WTD: Once & Future

Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.

I must admit to having something of a strained relationship with the work of Kieron Gillen.

The source of the tension is that while I adore Phonogram as well as The Wicked + The Divine, I would struggle to either name their characters, or describe their plots. This tension is a product of how Gillen approaches the writing of these kinds of series.

The creative methodology behind Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine is to take a sociological phenomenon which, though strange, is mundane to the point of absolute ubiquity. Gillen then steps back from this phenomenon and asks us to consider what it would look like if said phenomenon was rooted in magic rather than human psychology. For example, Phonogram looks at people’s relationships with popular music and the way that pop music scenes can be so powerful as to give you a sense of rootedness and identity but also fragile enough to dry up and blow away with the passage of time.  The Wicked + The Divine deals with a similar set of themes in that its focus is on celebrity, fandom, and the way that human culture lavishes attention on certain people at certain times only to cast them aside the second they have ceased to be of use.

Both Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine are hugely clever and well-realised pieces of comics writing but they both struggle with character and narrative. Indeed, were it not for the brilliant artwork and visual story-telling of Jamie McKelvie, you would be well justified in claiming that both works read more like elevator pitches than actual comics.

In fairness to Gillen, his approach to comics writing is not exactly unique. Indeed, every comic that Grant Morrison has worked on in the last few decades has been dominated by huge, complex ideas that sound great when presented either as a blurb or an elevator pitch but when you actually sit down and try to read the bloody things, what you get is an absolute mess. Sure… the ideas are always there but it’s always a bit of a struggle to point to either a memorable character beat or an interesting narrative strand. In Morrison’s defence, this is one of the reasons why they talk a lot about the mythological symbolism of superheroes and rarely write for anything other than the biggest and most symbolically potent titles: Grant Morrison doesn’t treat Batman or Superman as characters with recognisable human emotions, they view them as collections of symbols and emotional triggers that can be woven around whichever big idea it is that Morrison is trying to get across.

Once & Future is an excellent example of this approach to writing for comics: Its characters are simplistic to the point of being little more than broad archetypes, its plots are little more than a series of bug-hunts culminating in violent confrontations, and its action sequences are similar to those in Christopher Nolan movies in so far as they’re basically a load of scenes in which people fire automatic weaponry whilst painstakingly explaining the plot. TV critics coined the term ‘sexposition’ to refer to the way that Game of Thrones would have a load of naked women cavorting in the background every time a character was called upon to explain the plot; Gillen and Nolan use ‘Gunsposition’ to inject a bit of visual dynamism into what is basically a series of scenes in which a character delivers a lecture.

One could make the case that Once & Future is not a well-written comic; it doesn’t so much violate ‘Show don’t Tell’ as abduct it from its home, rape it as knife-point, stab it in the stomach, and leave it to bleed out in a ditch by the side of the road. One could make the case that Once & Future would work better as a short essay or a work of popular non-fiction, but I think that would involve holding it to the standards of an entirely different aesthetic. Once & Future is not about plot or character, it is a comic about ideas in much the same way as works of hard science fiction are about ideas and you judge such works not by their failure to be appropriately novelistic but by their ability to make your brain light up and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end. By this yardstick, Once & Future is an absolutely fantastic comic as the ideas it delivers are both compelling and incredibly timely.

Once & Future revolves around Duncan and Bridgette. Duncan is a somewhat nerdy and cossetted professor of modern history who is serially unlucky in love in part because he’s just a little bit too earnest and a little bit too nice to be entirely relatable. Duncan is also Bridgette’s grandson and Bridgette is a force of nature. Bridgette is said to have come over to the UK from Ireland as a teenager in search of work. Somewhere along the way, she fell into the business of monster-hunting and was so successful that she beat all of the magic out of our world and retired to live in a care home despite still being in full control of her faculties. Bridgette is also the mother of Mary but somewhere along the line, Mary and Bridgette fell out and now Mary has teamed up with some White Nationalists in an effort to resurrect King Arthur.

