By Patrick Wolf
We live in a generation that’s constantly craving new stories. We’ve all heard the tale of Hercules, Macbeth, and Cinderella so many times, we can practically recite them. So, if someone’s going to retell a classic, it better have a fresh spin on it if it’s going to pique our interest. Well, I’m happy to say this is exactly what Cullen Bunn does in his dark reimagining of the legend of King Arthur.
Unholy Grail is a gritty reinterpretation of the classic Arthurian legend. However, instead of having a noble king, merry knights, and a wise wizard, Bunn’s Camelot is a bleak, sinister world filled with monsters, magic, and betrayal. The story features one of Arthur’s knights, Percival of Wales, as he returns to Camelot with the Holy Grail. However, upon returning, he finds his home has been destroyed and his friends butchered. What’s more, the castle has been put under a curse, and there’s more to Merlin than meets the eye.
I must confess, before opening Unholy Grail # 1, I didn’t have much expectation. We all know the story of King Arthur. I also confess that I never liked the story. I always found the legend to be kind of boring and dated. Arthur, Merlin, and Lancelot were just a pack of goodie-goodies and all I really wanted was for someone to give them a righteous punch in the face.
Well, that’s exactly what Bunn does. Instead of giving us a firm, morally robust Arthur, we get a flawed, uncertain man who wants to do right, but isn’t quite sure how to go about it. And, instead of giving us a wise, selfless Merlin, we get a cunning old man who’ll stop at nothing to achieve ultimate power. Even the supporting characters, like Percival, are complex and moving. Within every panel, you really feel Percival’s despair. He found the Holy Grail—the ultimate achievement for a knight, and yet, without his home, what good is it?
This leads me to Colak’s art. Without his intricate style, the story would definitely have suffered. Colak is a master of using imagery and facial expressions to convey mood and tone in a way I haven’t seen in a long time. Merlin comes off as determined, Arthur as uncertain, and Percival as melancholy. Yes, the storytelling does a lot for us as well, but the detail of Colak’s facial expressions really add to the story’s general sense of hopelessness.
If I had any criticism for Unholy Grail, it would probably be its precarious use of flashbacks. The narrative often goes back-and-forth through time, and it’s not always clear what’s the past and what’s the present. Of course, as I went on, I figured it out, but the reading experience would have been smoother if I didn’t have to flip-back-and-forth between segments.
Besides that, Unholy Grail is an excellent retelling of a story that I, frankly, thought was dead. I honestly care about Arthur and Merlin, and I’m eager to see what twists Bunn has in store for us. Read this series: it might just be the best reimagining of the Arthurian legend yet.
Unholy Grail # 1
Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Mirko Colak
Colorist: Simon Bowland
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Publisher: Aftershock Comics