Demon Knights, v. 1: Seven against the Dark
Collects: Demon Knights #1-7 (2011-2)
Released: July 2012 (DC)
Format: 160 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401234720
What is this?: DC throws together some of its medieval heroes to defend a town against a marauding army.
The culprits: Writer Paul Cornell and artist Diogenes Neves
When the New 52 started, I wasn’t that interested. I didn’t object to jettisoning continuity, although I wasn’t interested in figuring out what bits of old continuity were preserved and which weren’t. It was simply that DC’s characters and concepts hold little interest for me, and no reboot was going to make Superman or Wonder Woman interesting. But I did read one or two issues of a few titles with new concepts, lesser-known characters, or favorite creators: Mr. Terrific, Batgirl, All-Star Western, Firestorm. The only one that held my interest was Demon Knights; after two issues, I stopped buying the singles and waited for the trade paperback, Seven against the Dark.
Demon Knights is a fantasy adventure, set in medieval times and featuring some present-day DC characters whose character histories run through the Middle Ages. Writer Paul Cornell assembles Madame Xanadu, Jason Blood / Etrigan, Shining Knight, and Vandal Savage in a besieged town along with new characters Horsewoman, who is cursed to remain in her saddle at all times; Al Jabr, a Muslim inventor; and Exoristos, an Amazonian exile. They are opposed by Mordru and his Questing Queen, who sends a horde, dragons, and magic against the town.
I enjoyed Seven very much at the beginning, when the character interactions and brief action scenes were Cornell’s top priority. Unfortunately, the book slowly grows less enjoyable, as Seven‘s main failing is its pacing. It’s a striking contrast with Conan the Barbarian; say what you will about Conan‘s repetitive plots and barely there characterizations, but the stories do not lag. There is no time to. Stories are done in one issue, or occasionally two; in contrast, Seven tells the story of the gathering of heroes and a siege in seven issues. It’s not decompression, exactly, just story choices that blunt Cornell’s and the story’s virtues.
Seven has a strong start; Cornell establishes the characters, and although some of them are close to villainous, they are all entertaining. (Vandal Savage’s brutish, straightforward amorality is a particular pleasure.) The first issue sets up the main conflict, and it throws in some action as a cliffhanger. And then the book settles in for a siege.
Even brief sieges are, by their nature, dull. They are battles of attrition in which attackers hope to overcome the natural advantages of the defender through superior numbers, wits, or supplies. If you want to stop action dead, throw in a siege. Cornell throws in a few attacks and action sequences, but given Cornell’s need to give each character something to do and some personality, the issues drag on. The heroes remain trapped. They’re going nowhere, and neither is the plot.
I know this sounds like a major flaw. It is, but it is only because I like everything else in this story that the pacing annoys me so much. As I said, all the protagonists are entertaining (with the possible exception of the enigmatic Horsewoman). They are flawed and human, and they do not always get along. Each has his or her own “powers” and motivations. The action, when it happens, ahs a real sense of jeopardy.
Cornell decided to make Merlin and the fall of Camelot loom large in the story’s background. It’s a strong thematic choice, tying Shining Knight, Jason Blood / Etrigan, and Madame Xanadu to Arthurian legend; those characters have previous links to those myths, but Cornell didn’t have to keep them. Arthurian myths have remained popular through the centuries because they strike a chord with readers still. Cornell does more than use Merlin as simply a thematic element, though, portraying him as someone with a plan who might actually appear in later stories. On the other hand, the very popularity of those legends has made them overfamiliar, and I am thoroughly sick of them.
Diogenes Neves provides most of the art in Seven. Since the characters are the main allure, Neves’s clear designs are important. Most of his designs are fine; he doesn’t have much latitude with Etrigan, and I don’t know how his Jason Blood differs from previous versions, but Madame Xanadu, Shining Knight, and Exoristos are all simple, good designs. (Madame Xanadu’s costume is a little immodest, but I like the subtle monogramming of her bodice.) Al Jabr and Vandal Savage have one-note costumes, proclaiming them as a Muslim and barbarian respectively. Horsewoman’s outfit is too superheroic — it looks like spandex — and the Knight’s helmet is a little too impractical, but at least each has his or her own distinctive look.
I like Neves’s style, and his storytelling skills are very good. When there is action on the page, it is relatively clear; the omnipresent flame does simplify background and positioning, though. The flow gets muddled in the magical duels, although that’s partially the script’s fault. I’m not convinced by the decision to make the dragons into dinosaurs and mechanical constructs, but at least I can tell that they are supposed to be dinosaurs and mechanical constructs.
I’m looking forward to v. 2, whenever it comes out. I’m not sure if I’ll read beyond it, though. I enjoy Vandal Savage’s antiheroism and Shining Knight’s horribly concealed “secret,” and the rest of the group all have their moments. But another actionless volume, and I’ll drop the series.
Rating: (3.5 of 5)