It’s not often that you get to sit in on the start of a universe. This month, DC Comics have relaunched their entire line, scrapping every book and restarting most with new first issues and a new status quo established by Flashpoint, the last massive, universe spanning crossover. It’s a standard narrative model with comics and one which I both encountered and learned to fear time and time again during my time as a retailer. Crossovers killed momentum in individual series, they rarely had lasting consequences and a lot of the time they turned people off buying the extra issues until, due to a vagary of the comic industry too tedious to explain, it was far too late for us to get them.
The New 52, as they’re being called, looks to be a little different. The central titles are all there, of course, but there’s another wave of books which are odder, more eccentric, deliberately experimental. I’ve read most of the flagship books so far and all the odder ones and it’s a fascinating, not to say remarkably consistent, piece of world building from the ground up. Whether it’ll stick, or indeed if any of the most interesting books are still alive in seven months time, I have no idea. I do know it’s been a fascinating ride so far, especially with those outer edge,more eccentric books.
Demon Knights is one half of a pair of linked books, both written by Paul Cornell. Set four centuries in the past it opens with the fall of Camelot and neatly explores what several of the DC Universe’s more supernatural characters were doing on that day. Cornell uses the fall of Camelot as a backdrop, a fulcrum around which several characters seize opportunities or find opportunities seized from them. The most interesting of these is Jason Blood, reimagined as a hapless apprentice of Merlin who not only sees the long game but happens to have a demon, Etrigan, caged for just such an occasion. Jason and Etrigan are fused and Merlin disappears, muttering about how this will all become clear centuries from now. It’s an obvious point to make given his pedigree with the show but there’s something of Doctor Who to Cornell’s portrayal of Merlin, particularly the 7th Doctor and his combination of polite, quiet, erratic charm and terrifying strategic mind. Camelot has fallen, Camelot will rise again and Merlin may have just ensured that it does. It’s an interesting take, simultaneously echoing the Nicol Williamson and Joseph Fiennes takes on the character and producing something which, although glimpsed briefly, is fascinating. It’s a nice approach to Blood’s origin too, explaining his longevity and showing how he evolves over time, coming to terms with the monster he shares space with.
Cornell really comes into his own over the next few pages though, as Madame Xanadu, another supernatural DC mainstay, opts to stay in England rather than sail off to Avalon. The portrayal of Arthur’s heroic death is typically impressive but Xanadu’s ‘Oh SOD this’ as she jumps overboard not only grounds it but honours it. The King is dead but everyone else isn’t, and Xanadu’s decision to stay looks to be an important part of the book’s overall plot.
In a gutsy move, that plot then picks up some time later with Jason and Xan on the outskirts of the village of Little Spring. Some time has clearly passed and the two have an easy, comfortable banter that walks the reader through the introductions of the rest of the cast. The splendidly named Vandal Savage, a villain in modern DC continuity is a large and charmingly up front barbarian whilst Sir Ystin, last seen in Grant Morrison’s 7 Soldiers of Victory series,is neatly repositioned here as a slightly andogynous drunk, pining after the fall of his version of Camelot. They’re joined by Exoristos, an Amazon and Al Jabr, an Arabian craftsman in a sequence which not only sets up the group status quo elegantly but also sets them in the gloriously traditional setting of an inn. Here, Cornell plays with the traditions of the tabletop roleplaying group and modules that started with ‘You all meet up in a bar’ and turns it into something easy to follow, but still complex and nuanced. By using this traditional setting, Cornell marries his cast of established characters and newcomers to create something that feels organic straight , even before the arrival of the central villainess and the two big surprises concealed in this issue. The first is that Xanadu is in a relationship with Etrigan, not Jason Blood, and Jason remains unaware of it whilst the second is that the villainess may not be so villainous at all. The Questing Queen is a glorious idea, a monarch who strides across the land with an army of slaves on dinosaur mounts and gives every impression of being evil. Yet, she talks about repairing the world, rather than conquering it. There are early hints this is a book as much about clashing ideologies as it is about a medieval demon punching dinosaurs in the face and I honestly can’t think of a writer better able to balance the two than Cornell. Only time, and sales, will tell if he’s going to be given the opportunity to do it.
Demon Knights is easily one of the strangest books to be launched in The New 52, but it’s also one of the best. Cornell’s script is tight, funny and incident and idea heavy whilst Diogenes Neves’ pencils, backed up by Oclair Albert’s inks ground the book in a believable medieval context, even if that context is heavily fictionalised and involves dinosaurs. This is smart, tightly paced and designed pop culture storytelling and all involved should be very proud. If you haven’t picked it up yet, you’re curious about the new DC Universe, or if you like the idea of knights fighting dinosaurs, start here, you won’t be disappointed.
Demon Knights Issue 1 is available now