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Whimsy vs. Grim and Gritty: Knight and Squire #6 / Iceman & Angel One-Shot

Since the earliest days of superhero comics there’s been a tug of war between the forces of whimsical adventure and those of grim ‘n gritty realism. Now, don’t be alarmed, the question of which is the one right and true way to tell a capes and tights story wasn’t resolved once and for all this week, so we can all thankfully keep arguing about it.

But there were two books released this week that had me consciously thinking about that debate more than usual: First is the sixth issue of Paul Cornell and Jimmy Broxton’s Knight and Squire #5, where the mostly light-hearted book took a grimmer turn, and Brian Clevinger and Juan Doe’s Iceman & Angel one-shot, which came out of nowhere to tell a really fun story.
The conclusion of the series so British I’m surprised the letter U wasn’t randomly inserted into the title a few times. What had been a pretty light-hearted book up until this point concluded with an issue that told a grimmer tale in a way that deliberately engaged the phenomenon of changing tones of superhero books. And second is , which came out of nowhere to tell a really fun story about two characters I’m not sure anyone expected or asked to see.

Knight and Squire picks up from the cliffhanger that ended the last issue. Jarvis Poker, a British villain who’s patterned himself after the Joker yet can’t really bring himself to commit truly evil acts, is dying of cancer. His ambition to go out with one last caper is interrupted when the real Joker shows up and, fed up with the camp attitude of costumed crime-fighting in the U.K., chooses to go on a killing spree.

He drags sickly Jarvis along, forcing him to watch as he kills several do-gooders including Squire’s recently introduced boyfriend. And so it’s up to Knight and Squire to pull the community of both heroes and villains together in the wake of these tragedies to stop the Joker and protect the way of life they’ve comfortably built for themselves.

Knight and Squire is a series that’s often taken its inspiration from the Silver Age of comics, and this last issue is what happens when those cheerful Silver Age driven characters and sensibilities collide with the darkest elements of the Modern Age. The Joker, as portrayed in Knight and Squire #6, represents the approach to serious, grim comics that most bothers me. I’m glad that comics can tell stories with a dark tone if they’re able to use it to say something — when the violence conveys something about the people who use it, or are victims of it, or to drive home the consequences of a character’s actions and decisions.

What I’m not fond of is brutal violence simply for the sake of showing brutal violence, graphic mutilation for no other reason for the shock value, and characters killed off because it grabs attention and the creators can’t think of anything better to do with them. That’s how Cornell shows the Joker here, through Jarvis’ eyes. A lonely nihilist amused by destruction and nothing else. Against this backdrop of characters out of another era of comics, he comes across less as the jovial sadist he often seems to be and more as someone who’s chillingly cruel.

Choosing the Joker as the agent of savage murder would seem to cast that influence as American in nature. But oddly it’s the unintentional impact of Alan Moore, an Englishman, on establishing the Modern Age most often reflected here. Moore’s Killing Joke remains one of the most iconic Modern Age templates for the character of the Joker. A superpowered community rallying together after a series of murders? Not too far off from Moore’s Watchmen. And the masks used by the Joker to turn the homeless into mind-controlled gun-toting drones bear a striking resemblance to the mask of V in Moore’s V for Vendetta.

Even the concept of the story made me think of Moore’s short comic In Pictopia, which was also about different eras of comics colliding. Having the Joker as the one American character seems to cast the whole grim and gritty change in comics over the past few decades as an influence from the U.S., when in fact it was a number of British creators who were highly influential in setting that new tone.

So how does the issue work as a conclusion to the series? Well, it did strike me as a bit odd that a six issue series about Knight and Squire wrapped up with a two part story focusing mostly on Jarvis Poker as its hero. That said, Jarvis was an enjoyable character to follow, and it furthered the idea of the series being less about its two main characters and more about building a place for British heroes and villains in the DC Universe. Anglophiles who missed this should make a point of checking it out when the trade collection hits in the summer.

Meanwhile if all this talk of more whimsical Silver Age comics has made you want to read something along those lines rather than talk about it, you should track down Marvel’s Iceman & Angel one-shot.

Writer Brian Clevinger brings the sense of humor and big adventure that’s been the trademark of Atomic Robo to a Marvel comic featuring what I believe I can fairly call the two least favorite characters of the original X-Men lineup. Artist Juan Doe is up to the task of making the gags in the script hit every time, and his designs for the monster attacking New York (Goom, the Thing from Planet X) are great.

It’s not easy to create a giant rock monster from space that looks fearsome smashing an office building, looks comical when talking to the heroes, and instantly evokes the look of a classic “monster destroying the city” story from a ’60s comic. But Doe’s work here is exactly what’s needed.

The story really plays up the angle that Iceman and Angel aren’t exactly the guys you’d first pick to handle a giant monster attack, and the total effect is a surprisingly enjoyable read. It’s also a one-shot featuring two not-so-popular characters and a cover that doesn’t convey the tone of the story inside, so I’m concerned this book is going to miss drawing the attention of many readers who’d enjoy it. Don’t be one of them.

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