'Once and Future Queen' Writers on Rethinking King Arthur: "The Future Isn't Straight White Men"

The talent behind the comic book look at the surprising reaction to their gender-bending take on the classic myth.
Nick Brokenshire/Dark Horse Comics
The talent behind the comic book look at the surprising reaction to their gender-bending take on the classic myth.

When The Once and Future Queen originally debuted in March, it was a five-issue comic book miniseries. But only two issues of the series were released before a publisher rethink meant that the remainder of the story was held back until this week, when the title re-emerges as a graphic novel.

The enforced vacation came at an unusual time; Queen's first issue, which reimagines the King Arthur myth in a contemporary setting, was followed in comics by the announcement of IDW's Sword of Ages, a sci-fi Arthurian reimagining, and in movie theaters by the unloved King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Clearly, something was in the water (and not Excalibur, as held by the Lady in the Lake).

With The Once and Future Queen re-emerging in book form digitally and in comic book stores Wednesday, Heat Vision talked to its writers, Adam P. Knave and D.J. Kirkbride, about King Arthur's return to the zeitgeist, what makes Queen different from other takes on the myth, and how audiences responded to the title's unexpected disappearance.

This year has proved to be one where the Arthur myth raised its head in pop culture again, in movies as well as comics. The Once and Future Queen was ahead of the curve in its original appearance, in terms of beating everything else to market, but also ahead of the curve in actually putting a twist on the story, and on the characters involved. Did this come from an impulse to let the story reflect the real world, a restlessness in telling old stories to a new audience or something else entirely?

D.J. Kirkbride: You're right, 2017 was a big Arthurian Legend year in pop culture, but we didn't really consider that while coming up with this book — after, we certainly noticed it, though. For us, aside from a love of that general kind of adventure story and the broad strokes of the tale, we also wanted to try that retelling, reimagining style of story. So many creators we enjoy have done this sort of thing, and after 30 issues of our previous comic with Nick Brokenshire, Amelia Cole, we wanted to give it a whirl, hoping fans of that book as well as King Arthur fans and folks who like maybe having something recognizable in their comics would join in the fun, too.

Adam P. Knave: Yeah, we all see a lot of the older myths get retold, that's what they're there for. But the thing about a good myth is that it's fluid. They change with the telling, always have and always will. But with the Internet and good record keeping in general, a lot of them started to grow stiff. You couldn't change too much without pulling down the ire of purists. We wanted to, as D.J. said, try our hand at it — but really make the myth something for today as well as honoring what it always said and was meant to do.

You're playing with reader expectation a lot in the book, both in obvious ways — the new Arthur is not only a woman, she's an American! — and more subtly, with the relationship between Rani, Gwen and Lance. That relationship, and the balance they bring to each other, feels integral to the project as a whole, almost more so than the Arthurian element of the whole book. Were you surprised by where they ended up, as a group?

Knave: Oh no, that was one of the early key bits we locked in once we knew we were building this. A lot of Arthurian stuff, I mean it's this outsider kid, right? And he grows up as an outsider to the folks raising him and all of that and then wham, he's a key figure to the country. So if you're going to move it to a modern version, and rope the other key characters in, why not have people of color, A, but also why not have a lesbian, a bisexual and an asexual in the mix?

We've made progress — he said as a bisexual white guy who still feels bisexuality is erased more often than most chalkboards at school, and don't get me started on how badly asexuality is represented and discussed in most areas — but representation matters. The future isn't Straight White Men. The future is far more diverse than that in every direction and way possible. So let's set up the chosen ruler of the world to help reflect that. The relationship, speaking just for me here, was often more important to me than anything else. It's the key to the whole story, and to the mythology.

Kirkbride: We wanted to play with the expectations, too. I think some readers just assume maybe Lance is going to get between Gwen and Rani when we first meet him, re-creating the classic Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot love triangle — and we wanted to immediately subvert that. It wasn't about building suspense or a "will they won't they" kind of thing; we wanted to just have them dive into this adventure as much as the Excalibur adventure.

There is still room for all sorts of drama even in working relationships, too, of course. Also, I'd like to say Adam makes a great point about bisexuality erasure — it's a huge problem in society and in pop culture. It seems like whenever a straight character on a TV show is attracted to someone of the same sex, he or she is suddenly deemed gay — and no! Not necessarily. We very much wanted to make clear that Rani is bisexual, whether she's dating a man or a woman or both.

Did you — do you, still, even — anticipate pushback from the audience expecting something more classically Arthurian? The Arthur myth is a pretty conservative, traditionally "masculine" story, after all. Your update flips that on multiple levels, not least of which how gloriously, wonderfully queer it ends up being. Was there nervousness around that, or just the opposite, a glee in potential responses from a particularly narrow-minded audience?

Knave: Once issue 1 came out, I saw a reviewer chastising us for not getting it right. Not because of who these characters were, but in Arthurian detail. And hey, that story happened! We are totally cool with that. It happened in our book, even. But the modern story isn't that story. It shouldn't be, it can't be. And yeah, I'll be honest, if people recoil because a half-Indian bisexual girl has a honking big sword? Good. Take the moment to consider yourself and work out why it bothers you this time that the most changed/adapted/messed-with story in Western history was changed yet again.

Kirkbride: If we're not going to change things or put our own spin on it, there's no reason for us to do it. Also, our creative team combo comes at it from different angles, which informs the story. Adam is one of the best read people I know, and of course he knows his Arthurian mythology. Nick was raised on these tales and is what I'd consider a bit of an expert. I, on the other hand, picked up the generalities through cultural osmosis. I mean, I saw Disney's The Sword in the Stone and John Boorman's Excalibur as a kid. I also enjoyed the Camelot 3000 comic, but compared to Nick and Adam, I'm definitely the newbie.

That enables us, as a team, to have a different collective voice. There are details and beats and moments that readers might have expected that we don't include in this volume. They might be planned for future tales, or they might not fit in our version. It's fun having so many possibilities. 

On the alternate side, the response to the book's initial single-issue release — the first two chapters suggested a new audience was embracing this take. What kind of feedback did you get from people who picked up the two issues released earlier this year? 

Kirkbride: Folks seemed very excited about it and, honestly, almost as confused as we were when it stopped with issue two. I had a friend a couple months ago ask me why we were so late, and I had to explain to him what happened. I wish we'd gotten all five of the planned single issues, especially for the readers who already bought 1 and 2 and now have to buy them again with the trade to get 3, 4 and 5. On the positive side, the price isn't that much more than the cover price of three single comics would've been, plus we were able to include some of Nick's development sketches with commentary by Adam and me, as well as our original pitch pages, so I think it ends up still being a good deal for readers.

Knave: People dug it. More so than I expected, honestly. But Arthurian Legend is powerful stuff, that's why we were drawn to it, after all, so it makes sense looking back. We launched at Emerald City Comic Con in March 2017 and were just blown away with the response there. 

The end of the book suggests more stories are left to be told. Do you know where The Once and Future Queen could go next — and are there already plans afoot to take it there?

Knave: There are hopes. We have ideas. We know where it can go. We'll see what happens.

Kirkbride: Sales willing, we would love to do more. Our plans for volume two have me so excited, actually, that I'm kind of chomping at the bit. Fingers crossed!