Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora's Once & Future is a modern spin on the classic tale of King Arthur and his court - and it begins with imagining King Arthur as a villain.
Gillen, who is adapt with turning classic mythology into modern fiction, has taken Arthurian legend and turned it into apocalyptic text like some sort of biblical Revelations.
With five issues out and more (including a second arc of the one-time limited series) on the way, Newsarama caught up with Gillen and waded with him into the deep waters, talking inspiration, how it's not a Brexit allegory, and what he sees for Once & Future's future.
Newsarama: There's a great quote in Once & Future #2, when one of the main characters, Bridget, says, “the world is haunted by feral stories.” Kieron, can you flesh that out a little bit?
Kieron Gillen: That's the heart of this book. It’s my way of saying how mythology is going to work in Once & Future. I've done so many mythologies, and a lot of stories about stories. Now, I'm interested in how stories can be corrupted and changed over time. The more you go into Once & Future the more you realize why nobody talks about that. The idea implicit in it is all the supernatural creatures are basically untamed stories, as opposed to tame stories that are sort of safe.
I'm sure Bridget will talk about this eventually.
Bridget's an atheist but like she views religion basically as a positive and it's a good way to keep stories safe, as opposed to feral stories, the ones that are out in the woods and that you can't control.
Nrama: Yeah, there’s this great discussion between Bridget and Duncan in #2, when he's raging at her and asking why she didn't tell him this about this other world. Bridget responds, “would you have preferred that I told you?”
Gillen: [Laughs] Yeah! She says she doesn't want to worry your pretty little head.
Nrama: Now, the main feral story that is haunting this book is that of King Arthur, Arthurian legend. Can you go into a little bit of your personal history with that mythology?
Gillen: It's tricky, because I couldn’t even connect to the moment I first knew about it. It's one of those things that just is there. I can't remember a time when I didn't know about Arthur. My “definitive” Arthur comes from the John Boorman film, Excalibur, which I think I watched a little too young. It's a weird movie! I rewatched it recently and it’s such a weird, creepy movie.
I think some of the inspiration for Once & Future might come from that, in terms of Uther Pendragon using magic to trick Igrayne to sleep with him. That's probably my main Arthurian memory.
Nrama: Was watching that movie the first time you wondered if King Arthur wasn’t so noble? Because in Once & Future, he’s this ancient, evil force. When was the time that you thought “this hero that everybody else talks about, I might see him in a different light?”
Gillen: The interesting thing about Excalibur is that it goes over the entire Arthur/Uther narrative. So [the movie’s] problem is that it's hard to get continuity. There's a whole Grail Knight sequence and the Grail Knights try to heal Arthur, and the land is sickening. You get lots of corpses popping up, you get Mordred, who’s really creepy in that. So that whole aspect, that's definitely where some inspiration comes from. But I had the original core idea for Once & Future maybe a decade ago.
I’ve always loved adventure fiction. I love Indiana Jones and The Mummy. But there's an in-built globalism to those movies. The Mummy is about turning early Egyptian people until literal monsters. Still, there's so much to love in the genre, so my question is, how can you remove that element? My answer was to do it with Arthur. In other words; you bring back a classic forefather of this mythology and you turn him into this monster.
So that was like the core idea, it sat around for a while. You know, every writer you meet has millions of story ideas. When BOOM! reached out to me and said, “do you want to do a book with Dan Mora?”, I was like, okay, well what one would I like to see Dan draw? And then I found myself thinking about that Arthur idea I had and saying, “that would be really cool,” seeing Dan doing the sort of action horror book.
The other cool thing is that, the second you do that with Arthur, you end up getting to talk about the identity of the British Isles, and how the Arthur myths have changed. In the earliest Arthur stories, he was anti-invaders, but then you realize the invaders were the English. And that's a provocative idea, because Arthur is seen by most people as this figure, this classic English idea, because he's been reclaimed and the story’s been twisted. And that becomes interesting for me as a writer; how these stories have changed over the last 1500 years.
Nrama: Do you feel like you’re changing the Arthurian legend that you grew up with, or do you see this as natural follow-up?
Gillen: Well, I don't think anyone has done evil Arthur, or Arthur as the villain. And that's kind of like the thing that I most wanted as I was doing my research.
This isn't really a spoiler, but one of the main points is that the Arthurian story has been changed according to what people needed from it. For example, this is not a book inspired by Brexit, but undoubtedly people will see that this book is a product of its time. It’s an interesting way to think about Arthur right now. And now that that idea is kind of in the “dream pool,” someone else will look at it and think, that's an interesting idea, and they'll take it a different way. This is how writers have conversations through the centuries.
Nrama: Yeah, there's a line where a bad guy is asked what he wants, and he responds, “Britain back.”
Gillen: [Laughs] Yeah, that's not exactly subtle.
Nrama: One of the things that you're adding to Arthurian Legend is the way you treat it as apocalyptic scripture. Specifically, there’s a reference to “a Galahad,” as almost an antichrist figure. Not because he's evil, but because he's this person that can bring about the end of the world. Can you tell us a little bit about that element you’ve added to the mythos?
Gillen: It's kind of important, going back to “the world is haunted by feral stories” thing, that there’s this phrase: “a Galahad.” That makes you think, well, what the fuck does that mean?
I don't really want to say too much before we explain it in the book, but the phrase “a Galahad” does kind of imply that maybe there are more out there. Or that “Galahads” are a thing that can happen. That's kind of where it's going.
Actually, there are some intellectual connections with The Wicked + The Divine here, because that’s just how I think. It's a very different approach to some similar ideas in WicDiv, but flipped around a bit.
