Sunday, September 18, 2011

Demon Knights #1 review (plus rambling by me)

 Before I review this issue properly, I just want to take a moment to kindly blow off some steam about the DC reboot:
I really, really didn’t care about it.
At first.
I mean, continuity in comics these days has gotten so whacked out that even when something gets fixed you still have to spend hours reading older issues just to know what was broken in the first place. Throw in all the retcons and awkward attempts by writers to try and reintroduce pre-Crisis concepts and it all just becomes a big clusterfuck. Don’t even get me started on Marvel. I’d stopped caring long ago.
But the new comics that DC was bringing out just looked like more of the same, rather than attempts to attract new readers and/or to start over fresh.
So that’s why I didn’t care.
So far it looks like I was right. I mean, is the already famous ending to Detective #1 really something that couldn’t have been done in the old continuity? And Action #1 sounds and looks like a valiant attempt to return Superman to his Golden Age roots, but at the same time, it’s written by Grant Morrison. Remember what I said about writers who awkwardly attempt to reintroduce pre-crisis ideas? That’s who I was primarily referring to.
But, DC was also bringing out titles devoted to their more obscure properties, and since this is all really just a big sales gimmick, if those titles take off, that means that books devoted to obscure properties won’t automatically be cancelled to make room for more titles related to their more famous properties, like the gazillion Batman titles. Basically, everything has a fair chance to succeed now.
/End rant.
  Anyway, boy was I excited for this title, and for the most part, it delivers. The concept here is a sort of cross between A Game of Thrones (a series that’s very much in the public-eye as of late thanks to the HBO series) and The Magnificent Seven. That’s intriguing enough, but the big draw for me was that would it be a series featuring the medieval adventures of Etrigan the Demon and his human alter-ego Jason Blood.
 The Demon, for those not in the know, was a series that began with the fall of Camelot, after Merlin had failed to save it. He had used the help of the Demon Etrigan, who he then set loose to wait for the return of Morgan Le Fay in a few centuries. Merlin also gave Etrigan a human alter ego named Jason Blood. They both could switch back and forth with a rhymed spell. That’s the gist of it, ignoring retcons.
 I was a huge fan of the original Jack Kirby series, and am just three issues away from having completed the entire original 16 issue run. What intrigued me about those old issues was (like a great many things done by Kirby) how many great concepts and hints of untold stories there were that were never expanded upon, some so dismissed that subsequent writers and readers forgot about them.
For example, a great myth that fans of the post-Crisis Demon have spread was that the original Kirby series was just a generic superhero series with supernatural elements, that Etrigan was a straight-up hero and that there was no conflict between him and his alter-ego Jason Blood besides the usual secret identity angst.
 Uh…I can politely say no.
While it’s true that in these original comics Etrigan had none of the schemes to conquer hell or to rule the world that the modern incarnation did, and occasionally showed compassion to fellow supernatural creatures and disgust towards the more obviously evil ones, he was still a ravenous monster who delighted in tormenting Jason Blood and had no special love for humans.
 To make matters worse, while post-Crisis comics have made it that Jason was a man bound to/possessed by Etrigan, in the original, Jason was just an illusion, an alter ego designed to shame Etrigan, much like Don Blake was for Thor. The existential horror of not being real at all, just an illusion with a separate mind, was never developed by Kirby, but could have been; much like how Alan Moore handled Swamp Thing discovering he was not Alec Holland in The Anatomy Lesson (a comic that still gives me chills). But nooo, this great potential conflict was discarded by post-Crisis writers for a typical (okay, slightly atypical) demonic possession scenario.
But Jason Blood was no angel either; it was hinted in the original series that his past deeds (he apparently forgets who he is and starts a new life every few decades, writing off his past lives as ancestors) were rather less than heroic.
If "Knights" fails, they could always write "Demon Pirates"

