‘Demon Knights': The Most Compelling Fantasy in the DC Universe
"Epic" is a word that's often thrown around before the phrase "sword and sorcery," probably because when there are wizards with white beards of formidable length abnd enchanted arms and armor and taverns that serve ale in wooden tankards, the stories that will follow are rarely succinct. Generally, they require a trilogy with extended editions or a seven-book/eight-movie franchise, which is why it's so impressive that Demon Knights is attempting to do epic fantasy in a monthly comic format.
Writer Paul Cornell, artist Diogenes Neves and inker Oclair Albert's series stands out from the rest of DC's New 52 relaunch thanks to its cast, its focus on character interaction, its setting and its willingness to forge new paths with existing characters. Demon Knights' beginnings have been promising, mixing action and comedy into an underlying dramatic saga that hints at a much larger story waiting to be told.
Demon Knights is built around an ensemble cast made up of faces both familiar and new. At its center is the demon Etrigan, bound to Jason Blood by the wizard Merlin at the fall of Camelot. The two have been trading off control of the same body and have traveled for hundreds of years in search of a way to undo their magical connection. Jason/Etrigan's current traveling companion and romantic interest is the also centuries-old Madame Xanadu, a magically gifted woman who appears to be playing the two individuals stuck in this body time share against each other without either's knowledge.
At a tavern the pair meet fellow immortal Vandal Savage, a more fun-loving, swaggering, boastful warrior here than the cunning villain of the modern day DCU, and Sir Ystin, a version of the Shining Knight character most familiar to readers of Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers. And then there are newcomers like Exoristos, a possibly Amazonian warrior woman, and Al Jabr, an Arabic inventor who's a medieval fantasy gadget-based hero. Oh, also there's the Horsewoman. What's known about her so far is that she's a woman who rides... you know, you can probably finish that sentence without my help.
This being a work of fantasy, the tavern is soon attacked by an army of both men and "true dragons." "True dragons," in this case, being fantasy speak for dinosaurs. Vandal Savage's reaction to them:
"True dragons" is to differentiate them from "heraldic dragons", the book's term for fire-breathing dragon machines piloted by men. These men, monsters, and men-driven monster-machines are all under the control of the evil wizard Mordru and the Questing Queen, who are waging a war of conquest from a palace of bone built on the back of an enormous sauropod. And also, as revealed in the recent fourth issue, questing for a powerful relic that's been sought for countless years by Sir Ystin.
More than most of DC's new books, Demon Knights feels driven by character interaction and development in a way that's genuinely exciting. The seven cast members have been thrown together by the presence of a common foe, but some would still rather flee than fight to protect the endangered townsfolk of the small village where they've become surrounded. These conflicting desires create tense, high stakes situations between the book's main cast that I was afraid I wouldn't get to see in a DC Universe that no longer had Gail Simone's Secret Six.
Demon Knights' fresh takes on its familiar characters also feel more like new introductions because so much has changed, and many of these characters are in a setting we don't usually see them in. So even though the book has gone through several issues of introducing the cast at this point it doesn't feel as tiring as the re-introductions to old characters for whom little has been significantly changed in other DC books. This week's fourth issue presents a new origin for the Shining Knight that gives a new perspective on Sir Ystin and Merlin, even connecting Merlin to Stormwatch.
The vast scope hinted at in Demon Knights is both its most exciting and its most worrying aspect. The story's cycle of multiple fallen Camelots and its many immortal protagonists with connections to Merlin all point to a much larger saga than the Magnificent Seven-like scenario of the book's first arc. If allowed to grow into a true, sweeping fantasy epic, it could serve as a example of how DC's New 52 really has branched out to new readers that mainstream capes-and-tights stuff don't reach, but that's going to require a consistent creative presence. I'm not sure this is a book that would be able to survive frequent creative turnover; in particular, I'm not sure the book could maintain its current sense of long-term direction if writer Paul Cornell were to depart.
With the prophecies and revelations of this week's fourth issue I feel confident saying that no other DC relaunch title has as ambitious a plan to develop a large story as Demon Knights. Here's hoping this marks the beginning of a memorable run for the series.
Buy Demon Knights at your local comic book shop or online.