REVIEW: Demon Knights #1

One of the things I like most about DC’s relaunch is the attempt to reach out to a wider audience beyond the superhero genre.  Now, I love superheroes as much as the next guy, but variety is the spice of life.  Amongst the New 52, there is a western comic, war comics, and most notably, an expansion of the horror genre (or, at the least, an injection of horror elements into superhero narratives) under the DC Dark banner.  But one of the exercises in genre diversification that most captured my interest was Demon Knights, DC’s foray into fantasy.

Up until recently, fantasy was not a genre that I was particularly engaged by.  Of course, I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, the books and the films, but beyond the world of swords and sorcery just didn’t appeal to me.  But recently, some notable works in the genre have worked to change that.  There was Tears of the Dragon, the quality webcomic from Tyler James and Koko Ambaro, a tale that channels the spirit of The Princess Bride but incorporates a darker, tragic element.  And then I was blown away by Game of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice novels.  All of a sudden, fantasy seemed more exciting.  So, when news emerged that Paul Cornell – one of my favourite writers – would be tackling the genre with a tale of Jack Kirby’s Etrigan The Demon leading a band of outcast warriors in the Dark Ages, it seemed like a natural fit, and so Demon Knights very quickly found itself on my list of must-buy comics.

With the respective marketing of each title, I actually found myself holding a higher anticipation for Stormwatch, Cornell’s other series.  But I read Stormwatch #1, and while it was a perfectly enjoyable first issue, I think it was overshadowed by some of the other New 52 titles of last week, and didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations I had in my head.  Demon Knights does.  In fact, it surpasses them.  Demon Knights #1 is a comic laced with the wit, invention, and British charm I’ve come to love from  Cornell’s work in titles such as Knight & Squire, and it would seem Cornell has carried over an important narrative lesson  from Knight & Squire #1: there is perhaps no better setting to launch a series and introduce a cast of characters than a good ol’ English pub.

It’s a magnificently constructed set-piece, as our cast of characters – some familiar faces, some brand new – steadily congregate in a little village inn called The Victory in Rome, all while he know a fearsome horde of marauding killers is on an inevitable collision course with the sleepy rural community.  It’s an environment where people go to sit and talk, and so it allows for our ensemble to be introduced in quick, economic succession.  But Cornell skilfully gives each character their own distinct voice and personality, and very quickly seeing how these personalites will interact and clash becomes a point of intrigue.  Even though in some cases they only have a few panels to make an impression, each of our “magnificent seven” brings something to the narrative, as I hope to demonstrate:

I really am full of love for humans at this point.

One small touch that I appreciate, and an example that perhaps more writers could have followed in these supposedly new-reader-friendly #1s, is that in the opening sequence of the comic, Paul Cornell gives us a quick recap of our eponymous Demon’s origin, set against the dramatic backdrop of the fall of Camelot.  Etrigan is a character who I’ve enjoyed when he’s popped up in supporting roles in other books, but even I wasn’t familiar with his backstory beyond what I’d read on Wikipedia.  This reads very well as an introductory comic for someone who has never read an Etrigan comic before, following the story of how Merlin’s servant Jason Blood was mystically bonded with the demon Etrigan by letting us frst spent time getting acquainted with the pragmatic Jason Blood before his monstrous other half is unleashed in the issue’s climactic moments.  This lets Etrigan be built up as the heaviest hitter in a pub full of hard-as-nails badasses, but it also provides a nice twist, as while much of the setup seems to be about Jason Blood as a Bruce Banner figure trying to contain the savage beast within, when he does make the transformation, Etrigan is introduced as an eloquent figure with his own distinct personality, and his own human attachments.

Just one quiet pint.  That’s all I ask.

Though the comic is called Demon Knights, and though it is presented as a team book, judging by this first issue, it will be a series with two leading roles, the second one being filled by Madame Xanadu.  In the wake of this relaunch, Xanadu might be the character that gets one of the biggest boosts in status.  This week alone, she appears in two different titles, and is also slated to be on the roster for Justice League Dark, making her something of a lynchpin figure linking the various titles under the “Dark” banner.  While my limited knowledge of Xanadu always had her as a wise, enigmatic figure, here Cornell has fun giving us a younger version of the immortal sorceress, only a few hundred years old, seeming more human with her less sage, more ill-tempered demeanour.  I think we’re going to have a really interesting dynamic running through this series, a twist on the “unconventional love triangle” of Superman, Clark and Lois, in that Xanadu seems to be telling both Jason Blood and Etrigan that she loves them, and would rather they not change into their other form.  There’s a note of ambiguity as to which one she’s lying to… or maybe she has feelings for them both?

I have almost no ethics myself, you understand… but I like them in others.

