Upon finishing up Demon Knights #10, it’s occured to me just how much this series could have gone awry. Look at the whole span of DC’s New 52 launch–with characters redesigned to have permanent gritted-teeth and shepherded by Geoff Johns’ insistence that the Justice League ooze testosterone–and it’s easy to see that a high-fantasy comic starring Etrigan the Demon and Madame Xanadu set in the Dark Ages could have become another blood’n'boobs series. Seriously, it seems we were one GHB-spiked martini at the DC editorial retreat/corporate hoedown away from having Xanadu, Exoristos, and Horsewoman do nothing but skinny-dipping in a lake, with just enough not showing to ensure the news networks didn’t get all Helen Lovejoy, while Etrigan and the other dudes scream about honor, brotherhood, and stuff. For this nightmare scenario, Shining Knight would have been the subject of Hangover Two-style “LOL trannies!” jokes before being decapitated five pages into the first issue. In other words, this could’ve been like Red Hood and the Outlaws.
That’s not to say Demon Knights doesn’t have any of the gore or sexuality that has defined most of its sibling titles (it certainly did in the flashback story two issues ago), but rather it doesn’t define itself by how “extreme” it can get with these elements. Instead, it’s just part of the scenery, and the emphasis is on the social misfits who suddenly find themselves on an all important quest, which is the plot of virtually every samurai film Akira Kurosawa ever made (as well as the westerns that remade them). This might actually be the point, even, since Paul Cornell and Diõgenes Neves hinge the plot on the cyclical rise and fall of Camelot and the nostalgic, Romantic pining various characters have for a return of the king, echoing the bemoaned loss of imperial status in modern Great Britain (and America, too, come to think of it). This issue sees the Knights traveling to the historic realm of Camelot, which is spawning giant monsters like a sea serpent that’s been commandeered by pirates (Western politics leading to international criminals? Perish the thought). There’s a two page sequence, which I think was meant to be a spread except it was screwed up by the haphazard ad placement, where a villager recounts the tale of these beasts–sea serpents and other enlarged animals–that uses a collage style to great effect. Islamic scientist Al-Jabr later notes that whatever is transforming these creatures is making them “more like their essential natures,” so when the next page shows Camelot to be a decrepit village surrounding a lone shining citadel, it seems the creators, particularly the clever Neves, are commenting on the timelessness of an economic reality: concentrated wealth surrounded by abject poverty.
A large portion of fantasy quests, especially the Lord of the Rings variety, is about upholding the status quo: descendants of kings who must accept a throne because of birthright, common peasants rallying to battle for nobility, and a vast army of Others that look alike. Cornell and Neves have been playing with that the entire series, whether it was the praise the Knights got at the end of the first arc for holding off the Horde (even though the town they were protecting was ravaged) or the duplicity of various characters, notably Vandal Savage, Etrigan, and Madame Xanadu. That they also focus on outcasts, rogues, and foreigners like Horsewoman, Al-Jabr or the Amazonian Exoristos (who reveals certain feelings to the androgynous Shining Knight following a bit of derring-do this issue) suggests the “protecting a world that fears and hates them” narrative of the X-Men comics before that franchise got lost up its own behind. Then again, the whole point of the New 52 was to get these characters and franchises out from their own behinds so that people who don’t know the difference between DC’s Captain Marvel and Marvel’s Captain Marvel could read comics, an effort that took two drunken steps out the front door before falling into a ditch, upon which Grant Morrison yelled “Screw this” and went back to working on Batman Incorporated.
What I’m saying is Demon Knights is the kind of whimsical, thoughtful, and diverse title DC claimed to want to make all their books be, but with creators who had the guts to do exactly that.