Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review: Demon Knights Vol. 1: Seven Against The Dark

This is the first collection of one of DC’s “New 52” titles, and the first collection of any of those comics that I read all the way through (and, perhaps significantly, purchased).

When the titles were originally announced and published serially, there were only a handful that were created by a creative team of which I knew and liked the work of each member and that I was interested in the character or premise enough to check them out, regardless of reboot (Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Justice League). Those are the books I read serially in comic book form, as they were being released.

There were another handful that were created by a creative team where I knew and liked one member, was ignorant of the work of another, and thought I’d wait until they made it into trade and I had heard enough positive or negative about the first few issues to see if it was something I might want to read or not.

In the case of Demon Knights, I was sort of intrigued by the premise (a medieval Justice League of several name characters mixed with new character), and the rare chance to see a book set in the DCU’s ancient past (even if it was the past of an all-new DCU, the New52U).

I know and like the work of Paul Cornell quite a bit. For DC, he wrote an excellent run on Action Comics starring Lex Luthor,the Knight and Squire miniseries and a pretty great story arc for Batman and Robin; for Marvel, he wrote the also excellent and (too) short-lived Captain Britain and MI13 and the Fantastic Four: True Story mini.

But pencil artist Diogenes Neves, whose main art credit prior to this series was on of writer J.T. Krul’s Green Arrow runs that I had avoided, and thus I had no real sense of whether or not his work was something I wanted to see or not (DC didn’t help matters by keeping it off the covers of the first issue; filling them instead with pin-up like images by Tony S. Daniel, whose work I know I don’t like).

So we’re finally far enough away from “The New 52” launch that the first trade collections are becoming available. Here’s my reading of Demon Knights, presented as my thoughts while reading it. If you don’t want to sit through this sort of gimmicky review, I can let you know my overall assessment right now: The book is trash, featuring an interesting premise and rather strong script, incompetently told through generic art that lacks the basic elements of comics storytelling.

I don’t think it matters what happens behind the scenes with the book at this point, as Cornell is off the book already and the new writer is launching it in a new direction, but it really seems like it needed a stronger artist, and an editor able to see and correct poor story-telling before issues shipped.

THE COVER: As I mentioned, it is basically just a pin-up drawn by Batman/Detective artist Tony Daniel, featuring the Demon character created by Jack Kirby in 1972, now in a new “costume” of medieval armor (A sharp contrast to his original look, which didn’t involve armor because, like Superman, The Demon was pretty much invulnerable and hardly needs a suit of armor. During the the Alan Moore-scripted Swamp Thing of the 1980s, the Demon did sport some semi-organic hell armor when he was riding off to fight the big, black finger of The Ultimate End of The World or Whatever They Were Fighting).

He leaps in front of coloring effects suggesting fire, and he’s all by himself—since he’s the character after which the book and the team it stars is named, I suppose it makes sense to put him on the first issue’s cover, if one can only include one character on the cover, but it is an odd choice for a team book. Particularly one that moves as quickly as this one, a book that rather thoroughly introduces at least six of the seven teammates by the end of the first issue.

Props to Daniel for at least looking to Kirby for inspiration for the image, presenting his own version of Etrigan leaping, knees up, at the reader below…
…although a quick comparison reveals which of the two artists constructed a fuller image with the greater suggestion of a story (Whether one prefers the inking and coloring styles of 2012 DC over those of 1972 DC or not).

PAGE 1: The first bit of information the reader gets in this book is a caption, reading “Prologue: Four Centuries ago. The last night of Camelot.”

It confused me—400 years ago was 1612, that can’t possibly be anywhere close to right—and by the time I figured it out a few seconds later, a sinking feeling set in. I didn’t even make it through the upper left-hand corner of the very first page before I noticed something wrong. This is not an auspicious start, I thought.

The page, it turns out, isn’t set 400 years ago, but is rather set 400 years before page seven, which is set “Now. The Dark Ages.” Which were, of course, then, not now.

I don’t know when exactly this trend in super-comics started or who is responsible, but there isn’t any “ago” on the very first page of the very first issue of a comic book. That’s “now,” that’s where the story starts. You can can’t flash back before the present—you can just start your story, and then tell us “Four centuries later” when four centuries have passed.

Yeesh.

There’s a big, burly, black-bearded fellow in armor shouting in the direction of the reader on this splash page, telling whoever he’s addressing to flee Camelot.

PAGE 2: And then we see who he’s addressing, a boat full of women in robes, and now he’s apparently calling for them not to flee. I couldn’t make any goddam sense out of these first two pages.

