Last year DC Comics – one of the two corporate behemoths dominating the monthly comics market in the US – cancelled all their superhero titles, some of which had unbroken runs stretching back decades, and relaunched with 52 new #1s. It was a Hail Mary pass, prompted by long-running and cumulatively punishing declines in circulation. (Marvel, DC’s great competitor, is similarly afflicted and they’re also going to try something dramatic, if less ambitious, relaunching 20+ of their titles starting in October).
As a result of the DC relaunch a heap of collected editions is starting to emerge, all introducing new storylines, characters and/or status quos, all notionally good starting points for the new or lapsed reader. As a semi-lapsed superhero aficionado, I figured I’d test these fresh waters, in a quest for nothing more complicated than fun.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I failed to adhere to my self-imposed quest parameters, getting thoroughly distracted by non fun-related things like the structure of certain famous movie endings, the power of nostalgia and the objectification of women in superhero comics. Indeed, despite only trying to talk about a couple of comics, I got distracted at such length that I’ve split what was going to be one column into two.
Today, then, you get the first installment, which is the one in which I get sidetracked by movie endings.
written by Paul Cornell, drawn (mostly) by Diogenes Neves, published by DC Comics
I guess this is kind of a superhero comic, but really it’s a Dark Age heroic fantasy. It happens to feature characters from the (pre-New52) DC superhero universe, but it’s set in Dark Age Europe and is about swords, sorcery and dragons (sort of, as far as the dragons are concerned). As I have been known to write a heroic-ish fantasy novel or two myself, that’s no bad thing, in my world.
This first chapter is also something of an homage to Seven Samurai or, if you prefer your movie references Hollywood adaptation flavoured, The Magnificent Seven. As both of those – especially the former – would appear high on my list of all-time favourite films that too is no bad thing, in my world.
Seven, mostly magical, warriors – the Demon Knights of the title – reluctantly band together to defend a small village that lies in the path of a vast army. Cue infighting, friction (to put it mildly) between heroes and villagers, desperate last stands, all manner of magical pyrotechnics. It’s good stuff, considerably enhanced by the obvious fun Paul Cornell is himself having – as he often does in his comics – with his character design, development and interactions.
Those characters – along with some pleasingly energetic and precise art by Diogenes Neves – are a big part of the appeal. Cornell does a really striking job of economically building up a terrifically intricate web of interactions between them, and hinting at or sketching in some of the secrets they carry.
Etrigan – The Demon – is a long-standing favourite character of mine. Imprisoned by Merlin in an unwilling human host, allowed to emerge only in direst emergency, he’s enjoyably amoral and cruel here, and Neves gives him a splendid feral, imposing visual presence.
Newer favourites include Cornell’s re-imagining of The Shining Knight (an ancient and rather silly DC character) as an ambiguously gendered grail-quester, and Exoristos (a new creation, as far as I know) who’s an exiled Amazon with an entertaining line in contemptuous puzzlement at the wider world. All of the banter between these eccentrics is lively and slick, albeit with a modern vibe to it that’s not entirely in keeping with the setting. Witness probably the best line here: ‘Let’s do what we always do … We find the source of the problem and we throw dragons at it.’
There’s a whole lot of entertaining invention in the incidental detail too. Those dragons, for example. They come in two varieties: true dragons, which are dinosaurs, some of which wield swords or breathe fire; and heraldic dragons, which are gigantic mechanical constructs packed with warriors. There’s also the Mobile Palace of the Questing Queen, which is mobile because it’s strapped to the back of a titanic sauropod dinosaur. This all qualifies as good fun, if you ask me.
There’s a dark quality to the book too, though. There’s quite a lot of blood. Children are killed. There are betrayals, and some decidedly unheroic heroes (as well as some more traditionally heroic ones). The contrast between this grimmer material and the lighter, quippy veneer that’s laid over it could be jarring, but on the whole I think writer and artist get away with it. For what it’s worth, my feeling is that the darkness is closer to the heart of the book’s intent; it’s clearly meant to be fun and entertaining – and it is – but there’s a persistent underlying sense that they were called the ‘Dark’ Ages for a reason.
Now, I’m going to flirt with some mild spoilerage here, because I want to talk about endings. As I said, this is Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, both of which nail the landing of bittersweet, elegiac, compromised victories.
Without getting into detail, Demon Knights goes for something broadly similar. It would be impossible, in the space available, for Cornell to set the stage for anything as potent and layered as the films achieve. That said, he gets his thematic pieces pretty effectively lined up, and the last page punchline more or less hits the target.
The endings of those two classic films work as they do in large part because of the sacrifice made, the price paid, by the seven ‘heroes’. Several of them die, in short. That’s crucial, especially in the Japanese original, for all kinds of reasons. Too many to get into here, so I’ll just offer two by way of illustration.
First, the self-sacrifice of the heroes is, in a sense, redemptive; not so much of them as individuals but of their kind. They have more in common with the bad guys than with the villagers they are defending. By laying down their lives, they partially atone for the suffering endured by the ‘common’ folk at the hands of men like them.
Second, the death of most of the heroes (and pretty much all the bad guys) is central to the notion of the villagers as the long-term winners, the true survivors. After the fighting, they – most of them – return to the fields, and to the stubbornly persistent cycle of rural life, while the Seven are either dead, bereaved or doomed to a continuing rootless, almost valueless, existence.
Here’s the thing (and the spoiler), though, and this is observation rather than complaint: in Demon Knights, the ultimate price can’t be paid by the Seven, because they’re the main characters (or, more relevantly, corporate intellectual properties) in an ongoing series. Instead, in effect, it’s paid by the villagers. The Demon Knights buy their victory with some bumps and bruises and a bit of upset; not with their own lives, but with those of the villagers, and with the fabric of their homes.
This gives the ending a different tone, even though it’s structurally quite similar to that of the movies. It’s further complicated by the fact that at least a couple of the seven ‘heroes’ are responsible for acts that are self-evidently villainous/murderous, and they escape entirely unpunished for these. (Another one of them does engage in some redemptive self-sacrifice, actually, but it’s neither terminal nor decisive).
Beneath the surface fun and quips, then, there’s a certain nihilistic bleakness to Demon Knights for me, which contrasts with the oddly uplifting melancholy the movies ultimately fashion from very similar material. I’m not at all sure if it was intended to come across like that; it might just be me overthinking and being over-sensitive.
Anyway, bottom line: good comic. In fact, the more I’ve thought about it since reading it, the more I’ve come to look forward to the next chapter, so I’ll say: very good comic. Fun. You should buy it and read it and enjoy it, in my jolly humble opinion.