In Retrospect – DEMON KNIGHTS #0-23

Demon-Knights-logo

Yet another DC comic I love ended in August, but this one was a “long runner”; at least so far as can be described these days. DEMON KNIGHTS is finished. Did it have a right to run two years? Should it have gone longer? Who were the eponymous Knights, and what’s their story? Could a medieval series have worked in the long run?

We’re going way back to 2011 for this retrospective. Flashpoint just annihilated basically every aspect of the old DC continuity (unless it’s part of the Batman or Green Lantern franchise). Everyone eagerly – or forlornly – await the list of new ongoing series all starting at once. The one that caught my eye was a book called OMAC, but we’ve already been over that. But another that I saw, and in fact didn’t give too much thought to, was a book starring Etrigan the Demon, in an adventure in medieval times. That alone was evidence enough that it couldn’t possibly last.

And then people starting reading it, and realized it was really, really good.

In brief, DEMON KNIGHTS is a series about Madam Xanadu and Jason Blood (the mortal bound together with Etrigan) just happen to arrive at a village tavern, where they meet Exoristos the exiled Amazon, Sir Ystin the Shining Knight, Vandal Savage the immortal barbarian, and Al Jabr the inventor. The Horsewoman is also around, but they don’t meet her until a little later. Then an army attacks; the horde of the Questing Queen. In order to prevent themselves being run roughshod over and innocent lives destroyed by the raiders, the impromptu allies must fight against men and beasts and dinosaurs (“tasty extinct creatures” in Savage’s words) and even dragon mechs.

It was awesome. It took seven issues to tell that one thing, but unlike most other DC series running at the time (and since), those seven issues didn’t drag. There are several main characters and several periphery characters, and every scene establishes something or is a joy to watch.

That’s the main strength of DEMON KNIGHTS: there is no room for filler, and everything – everyone – is interesting. That, and the series starts and ends over-the-top as hell.

Here’s an out-of-context list of things that happen in DEMON KNIGHTS, in no particular order: they fight a pirate sea serpent (a sea serpent caught and manned by pirates like a ship). They fight Morgan Le Fey. A bunch of them turn into representations of their deepest desires. They meet Zombie King Arthur. They go to Actual Hell and spend a few issues suffering torments as a part of an indy ploy. A four way war occurs in Avalon, between the Knights themselves, the Questing Queen’s Horde, the armies of Hell, and the forces of King Arthur. Jason Blood has no mouth and he must scream. They fight Cain and his army of vampires. They fight a kraken, and steal the Holy Grail from some giants. Said giants get pissed and attack a human city. Shining Knight becomes a vampire (kind of). Lucifer is very bored. And everyone double crosses everyone.

Oh, and there’s a time skip in there. We’ll get to that.

But let’s move on to the characters, who provide the emotional (and awesome) core of the series. First we have Madame Xanadu, Jason Blood, and Etrigan the Demon, who are in a love triangle. Xanadu, of the Fey race and a powerful immortal sorceress, plays both men in rapid succession. Both are aware she’s with the other, but are told that it’s only to placate the other; Xanadu truly loves the one she happens to be talking to at the time, honest. Heck, the series takes an entire issue out to show how the romance plays out from either male’s perspective, painting very different yet not necessarily mutually exclusive pictures of the woman.

As for Jason and Etrigan themselves, they hate each other, obviously. Bonded to share time, they swap places as needed. And since neither is happy with the arrangement, they will take any opportunity to disadvantage the other or to escape their curse. Which makes it particularly cruel when Merlin finds that they’ve done so at one point, and immediately reestablishes their bond. Because it’s necessary. Merlin has a point, of course, but a major point in Jason’s development is learning the pressing need for his burden and how to endure it.

Etrigan, before his bonding to Jason, was a lowly rhyming demon who once attempted to take over Hell. He failed, and throughout the years and the series he aims to either try again or at least gain additional power and authority.

In fact, it’s quite amusing how both he and Jason constantly scheme, not only against each other, but also against their enemies and even their allies on occasion. Jason only really ever intends to scheme against those who legitimately wronged him though…so for his allies, basically only Vandal Savage.

