Thursday, February 2, 2012

52 In Review: Demon Knights So Far...

We've entered the 6th month of DC's Relaunched of their entire line-up, referred to as the New 52. (52 Comics series, all starting at issue #1. Everything is new again!) I already gave my opinions on the first outpouring of issues, here and here. Over all I liked the relaunch - but there are a few titles I thought I'd look at again, to see how they are doing so far. Some of the more fringe titles are of particular interest for me -- as some of them I'm considering dropping. So maybe looking back I'll make up my mind and make a decision on that point.

First up is Demon Knights. Set in the distant past of the Dark Ages, we follow Jason Blood and Madam Xanadu -- both survivors of the fall of Camelot. They are also unique in both being immortal. Xanadu hails from Avalon, while Jason had the unfortunate fate of being bound by Merlin to the Demon Etrigan.

Etrigan and Jason trade places with each other - transforming from one to another when the situation requires. Madam Xanadu is somewhat two-timing Jason with himself -- as whenever the Demon is around, Xanadu professes her love and passion for Etrigan, while demeaning the Demon's weaker half. The reverse is also played up - with Xanadu in love when Jason is around, and disliking of the Demon. She's essentially playing up both sides; thought it's unclear yet wether this is a matter or practicality (the Demon is uncontrollable otherwise), or does Xanadu really love the Demon over Jason?

The two of them meet in a town tavern and by coincidence come into contact with 5 other individuals that comprise the series. Vandal Savage; an amoral immortal caveman who has crossed paths with Blood and Xanadu before. Sir Ystin, the Shining Knight, who professes to be on a mysterious quest. (And who isn't fooling anyone as to the fact "he" is really a girl.) Al Jabr, a middle eastern inventor and playboy, is accompanied by the exiled Amazon Exoristos. A mysterious figure, known only as the Horsewoman, also comes into play later -- she seems very knowledgeable about a great deal of things, and is noted for always being on her horse, as she is paralyzed from the waist down and cannot walk.

These seven people comprise the central cast of the series. They aren't joining up together out of altruism, or anything like that -- more that circumstances force them into helping to protect a town - which has sadly found itself in the way of the Questing Queen and her army. The Questing Queen, paired up with long-time DC evil wizard Mordru, commands a terrible army, comprised of warriors, scavengers, dinosaurs, dragons, and even mechanical dragons. One of the funniest jokes from the series is their solution to most obstacles: "throw dragons at it".

The seven warriors that comprise the supposed "Demon Knights", are set to protect this town against the the Questing Queen's hoard.

Vandal Savage, while a long standing villain in DC Comics, has actually been portrayed in a rather jovial manner. When besieged by dinosaurs, Savage is delighted to be able to kill, and then later eat, these "tasty rare creatures"; he hasn't seen them since the Prehistoric era, after all.

The Demon takes over for Jason and helps out in the fighting. While he doesn't rhyme all the time (like he's done in most other comics), he does on occasion break out a humorous line. He also demonstrates a new ability - being able to sprout wings and fly!

To help protect everyone, Madame Xanadu makes a sacrifice - casting a powerful spell to help protect the village, but seemingly at the cost of her youth. (You know she gets better, seeing as she also appears, in the modern day, in the pages of "Justice League Dark") Still, this sacrifice puts Etrigan in a foul mood. After all the dust has cleared, and the town has a reprieve from attack, the Demon unjustifiably attacks the village priest, scratching his face. While the Priest might have survived such wounds, though disfigured, matters are made worse because the scratches where inflicted by a demon there is no chance the priest's skin would ever heal. He died - much to the shock and distain of Al Jabr.

Exoristos proves exceptionally valuable in battle, with her inherent Amazon strength. She is also inherently off-putting. (The above panel being a prime example of her abrasive attitude.)

She does find some support from a young village girl, who laments that she can't help herself in defending the village. Exoristos tells her of the Amazon creed - that a woman can do anything. The pros of feminism not withstanding - her message of support for her fellow sister ends in tragedy - as the little girl is killed when trying to sneak out of the village and deliver a message for help. The horsewoman, who has been helping to guide their group's defense of the village, shoots Exoristos in anger over the young girl's death, telling her that not all women as free as she is, let alone having the strength she possesses. Exoristos is fine - the Horsewoman pointedly shot her arrow so as not to hit any vital organs. Madam Xanadu later helps tend to Exoristos' wounds. Exoristos had originally been disgusted with Xanadu, seeing how she plays between Jason and Etrigan. Xanadu vaguely explains that it is a plan, of sorts, developed between her and Jason. Exoristos further upsets Xanadu, when she expressed that she didn't realize the women of this world where weaker, having to rely on womanly wiles. Xanadu yells at her, saying she can tell why she was exiled. The Amazon is shocked, asking how she could know. Xanadu in a huff explains that it's her name -- in Greek it means exiled.