It probably didn’t help that I read this minutes after I finished Uncle Scrooge: Only A Poor Old Man, part of Fantagraphics’ Carl Barks Library, and I suppose it’s not fair to compare Cornell and Neves to one of the universally-acclaimed masters of comic book-making but, at the same time, a little legibility would be nice, wouldn’t it?

We like to think—certainly publishers and creators like to think—that we’ve advanced the art form so much in the last few decades, that the comics and comics-makers of 2012 are so much more sophisticated and mature than those of, say, those geared towards children in the 1940s or 1950s, but, if you believe that, try reading a Carl Barks collection followed by a New 52 collection, and see if you’re opinion remains unchanged.

PGS 3-6: Still 400 years before “The Dark Ages,” we’re quickly introduced to both Xanadu, who dives below the surface in an attempt to retrieve Excalibur from a hand most likely belonging to The Lady of the Lake (Say, Excalibur figured prominently in Cornell’s Captain Britain series too!), and Jason Blood and Etrigan, bonded seemingly in a snap decision by Merlin as Camelot falls to the unseen “beasts.”

PAGE 7: We get to "now," or, as the caption reads in full, “Now. The Dark Ages. The Horde of the QUESTING QUEEN marches North.” Neves reveals that “horde” in a single, vertical splash page; a tight close-up on the “horde” of five guys, maybe as many as ten if you count the shaded-out silhouettes behind them, and a couple of monster-heads they seem to be riding and/or leading.
In the background, we see a giant sauropod of some kind, with a castle on its back, and dialogue coming out of the castle.

PAGE 8: We’re in the castle’s throne room, so upon their initial introduction, we’re given no real visual information of any significance about the Horde. It’s a waste of an opportunity to build up the overwhelming threat our heroes will ultimately try to stave off, and some imaginative visuals, like a castle-carrying dinosaur (think of how Brandon Graham and his collaborators handled such similar entities in Prophet, or Geoff Darrow handled a city carrying monster in Shaolin Cowboy; DC may be A-List in the direct market, but they seem to hire AAA artists).

Here we learn that the Questing Queen hangs out with a sorcerer named Mordru. That name won’t mean anything to new readers brought in to by The New 52, but he’s an old Legion of Superheroes wizard villain created by Jim Shooter and Curt Swan in the late ‘60s. More recently Geoff Johns decided that an immortal wizard would have been around long before the 30th or 31st century, and began using a younger-looking Mordru in his JSA/Justice Society of America stories. Cornell seems to have taken that a step further, and followed Mordru back another 1,000 years or so.

PGS 11-15: Cornell and Neves introduce the rest of the cast, and re-introduce some from the previous era. They all convene in a tavern in the town of Little Spring, which the Horde must pass through on a strict timeline on their way to conquer a kingdom to the North.

Jason Blood and Xanadu are traveling companions and, it becomes apparent before the story ends, Xanadu is "dating" both Jason and Etrigan, telling each of them she’s playing the other.

Vandal Savage is shown as a big, burly, bearded barbarian and, in one panel, walks through a door. Neves draws a nice image of splintering wood falling all around Savage as he enters the closed tavern, but it’s unclear if he simply walked into it so hard it atomized (which doesn’t make any goddam sense) or if he used his axe to shatter it (which does), but since his axe hand is off panel and there’s no indication it was just swung, who knows? Again, bad art. (Fine rendering, but bad comics art).

The Shining Knight is in the bar, and this is the young, female, Sir Ystin version of The Shining Knight from the Grant Morrison-written Seven Soldier multi-book story. Unlike Morrison’s version of the character, it’s no great secret that “Sir” Ystin is really a maiden disguised so she could fight as a man could; perhaps because Morrison already used up that surprise, here everyone immediately guesses that the Knight is a woman trying to pass as a man, and the fact that the Knight thinks she’s fooling anyone at all becomes a running gag.

Al Jabr is a charming character of apparently Muslim origin (although I don’t recall seeing the words “Muslim,” “Islam” or a country of origin ever mentioned). “I bring mechanisms that can make you rich,” he boasts to the barkeep; that’s his thing—inventions ahead of their time.

Exoristos is a dark haired “giantess,” a head or two taller than the other characters; it’s teased for several issues before its made clear she’s an Amazon, as in "from the same place Wonder Woman comes from," although she's living in exile in Man's World.

Finally, there’s “The Horsewoman,” a mysterious red-haired archer with horse powers. She won’t be fully named or introduced for a bit yet.

