Saturday, 18 July 2015

Demon Knights Book 1: Seven Against The Dark (#1-7)

"Your greatest tests are about to begin" - Merlin

Demon Knights was a New 52 launch title, written intially by Paul Cornell.  Mr.Cornell has carved out quite a name for himself in the last few years as a comicbook writer.  But he has had a long career including writing three of the best nuWho episodes ("Father's Day" and the "Human Nature/Family Of Blood" two parter) and a before that he also kicked the 90's Virgin New Adventures of Doctor Who series up the arse and wrote most of the best regarded books in that line.  But I think I'll always like hims best for his wonderfully shit stirring articles in various Doctor Who fanzines of the early 90's.  Anyway, I've been a fan for a good while of the man, so combining him with comics should be gold for me right?  We-ell,  I have to admit apart from the marvellous Knight and Squire miniseries (more on that at a later date), I've found that while politically I am drawn to what he writes, the end result is somewhat unsatisfying narratively speaking.  I was disappointed with his Captain Britain and MI-13 series, and while I think Demon Knights is better, it still feels thin and underwritten in places.  Still as an attempt at creating a superteam that exists in an entirely different century from most of the rest of the DCU it is somewhat successful, despite some underwhelming and confusing art.  So, let's have a closer look at volume one shall we?

Before we do, a quick note about how I'm going to refer to one of the characters.  Sir Ystin who you might remember from Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory that I covered in February is back as Shining Knight, but instead of being a woman who dressed as a man in male drag and when she found out she no longer needed too, decided to keep a female identity, as the series go on we discover that this Shining Knight is much more what in the modern parlance would be called transgendered.  So although Sir Ystin is referred to by other characters as "her", I feel it's only polite and fitting to respect Sir Ystin's gender identification and will be using "he" and "him" when referring to him.
Merlin casually ruins Jason Bloods life.
The story starts four centuries in the past, at the fall of Camelot.  An unknown character laments to loss of Arthur and holds Excalibur.  Some hooded women on a boat are taking Arthur's body to Avalon.  The unknown knight hurls Excalibur into the water and one of the women called "Xanadu" jumps off the boat after it.  Then we cut to Merlin with the non-rhyming demon Etrigan.  Jason of Norwich appears and Merlin bonds Etrigan to Jason's soul.  Now with a simple rhyme, Jason can summon Etrigan from hell to take his place for a while.

Then we jump forward four centuries to The Dark Ages which is when this comic is set.  A man hands over a baby to The Questing Queen whose forces have come through his village in the hope no one more will die.  Her companion Mordru uses the baby to read their immediate future but it explodes before it can tell them much.  Their goal is the city of Alba Sarum, but before they have to go through a mountain village called Little Spring.
Fortune telling possessed baby.
Jason O' Th' Blood and "Madame" Xanadu also arrive in Little Spring, just in time to see fellow immortal Vandal Savage break down the taveern door to get a drink.  They sit with him and he says he is jealous of them being their at the fall of Camelot.

Over in the corner sits Sir Ystin.  He says in his own language that he remembers none of them being there are Camelot.  Then in their common language introduces himself as Sir Ystin, "Shining Knight".  The others are dubious about the "Sir" part, then there is a commotion at the bar as Saracen Al Jabar is being refused service.  A very tall and muscular lady grabs the barman and introduces herself as Exoristos and starts to intimidate him.
Sir Ystin meets Xanadu, Jason and Vandal Savage
Outside, outriders of The Questing Queen attack a villager and get themselves shot full of arrows by the mysterious Horsewoman.  More outriders get to the tavern and start attacking those inside.  Jason says:

Jason Blood: "Concealed within the form of man, release the demon... Etrigan!"

Etrigan appears and takes his place and has a big snog with Xanadu who says she prefers him to Jason.  They join in the fight against the outriders.  Meanwhile Mordru says he has detected magic use in the area, The Questing Queen replies:

Queen: "We find the source of the problem and we throw dragons at it."