Nrama: Do you mean it’s connected in that you're taking a mythological character and turning it into an archetype?
Gillen: A little. I like people taking on archetypes. “A Galahad,” implies that a Galahad is something that someone can be. I don't really want to say much more than that because it's fun when it comes out.
Nrama: You mentioned earlier the story of BOOM! approaching you with Dan Mora in mind. Can you talk a little bit more about how this collaboration came to be?
Gillen: Dan was very into doing a book together. He makes everything very easy for me to say yes to. Dan's a great artist whose work I love. Everything that he's done has been a delight.
Nrama: Were you pointing Dan toward specific inspirations, like Excalibur? Or did you kind of just give him the reins?
Gillen: My early scripts especially were about trying to find out what Dan is like. The first thing I do with artists is look at the comics they've done and I try to reverse-engineer that. Then, generally speaking, I try to stay out of the way.
In The Wicked + The Divine, it's me being very mechanical to artist Jamie McKelvie. I’ll say, “It's an eight-panel grid, with this shot here,” and I write the sequencing. In Once & Future, it's much more about choosing the moments, giving Dan the right panels, stressing what's important, then leaving Dan a lot of space to have a lot of fun. Because this is one of the things I was very aware of with Once & Future; so much of the energy has to come from the artist. He’s selling the action sequences selling the emotion. You can draw with extreme formalism, which happens in some of my other works, but that isn't quite as useful here. It's much more about letting Dan run free.
Of course, there's still some coloring notes I suggested. That's an example of a visual thing that I really like.
In terms of reference, the main reference is merely factual. It's all set in the real world, and it happens a lot in Britain. For example, Bath Abbey is in #3, so I'd say “Here is Bath Abbey, here's a map of Bath Abbey. Here's some photos.” Or Glastonbury Tor is in #2. I tried to come in and include the purely factual references that Dan can use.
Nrama: Going back to the idea of Arthurian legend, do you think that there has to be a twist as drastic as Once & Future to tell a King Arthur story that will connect to modern comic book readers?
Gillen: It's been a while since anyone's gotten an Arthur story right, though I haven't actually watched The Kid Who Would be King yet, and I love the director, Joe Cornish. Attack the Block is an astounding movie.
But it's been a while since anyone has gotten anything that's landed. and that's the thing; in the various movie attempts, it's almost like people are afraid to actually do a straight retelling of Arthur. I think you could probably make it work.
You could do a really good Arthur TV show. Doing a Game of Thrones take on Arthur is a fucking easy sell. There are a lot of stories, there's a lot of people fucking, there's a lot of shit going on. If you actually read the old stories, a lot of them that are based around people who are not exactly paragons.
Nrama: Speaking of those characters, I noticed that you don’t include every character we might expect in an Arthur story in the first arc of Once & Future.
Gillen: Yeah, the thing that’s nice about this being an ongoing is that I knew this comic had a lot of stories to tell. I thought it would be a bunch of miniseries.
There are so many major Arthur characters that I have not got in this story; there's no Morgan Le Fay, there's no Guinevere, there's no Lancelot. There's no Merlin. And that’s the thing about this comic, I haven’t got my Thanos yet. Joker has not appeared in my Batman comic, metaphorically speaking. So there's a lot of meat on the bone that we've left.
Nrama: How conscious of a choice was that? Did you go into this first arc saying no Merlin and no Morgan Le Fay?
Gillen: For the first story of Once & Future, I just knew that Galahad had to be in it. This isn't really a spoiler, but the thing about Galahad is that he's a Grail Knight. So that's Galahad's main thing, and by implication we're going to do some Grail stuff. You can throw more stuff in, but why would you? What you really want is to not overcrowd your story. When Lancelot shows up, you want him to have this “kick in the door” moment. And, there’s the fact that people know it's coming. It must be in eventuality, so it will be such a cool moment when it happens.
The other thing about Once & Future is that it's mostly about the folklore of the British Isles. It's not just about Arthur, so I can think of all manner of things. I have no idea how long it will go on for, because it's not like The Wicked + The Divine where I have a firm ending.
It's much more of a story like, well, I mentioned Batman. Duncan and Bridget are also quite iconic characters, who can go into multiple stories. I can imagine taking these characters, putting them into an adventure, and they'll try to solve it. They'll try to X-Files it. There's not a specific number of stories that I can tell with these characters. And after I've written them, someone else could write these characters as well. They have that level of being bigger. It's like Arthur himself, they are those kind of characters, they're not like [The Wicked + The Divine’s] Laura, they're not like [Die’s] Ash, There's something slightly different.
Nrama: To wrap things up, what would be the element of British folklore you most want to bring into the story next?
Gillen: One of my first graphic novels was something called Busted Wonder. Busted Wonder is semi-YA, but some of the language isn't YA. It's about a little girl and this circus that comes to town, but it's a fairy circus. It's based on mainly British folklore of fairies. I researched them to death and the references are really buried in. The character never really realizes what the fairies are, so you really have to read it back to front for those references. But have you heard of redcaps?
Nrama: No, what’s that?
Gillen: Redcaps are these gnome figures wearing, well, red caps. And the reason their hats are red is because they dip it in blood. I love that shit.
There's another creature a bit like a Scottish selkie, and it's basically a selkie as done in a Crossed comic, because they are just fucking brutal. I’m into any of that stuff. I’ve said in other interviews that Hellboy is a good comparison to Once & Future, because there’s a lot of really cool material to work with.
With [Once & Future], I get to bring all the new stuff to the table and kind of show off my new toys. And I'm having a lot of fun right now. I've heard people are loving it which is amazing. It's just a lot of fun to write.