Vandal Savage is one of the more fun characters of the series, owing it to being the guy who is himself having the most fun. An immortal caveman who changed jobs to barbarian but never really stopped being caveman, Savage distinguishes himself in this series by being less of a plotting villain that he would become and more of a frat boy. A frat boy who kills people with impunity and eats monsters. We see a much younger Savage, though some of his plotting nature starts to come into focus as the series goes on. He’s betrayed the Knights on more than one occasion (though who hasn’t?) for his own convenience or for whatever slights he may have suffered at their hands. Like when they went to hell, and his torment was to be impaled with sticks, while upside-down, by his bastard offspring who were plucked from their homes just to serve this purpose. He could have signed a document admitting his many crimes, sending the children home in the process, but since he’s Savage, he knows full well how awful he is and gives no bothers.

As to quote the man himself, “I am Vandal Savage. That suffices. You may resume your poking.”

It helps too that Savage has some of the best, most quotable lines in the series. Tasty extinct creatures? Pirate Sea Serpent? The above line? All Savage. The character is so wonderfully, entertainingly amoral. Even Etrigan, the DEMON, has trouble matching Savage in shear wickedness. As one might imagine, the two get along quite well, at least when one isn’t condemning the other to hell or something.

Speaking of morality, we also have the ethical opposite of Savage in the group: “Sir” Ystin, the Shining Knight. Oddly enough, the two hardly bicker directly, in spite of this. Come to think of it, Ystin is practically Savage’s opposite in another way: manliness. Although it’s probably not a fair comparison, Ystin being a hermaphrodite. Or something, it’s never made clear exactly what shle is.

That raises a good point though. Why is Ystin of duel genders?

Aside from earning brownie points with transgender readers? Well that goes back to before the reboot. The original Shining Knight was a male, one Sir Justin, but in 2005 Grant Morrison started his rendition of the Seven Soldiers of Victory (of which Shining Knight was traditionally a member). Morrison made the Knight a woman who had pretended to be a man, and she went by the name Ystina (or Justina). By the way, it was the Grant Morrison series that established the idea of Camelot being a recurring archetype of history, and that Ystina came from an ancient Celtic version. So when the new series started, DC decided to throw both versions a bone and make the new Shining Knight, Sir Ystin, a girl-boy. It’s probably a good thing that the readers don’t really find this out for sure until several issues in, though it’s hinted beforehand. And of course, so far as I can tell at least, Ystin takes more more Ystina than Justin, but that’s neither here nor there.

Ystin is also easily the most noble of the Demon Knights. Shle has a quest, the quest for the Holy Grail, having gained shler immortality by sipping from it when shle was but a young warrior in the Celtic Camelot of the Bear King. It’s actually refreshing to see a character who does things for purely honorable reasons, because it’s the knightly thing to do. Especially given that at best, shler comrades are selfish clods, and at worst outright despicable individuals. Shle’s probably my personal favorite character in the book for this reason, though I do enjoy most of the otehrs. This doesn’t mean shle doesn’t play the snark card every once in a while. Shle’s not a pure stick-in-the-mud. And shle’s capable of more than seeking the grail, though it be shler Quest with a capital ‘Q’.

Things like being in a romance with Exoristos. Let’s move on to her so I can stop using “shle” and “shler”.

Readers never learn what transgression led to her exile, but Exoristos is often a fish out of water in the world of man. It isn’t long before she acclimates to the world outside, but she begins as one very accustomed to her prior way of acting. Actually, she acts often like a pre-Flashpoint Wonder Woman – the obvious intention being for her to fill such a position in their group – which is a positive trait considering what DC did to Amazon culture as a whole during the reboot. I’ve personally not read any of Wonder Woman, but if DEMON KNIGHTS and the complaints of fans are any indication, the Amazons were not remade into decent people.

On further reflection Exoristos isn’t all that much like pre-Flashpoint Wonder Woman, but then again neither is Wonder Woman herself. And Ex at least doesn’t do what other Amazons are said to do in this series. Shudder.

Before I forget, Ex also had a few problems…when it came to the Black Diamond. For those who weren’t around or don’t remember, there was a Cross Through plot in DC comics for a time involving The Black Diamond, the vessel of the villainous Eclipso. It ran through DEMON KNIGHTS and All Star Western and Catwoman and Team 7, before being resolved in Sword of Sorcery. Most series weren’t affected much at all by its inclusion, it being a transparent editorial mandate to create false cohesion between books. DEMON KNIGHTS used the Diamond better than most, in that it came back into the plot at the end of the series, as well as to give Ex character development.