Is it worth pointing out that Cornell introduces a team of seven “superheroes,” their antagonists and the supporting character/maguffin Merlin in just 20 pages? And that most of these are brand-new characters, or else familiar characters rendered unrecognizable? Meanwhile, in New 52 flagship Justice League, Geoff Johns took that many pages to introduce Batman and Green Lantern, who every reader already knew all about anyway.

I think it might be worth pointing out.

PGS 19-20: When Horde scouts get their asses kicked by all these powerful and magical warriors hanging out in the bar, Mordru and QQ “throw dragons” at them, and in another vertical splash page, we see a Tyrannosaurus-like head crashing through a wooden wall, while man-sized, velociraptor-like dinosaurs wearing bits of armor and wielding weapons appear out of black holes that hang in mid-air (suggestive of the sort used by Spider-Man villain The Spot). It’s unclear where this is happening from the art, as there’s no background, and none of the characters from the bar are shown in the image. The narration suggests that these “dragons” are meant to be attacking there, though.

Dinosaurs as dragons? That is legitimately awesome.

That’s the last page of the first issue.

COVER FOR #2: This one’s also by Tony Daniel, but it’s an improvement over the first, as it shows all seven “Demon Knights” on it.

PAGE 21: Three chaotic panels in which the art doesn’t say anything coherent: One has a group of people trying to escape what is probably the burning inn (which is apparently on fire now), the second has what look like jets of flame shooting in or out of walls, doors or holes in a wooden wall, and the third shows the T-Rex head crashing through a wall to snap up a passerby; whether it is attacking the inside of the inn from outside or outside the inn from inside isn’t clear.

PGS 22-23: A double-page splash featuring the six “Knights” in the inn doing battle with the velociraptors, while a drooling T-rex lurks in the background. One of the raptors breathes fire. A giddy Vandal Savage announces, “Excellent! I haven’t eaten one of these in centuries!

For much of these first six issues, Savage is played for laughs…in addition to being one of the good guys. It’s an unexpected portrayal for the immortal caveman villain who usually troubles The Justice League and the Flash in the present, and is, I think, therefore even more effective. (I was genuinely shocked when, later in the story, the villain actually does something evil, like the pre-New 52 Savage might have been expected to do).

PGS 25-26: In addition to armor, New 52 Etrigan also has wings. He uses these to fly up to the mouth of the T-Rex (a “true dragon,” as the dinosaurs are called in the book), climb into its mouth, and destroy it from the inside, something you’ve probably seen 10-35 times in comics before (the destroy it from the inside bit, that is).

PAGE 32: His wings are put to better use in a sequence which involves him trying to fly Xanadu to safety, only to encounter pteradon-riding archers. It’s another particularly week scene by Neves: No background, no sense of place, no scale, just figures appearing around other figures. Etrigan isn’t flying here so much as just standing in a void colored blue.

PAGE 33: We get our first glimpse of the “heraldic dragons” mentioned previously; these look like traditional fantasy illustration/comics dragons, but are mechanical, made of metal, and are apparently operated by many men each, judging from the little heads visible through port-hole like slats in their exposed necks.

PAGE 37: Shining Knight’s Pegasus is still in continuity, and it’s named Vanguard, like the Seven Soldiers one, not Winged Victory.

PAGE 44: In the third issue, Etrigan does something pretty wicked to a priest—like even worse than ripping his face off, which he also does. It’s a reminder that even though these guys are the “heroes” of the piece, some of them are evil and/or are struggling with temptations to do great evil.

The majority of this third issue is getting the characters into place for siege/battle. The heroes have erected a magical force field around the village and try to send word to the Horde’s enemy kingdom—if they can hold out against the 1,000-to-1 odds long enough, help will arrive.

They prepare the village for battle, and it was around this time that the Seven Samurai parallels hit me over the head; the 300 parallels will come in the next two issues, although the Cornell/Neves team can’t compete with Miller for visual storytelling (or even, sadly, Zack Snyder).

COVER FOR #4: Michael Choi takes over the cover art. It is greatly improved.

PGS 60-77: The Shining Knight has a vision in which he sees Merlin, and we learn a bunch of stuff that doesn’t exactly make sense so far, but that is more likely because it’s not meant to make sense just yet. Camelot appears to have fallen more than once, though, and we learn a bit about how the Shining Knight gained immortality, how Vanguard did and what their quest is for…and what the Questing Queen is also questing for.

PAGE 77: QQ has cool hair.

PAGE 104: Ex fells “The Wallbreaker,” a species of “true dragon” resembling some sort of ceratopian dinosaur. On Choi’s cover for the sixth issue, she does so by headbutting it.

