One Year Later: Demon KnightsA comic review article by: Steve Morris
One year in, and "The New 52" has now shifted to "The 52." How's it been? Steve Morris investigates in a series we're calling "One Year Later."
A recent addition to the "team book" genre these past few years has been "Paul Cornell style," in which a group of characters are brought together and written by Paul Cornell. Fairly simple, really. And yet Cornell has such a singular voice for these sort of books that it's really anything but, drawing depth from characters even as they are used solely for comic relief. The blend of old-fashioned humor, culture shock and contemporary interpersonal conflict somehow form a unique formula under Cornell, creating a style uniquely his. Like Grant Morrison on Doom Patrol or John Ostrander on Suicide Squad, this is a different style of team writing which nobody else can match.
Demon Knights started off as a book set in a fantasy world, playing into the recent popularity of shows like Game of Thrones, and indebted to previous works like Matt Wagner's Madame Xanadu and Morrison's Seven Soldiers. After a critically successful run on Captain Britain and MI13 (even though the run did dip into over-sentimentality at the end), this was Cornell's return to the team format, backed with a range of strange character. Vandal Savage, Madame Xanadu, Etrigan the Demon and Shining Knight were the more recognizable members of the cast, which just goes to show how much of a risk DC were taking with the book. With a cast of non-Batmans to work with, the key draw to the series instead became Cornell himself, who had developed a following with DC fans due to his work on Action Comics.
That same mix of dark humor and character-focused storytelling has returned here, with a noticeably more fearless Cornell taking many more risks with the story, and the bleakness he offers. While the book is still somewhat rose-tinted in nature, you can sense that Cornell is starting to develop his writing style to create higher-risk for the characters, and make the stories more interesting. Issue #1 saw the main characters all fortuitously sat in the same bar on the day the bar was attacked by dragons and magic. Forming an alliance of sorts, they fought off the threat and created an uneasy team, led by Etrigan and Madame Xanadu.
In the early going, the book was a little too similar to Captain Britain, using much of the same team dynamic. Etrigan and Pete Wisdom shared a few too many qualities, while Madame Xanadu felt a lot like Cornell's creation Faiza Hussain, the overly-British gibberer who bogged down much of that previous series. It was only after a standalone issue which dealt with the character Shining Knight that the book worked away from the Captain Britain formula and settled into something of its own. There's still much of the same tone as Cornell's previous team books at play here, but it's a stronger, more developed version of it.
Issue #12, drawn by the excellent Diogenes Neves (who has been here since the beginning, with only the odd fill-in artist joining in), is the first issue #12 which managed to conclude the first year of story while setting up the next year. Most other books either complete the story and conclude, or petered out and fail to give any definitive idea of what might come next. The last page of this issue, however, makes it absolutely clear what's coming next, and it's another strong cliffhanger for the book. The characters have come together as a unit, which makes their banter a lot more cohesive and natural than it was at the start, while the story has built up to a logical climax.
Some of the problems are here which always affect team titles. Some characters are largely ignored for whole issues at a time, as the story focuses on a personal grudge between only one or two members of the cast. Here, for example, the Arthurian villain means only Xanadu and Shining Knight have much of a role to play in this penultimate issue. Vandal Savage remains the comic relief, with suggestions of depth which haven't paid off quite yet – they assuredly will, but for the time being he's a little underused. Meanwhile, the new characters added to the team add very little to this last issue of the year. Not that I'm saying Cornell should be focusing on his new creations over the more well-known ones, but if they don't get featured, they won't develop a fanbase. There's a nice suggestion that one of them shares a link with Animal Man's concept of "The Red" concept, but aside from that they're ignored this issue.
Demon Knights has proven to be a great year of stories from Cornell, which have helped build his reputation and style as a writer. He was mismatched for Stormwatch, perhaps, but a book like this plays to his strengths and allows him to have fun at the same time as delivering some bubblegum fantasy storytelling, backed by a well-suited art team and a stronger capacity for surprise.
For more not-so-New-52 coverage, check out Steve's other One Year Later essays:
One Year Later: Demon Knights
Steve Morris is the head and indeed only writer for Comics Vanguard, the internet's 139th most-favorite comic-book website. You can find him on Twitter at @stevewmorris, which is mostly nonsensical gibberish you may enjoy or despise. His favorite Marvel character is Darkstar, while his favorite DC character is, also, Darkstar. He's on Team X-Men, you guys.