Vandal Savage is a prolific DC villain that has shown up in a wide range of titles I’ve read, and while plenty of these have been great stories, Savage has never really stood out as a favourite of mine.  This, however, might mark one of my favourite appearances by the immortal (notice a trend here?) rogue, adding the wrinkle that, when you get over the fact that he’s pure evil, Vandal Savage is actually a jolly, personable kind of fellow who’s good to have a drink with.

The celts have odd ways.  Nod and smile.

Perhaps best known for her appearance in Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory, Shining Knight is a girl who has adopted the male guise of “Sir Ystin”.  We get a brief but telling glimpse of her personality here, as she makes a big show of being a man, overcompensating for everything – the showy armor, the massive sword, the giant pitcher of ale, and the manly boasts – but still looking totally ladylike with the way she’s sitting (a nice touch by Diogenes Neves, more on him later).  One particularly effective beat is that we see all the other characters immediately cotton on to the fact that this is a woman pretending to be a man, but politely play along with her ruse.  Nice to see such an enlightened view of the transgendered in medeival times!

Listen, I am Al Jabr.  I bring mechanisms that can make you rich.

Sadly, we see in the treatment of Al Jabr that in other ways, we share many of the same prejudices that some of us still have today.  Coming across as a suave, Middle-Eastern prototype for Tony Stark, we learn most about Al Jabr by how the barkeep treats him, regarding him with distrust and suspicion because of his ethnicity.  It’s a small beat, but it’s a nice bit of social commentary thrown in by Cornell, demonstrating the era where such unenlightened attitudes should have remained.

I come from an island where men are castrated… and women are pleased.

Enrichening the mythology of Wonder Woman before her new #1 is even released, Exoristos is a nice way of showing that Diana wasn’t the first Amazon to have the idea of walking among men, and not all of them are going to be as friendly and compassionate as her.  But despite her violent, aggressive nature, Exoristos’ abuse of the barkeep is in defense of Al Jabr, so in that way, it could be suggested that heroism seems to be naturally ingrained in the race.

But please, whoever you are… take this news to the village… disaster approaches!

Of our seven characters, the one we see the least of is the mysterious, horsebound archer we only get a single glimpse of, obscured against the glare of the sun.  But with the ease with which she takes out three of the horde, she seems to be a formidable combatant, and one I’m interested in seeing more of in the future.  I’ll take this moment to note that the majority of the central ensemble are women, and none feels like a “token woman”: each is given their own rounded personality, and they’re arguably the most interesting characters.  This is the kind of book the Batgirl of San Diego criticised DC Comics for not having enough of, so I really hope she gets a chance to read Demon Knights #1 – I think she’ll like it.

We find the source of the problem… and we throw dragons at it.

As our heroes gather, our villains plot in the distance, giving everything that’s going on at the inn an air of impending doom.  This strand of the narrative is deftly executed, with Mordru and the Questing Queen posing a threat whose scope is not quite yet clear.  There’s also a moment of unspeakable evil involving a baby I had to actually reread to be sure I was actually seeing what I thought I’d seen.  Yes, I did.

All this is not to say that, amidst all the characterisatio, nothing happens.  This is a meticulously plotted comic, making the very most of its 20 pages by ensuring something important happens, or someone interesting is introduced, on every page.  This is a very dense, plot-driven book, packing a lot of story into a single issue, but importantly, it never feels dense.

A big part of what makes Demon Knights such an easy read is the beautiful artwork of Diogenes Neves, whose large, open panels give everything an expansive, epic feel.  The colors of Marcelo Maiolo aid in establishing a warm, vibrant atmosphere within the pages, giving the art a classic, painted vibe.  Of particular note in the art department is the excellence with which Neves renders Etrigan.  Bolstered by a well-judged update of his costume, Neves’ massive Demon is one of the finest depictions of the character I’ve seen, even better than the also-impressive rendition provided by Tony Daniel for the cover.  Though I also have a soft spot for Jimmy Broxton, I’d venture to say that Diogenes Neves is arguably the finest artest Paul Cornell has worked with.

Overall, Demon Knights #1 is a towering success, easily the best of the new DC offerings this week, and up there with Swamp Thing and Animal Man among the best of the New 52 overall thus far.  The fact that all three of these are DC Dark titles further cements my opinion that this is the corner of the DCU to be most excited about.  I read this whole comic with a big, goofy grin on my face.  The biggest compliment I can give to Demon Knights is that when reading it, I quickly got the impression that this could be a spritual successor to Secret Six.  It shares quite a few traits in common with Gail Simone’s consistently excellent supervillain team book: an ensemble of bad, bad people who are actually quite nice when you get to know them, a pitch-black sense of humor, and a sense that, even when the protagonists are in the most dire of straits, this is a comic with its tongue ever so gently prodding its cheek.

I just hope that, like Secret Six, Demon Knights can avoid cancellation, and is given time to build up the cult audience it is surely good enough to attract.  Paul Cornell and Diogenes Neves have crafted something really special here, and if you like diversity, if you’re up for trying something a bit different from the norm, give Demon Knights #1 a try.  I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it.

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