See, when the group had their misadventure in hell, Ex gained respite from her torment by order of Lucifer, in return for using her chance to escape to bring the Black Diamond to Earth. It’s telling of how forced the editorial mandate was that the stated origin of the Diamond is entirely inconsistent with how Sword of Sorcery played it out. In DEMON KNIGHTS the Diamond was forged in Actual Hell from compacted hate, whereas Sword of Sorcery clearly states that Eclipso made the Diamond and was trapped in it. Regardless, a stone that radiates negativity could only bode ill for any who possess it, and having it caused a rift between Exoristos and Ystin when they were traveling together.

About that time skip: at the end of the Hell-Horde-Avalon-Knights four-way war, the group returned to Earth and promptly disbanded for thirty years. This despite Horsewoman – and I swear I’ll get back to her in a minute – saying this is a bad idea and they ought remain allied for the sake of the world. This occurred at issue fifteen, followed by sixteen where Cain’s undead army necessitated the team get back together. Personally I have mixed feelings about the time skip. On the one hand, it allowed the book to avoid getting stale by advancing things forward. All but one of the team were ageless, so they could have further adventures through the rest of the middle ages. This didn’t end up happening, of course, because the series ended before further skips could occur, but it’s an interesting possibility.

While I’m on the subject, the only mortal of the Knights was Al Jabr. A Middle Eastern inventor, Al Jabr bent his analytical mind and wondrous machines to tasks at hand. He could have siege engines like catapults constructed (as he did in the village from the beginning), and had electricity wire he could use to shock enemies, a technique he called “electrickery”. I love puns, so he gains additional respect from me. Aside from that, he uses a rain-making gun at one point and then never again. But that was right before the time skip, after which he saw far less action. It’s a great disappointment that we never saw Al Jabr use more cool toys, which is one of the downsides to the time skip. He ended up becoming the Caliph of a Spanish city, brought to power by the force of his inventions, like hot-air balloons.

From a character perspective, he held a unique place as well. While Shining Knight was the biggest voice of nobility in the group, Al Jabr was the biggest voice of reason. Not superstitious by nature, he was always trying to learn and understand how things worked. At first he’s vehemently opposed to using “magic” as an explanation for the bizarre things they encounter, trying to learn the rules behind what he sees as science not properly understood.

And such is the trick to Al Jabr. He’s the skeptic, but not irrationally so. Compare him to another DC character, Doctor Thirteen. Thirteen is a learned man, proficient in science and opposed to bothersome superstition. As such, he tries to debunk such things at every opportunity. The problem with Doctor Thirteen is that unlike Al Jabr, who is confused by magic but in the end accepts it as being real (even possibly quantifiable), Thirteen refuses to believe that the supernatural exists. This is fine if he’s on his own and thus can be challenged by only frauds, but then you get him interacting with the wider DCU as a whole. A universe where not only does magic exist, but it’s prevalent and showy.

In All Star Western, Thirteen is drafted into a 19th century version of Stormwatch (an organization that spun off from the Demon Knights, by the way). And despite working alongside a woman with steam and electricity powers, a man tainted by the undead, and a straight up immortal, Thirteen refuses to see validity to paranormal things. The man fights native American vampires, and is nearly killed by one himself, and he still denies. The idea that these strange things could be phenomena he simply doesn’t understand doesn’t even enter his mind. He just says the vampires were some kind of disfigured people with “winged contraptions” on their backs. It’s hard to maintain a character’s air of respectable rationality when the rational reality of the DC universe includes monsters, vampires, superpowers, and open display of mystic arts. As such, Terrance Thirteen comes off as a fool for his blindness. Al Jabr at least reacts the way a smart person would when confronted with very real supernatural stuff: he accepts it as part of the natural order, not letting it bother him overmuch.

Really, by the time he’s old, he acts far more mature than his youthful companions, partly because his mortality requires him to grow up. The others actually act surprised to see he’s aged thirty years after thirty years passed.

And finally there’s Horsewoman, the most mysterious character of the bunch, and stayed that way by not giving readers much to go on. Seriously, little character development concerning Horsewoman occurs over the course of twenty four issues. We learn her backstory, but nothing of how it affected her development into who she is now. She reenacts her backstory, and we’re only privy to how she takes it now in hindsight: being bored. Granted she probably relived it several times in succession, it being her torment in Actual Hell, but one should not descend into boredom reliving one’s tragic history.

