Friday, September 30, 2011

The Seven Soldiers of Victory - Part 2 (Shining Knight)

Sir Justin, aka the Shining Knight, was a small time medieval-based character who occasionally was thrust into the present day to fight alongside the All-Star Squadron, and was one of the original Seven Soldiers of Victory.

For Grant Morrison's series, the Shining Knight's mythos where completely over-hauled - but kept the original framework of the character intact. There was also another big change to the character that, if you didn't know before reading it, you might not have been able to guess until it was revealed in the 4th issue. (If you don't want to know, then stop reading now.)

The Shining Knight

This was probably one of the more mythic of the series in Seven Soldiers - as it tackled the original legendary myth of King Arthur, Camelot, and the Round Table. The concept of Camelot being a cycle, or archetype, is developed here (essentially meaning there are rises and falls inbetween eras when humanity's best shine brightest). This Camelot takes place in the year 8,000 B.C. - so it's a much earlier version of the Camelot concept.

The story begins at Camelot's fall, with the Sheeda launching an invasion on humanity. The Sheeda are winning - their advanced technology and ruthlessness is winning the day, and all seems lost. The Shining Knight, though, is not about to give up the good fight - as Sir Justin of the Broken Table (instead of Roundtable, since they where being broken up) flies his winged horse Pegasus into the Sheeda's floating fortress, dubbed "Castle Revolving".

I simply love that name - Castle Revolving; it instantly seems mythic and awe-inspiring. Inside the dark fortress Sir Justin discovers the Cauldron of Rebirth - one of the fabled 7 imperishable items, which can revive a person from death and keep them alive forever. The Winged Horse Pegasus gives Justin advice (yes, it talks) as they come into this fortress of evil. Many of Sir Justin's friends and colleges have been captured by the Sheeda - tortured and completely warped of any previous identity of self, the Sheeda are experts in devaluing and destroying the soul of a person for their amusement and entertainment.

Sir Justin encounters the Queen of the Sheeda, Gloriana. She carries a mythical sword with her - supposedly a sword only the pure of heart could ever wield, thus it is sheathed. This sword is called Caliburn Ex Calibur, another of the 7 imperishable items, stolen by the Queen. The Shining Knight is able to get close enough to grab the sword - and not only unsheathe it, but wield it against Gloriana. To ensure Gloriana is not able to remain immortal any longer, Sir Justin lifts up the Cauldron of Rebirth and throws it into the green river surrounding the chamber. The Queen is outraged, saying that he doesn't understand what those pools of water actually are - that the Cauldron will forever be lost in time. Eventually the Shining Knight is forced to flee, and goes with Pegasus, leaping into the water to escape the fortress.

Castle Revolving isn't just a colorful name for this flying fortress -- it's a castle that travels through time, and falling out of the pool of water off the side of the castle Sir Justin and Pegasus fall - right into an entirely different age.

The Shining Knight and the steed Pegasus land hard onto the streets of modern day Los Angeles. Pegasus seemed to had broken their fall, but they where still hurt and confused as police officers surround them. They had fallen directly into the middle of traffic, and the sight of a Knight in Golden Armor with a winged horse was quite a disruption. Justin tried to explain; he would later realize the shields on the officer's uniforms where denoting them a peace-keepers - but Justin could not communicate with them yet. The language Justin spoke was a form of Welsh, turning Justin's name to Ystin. Justin is arrested and put in a police cruiser. The police keep talking to Justin, asking if he has a name. He replies in his foreign and indecipherable tongue...

"Ystin. Arach Avallach, Fir Sheeda."

I read somewhere that this was Justin saying his name, that he was a Knight of Avalon, and wondering if the LAPD where of the Sheeda. Regardless, not being unable to communicate Justin then proceeds to use his strength to break free of his restraints and break out of the car - fleeing. Out alone on the dark streets of Los Angeles, Justin is completely out of his depth. This land is completely different from the one he knew; yet a familiar threat soon shows itself. A dark cloud of a monster appears before Justin. Only the Shining Knight can perceive this creature, a Sheeda creation - a Mood Destroyer - which merely speaks to a person, piling on the weight of the guilt Justin already felt for failing his kingdom. The creature tells Justin that he had done the same to the Perfect Knight, Sir Galahad - and had destroyed him in this way.

Justin proceeded to wander the streets of LA, seemingly talking to himself as guilt continues to tell him of the Sheeda's indisputable destruction of Camelot, Avalon, and all the world he had once known. During this Justin helps fend off hoodlums who where bothering an old homeless man in a top hat - which seems to make the Guilt Monster evaporate. Not knowing what to do after this, Justin suddenly finds modern clothing covering his armor. Justin does not know how this happened, but he regains his courage and declares that even while only one Knight remains, Camelot and it's virtues and ideals will still endure.

