By: Paul Cornel (writer), Michael Choi & Diógenes Neves (pencillers), Oclair Albert (inker), Marcelo Maiolo (colorist)

The Story: Call me a Philistine, but are we really going through all this trouble for a cup?

The Review: If you ever read Cornell’s terrific run on Action Comics (or even his current work on Stormwatch), you know he’s capable not only of writing strong, likable characters, but far-reaching ideas and plots as well.  Whether we’re talking a godlike entity with the power to bring happiness throughout existence, or a man born at the start of the universe aging backwards so he can kill it in the end, Cornell has written some of the more interesting concepts in sci-fi.

So it was only a matter of time before he would bring that same kind of conceptual imagination to this fantasy tale he weaves for us now.  And he could have a no more potent focus for his creative powers than the most glorified and least understood motif of the sword-and-sorcery genre: the Holy Grail.

Cornell has Merlin himself explain the inexplicable nature of the Grail, in rapid-fire exclamations that has shades of Grant Morrison or Jonathan Hickman: “It is the cup our Lord drank from—that later drank his blood.  It is a way around the absolute.  To the numinous.  It is a record of everything.”  And just like a Morrison or Hickman monologue, it sounds quite impressive and important, but you can’t say you really understand anything further when it’s done.

Somewhat easier to take is the idea of Camelot as a recurring legend, the creation and destruction of which is a cycle that repeats itself through intermittent points in history.  This title opened on the end of one such iteration of Camelot, and this issue shows us the one from which Shining Knight hails, home to “Artus the Bear King” and “Myrddin, Thing of the Dung!”  We also get hints there may have been an even earlier version of Camelot (“All is lost.  Again.”), and there will be others in the future, as Merlin promises he will “[b]uild Camelot again.”

The question is whether Merlin’s constant efforts to recreate that which always seems to be lost in the end is truly for good (to “[m]ake a home for what is best in people, as he claims), or for his own nefarious purposes.  He insists he must keep trying, for “They must one day be beaten.  They must!”  Who is this “they” he refers to with such violence?  The fact is, only Merlin truly knows what he’s on about, regardless of whatever hints he may hand down to those he chooses.

And from what we’ve seen, Merlin has always been a duplicitous schemer.  Here, he not only encourages Shining Knight to pursue the Grail he purposely lost (in a scene that recalls Frodo and Mount Doom), but also the Questing Queen, revealing what it is exactly she’s questing for.  That brings us back to the present, where Jason Blood is made frantic by the very mention of Merlin’s name, Horsewoman gives Exoristos a painful lesson in letting her enthusiasm get away with her, and their motley crew is officially referred to as the “Demon Knights!

I don’t know who made the call, but it was a wise decision to have Choi draw the more ethereal portions of the script.  Neves is far from incapable, but his cartoonier style would have been less successful in conveying the import of Merlin’s visions, whereas Choi’s highly detailed work (you can practically count every hair in Merlin’s beard) looks immediately imposing and emotional.  Maiolo colors both artists with great alacrity, making Neves’ present day sequences vibrant and eye-catching, and Choi’s dream sequences moody and deep.

Conclusion: A lot of fascinating portents for the future of this series, but we really go nowhere in terms of the present plot.  Cornell makes it worth reading, however, with strong narration and rich development.

Grade: B

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – It’s amazing what’s treated as commonplace in this period: “She’ll be fine.  It was just a mystical vision of some sort.”

– Hmm… Merlin is also aging backwards.  What’s the connection to Adam One on Stormwatch, do you think?