Horsewoman has the ability to create basically a pact with horses, allowing her to live for centuries, as well as communicate with equines for miles around, getting them to do her bidding. A nice bit of world-building fun is that it’s explained Horsewoman’s power comes from The Red, the power of all animal life established in Animal Man and Swamp Thing. This one is a pleasant detail…unlike with Beast Boy, whose hair was changed to red in the New 52 version in order to force the connection, despite it ruining the character’s cross-medium synergy with the Teen Titans animated series.

But there I go again, using a retrospective as a platform to complain about the reboot. Let’s complain about relevant things.

Like how the Horsewoman is paraplegic; a detail that isn’t stated until well into the series. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize Horsewoman can’t walk, though to my defense the book didn’t do a good job calling attention to it until many issues in. I think the book assumed readers would be able to figure it out just by looking at her or noticing she’s almost always on it. But for the first story arc, there really wasn’t any point where the Horsewoman needed to get off her horse, nor did she remain in one place long enough for it to matter. If one didn’t already know she was crippled, one would never think to assume that, because the book never draws attention to it.

A lot of this has to do with Horsewoman being a loner. This is not bad in and of itself – sometimes a group needs a member that stands at the periphery – but being a loner also means not having character moments for the loner to play off others. She’s obviously not going to explains aspects of her personality to no one, so it takes a long time for basic aspects of her being to become apparent. Like not being able to walk. Her character does become better in the latter parts of the series, for a couple reasons. First, the character communicates more with her fellows. And more importantly, because the writers realize they can solve the problem of character interaction by actually making her conversations with her horse available to the reader.

Yes, she can talk to horses, her own in particular. After the time skip, she even gets a new mount, a workhorse named Brickwedge. And suddenly we have much more to go off of. Except while we can know how Horsewoman talks, these conversations end up building more of Brickwedges character than hers. And that is just too damn funny. And also irritating.

Brickwedge is amusing, don’t get me wrong. But getting overshadowed by one’s horse does little to endear one to the reader.

And all of that is poor news for Horsewoman, because only a few issues after this shift, DEMON KNIGHTS was canceled. All the other characters got far more character development, because the book chose to focus on them often. Many other books would advance as many plot-focused stories in the same amount of time, but few would do so while advancing so many different characters. Such was the biggest strength of the series and why it worked so well: arc fatigue doesn’t come easily when each issue has half a dozen people vying for attention at a time.

So why did the series get canceled if it worked so well? Low sales, as always. The series was always an unsteady bet. A team book starring b-list characters running around the middle ages? With no Batman characters?(!) It’ll never work! No doubt it’s a critical success – a lot of curmudgeons, especially the ones that despise the New 52 as a whole, rank DEMON KNIGHTS as one of their favorite titles. But a commercial success dictates additional installments, and DEMON KNIGHTS always had an uphill battle in that respect. Honestly I’m surprised the series lasted as long as it did. Two years is impressive for a DC book these days; many other New 52 First Wave titles ended long before. Books like Resurrection Man, I Vampire, Frankenstein Agent Of S.H.A.D.E., and Captain Atom; let’s not even get into the ones that only lasted eight months. It’s pretty decent of DEMON KNIGHTS to last twenty-four issues. And also sad, because ten years ago a series not half as good could last three times as long, and be sagging it quality for much of that.

I’m looking at you, Generation X. Looking at you with stern fatherly disappointment.

Still, credit to DEMON KNIGHTS for ending on a satisfying conclusion. The time skip sort of clinched the doomed nature of the book, but it had enough momentum to draw everything to a close. It even ended with the possibility of future adventures…that might not ever happen. That’s the positive an negative aspects of ending a series this way in this day and age. If the series couldn’t last long enough on its first go around, what makes one think it’ll work better several years down the line after any casual reader already forgot about it and new readers will not know about it? It’s not like this is a book belonging to a high-profile character or team. If someone like The Flash got his series canceled by some fluke or another, it wouldn’t be long before another started. That’s a bad example of course because The Flash is so integral to DC that he’d never be without a comic.

But my point still stands. The only way I can predict this series, with this continuity, coming back is if a current fan goes to work with DC and brings it back. Or if one of the writers from this series decides to pitch another series way down the line when DC is more willing to bet on such things. Here’s hoping the latter day comes soon, not only for the sake of DEMON KNIGHTS, but for DC as a whole.

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