As a self-confessed Arthurian nut, I was keen for this second issue to come out, having loved the first and the idea that Merlin is part demon, which Cullen Bunn pounces upon and owns like a pirate on plunder. Well, here he’s ALL demon and in a position to not only guide the young Arthur through his early, informative years but also, by extension, mould Arthur’s growing kingdom, which in this issue is in the process of building the fabled Camelot.
But while the foundations of Camelot are laid, the foundations of Arthur’s legend are adeptly explored by series’ writer Bunn in a series of pacey flashbacks that fill in the missing years between Arthur’s illicit birth and his kingship. As this is a retelling that’s dipped liberally in bloody supernatural horror, the sword from which Arthur draws the sword and that defines him as the one and future king, takes on a more macabre origin.
It’s not so much that people do not want to try and take up the sword, but rather the consequences of failure that prevent them from even thinking of trying. Bunn, as good writers can do, makes the familiar feel unfamiliar. And, for a legend that’s 1500 years old, that’s no mean feat. Breathing fresh life into this well worn legend like Henry West breathes life into cadavers.
All the while, artist Mirko Colak (think: Charlie Adlard inked by Ivan Reis) adds the minutiae and delicate pen and ink work to each page that adds both historically appropriate detail and dressing to proceedings (Anglo-Saxon/post Roman Empire chic) but also grounds this legendary tale into some semblance of realism, albeit realism of the early Middle Ages period. It’s spot on and in his hands, the art shines with period detail and also bristles with bombastic, sweeping splash pages and the odd double page spread.
Energy fizzes of the page; both the energy of magic and the energies of battle. And, the color work of Maria Santaolalla is worth pointing out as an integral element to realising this world’s wonders and wickedness. One minute we are bathed in beautifully tranquil skies (the calm before the storm, surely?) before being enveloped in darker hues as Merlin goes about his work under the cover of darkness.
This is still very much the story of Merlin and his meddling ways and certainly seems to be based loosely on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, but Bunn is being influenced by other readings, I’m sure. Now, whether the pesky King Arthur prevents him from getting away with it is still up for grabs, but Arthur has other things to worry about come the last issue reveal. A man who puts his country above all else could be seen as the noblest of people. But, with a demon mentor at his ear, this could well lead to a tragedy yet to be explored in any retelling of the Arthurian legend I have ever encountered.
A worthy addition to the Arthurian legend, with the right amount of demonic devilry; a great balance of magic and menace. I can see the collected trade paperback sitting on your bookshelves one day soon, alongside the seminal comic Camelot 3000 by Barr and Bolland. And, that’s high praise indeed.
All Hail the Once and Future King!
Unholy Grail #2 is out now from AfterShock Comics.