Now, I’ll step back from describing the plot in order to make it clear why it is that this comic is awesome. Britain is a country whose politics are (at least at the moment) dominated by narratives that have their root in a sense of culture and history that stretches back all the way to the Roman invasion. Indeed, while most people are familiar with the way that British culture refuses to let go of certain historical images like Victorian Christmases and V.E. Day celebrations, there are other stories that also carry a lot of power in British culture. For example, it is no accident that the most popular mainstream novels of recent years are Hillary Mantel’s stories about Thomas Cromwell as what was Henry VIII’s abandonment of Catholicism if not the story of Britain splitting from the institutions of mainland Europe?

One of the older stories to have stuck around in the British sub-conscious is that of King Arthur. Much like Batman or Superman, Arthur has been written about from a variety of different perspectives by authors from different places and eras. Each one saw in Arthur what they wanted to see and they have, to a certain extent, blended together to produce a weird conceptual hybrid who is both the tragic, magical figure of late-medieval romances , and a gritty historical figure rooted in what we have managed to learn about sub-Roman Britain. This hybrid vision of Arthur is a product of the fact that tastes do change and different generations of Britons see in Arthur that which they want to see: He is the morally righteous leader who was unjustly slain and destined to return as well as the unassuming boy-king who healed a broken land and forged a collective British identity. He is all of this and a few other things beside…

My feelings about King Arthur became a lot more complex after reading the timeline laid out in Chaosium’s Pendragon: I knew about the sword in the stone, I knew about Merlin, and I knew about the betrayal and the fact that he was destined to return when Britain was in need… what I didn’t know was that Arthur forged his nation by waging racial holy war on Saxon settlers. I also didn’t realise that Arthur dug up the head of Bran the Blessed because he wanted to banish Celtic superstition and impose Christianity on the British Isles. I definitely didn’t know that when Arthur had crushed all internal rebellion and unified England under his control, he took his legions to war against the people of mainland Europe. Arthur is a romantic figure, but he is also a warrior, an ethnic-cleanser, a Christian supremacist, and an imperialist. Arthur is a folk hero that is entirely appropriate to a country whose blood-soaked empire once straddled the globe. The first really important and timely thing that Once & Future does is to remind us that, according to a lot of the stories, King Arthur was an absolute bastard.

Gillen establishes the horror that is Arthur in a wonderful scene right at the start of the first trade paperback. Having found the wound-sealing scabbard and delivered it to Glastonbury Tor, Mary presents Arthur to the skinheads who would cleanse the land and be his knights. Arthur sniffs them and tears them apart: Britain for the British, send the Anglo-Saxons back! Artists Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvillain present Arthur as a maggot-infested corpse, an ancient horror brought back to life and dead-set upon dragging the entire country back to the Dark Ages. How he intends to do this is the second really important and timely thing that Once & Future does.

Fantasy writers love to claim the stories are magic. This makes perfect sense when you realise that everyone wishes they had magic and virtually nobody is interested in buying works of fantasy that aren’t written either by Tolkien or George Martin. If I were the owner of a huge pile of rotting horse shit, I’d be running all over the internet trying to convince people that horse shit is magic too. There are loads of fantasy novels that play with the somewhat post-modern conceit that because stories act on beliefs and beliefs change the world, stories have the power to change things. More often than not, the power of narrative is presented as an unalloyed good but if we move past the awful, cloying, self-serving sentimentality of the cliché that ‘stories are magic’ we can consider how the world actually works and ask what a magic that changes the world might actually look like given that the 21st Century has seen everything getting systematically worse in ways that are really quite hard to ignore.

Gillen presents magic as stories that lie passive in the world until they are triggered by the right set of circumstances. It’s a bit like a quest chain in a video game: If you happen to be in place x, with characteristics y, and z, then there is a certain percentage of chance that a story will come alive, attach itself to you, and carry you through a pre-determined series of events. By turning up at Glastonbury Tor in possession of the wound-sealing scabbard, Bridgette’s daughter Mary was able to trigger a specific Arthurian quest-chain.

