The Arthurian legend has more adaptations than one can consume in a lifetime—literally. Between the thousands of videos, books, music, and art featuring the Arthurian mythos, whether it is a full-on utilization of the legend or merely a simply allusion—one must be selective in how these texts are consumed, otherwise, you will be left with a bitter taste in your mouth while far more flavorful dishes remain untasted. Food metaphors aside, though, carefully picking a text is easy when the minds behind it are famed for the artistry.
Enter, Camelot 3000, a science-fiction reimagining of the Arthurian legend. Created by Mike E. Barr and Brian Bolland, both of whom are graphic novel veterans, the story tells of King Arthur and his knights reincarnated in the year three-thousand AD. Earth is under attack by aliens and nearly powerless to resist the devastating force. That is until Tom, our lovable protagonist who also serves as a narrative cipher, discovers King Arthur buried deep beneath the ground. Freed from his crypt, King Arthur ignites the journey to rediscover his old crew and save Earth once more!
That is the gist of the story. As one might expect, the adventure is one where Arthur must discover his old but newly reincarnated knights, form them into a combat-ready team, and confront the alien menace and the evil Morgan le Fay head on. Obviously, the actual narrative isn’t much to write home about. It is just a simple rehashing of Thomas Malory’s telling of King Arthur. The real attraction, rather, is the ways in which the legend is rearticulated as far-future constructs.
Things in the year 3000 are hardly all sunshine and rainbows. The world is overpopulated (because of course, it is), there are only four political and economic superpowers making all the big decisions (powers led by caricatures of their respective leaders’ culture, of course), and things, in general, have degenerated into a police state with criminals even being transformed into “neo-men”, terrible and strong mutants who mindlessly obey the will of the police and crush dissent. Society, in other words, has gone down the crapper in a fairly dramatic way.
So, when King Arthur and Tom begin their search for the reincarnated knights, this is perhaps why Merlin is found trapped underneath Stonehenge, why the Lady of the Lake now resides in the waste pool of a nuclear power plant, and why the fabled sword in the stone emerges right in the center of the UN’s headquarters, so that when Arthur re-pulls the sword, all of earth is able to see his triumph through the magic of television. What the graphic novel sets up is this idea of a society in deep need of Arthur’s guidance and not simply because aliens are invading; society has degenerated to the point of fascistic plutocracy and it is time for a great ruler to fix it.
It is hardly a spoiler to say that Arthur does indeed fix things, or is at least complicit in the chain of events which rectifies the ills of reality. But, that is his role as a narrative device and it always has been his role; Arthur heralds the dawn of a new age, one where the leaders of the old world are pushed aside and a new period begins. A dawn which is more than simply economic or militarily dominated. His knights, for instance, hardly reincarnate without incident; Perceval is transformed into a partial neo-man by mistake while Sir Tristian is reincarnated as a woman, forcing his romance with Isolde into a delightful Queer angle which simultaneously evokes transgender struggles related to identity but also homosexual longings for belonging; I will say that seeing King Arthur– Macho-Man Extreme– correct his pronoun use was a delight and all the indication one needs that today’s reactionary opus over pronoun use is greatly blown out of proportion. The new dawn of Camelot 3000, then, unearths an Arthurian retelling which is concerned with the social as much as the masculinist impulse to war.
Such was what I enjoyed most about reading through the twelve-chapters of Barr and Bolland’s epic. Was all the content unproblematic? No, of course not; though I loved the aspect of Sir Tristian’s character which put him at war with himself over his feminine body, I took offense to the aspect of the story which put yet another Queer character as a partial villain simply because an antagonist held out the promise of said Queer character being happy with themselves. Likewise, I also didn’t much care for the liberal neo-Malthusian view of overpopulation; the earth can support many billions of more people if resources are efficiently used but liberals would still like to believe that the population should be curbed and if things are left unchecked, then humanity will suffer. Both of these issues I found grating to have to endure but I can at least say that they encompassed but a small aspect of the text. Other texts take similar points to far more extreme ends, so I honestly can only complain so much of their inclusion here, especially considering Camelot 3000 was originally published in 1988, a time otherwise uncritical of heteronormativity and immersed in Reaganite policies.
Because this is a sci-fi reinterpretation, and one which is literally decades old, I will refrain from commenting on whether Camelot 3000 is historically accurate to those portions of the legend which it recalls from Malory. As the authors admit in their forward, their exposure to Arthuriana amounted to but an introductory course when one of them was in college and random readings thereafter. Besides, it is a re-telling and one in THE FUTURE no less. To talk down and chide the text for including mutant viruses and grail-armor is to take issue with its very soul—that of adaptation, of retelling the legend for what was then a new generation of youth. I will say that the re-contextualization of Arthur and his knights in the future was brilliant and leave it at that.
With all the above said, I enjoyed Camelot 3000. It had its hiccups but what doesn’t have a speed bump or two? What began as a very macho-man like story of clubbing aliens quickly turned into a politically charged, Queer narrative of brotherhood and rebuilding. The story I feel remains a progressive tale of re-orientation, of what happens when Arthuriana comes unhinged from its conservative roots and is mindful of the cultures, genders, and sexualities which surround it. I only wish that there were more such daring adaptations which pushed the legend further than Barr and Bolland dared. Oh well. In time, dear reader, in time.