After two weeks of reading DC’s Zero Month, I’ve come to see that there are (generally) two thematic categories these issues can fall into: meaningful and unnecessary. Now, just because an issue is meaningful doesn’t automatically make it good, and some of the most unnecessary titles offered have been some of the best thus far.
Superboy falls into the first category. It gives readers a history-filled look into Krypton’s past that unfortunately had little to do with Superboy himself. It focuses on the wrong aspects of the character’s origins, and generally mucks up the whole title even more than it’s been recently. On the other hand, Scott Snyder’s Batman #0 is by no means integral to Bruce Wayne’s current goings-on (unless you count the eventual return of the Red Hood Gang), but it still stands as one of the best issues this month due to it’s emotional center and unorthodox look at Bruce’s life before he even concocted the ‘Batman’ persona. Demon Knights #0, penned by series regular Paul Cornell with guest art from Bernard Chang (DC Universe Presents), seems to straddle both categories, though definitively falls into the former as it moves forward throughout the issue.
The legend of Jason Blood has been told a handful of times, usually with the same basic elements leading to Merlin binding his squire with the soul of a rhyming demon, Etrigan. In the past, Jason has always been the victim, someone unfairly and unjustly used as a pawn in a mystical game of chess in which Merlin was the loser. Even before Demon Knights #0, Cornell has been endeavoring to make this version of Jason/Etrigan different from previous incarnations—the relationship between Madame Xanadu (or Nimue, depending on which flashback we’re in) and Jason/Etrigan is new, and definitely fun spin on classic characters. Now we get to see exactly why these two souls were bound to each other with no hope of separation. This is great because Merlin’s motivations have never been really delved into, leaving this Demon Knight’s origin a mystery.
We learn that Jason Blood isn’t as pious and perfect as he makes himself out to be. In earlier issues of Demon Knights, Jason has always played the victim, acting as though he was totally betrayed by Merlin all those years ago. In reality, Jason was a very angry boy before he fused with Etrigan.
As Merlin’s squire, Jason was made to perform busy work that only he could do because of Merlin’s trust in him. Of course, hearing “you’re so good at this job, we don’t want to promote you” is never what anyone wants to hear, and Jason starts to resent the teacher who won’t allow him to grow and become his own man.
Of course, Merlin’s take is that Jason has no discipline, and therefore cannot hope to make it on his own. If the set-up is a bit clichéd, it’s mostly out of love for the thematic grandeur that comes with medieval times. Fearing an explosion of rage of temperament, Merlin decides he must influence the boy’s life somehow to avert certain horror if his anger were left unchecked.
Meanwhile, down in Hell, Etrigan’s sad history is fully revealed. Once a rhyming demon at the feet of Lucifer himself, Etrigan becomes enraged when his rhyming skills are judged time after time. Etrigan doesn’t want to spend eternity playing wordsmith for the King of the Underworld, so he starts himself a little revolution! Before taking on granddaddy Devil himself, Etrigan takes control of the lyricist demons (of which he is one) by defeating every champion from the tribe until he is awarded leadership. Etrigan continues on, rallying the various demonic tribes of Hell under one banner: defeat Lucifer.
At the final moment, when it looks as though Etrigan might be victorious, the Devil shows his true power by removing Etrigan from the battlefield, allowing Merlin to bind Etrigan to a mortal boy, then making sure Etrigan can’t escape the lowest pits of Hell ever again, save for when he swaps places with Jason. It’s a haunting scene that shows how quickly a revolution can falter without its leader, without a shining example that all others aspire to. With Etrigan removed from the equation, the rebellion against Lucifer and his tyrannical ways ends just as quickly as it started.
Originally, I was very much hoping for some insight into the new characters introduced throughout Demon Knights thus far. I wanted to read about Al-Jabr, the Horsewoman, and Exoristos. I wanted to know who they are and where they came from. And to be honest, I was a bit upset when I saw the issue was all about Etrigan, a character who’s been around for decades. Fortunately, Paul Cornell knew what he was getting into, and penned an engrossing, engaging story that (like many New 52 stories so far) turns the old tales on their heads.
Jack Kirby’s classic Demon, was always a balance between good and evil with Jason representing the good while Etrigan somewhat obviously representing the evil. Now, we know things aren’t so clear-cut. Etrigan was a revolutionary and a martyr for civil rights in the depths of Hell, while Jason was less a timid squire and more a headstrong idealist who would have eventually succumbed to his own rage and harmed all those he loves and many more.
This is the kind of issue that exemplifies the aim of the New 52 as a cultural project—Paul Cornell has taken a character who had become a bit long in the tooth pre-reboot, and written a fresh take on said character that’s similar to the original, but takes enough liberties that the story becomes its own. Demon Knights #0 says what it needs to say without becoming overdeveloped or annoyingly bogged down in it’s own mythology, something that Cornell could have easily succumbed to in a tale of magic, demons, and betrayal.