I haven’t heard any complaints, so I’m going to keep on keeping on reviewing the various queer comics that have come into my life. Honestly, it’s pretty damn awesome that there are enough of them that I haven’t run out yet. This week’s subject is a new series from Dark Horse called The Once and Future Queen, which, as the title’s riff on T. H. White implies, is a “Return of King Arthur” story with a female Arthur.
I definitely judged this book by its cover—I picked it up entirely based on the intriguing title and cover art alone—but in the end I’m not sure how I feel about it.
Spoilers for issue #1 below!
The Once and Future Queen opens on protagonist Rani Arturus and her parents (Indian-American mother, white British father) as they travel from Portland to Cornwall for a chess tournament. Unfortunately, Rani loses on the first day of the tournament after getting distracted by a pretty girl in the audience. Frustrated by what she sees as a wasted trip, she storms off to the coastline for some alone time, and happens on a mysterious cave. Inside the cave is a sword in a stone, which she dismisses as tourist nonsense until she pulls it out and Merlin himself appears and announces her the one true king—er, queen—of England.
Rani’s parents are justifiably overwhelmed by their daughter’s sudden ability to summon a giant glowing sword, and rush her back to Portland. However, the removal of Excalibur from the stone has already drawn the attention of the fae, who are apparently boringly evil goblins who say things like “ready the doom scouts”, and they’re after Rani. Pretty girl from the tournament, who was sneaking around the cliffs and witnessed Rani’s beachside coronation, also heads to Portland. (Of note, this girl’s name is Gwen.) Gwen has a weirdly easy time finding Rani, and they head to a diner where their waiter turns out to be a Black guy named Lance. (At this point I sighed deeply and briefly rested my head in my hands. Don’t show all your cards at once, boys. There’s this thing called narrative pacing where you don’t introduce every single thing right away.)
After a weird aside in which they notice a famous local YA author rushing out of the diner (again of note, this woman’s name is Morgan), the evil fae suddenly start materializing and attack Rani, Gwen, and Lance. The issue ends on a cliffhanger as the three teens prepare to make a stand against their magical attackers.
So… we have a few problems right away. First of all, the pacing issue. Literally every major character and potential conflict has been introduced in the first issue. Wouldn’t it be more useful to have Rani build some sort of relationship with Gwen before introducing Lance and the Guinevere/Lancelot affair debacle? Wouldn’t it be better to spend more time with Rani before we fly her around the globe twice and throw an army of fae at her? Frankly, I would have found the issue more interesting if it had taken the whole 20+ pages to get to Rani pulling out the sword, as then we could see her chess matches in more detail as well as giving her a chance to meet Gwen before she left Cornwall. (This would also make it less weird that Gwen found her again in Portland—if they’d actually met before, maybe Rani gave her her number or mentioned a place she plays chess often or something.)
The other major issue I’m seeing is that while Rani and Gwen are both presumably queer, Lance is still a dude. Keeping Lance a male character means that when Gwen eventually falls into his arms, as is wont to happen in an Arthurian-inspired tale, she’ll be yet another media example of the polysexual girl who can’t make up her mind and/or was only with a girl as a phase but settled with a guy eventually. The creative team behind this series is all male (although their editorial staff includes women), and I wonder if any queer women were consulted for any kind of sensitivity read or if the creators are just powering ahead down the road to hell in a vehicle fueled by their good intentions.
The art is sketchy in a way that reminds me of Dept. H, but with a bright color palette that lacks any really consistent color themes. There isn’t anything particularly offensive or cheesecakey about the character designs, but overall the art wasn’t particularly great or memorable. The storytelling itself is so busy that it’s hard to care about the art—I’m more likely to give middling art a pass when it’s at least supported by a kickass story, but no dice here.
Far be it from me to completely cast aside this comic as hopeless, though. I am intrigued by the premise, still—despite the serious glut of retellings in the world, I’m not sure that a genderbent Arthur exists, so I’m interested to see where it goes and how closely it sticks to the standard forms of the story. (It would be more interesting, in my opinion, if they jettisoned them altogether, or at least showed the characters actively choosing to reject their ordained destinies.) It’s a pleasantly diverse story in terms of both sexuality and race—our trio of presumptive protagonists is majority nonwhite, majority queer, and majority women, and it takes the time to add small touches of realism, such as Rani’s mom getting pulled aside for a special TSA screening due to her brown skin. However, the story doesn’t get too into the nuances of the characters’ racial backgrounds, which I hope it does in the future, as Rani’s Indian cultural heritage leaves a lot to unpack. Given the U.K.’s colonialist history in India, as well as the current British cultural climate toward brown people from former colonies, an Indian-American Queen of England could have some really interesting cultural impact.
And ultimately, I can’t hold ongoing ill will against a comic that, intentionally or otherwise, puts Shrek references in the mouth of a spaceman Merlin, so hopefully it will get better. However, compared to other first issues (I’m thinking of Heathen and Motor Crush in particular) I don’t find myself particularly won over by The Once and Future Queen just yet.
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Well, if it does improve, I’ll be interested to know that…as an Arthurian scholar, a queer literature scholar, and someone deeply interested in comics, the intersections here are too intriguing to ignore…and yet, there’s so much good stuff out there otherwise that one has to be a bit choosy. In any case, it sounds intriguing, but execution is everything with these sorts of matters. 😉