Thursday, February 23, 2012

52 Catch-Up: Demon Knights #1-6

Distilled to its' essence, Demon Knights is a simple but classic story - the righteous few standing against the corrupt many. We have seen this story repeated in our history, from the Battle of Thermopylae to the Battle of the Alamo. We have seen it in our films, from The Seven Samurai to the first Conan The Barbarian movie. We've even seen it in comedies like Blazing Saddles and The Three Amigos!

Cornell's brilliance as a storyteller lies in two things he has done to set this story apart from all those fine tales of courage in the face of overwhelming odds. First, he has set it in the Dark Ages of the DC Universe - a period that had scant little development even before the New 52 event reset the universe. There is little for fans to complain about regarding this story contradicting previous versions of what few established characters we see here. Time changes much, after all. The other thing Cornell has done is place the focus of this series firmly upon his unique characters. We are too busy learning about the fascinating cast to notice that we've heard this story before.

The Magnificent Seven Demon Knights, who come to the defense of a small village that lies in the path of the wicked Questing Queen and her lover the wizard Mordru (yes, THAT Mordru) are...

Sir Jason O’ The Blood - one of the few knights to survive the fall of Camelot, he gained immortality when Merlin - in his last act before disappearing - bound Jason's soul to that of his pet demon, Etrigan. The two can switch places between Hell and Earth with the use of an incantation, but neither has knowledge of the other one's activities while they are waiting in Hell.

Madame Xanadu - one of the wise women who came for King Arthur after the fall of Camelot, she was banished from Avalon after she attempted to thwart prophecy and retrieve Excalibur after it was returned to the Lady of the Lake. At present, she is "keeping company" with both Sir Jason and Etrigan but her real loyalties are unclear.

Vandal Savage - portrayed here as one part Conan and one part Brian Blessed, this warrior was granted immortality after exposure to a strange meteorite back when he was a caveman. With years of experience in killing people in very creative ways, no system of morality to speak of and a regeneration ability that allows him to heal any injury eventually, he is a fearsome opponent.

The Shining Knight - a young woman in the garb of a knight, Sir Ystin claims to be a man, to have been saved by Merlin himself to find a mystic grail and to have fought at the fall of Camelot, though neither Sir Jason nor Madame Xanadu have any knowledge of him/her. Strangely, Sir Ystin also speaks ancient Welsh and rides a winged horse named Vanguard.

Al Jabr - best described as a per-Renaissance Mister Terrific, Al Jabr is (in no particular order) a brilliant tactician, a master swordsman, a great inventor, a devout Muslim and just plain awesome. He believes that there is no magic - only knowledge that has yet to be fully understood. Yet for all his wisdom, even he is hard pressed to explain some of the abilities of his unwitting comrades and the evils they face.

Exoristos - an Amazon who was apparently exiled from Themyscira for unspecified crimes. She is ferocious in battle and outspoken in her belief that women are just as capable as men, though still naive and inexperienced in the ways of Man's World.

The Horsewoman - perhaps the most mysterious member of the team. A skilled archer, she also seems to have some mystic kinship with horses in general and have some sort of ability that allows her (and her horse, Breaker) the power of free movement past nearly any obstacle.

Cornell's characters are well portrayed by a glorious art team. Diogenese Neves, most recently of Green Arrow, was the perfect choice to illustrate this series having extensive experience in accurately depicting medieval weaponry and costumes. Neves puts lots of little details into every page, with scenes in the background adding to the epic scope of the book. Neves is also uniquely skilled in depicting the grotesque, from his gargoyle-like Etrigan to the disturbing images of a baby being warped by dark magics as part of one of Mordru's spells and a priest having his face severely burned. Inker Oclair Albert also deserves praise for knowing when to tread lightly on defining Neves' pencils and when to pour on the shadow for effect.

They say it is a gifted storyteller who can tell you a story you've heard before and make it seem new. If that's the case then Paul Cornell has once again proven himself a gifted storyteller. For it was only upon rereading Demon Knights for the third time that I recognized his sources. And yet, though the base element of this tale is common, Cornell has worked his unique alchemy to make it into a rich and unique series, equaled only in its' skilful writing by the amazing artwork of Diogenese Neves. There is no reason for anyone to be missing out on this book. No one.

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