The pub now somewhat wrecked a horde of dragons appear.  Our "heroes" throw themselves into the fighting with gusto.  Al Jabar uses his scientific bomb thing to kill some and Xanadu uses up her prepared magic, but more appear to attack them, things look grim then Vandal Savage kills the dragons about to attack.  Etrigan blows off the head of the biggest dragon much to the annoyance of The Questing Queen.
Vandal saves Al Jabar and Xanadu
She says they have no chance but to "contain and destroy" the fighters in the village "nothing leaves".  The immediate danger passed, The Horsewoman rides in and says they should evactuate.  Exoristis and a young villager called Audofleda chat:

Audofleda: "You were amazing..."

Exoristos: "Thanks.  I'm Exoristos.  You can call me Ex"

Audofleda: "...but you dress like a tart."

Exoristos: "Again thanks.. Is that some kind of pastry?"

The headman of the village refuses to evacuate at first.  Vandal Savage reveals that in the past he was part of The Questing Queen's Horde and they will sweep through and take everything, even the young for their army.  The headman changes his mind and says they will evacuate.

Etrigan flies Xanadu away even though she wants to stay and help.  They run into some more sky dragons while more appear on the ground.  As they attack Theod the village priest asks how they can spit fire. "Magic probably" says Sir Ystin.  I don't believe in magic says the priest, Al Jabar agrees but also says he believes there is science they don't yet understand.  Shining Knight mounts his flying horse Vanguard and starts killing the sky dragons so Etrigan and Xanadu can try something.  The Questing Queen orders a full on giant fireball be launched at the village.
Etrigan tries to take Xanadu away from all this.
Xanadu sacrifices her life energy to cast a protection spell upon the village, massively aging herself in the process.  The fireball rebounds on the horde.  Etrigan flies Xanadu back down into the village with her and grabs the face of the priest and burns him saying they have temporarily saved the village but "at what cost?".  Vanguard gets caught in the fire, but Ex puts her out.  The Horsewoman is unable to get through the pass to Alba Sarum to get reinforcements and returns to the village, somehow able to get through the forcefield.

Xanadu says it will hold for another few hours so they can prepare.  The Horsewoman agrees to join forces with them.  The Queen and Mordru spy on the village, while Etrigan who grows weak in the human world returns to hell and Jason Blood comes back.  Weakly Xanadu says to him:

Xanadu: "My love.. I will.. always urge the demon to depart.  I will... always want you to return."

Ex says her double dealing "does no credit to our sex" to Sir Ystin who responds with "our?" and laughs.  They get back to work reinforcing walls and building a seige engine under the tutuledge of Al Jabar.  He goes to find the priest and finds the burn on him is killing him and he dies, his soul unjustly sent to hell.
Ex and Sir Ystin.
Vandal Savage surveys the fighting force of the village noting "barely an arm that can swing a sword."  He finds the whole prospect of death here hilarious.  Outside The Horsewoman tells Sir Ystin that Vanguard is strong and loves him.  A young female villager called Audofleda asks Ex if all women are a big as her where she comes from.  Ex says she was "raised tough".

Audofleda says she knows the shepard trails out of the village and could sneak out and get world to Alba Sarum of their plight.  "Go to it sister!" urges Ex.  She then asks Sir Ystin what brings him here.  He says a quest, a vision and hunger in him.  Then they here the sound of horrible torture, they look over the village wall and see Audofleda has been captured, tortured and decapitated, the man responsible holds her severed head up to show to the shocked onlookers.

In a rage Shining Knight starts to have a sort of fit.  Ex grabs him while Sir Ystin points widly at "him?!".  He starts having a vision of Merlin, who tells him he won't understand everything he is going to see now.  He shows Sir Ystin the Holy Grail.  Then takes Sir Ystin back to when they last met.  Ystin was injured on the battlefield and Merlin made him drink from the Holy Grail and made him immortal.
Sir Ystin and Merlin in a vision.
The Grail is the source of Sir Ystin's hunger and after the fall of Camelot he spent many years searching, in many battles, becoming more of a warrior than a knight.  He saved his horse Vanguard by using his blood and made her immortal as well.  Sometimes they would sleep underground for many years.  One day they slept under the tree that the world turns around and started having the vision he is having now, being outside of time and space.

