DC made a very smart decision by including historically based series under the New 52 banner. Titles like All-Star Western, (the current arc of) Action, and the upcoming Team 7 give readers important and meaningful context for various characters and places throughout DC’s universe. Demon Knights, so far, recounts the adventures of seven heroes that all existed during the age of Camelot, though, King Arthur’s legendary city is less a physical place that existed in a set time period, and more an idea of what the perfect kingdom should be, no matter how many times it falls and rises again.
Camelot as a fluid, narrative mechanism originally came from Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers mega-series, wherein the revamped Shining Knight had to come to terms with the Camelot she found not being the city she once knew. Paul Cornell keeps this mythology intact and takes the idea one step further by introducing the Once and Future King this month in Demon Knights #11. Camelot represents the idea that nobody has the same experience—no matter how similar we are, each human being has a unique life experience. In the same way, each member of Cornell’s ‘team’ has experienced Camelot in a different way.
At the end of last issue, the team was bathed in a mysterious magic that apparently turns them into monstrous versions of their former selves. After a little observation, Al Jabr recognizes that they’ve all been transformed into what they want the most. Jabr becomes a giant head, forsaking the body for true wisdom and hyper-intelligence. The Horsewoman morphs into a centaur. Etrigan attains his potential and becomes a Demon King, “who would never condescend to rhyme”. Exoristos’ desire to make her companions aware of her shame turns her into an ugly troll. Ystin is a true Shining Knight, while Vandal Savage basically looks the same, albeit with some animalistic features added on for vanity’s sake. Xanadu is the only one spared due to her connections to Avalon.
The zombified corpse of King Arthur leads Xanadu and the others to healing waters that will purge the evil magic and would eventually drive them all insane. What follows is the beginning of an honest debate (or as honest as a comicbook about supernatural heroes in medieval times can be) about the effects of fighting fire with fire, so to speak, and whether to keep their newfound abilities.
Unfortunately, Arthur cleanses them all before any real insight is made. Sure, Al Jabr and Ystin didn’t want the ‘healing’ then were thankful for it afterwards, but that’s in character for both of them. Savage, Horsewoman, and Etrigan are still outraged at losing their new power so quickly. Fortunately, Arthur himself is also healed, giving him back his more human appearance just in time to fend off the rage of Etrigan.
Cornell does a fascinating job weaving classic medieval storytelling with universal human stories such as the hero’s quest, redemption, the thirst for knowledge, and living under impossible circumstances. Xanadu’s ongoing deception with Jason Blood and/or Etrigan gives the character such a benevolent edge, while Vandal Savage’s utter indifference for anyone or anything other than himself points to the danger of dulled emotional connections.
And this is truly the heart of this unique book; how Paul Cornell manages to weave the actual mythic from disparate human tales and to find those disparate human tales in second-tier DC characters who would perhaps have been ground under the heel of history. It’s the idea that lies at the very hear of DC’s New 52—the idea that ideas themselves are currency, and that they will resurge time and again. We see this notion play out with the appearance and reappearance of Camelot, again with the reemergence of Arthur, and primarily at the level of Paul Cornell’s storytelling. It’s the idea that better ideas will always win out, that secret gem of geek culture, that we fight with the mind.
Now allied with the “knights of the demon”, Arthur Pendragon plans to lead them into Avalon to resurrect the greatest wizard of all time, Merlin. It’s an outward adventure, and an inward quest. Exactly like the original Arthurian romances.