Three Hours to Go: Talking With Paul Cornell about “Demon Knights”

“The DC relaunch means that the history of the character becomes kind of moot. I don’t mind at all if the new audience don’t recognize him, as long as they think he’s interesting. We’ve added a couple of new things to him. New readers start here!”

Paul Cornell, writer on the runaway hit Stormwatch shares his thoughts on today’s forthcoming Demon Knights. The “he” that Cornell speaks about is longstanding DC character, The Demon Etrigan, protagonist for Demon Knights. Originally created by Jack Kirby, the Demon is traditionally the story of Jason Blood who because of unspecified wrongdoings, becomes a human cage for Etrigan. A simple spoken incantation allows Etrigan to arise from and return to Blood. DC has long struggled with finding the right voice and the right audience for a character as psychologically-layered as Etrigan/Blood. But Cornell has some crucial shifts in the story’s high concept and characterization that will keep audiences enthralled.

Chief among these innovative shifts is re-setting the story in a medieval era. It’s an era where Etrigan makes more sense, where darker things can and often do happen. And an era which calls for the kind of brutal reckoning that Etrigan brings. Which in turn, will only make the character struggle between Etrigan and Blood (or will there be a different human host) more poignant.

“I love The Magnificent Seven“, Cornell states in a clear tone that underlines his facility at mixing genre like a world-class DJ intercutting RZA with Miles Davis, “and I wanted to do that in a fantasy setting, but with some real world references in there. We’re in the DC version of Medieval Europe (it’s got an extra state that history doesn’t mention), though the map we present doesn’t extend far enough to show where we are (but we know, and we know what century we’re in)”. There’s a pause in Cornell’s thinking then he refocuses the core of the evolving Etrigan story, “The where and the when don’t matter, the characters and the set-up do”.

And perhaps even more than the story, Etrigan presents creators and readers alike with a challenge to expectations. Classic issues of The Demon exploit the mystical nature of the character’s origins (and in fact extend this classic “Wizards & Weapons” mysticism to the “decor” of the stories) as a focus for delineating the psychological struggle between Etrigan and his human host.

Cornell is emphatic that these psychological depths will be an engaging element in Demon Knights. Speaking of Etrigan directly, Cornell suggests, “He has some interesting depths to explore. There’s an unusual love triangle here, and it’s not immediately clear who’s fooling who. Situations like that tend to get tense when you’re trapped with unwilling compatriots in a village with a Horde coming at it”.

In a heartbeat, Demon Knights is everything The Demon should always have been. A love story amidst an epic fantasy setting is an example of Cornell’s gift as a storyteller, his ability to find the edge, the new. A love triangle just propels the story beyond expectations.

Dc’s New 52 is very much about a reintroduction of the classic. Sometimes characters have been forgotten, sometimes they’re weighed down by decades of continuity. But the company-wide reboot is about bringing creators and longtime readers alike into viewing these characters afresh, and to engage new readers, infecting them with the same enthusiasm the very first generation of comicbook readers felt.

“I think the New 52 reaches out to all sorts of genres”, Cornell continues, “and it say to a mainstream audience that we know they don’t just like superhero comics. Demon Knights seeks to satisfy those who like that kind of gritty, no safety net, fantasy epic”.

There’s a fearlessness to Cornell’s words, the kind that comes from a focused creator finally unleashed. In a very practical sense Demon Knights is about the full promise of comics. It’s about a major publisher returning to the idea of allowing for more than one genre. It’s about the kind of creative freedom Frank Miller described when he says to Will Eisner, “The rain scene [in Sin City: The Hard Goodbye] was one of two scenes where I first got the idea of simply not thinking about the number of pages. For me it was like I’d just stepped out of a cave into the morning”.

Cornell defers. He views his own creativity as on element among many. “Well, it’s a team game, and the gorgeous, romantic art of Diogenes Neves is a huge part of this. He’s got a great ease of storytelling. My Editors Matt Idelson and Chris Conroy are also very much a part of the team. Chris knows his history, and the notes I get from both of them are first class”.

There’s a pause, almost as if Cornell sense he might regret not mentioning what he next says. When he continues, it’s the walls of 20th century mass-market media that come crashing down, “I’m interested in how fantasy can articulate character. So the book is action/character/action/character all the way. I also hope that through having a majority female team, and the presence of the Horsewoman (who can’t walk, but, through magical means rides alone) we’re addressing a new audience that enjoys its diversity”.

In a single thought, Cornell references core ideas of media commentator Johanna Blakley who passionately observes a shift in the way our entertainment is finding us. It’s not about how mass-produced media grabs our demographic in a kind of one-size-fits-all approach. It’s about how people gather around artifacts that are important to them, regardless of age or race.

And with Demon Knights it’s about the emotional core built around Etrigan. “They’re definitely things of the night, aren’t they? (The Dark Side indeed)”, says Cornell enigmatically. Just for a second it’s hard to shake the idea that he might be alluding to another Jack Kirby creation, Darkseid, the tyrant god of Apokolips. But he couldn’t be, could he? “Demon Knights is about whether or not one can live up to ‘Camelot’, so it’s about an attempt to be the only light in absolute darkness. That’s another thing about the title: this is all there is at that point in time, we can go anywhere, in the Medieval DC Universe. It’s a blank slate”.