Once & Future is first and foremost the story of Bridgette the monster hunter fighting King Arthur. This fight involves both parties positioning their assets in such a way that they are able to trigger specific stories and then direct them against each other. On a narrative level, this is all about Bridgette and Duncan being forced to deal with a variety of monsters and baddies plucked from the pages of British myth and folklore. On a thematic level, this is all about the way that cultural actors (be it politicians or celebrities) will often try to gain power by positioning themselves in narratives that the general public already understands and relates to. Thus Boris Johnson positioned himself as the Churchillian leader liberating Britain from European tyranny while both Theresa May and Liz Trust both tried to position themselves as heirs to Thatcher who, in turn, positioned herself as an Elizabethan Mother-to-the-Nation and someone who smashed all internal opposition on the way to creating a new Golden Age of British power and prosperity. Once & Future makes its political themes quite explicit as there is a scene about two thirds into the series where Boris Johnson turns up, looks at the institutions protecting the real world from magic, and decides to cut through all the red tape by unleashing mythological hell on Earth because he believes that he can maintain power as the Churchill of a new War.

The final really clever and timely thing that Once & Future does is to recognise that there can be more than one version of a story in play at any given time. I remember once visiting North Wales on holiday and was quite weirded out when an attraction told us that King Arthur was Welsh and that, rather than being buried under Glastonbury Tor, he was in fact asleep at the bottom of a Welsh mine along with all of his knights. Once & Future engages with this idea by having the crusty, maggot-infested version of Arthur square off against versions of Arthur and Lancelot born of the French romances and drawn to resemble Japanese Tokustatsu characters like Ultraman or Kamen Rider. There’s a beautiful moment where the artists ditch the comic’s hyper-saturated muscular visuals in favour of an unadorned realism in order to capture the moment where a mortal Merlin tells a dying Arthur that he cannot die because he is destined to become a story, only it’s not just one story. Stories don’t just change with the passage of time; they change so violently that their resemblance to stories of old is sometimes itself little more than a fresh facet in an on-going tale. People claim and re-claim old stories, they make them new and rally to those banners but that doesn’t mean that the old stories cease to exist or that the passions that once fed them have since run dry.

One of the things that annoy me about the ‘stories are magic’ crowd is the very liberal, technocratic assumption that stories are things that can be mastered. Stories are rooted in social forces and hard-wired quirks of human cognition. You can coax a story, you can lure it over to your side but you can’t tame it… to be human is to try and live one’s life in a world completely dominated by story. These things are huge, dangerous things that rampage across the landscape crushing all that stands in their way. Politicians and cultural actors may attach themselves to stories or attempt to steer them in one direction or another but they inevitably wind up getting crushed beneath the feet of the thing they claimed to control: Boris Johnson was an unimpeachable political colossus right up until the moment where he became an embarrassment to be done away with. Liz Truss was the sensible grown-up politician who would steer the country back to stability and growth until she became an economically inept populist who very nearly destroyed the British economy. Once & Future’s world full of insanely dangerous stories and the actors who would try to control them speaks directly to a cultural moment in which facts are second to story and the dominant story seems to change almost by the second.

Once & Future is a slightly odd choice for this series as its characters, though technically monster-hunters are really just viewpoints through which to filter and explore the comic’s big ideas. While there’s undeniably something cute about a hard-as-nails pensioner going toe-to-toe with a crusty Welsh King Arthur, this is not a comic you read for plot or character. This being said, the metaphysics and themes of Once & Future are a perfect match for any game in which mythological creatures pose a threat to the mundane world. For example, what if the vaesen were stories who were activated by thematically rich stories that happen to play out in a world being transformed by the advent of modernity? What if, rather than simply turning up and conducting a ritual designed to murder the fairies, the characters were forced to find ways to help stories play themselves out in a less harmful manner?

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