  Yet, at the same time, we also occasionally saw flashbacks of Etrigan in the more recent past, implying that Jason had discovered the truth about himself at various points. What happened in those past lives? How many times had Jason unleashed Etrigan? We never got to know in the pre-crisis comics. And in post-Crisis comics? Outside of humorous scenes in the 90’s revival which showed Jason present at crucial points in history (he was a sailor on Columbus’s voyage etc.) we also never got to know. I always wished DC would do a limited series, or at least a story arc, showing the past adventures of The Demon.
So finally, this series comes along to show the adventures of Etrigan and Jason at one point in the past. That alone got me excited. Was I expecting it to fill in the blanks of past series? Of course not. After all this was set in a new continuity, but at least it would finally give the character a concrete background. Besides, if you wanted to do a series set in medieval times with familiar DC characters, why not use the Demon?
To be fair, I was a bit disappointed at first to see that, rather than expanding on the fall of Camelot shown in the origin story, or at least, focusing on the events leading up to the fall (which is what I thought this series was going to be about), we still begin after Arthur’s death and with Merlin setting Etrigan loose, and sadly, going with the “Etrigan is bonded to Jason” origin rather than the original. Even worse is that this time around, we don’t get to know anything about Etrigan or Jason when this happens. It just feels rushed, and abrupt, without even any great mysteries apparent like in the original, or in the retellings where both are horrified about the bonding.
Even worse? Unless you had some general knowledge of the concept of the Demon, this all doesn’t make any sense. It just happens, boom, bam, thank you ma’am. Not a great way of being new-reader friendly.
Those quibbles aside, this then becomes a very promising first issue.
And to be fair, this is pretty funny dialogue.

 We pick up a few hundred year later, but still in medieval times. Britain is besieged by the evil Mordru (who may or may not be Mordred of Arthurian legend, he may also be connected somehow to the Legion of Super Heroes villain of the same name)  and his unnamed Queen (Morgan Le Fay?). Their hordes rampage throughout the land. Meanwhile, we see that Jason Blood and Madame Xanadu (an immortal DC heroine) are now an item (seemingly). They meet up with old friend and fellow immortal Vandal Savage at a tavern, as well as a rather er….genderly ambiguous version of The Shining Knight. However, the Queen’s hordes attack the tavern, Jason turns (quite willingly) into Etrigan and our heroes do battle with the hordes, that is, until the queen sends an army of dinosaur warriors to attack. We also see what Madame Xanadu’s real reason for following Jason is: She’s really in love with Etrigan. End issue.
I like this a lot. Cornell may have fumbled a chance at a new origin for Etrigan/Jason, or at least a chance to explore the possibilities of the old Kirby one, but he brings a very new and interesting spin to the Etrigan/Jason dynamic. For example, Etrigan seems very level-headed and world weary, almost heroic. Jason is portrayed as a weakling and coward who constantly relies on Etrigan to get him out of tough spots, rather than the stalwart hero of older comics who was tormented over being bonded to Etrigan. Yet, he’s still rather likeable. Also interesting is the concept of him hanging around with other immortals like Xanadu and Vandal Savage. After all, wouldn’t he prefer the company of his own kind?
  I also love the idea of Xanadu pretending to love Jason but really loving Etrigan. Quite a new spin on the old “loves my alter ego” trope. The character conflict practically writes itself. It’s definitely better than the tiresome “I must stop my alter ego from destroying me first” nonsense from the post-Crisis comics. With this more ambiguous characterization of Etrigan that is neither that of a ravenous monster or an evil villain, and with an easily manipulated, weakling Jason that revels in using his powers, there’s no telling where this will lead.
THIS is Vandal Savage?

Also, I’m intrigued with Vandal Savage’s portrayal. Generally, he’s been portrayed as an evil villain instrumental in many famous crimes, like the Jack the Ripper murders and several famous wars. He was also a charter member of the original Injustice Society. Artistic depictions of him range from being caveman-like to looking like a sophisticated Bond villain. Here, he’s portrayed as a big loveable oaf, with little hint of the villainy he’s noted for. Will this series show his start of darkness? Or will he remain heroic throughout? Can’t wait to see.
As for the writing, well, Cornell has a tendency to rely too much on shifting dialogue and half-finished sentences, and like I said before, this comic isn’t as new reader friendly as it should be, but maybe that’s the direction he’s going for. I do like the sense of humor running throughout the book, though. As for Diogenes Neves artwork, all I can say is that it’s first rate stuff.
Color me impressed. 4/5.

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