in Once & Future Vol 4, in which Britain and Otherworld have fully merged under the power of an undead King Arthur and his court. That obviously creates big problems for our group of hunters, as they are on the defensive even more than usual. But for a book where in the world, stories can’t seem to stay dead, the actual narrative of these issues isn’t particularly lively.
To touch on what absolutely works in this book and has done so since the beginning is the art: Dan Mora’s lines continue to create a cinematic landscape of people, monsters, and the nearly constant battles between the two. The first issue opens with some truly nightmarish fairies whose fanged midsections will stay in my mind far longer than I would prefer. But what keeps my eyes pouring over the art of the book, even more, is the coloring from Tamra Bonvillain, who is doing simply stunning work here. The entirety of this volume, taking place in Otherworld, means the skies are constantly shades of pinks and purples, creating striking backdrops for the sickly green of the undead or the crisp blues and reds on the metallic knights.
Therefore, it’s truly a pain to say that the weak link at this point is Kieron Gillen’s story. I say story and not writing because the dialogue continues to carry his signature wit, and our core cast remains likable. But the pace of action in this is so fast that there isn’t room for these characters to grow. We are now twenty-four issues into this series, and we don’t know much more about them than we did at the beginning. They are too busy running from the historical figure of the issue, figuring out how to defeat it, doing so, and then starting the process all over again.
Gillen likes to create worlds where stories are literally powerful, so much so that they become dangerous, as we have seen in series like Die and The Wicked and the Divine. The same is true here, where knowledge of the Otherworld allows it to invade, or assuming the role in an old story can put you through its same consequences. But there are so many old tales coming to life, and now we even have multiple versions of the same ones that the story is getting convoluted, and any character development is getting squeezed out.
This, luckily, isn’t true of every character. Mary, currently assuming the role of Nimue, has been a constant antagonist for our heroes but has shown that she will do whatever it takes to help her son Galahad. On the other hand, she is also the mother of one of our main characters, and the two still haven’t shared a meaningful conversation yet. I would love a lull in the action for all these characters to be able to sit and talk with each other since there is potential for real, human drama here.
Once & Future isn’t a bad book. It’s gorgeous to look at, and the frantic pace keeps you turning the page. But I want more for these characters than just seeing them pour bullets into an old myth I recognize. It’s clear Gillen has a great fondness for these centuries-old characters, but I want him to value his own creations just as much.