The others try to wake Sir Ystin but the vision continues.  Marlin notes that Ystin's "heart is pure, but you are complex."  Merlin also says Ystin has the best chance of finding the grail.  Merlin hid it in a container of his own devising and threw it into a volcano confident he could find it again in a few decades, "old fool that I was."

Sir Ystin thanks Merlin for giving him the burden of finding the grail.  "For reminding me what puts weight in my steps."  Then he snaps out of his trance yelling "Demon Knights!".  Jason asks if that refers to them, but Ystin doesn't know.  Back on the walls of the village, The Horsewoman fills the killers of Audofleda with arrows then fires one at a celebrating Ex.
Don't piss off The Horsewoman.
An angry Horsewoman says Ex sent a child to do an adults mission and "you killed her." The arrow she shot her with wasn't meant to be fatal, just to prove a point.  Jason starts to help staunch the blood, but then Al Jabar punches him for Etrigan killing the priest.  Xanadu breaks up the fight saying they can't start fighting amongst themselves.

Inside a building Xanadu tends to Ex's wound and Ex apologises for judging her. Ex says women are weak in this world, to which Xanadu snaps:

Xanadu: "We face greater danger!  That's why the Horsewoman shot you.  Dung, I can see why you were exiled". 

 She leaves and Ex sighs that this world is a complicated "hell" for her.  Then Mordru's projected form appears to her and says would she like to be able to go back home?  We find out later that Ex is an Amazon exiled from Paradise Island.

The projection of The Questing Queen notes the prescence of Sir Ystin, then changes her appearence to that of Merlin and approaches Jason Blood.  She offers to lead him out of the village to safety but she just provokes him into changing into Etrigan.  "Merlin" turns back into the Queen and once again offers him and Xanadu safe passage.  But Etrigan says "I'll rip you and your army apart" and slashes her projection.

Mordru tells Ex he could change her identity and her crimes would be forgotten.  But Ex refuses saying she wants to go back as herself and walks away from him.  Mordru then tries to persuade Al Jabar, saying joining the Horde would allow him more scientific discoveries.  But Al Jabar turns him down.
Mordru fails to tempt Al Jabar.
A way aways a young boy discovers Vandal Savage sneaking out of the fence.  Accusing him of desertion he starts to raise the alarm, but Savage kills him.  Mordru offers the Horsewoman the ability to walk again ( this is the first time we discover she is disabled).  She responds by firing an arrow into the real Mordru and Questing Queen's camp.  Angrily the Queen says they'll attack at dawn.

That morning, the six heroes left brace themselves for the attack.  Meanwhile Vandal Savage has reconnected with his mates in the Horde and he snogs the Questing Queen saying he hopes to serves.  Then he says it's time to take the village out and the attack begins with large rhino-like things called "wallbreakers" charging the village.
Rhino Smash!
Ex leaps over the wall and before the wallbreaker can hit the fence, she smashes its head in with her huge mallet like weapon.  Vandal then sends in dragons.  Meanwhile Xanadu finds an elderly man lying defenceless on a bed, she says if she sacrifices him she can get her beauty and power back, but in the end can't bring herself to do it.

The Horsewoman calls out to all the horses in the area to come help, which they do, including Vangaurd.  Using the horses to protect her (not Vangaurd though who insists on riding with Sir Ystin), she makes a break for Alba Sarum.  Ex valiantly kills dragons left, right and centre.  She gets injured and a reluctant Etrigan goes and flies her out of harms way.  Xanadu has a plan, Etrigan needs to communicate a message to Jason Blood in hell.  He has to find the priest condemned there earlier by Etrigan and see him break from his hellish torture.

The Horsewoman and horses keep on their way to Alba Saurm.  The Horsewoman is knocked off her horse but luckily her saddle is magic and she can remount.  The Horde finally manage to make into the village proper and the four fighters charge them in response.
A huge battle erupts in the village, destroying much of it as the Headman looks on in dismay.  Vandal and a group of men from the Horde loyal to him from his past service, go and plunder the Horde's baggage train. Meanwhile the Questing Queen and Mordru discover that The Horsewoman has made it past the dragons and will be at Alba Sarum within the hour.  Then they observe Vandal's men attacking the baggage train and see that the men attacking the village are breaking away and returning to protect their wages and supplies instead.