Exoristos, simply put, isn't Wonder Woman. Not that WW never rubbed anyone the wrong way with her views -- but Exoristos seems much less experienced in dealing with people in Patriarch's World. She does, however, seem to be the more interesting of the new characters created by writer Paul Cornell. She is introduced with an incredibly abrasive and tough exterior, but that is clearly masking deeper issues underneath. This character obviously has a long and interesting journey ahead of her.

One of the standouts of the series (at least for me) is the Shining Knight -- finally getting her due since being re-interpreted in Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers series. Her character is used a bit differently here, but does keep some of the same lore developed for her in Seven Soldiers. She does come from an extremely early age, over nine thousand years ago, during one of the early iterations, and falls, of Camelot. (Camelot, being a cyclical event throughout history is another element taken from Seven Soldiers) Ystin was a soldier who was near death - and Merlin, for reasons not even clear to himself, gave the near dead girl a sip from the Holy Grail. Merlin, who appears to the Shining Knight in a vision whist defenses are prepared for the invading hoard, recounts her life alongside Merlin. He explains details about his own journey with the Holy Grail. I can't claim to full understand everything being imparted here (it was a dream-like sequence) - but essentially having drank from the Holy Grail has made the Shining Knight immortal. Ever since Merlin lost the grail himself, Ystin has taken up that cause in his stead.

A lot is revealed about the Shining Knight in issue #4, when she experiences this vision. Jason Blood, who hasn't heard anything about Merlin since cursing him with Etrigan, is desperate to know what she is seeing. There where some vague, but telling, hints of Ystin's future - like a evil sprit invading her soul. When the Questing Queen, in hopes of dividing this group that is defending the town, seeks to temp some of them to her side - and is shocked to see the Shining Knight among them; figuring that this could only be fate, giving her a chance to defeat the Shining Knight, and prove herself worthy of the Holy Grail. The Questing Queen was even disturbed in her sleep when Ystin experienced her vision -- a connection between these two seems more promising for issues to come.

Issue #5 ends with a betrayal among the group -- as Vandal Savage, who up to now has been quite humorous and delightful member of the group, shows his true colors when he stabs and murders a young boy, to keep secret his escape from the town and to the Questing Queen's side. Apparently Savage had once served as a general in the Queen's army, and seeks to join up again.

The series so far has been good -- but I wouldn't be honest if I didn't mention my own feeling that it's plot has somewhat been meandering around. This opening storyline is obviously not going to conclude with issue #6 - so that means we've been stuck in this same darn village for well over half a year's worth of issues. Not that it hasn't been to the series advantage to take things slow; they have a large cast, and want to give all the characters their proper due. But, still, the fact remains we're still in this town, and still waiting for the Hoard's next attack.

Paul Cornell, who I'd found to be a wonderfully cleaver and insightful writer, has nonetheless failed to completely hook me on this series. The biggest reason I'm leaning to sticking around is merely because of the promise of what is to come. I've seen the build-up of his stories in the past - a full year's worth of Lex Luthor stories in Action Comics, which culminated in one of the grandest moments for the villain in his war against Superman.

There is one problem, though, is continuing to read this series merely on the promise of the epic stories to come: wether Cornell will be there to write them. I don't think Demon Knights is at risk of being canceled, by any means -- but Paul Cornell recently left the writing duties of Stormwatch after only 6 issues. SIX ISSUES! What does Stormwatch have to do with this series? Apparently everything -- as it's been revealed that Demon Knights, and this group of characters, are the beginnings of Stormwatch. How does this medieval grab-bag of heroes and villains turn into the epic secret organization, having protected the world from the shadows all the way to the modern age? The connection isn't completely there yet - but there are hints already in play. Merlin, in particular, is noted for "Watching the Storms". There's also the suspicion (I don't know for sure), that the character Adam One, in the pages of Stormwatch, might in fact be a future incarnation of Merlin. (I heard that being speculated, at least.)

This all screams that a large, and very satisfying tale is being woven here. With Cornell leaving Stormwatch after only six issues, though... Cornell has affirmed that he will still continue to writer for Demon Knights - but it still feels like a second piece of the puzzle has been compromised. Demon Knights and Stormwatch, for me, have pretty much become a pair. If I stick with one, I'll stick with the other. So the question is... will I keep reading Stormwatch, under the new writer coming onboard? Because if not - Demon Knights will also be on the chopping block for me.

Anyway - I'll be back to examine Stormwatch next. (Which can now be found here.)

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