What started off as a slow burning retelling of the Arthurian legends through the lens of Lovecraftian horror finishes in a sprint, as a lot of ground is covered in this final issue of Unholy Grail from AfterShock Comics; overall a most satisfying adaption that, unfortunately, feels a bit rushed as this tale of yore hurries to conclude.
Those familiar with the end of Arthur’s reign–a constant no matter which version of Britain’s greatest legend you favour–will read about some very familiar narrative beats as Arthur faces off against his illicitly born son, Mordred, and his mother, Arthur’s half-sister, Morgana. Oh, and there’s the thorny problem of the series’ Machiavellian magician, Merlin too. A man who spits on the very concept of the Divine Rights of Kings in an attempt to put his own straw man on the throne of Britain.
The differences to this retelling, as plotted by Cullen Bunn and aided and abetted by artist Mirko Colak, go a long way to help pick up the pace as Mordred is fully born a man and ready to sit in for Arthur as he seeks out the mythical Holy Grail in an attempt to heal Britain. It would seem, like in John Boorman’s Excalibur, that Arthur and the land are intrinsically linked and when one hurts, so too does the other.
Merlin, throughout this series, has reminded me in no small part of the ‘weird sisters’ in Macbeth. He manipulates Arthur to serve a bigger purpose; the eternal game of good versus evil and who has a foothold on this Earth at any one time in history. But, it would seem Arthur’s very human frailties have put a spanner in the works of the demon-spawned mage. He is no Macbeth, thankfully, and only wants what is best for his country and his people. This is a burden he must carry while also trying to reconcile himself with being an adulterer and having adultery happen to him too.
Ultimately, though, with this fifth and final issue galloping through some pretty major plot points of the Arthurian legend with such haste, I don’t feel I got to know Bunn and Colak’s Arthur all that well. But then, this isn’t so much Arthur’s story but that of Merlin’s whom we have remained focused on throughout. Merlin wasn’t more than a bit part player in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, but here he jockeys to be the true power behind the throne, only for Arthur to inadvertently make a mockery of Merlin’s best laid plans. Arthur, the accidental hero of Britain? It would seem so. With some help from friends, of course as he comes face to face with old allies, now turned would be enemies.
Colak’s art, along with the colours of Maria Santaolalla, lend this series a European quality to the art, worthy of the subject matter and elevating this mere comic book as they present a world of battles and blood in this issue as Britain sinks. The double pager upon which Arthur’s final stand is presented is both bloody and beautiful, and shocking. We see no battle, but rather the aftermath, the final swinging of swords and hacking of human flesh.
This is a story both familiar and unfamiliar, no more so than the final image of the book, suggesting a much more pessimistic take on the fate of Arthur than we know of. This is a book that has left its scars on all who have ventured across Merlin’s path, and one that leaves a sadness in the air, as is befitting a legend that has been dipped in horror. Merlin himself, and the poison he spreads, may allude to the title as much as any object. That Unholy Grail has been in plain sight all along, albeit now lost in time.
Unholy Grail #5 is out Wednesday 20th December 2017 from AfterShock Comics, Cullen Bunn, Mirko Colak, Maria Santaolalla and Simon Bowland
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