Etrigan turns back into Jason Blood briefly and has in his possession the item needed to power up and restore Xanadu - the tears from an innocent in hell.  Thus revitalised she starts laying into the attackers with her magic.  The Horsewoman arrives at Alba Sarum and tells them to immediately send their cavalry to help.
The Questing Queen makes it personal.
The Questing Queen arrives in the village and challenges Sir Ystin to a duel.  Savage reappears fighting on their side again, saying his plan was totally to disrupt the Horde and of course he didn't betray them.

Etrigan: "Ha! We'll never know how much of that is true.  Sometimes you humans can be brilliantly deceitful!"

Sir Ystin and The Queen fight, The Queen gets knocked down and hurls a poisoned dagger at Sir Ystin, temporarily paralysing him.  The Queen says the riches she was promised has turned out not to be Alba Sarum's but the Demon Knights who she will sacrifice to find the Grail.  But before she can kill Sir Ystin, the cavalry, lead by The Horsewoman arrive and the Horde, now out-numbered and out-gunned, scarper.  Another leader of the cavalry stands in the middle of the burning, wrecked village:

Cavalry Guy: "Be joyful, you have protected our nation and it's people.  Here today you have won a great victory."

And that concludes this first volume, I'll be looking at the second, next month.
The cavalry arrive, just in time.
So there we are.  I think my issues with the book so far are two-fold.  First of all the pacing.  My favourite authors like Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Dave Sim and Hiromu Arakawa are all experts in controlling the pace of their stories.  Speeding you and slowing you down using the number of panels and their arrangement to lead you through the story at a rate they specifically dictate.  This book pretty much runs at the same, four panels per page rate with rather too many splash pages to break things up (and yet the one place a splash page would have been welcome which is at the end, we don't get one).  This sucks all the drama out of the narrative and combined with a rushed and abrupt ending makes the whole experience feel somewhat flat (lest you think maybe he's been ill-served by the artists here, I have the exact same problem with his Captain Britain run as well).  The second issue I have is I didn't feel I got to know the characters hardly at all, by throwing the seven right into a prolonged battle situation there was no time to learn about them as individuals.  Throw in the fact they all basically speak with the same "voice", you have seven major characters it's hard to care about, even as fire-forged friends, they don't convince.  With the art not really filling in for the inadequecies of the writing, overall you have a book that is bland, turgid and almost totally free of the flights of fancy I'd expect from a writer who gave us characters like Saul The Sentient Church, The Hoothi, Bernice Summerfield and took us on a Dante like journey through The Doctor's psyche.  As a long-time fan of Paul Cornell, I wish this was much better.  I can't tell you how disappointed I am that it isn't.


  1. etrigan should rhyme, its weird when he doesn't. shame this book wasnt better, sound like it had alot of potential.

  2. I can forgive a non-rhyming Etrigan, rhyming seems to be linked to the higher ranks of demons, so maybe at this point he's not as high up in Hell's hierarchy. But there was potential here, and it wasn't realised effectively, which was pretty much a problem with The New 52 as a whole. Hopefully DC's current reboot will be better handled.

  3. I like the way that shot of Etrigan and Xanadu is taking the mickey out of similar shots of Clark and Lois.

    Reading today's child abuse story on the BBC news website, I find myself thinking, "It's a shame Etrigan doesn't actually exist..."

    Merlin's a bit like Dumbledore in that regard: his intentions are good, but he has an alarming tendency to use people like puppets because he's ultra-powerful and he knows it.

    Even though Sir Ystin is a fictional character I kinda admire him for (a) knowing what he wants and (b) going for it.

  4. *goes to read news story* Oh my word, that's awful. Time like this I'm sorry I don't believe in supernatural doler's out of vengeance.

    Paul Cornell seems to like using Merlin a lot, he shows up in Captain Britain and MI-13 (though Marvelverse Merlin is an alien I think...) and in Cornell's Doctor Who writing he is fully onboard with the Doctor being a future/alternate Merlin too.

    I liked Sir Ystin best too, because he got the most explored as a character, the middle issue of book one was basically his backstory. Also the whole transgender thing is dealt with respect. I just wish the other characters had been fleshed out beyond what I know of them from their appearences elsewhere.