Everyplace is going to hell in a handbasket these days — even Camelot.
Or so Cullen Bunn (who seems to have stepped into the role once occupied by the likes of Brian Michael Bendis and, later, Charles Soule as “the guy who’s writing every other comic on the stands”) and Mirko Colak would have us believe, at any rate — and why not? Every other legend has been deconstructed (if not outright obliterated) in contemporary fiction, four-color or otherwise, so why the hell should King Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, and the rest be let off the hook?
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t see Guy Ritchie’s latest cinematic iteration of the Arthurian mythos (nor, apparently, did anyone else), but he’d have had to work pretty hard to equal the tear-down that Bunn, Colak, and colorist Maria Santaolalla perform on it in the twenty pages of Unholy Grail #1, their new series from Aftershock Comics. Purists will no doubt be alarmed, perhaps even outright mortified, by the alternative vision on offer here, but what the hell do we care what they think, anyway? For my part, whatever it’s worth, I absolutely loved it.
The story jumps around in time a little bit, which adds a pleasing bit of post-modernism into this ancient fable, alternating between the period after Camelot’s fall, when the knight Percivale returns (too late?) from his Grail quest, and the period before its rise, when Merlin, who often claimed to be the son of either a demon or Satan himself (comics fans may remember that no less than Jack Kirby himself hinted at this in the pages of The Demon and that Matt Wagner really picked up and ran with the idea about a decade later with his now-largely-forgotten revival of the character) meets up with an actual escaped denizen of Hell, and — well, nah, that might be giving too much away. Suffice to say that the machinations and manipulations the wizard gets up to after this harrowing, fateful encounter cast the entire story in a new, and decidedly grim, light that I defy anyone to find less than absolutely intriguing. Sometimes the stories we think we know best are actually hiding the biggest secrets of all right in plain sight, are they not?
I’m impressed at how immediately the creative team is firing on all cylinders with this series, which leads me to think that this is a project that’s enjoyed a long and healthy gestation period. Bunn’s lean, sparse scripting feel downright urgent at all times, Colak’s art is luscious, lavish, and borderline agonizingly detailed, and Santaolalla’s colors are just straight-up frigging beautiful. This is a book with a very “Euro” look to it — as one might expect, I suppose, given that both illustrator and colorist hail from the other side of the Atlantic — and it suits the material absolutely pitch-perfectly. I don’t mean to sell the writing short, because it really is quite good and further cement’s Bunn’s reputation as the premier “go-to guy” for horror comics these days, but seriously : even if the script sucked (which, one more time for good measure, it doesn’t), this would be $3.99 well-spent because the art is just that gorgeous. Wrap it all up with your choice of covers by either Colak himself or cover artist extraordinaire Francesco Francavilla and what you have here is some serious eye candy, pure and simple.
There’s nothing simple at all about what our intrepid creators are looking to do with this series, though. This is heady, ambitious stuff and jumping on with issue number one really does feel like getting in on the ground floor of something special. After reading Unholy Grail, I’m thoroughly convinced that all other takes on the Round Table are strictly for squares.