Meanwhile Pegasus has been brought to stables to recover. Though it seems the local Mafia Don had requested this animal from the police. See, this was Vincenzo, the Undying Don - he seemed to have an interest in all things strange or mythological. A winged horse is quite a find. The Don dubs him Horsefeathers.

Justin turns up at a police station and turns himself in. Believing that he can more calmly explain things to the peace-keepers of this time, Justin hope he might be able to receive help.

A special FBI agent, specializing in meta-humans, is called in to handle the case. An expert on ancient mythology also shows up. Encountering this expert, too late does Justin realize that this is in fact the Sheeda Queen in disguise. The Queen dispenses with her illusion and attacks the FBI Agent, with Justin attacking the Queen head on.

There is another purpose to the Sheeda's appearance in this era - they have also come for the Cauldron of Rebirth - which they have finally discovered is in the hands of the Undying Don. Neb-Buh-Loh had come riding a giant monstrous spider, leading Sheeda forces to attack the Don. Killing the Don is their objective - but they have a much more devious plan in mind. The Don is struck by a arrow through the heart, but as always when injured is taken by his men to the Cauldron of Rebirth -- and while the Don is healed, but a tracking device implanted in him along with the arrow, which gives the Sheeda the exact location of the Cauldron. A full fledged attack is launched on the Don's estate; Pegasus tries to help, but is equally swarmed by Sheeda. Vincenzo is killed yet again - but with all of his enforcers dead, there would be no revival for the Undying Don this time.

While this is happening Justin continues to fight against the Sheeda Queen. Gloriana has a devastating card to play, though - as Sir Galahad, the once perfect Knight, is brought out to kill Justin. The Sheeda have done their work well, destroying all the goodness and righteousness Galahad once stood for. Everything that made him who he was had been stripped away, leaving a blood-thirsty monster in his place. Justin is devastated by this as he is beaten and bloodied by the once Perfect Knight. Then the Queen suddenly smells something - and orders Galahad to stop. She realizes Justin's secret - as the Queen is able to smell her blood: menstrual blood. Justin is in fact a woman. This distraction gives Justin the chance to strike and kill Galahad. Holding the decapitated head of Galahad, Justin declares...

"Gloriana. I am your death."

The final issue fades to a flashback to an earlier time during Camelot's war with the Sheeda. The stable boy, Justin, begs Sir Galahad to allow him to fight. Justin says that he has trained in secret and is able to fight. Seeing the desperation and willingness to fight for their Kingdom, Sir Galahad officially Knights Justin as Sir Justin. That is about where the story ends - to be concluded in the final issue of the Seven Soldiers series.

I have to say this was a remarkable story. What could be a cliched and tired "Knight in Modern-Times" tale became an epic frame-work for the entire Seven Soldiers series as a whole. It demonstrates the ruthlessness of the Sheeda - and what will happen to the modern Earth if the Sheeda are allowed to repeat the Harrowing of Man, as they have done repeatedly through history, always at the peak of human achievement.

I don't know if the reveal of Justin actually being Justina was known to readers beforehand - but anyone simply reading issues #1, 2 and 3 of the Shining Knight mini-series would have had no idea that Justin was in fact a girl, until revealed in issue #4. For the course of the series Justin, yes, was perhaps a long-haired and skinny warrior - perhaps a little effeminate looking; but nothing in the plot would have indicated anything more than Justin simply being a youthful boy. It's not explain why Justina pretended to be a boy at all; but it was evident that she loved Sir Galahad, and perhaps this was her way of being closer to him; in addition to wanting to defending the Kingdom as all the men had the opportunity to do.

This series was simply epic - and in large part due to the magnificent art of Simone Bianchi. I've seen his work in other books - and I am telling you right now, this Shining Knight series was his absolute BEST. His art was detailed, but malleable enough to portray the most unrealistic things, and have in stand side-by-side with a real life setting. It was simply stupendous. He also effortlessly depicted Justin in a way that never betrayed the fact he was actually a woman - but if you know before hand this secret, the way she looks was never overly masculine either.

After the Seven Soldiers Series...

The Shining Knight, though, didn't prove successful in the long term. I believe the gender-surprise confused more people than interested them - and while the Shining Knight would be seen as a background character during DC's Final Crisis mini-series (also written by Morrison) - she otherwise disappeared from the DCU stage.

The Shining Knight, though, returned to comics recently in the pages of Demon Knights - Paul Cornell's medieval team series. Since the DCU Flashpoint reboot, the time and setting for when Shining Knight exists can change - thus she's here during the Dark Ages, instead of in 8,000 B.C. Oh note, though, Cornell's series keeps the concept of a repeating age of greatness - meaning several versions of the rise and fall of Camelot. Also, unless it's contradicted here, you can always suppose Justin went on another time-traveling jaunt, and ended up in the Dark Ages now. It really doesn't matter either way - it's just good to see the character in use again. This time, though, the pretense of Justin being a man is not fooling anyone.

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