Within the comic, she does so by…striking it’s beak with a war hammer, maybe…? It’s another poorly executed splash page.
This might be a good time to stop and ponder something.

It was my understanding that Wonder Woman’s great strength was a gift from her gods, but Exoristos seems to be, if not quite as strong as Wondy, strong enough to knock down a giant dinosaur with one blow, a blow that is itself strong enough to knock down the trees behind the dinosaur and turn the ground to dust in all directions with the force of impact.

Her strength may be explained later in the series, but as I was reading, I wondered if maybe the implication isn’t that all Amazons are Wonder Woman-strong in The New 52…? Or perhaps that Ex is meant to be a sort of pre-Wonder Woman, another half-Olympian/half-Amazon warrior sent into man’s world…?

I don’t know.

PAGE 133: Neves gets two opportunities to draw breathtaking scenes, and both are wasted. This issue opens in hell, which doesn’t look much different than the battle in the village, save for the coloring (At this point, I was wondering where John McCrea, whose work on The Demon with Garth Ennis in the ‘90s was so inspired, was when it came time to fill out the New 52 creative rosters; that was the first time I thought of a specific artist, but throughout I couldn’t help but wonder why it is that all of Dark Horse’s comics involving swords, sorcery and fantasy are so wonderfully illustrated, while DC’s fantasy comic just look like shitty WildStorm super-team comics with swords).

The other occurs on this page; Mordru and Xanadu have a magician’s duel and while the spells they shout are almost as suggestive as those in that duel Neil Gaiman wrote in The Sandman all those years ago, the visuals are simply the two characters posing, Mordru glowing green while Xanadu glows pink, and two giant snake heads hover above them. It’s about as magical as any throwaway panel of Green Lantern fighting anyone at all.
This is, by the way, the climax of the trade; while Mordru and Xanadu do magical battle, Shining Knight and the Queen sword-fight.

PAGE 137: Ex quotes Gandalf, and not an obscure line from one of the novels, but the most repeated and remembered line from the movies…the closest thing Ian McKellen’s Gandalf has to a catchphrase.

PAGE 140: And then it ends, and I wish I would have sought this trade out at my local library, rather than buying it.

And then I read Animal Land Vol. 5 and it was really, really good. So only one of the three comics I read that night was actually terrible.

5 comments:

Jacob T. Levy said...

" featuring an interesting premise and rather strong script, incompetently told through generic art that lacks the basic elements of comics storytelling."

Yep. This was second only to Justice League Dark as a New 52 book I *wanted* to like, something that could provide a silver lining to the whole exercise.

Turns out that I *do* like JL:D, mostly kinda, certainly better than Shadowpact, though not enough to make up for the loss of Hellblazer. But this.. When I think that we lost Matt Wagner's Madame Xanadu and gained this mess along with Didio's travesty of a Phantom Stranger book, it makes the terribleness of the DCnU seem even more terrible.

A Hero said...

Thanks for the review. Like you I had a strong curiosity about this book based off of Cornell's presence and an affection for fantasy genre comics going back to the old Forgotten Realms comics of late 80's.

I am going to pass on picking up this one though, because nothing bugs me more when reading a comic than trying to puzzle out what is going on in the art. The few pages you posted highlighted that problem as much as your review did.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I've always thought that the title came from someone in editorial thinking that DEMON KNIGHTS sounded like DAEMONITES (the WildStorm alien race I know little about). Then they thought it might be a good concept.

I read the first three issues and dropped it. You totally nailed it, I had a hard time following the book, though I seemed to understand what was happening most of the time. It was the art I found confusing more than the writing.

"O" the Humanatee! said...

So glad to see someone else who found the art in Demon Knights such a turn-off. I went into the book with a fair amount of hope, since it seemed like the setting would allow Cornell, a smart writer, to have relatively free rein with an interesting bunch of characters. But the art was so irritating that it got in the way - though in my case it wasn't just the storytelling but also the basic draftsmanship and the dreadfully wan coloring that were the problem. (Just compare the colors of that Kirby Demon cover with those of the panels from Demon Knights!)

Also: Demon with armor? Stupid.

dannyagogo said...

I COMPLETELY AGREE with your review. I reread the first few pages many times. I wasn't sure if it was Xanadu or Lady of the Lake who grabbed Excalibur or who was pulling it down. There was not enough narration/exposition to explain these characters. And yes "400 years ago" or "20 minutes ago" is not a way to start a story. Especially if we mean "400 years ago before generic Dark Ages".

And I agree about Ex' power levels!!