A Lovecraftian King Arthur
♦Tripwire’s Contributing Writer OLLY MACNAMEE takes a glance at AfterShock’s Unholy Grail#1 by Cullen Bunn and Mirko Colak, out now from AfterShock…
Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Mirko Colak
Almost for longer that I have been a comic book buff, I’ve been a King Arthur nut. Of course, Camelot 3000 is the stand out classic Arthurian comic book and where my biggest literary interests beautifully collided, way, way back in the 80’s. But, we may well have another contender, if this first promising issue of Cullen Bunn and Mirko Colak’s Unholy Grail from Aftershock Comics anything to go by.
Like any legend, the Arthurian legend grows, mutates and is added to. Strip the Arthurian story down to its most basic level and you will find stories with no mention of the Round Table, or its 150 knight. No Guinevere and therefore no Lancelot either. And certainly no Camelot. All of these iconic elements came later, and from many different quarters. The King Arthur we remember is mainly based not on the Celtic roots of this tradition, but rather the Medieval slog that is Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, with it’s chivalric knights and courtly love, and which informed John Boorman’s Excalibur film too. Legends, like superhero stories, are malleable and ready for retellings. Unfortunately, with the recent direful movie, King Arthur: Legend of The Sword form Guy ‘Geezer’ Richie being unwatchable, I was thankful that Bunn – clearly an aficionado of the legend himself – knew his stuff and has produced a very different take on this well known story and one, like Camelot 3000 that feels fresh. Fresher than the rotting corpses littering the battlefield of the broken Britain (Albion, in this book) depicted in this comic, anyway.
This was announced as a darker, more horrific and Lovecraftian take on King Arthur, and in this debut issue the look and tone of the book is well set with an opening that strongly suggests the forces of evil have won over and Albion has been cast into darkness, with seemingly no hope of salvation. Talk about bleak!
The reader is then cast back in time to relive Bunn’s version of Arthur’s ascension with Bunn very cleverly jumping onto a much ignored conceit in the Arthurian legend that, in the right hands, offers up a very different take on well known events. It is this single conceit – centred around the parentage of Merlin – that allows the legend to be cast in a darker, more horrific vein and questions the very tutelage and motivations of the king. This, no doubt, will have consequences in the series going forward, I imagine. After all, when your mentor isn’t necessarily on the side of the Angels, then his advice won’t necessarily be the most ethical or morally grounded, now will it?
The story is well known enough that Bunn can judiciously skip the unnecessary (no Sword in the Stone type antics as originally depicted in T H White’s wonderful post WWII retelling in The Once and Future King collection) and retell what he needs. We get a briskly paced montage of Arthur becoming the king and meeting with the Lady in The Lake (who gives him Excalibur, which is not the sword in the stone as many believe) before returning to the post-apocalyptic world of Albion somewhere once upon a time. All the while, beautifully illustrated by Mirko Colak a who create a world that is suitably bloodied and war-torn, but also – in the scenes set in the halcyon past, at least – light too. In fact, upon scanning through it again, it would seem the lightest panels are the ones set the furthest in the past and, arguably, an important, game-changing scene of horror that sets the story on its bloody, violent path and sends the remainder of the issue into darker hues.
In Excalibur, we are given a king intrinsically linked to his country, while in The Once and Future King we are given a pacifist king surrounded by war hungry warriors, while in King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, we’re given some kind of street smart cockney reject. Here, in Unholy Grail, we have a glimpse of a king who may not be a bad man, but is given bad advice which, it would seem, has left to a very different conclusion to the story we thought we knew. The grail of the title, meanwhile, may or may not be what we think it is. After all, in turning the legend on its head, we can no longer be certain what will happen next. And, in a story so well trodden, that’s no mean feat. I look forward to exploring this Mad Max like Albion and the fates of Arthur’s court, queen and country.
The King is dead, long live…..?