Like Jack Kirby's classic introduction of DC Comics' Etrigan the Demon, the New 52 series "Demon Knights" begins at the fall of King Arthur's Camelot. However, from there the new series is anything but the same kind of comic the once-ryhming anti-hero has known in DC's past.
Still linked to human host Jason Blood, the Demon is now a wandering warrior in Medieval Europe who in issue #1 of Paul Cornell, Diogenes Neves and Albert Oclair's begins to build bonds with a team of similar travelers including DC fantasy mainstays like Madame Xanadu (who is carrying on an affair with Etrigan behind Blood's back), Vandal Savage (whose journey as an immortal has not turned him towards total villainy yet) and the Shining Knight (who still likes to be referred to as a man even when it's obvious she is not). The full team of "Demon Knights" will also include three brand new characters whose fates may or may not be tied to familiar elements of DC's fictional landscape.
And exploring the wild ins and outs of that landscape is what the series is all about. CBR News spoke with Cornell about the revelations and teases at the heart of the on sale issue #1, and the writer explained how his goal in writing the story of "Demon Knights" was not to lean on fantasy tropes but to use them to open up the potential in DC's many fictional countries. Below, he goes in depth on what fans can expect from the first arc from an epic battle with the new villain the Questing Queen to revelations about the lives of the entire cast to strange turns of fantasy fiction that bring armored dinosaurs and self-satisfied Goths into contact with his band of seven warriors.
CBR News: Paul, my one-sentence takeaway from "Demon Knights" was that it felt like a superhero version of the first night of every Dungeons & Dragons campaign I've ever played.
Paul Cornell: [Laughs] People have all said that! And they're right. I hadn't realized at all that "you meet at an inn" is the start of every D&D campaign, but of course it is. And that's a bit that's somehow gotten into the back of my head. It was nice to find that out. There's a lot of times that the audience knows things you don't, and it's often a pleasure – and sometimes an absolute horror – looking on the internet and realizing "Oh, that's true, isn't it?" But there's a lot of D&D about this book.
But when you're playing with a form that we don't often get to see in superhero comics often – like the epic fantasy – it does change the shape and structure of the story you're telling. With this book, did you have a hard time making a big, epic story that also fit into bite-sized single issues like you've been trying to accomplish with "Stormwatch"?
Well, "Demon Knights" plays it a little differently in that there's basically one single engagement in the first seven issues that's a big battle which looms, happens and then has a big aftermath. In the middle of the battle, in issue #4, there is something quite different, and it's in the nature of something that will reveal lots and lots of back story as well as where "Demon Knights" is going to go in the future and what it all means and how everything fits together. Basically, it's "The Magnificent Seven" in Medieval times. It's this one little village. It's the narrow pass. It's this enormous army versus these seven strangers with a dirty great burst of the luminous half way through. I don't know how much more I can say about that.
But you're right. There's one-and-done a lot in "Demon Knights" in that we hope each issue is a satisfying experience in and of itself. But it's definitely building to the enormous battle. That enormous battle we think will take two issues, and there's an awful lot of treversals and surprises on the way to that. And you get to know the people who you're going to be rooting for. And I think that there's a certain audience in this that haven't been tapped in a long time – the people who are on board for epic fantasy. I'm trying to reach out for them.
Let's talk about the team element of the book. Some of these characters like the Demon and Madame Xanadu fit right into the Aruthrian era while Shining Knight is a character I think a lot of fans would have love to have seen in that time but never got to because of the particulars of "Seven Soldiers." How did you go about assembling the characters you'd use? Did you write out a big list of possibilities and then cull the herd?
Yeah. There was a huge roster that we worked through, and some of them we may still get to in the fullness of time – though that will be the fullness of time. For both of my books, I don't like the idea of people hanging on to continuity stuff. This is the book. This is what you're going to get, so we'll do those characters and that experience. If you're just waiting around for some character to show up, it might happen in the future, but do you like us now or not?
In "Demon Knights," I started with a list of about 50 characters – all the people who could be there. And we narrowed it down to who would be most fun. That's been a pleasant experience. Shining Knight shouldn't be there in the old universe, but that's one of the things that the changing universe allows for. We go into in issue #4 quite some depth about what she's doing there and what she's after. She should have hopped straight from [her final battle into "Seven Soldiers"] but I'm really enjoying having here here.
When you put a team like this together, how much of your choosing boils down to the personalities playing off each other? The real standout moment in issue #1 is when "Sir" Ystin introduces herself, and they all look at her askance.
She keeps that going as well! [Laughs] It's more of a gesture on her part than anything else or perhaps a wish to be seen as a male. But it is all about the personalities. People say that Vandal Savage comes across as cuddly...well, you just wait and see. It's a lovely mixture of personalities. We tweaked them a bit too. I loved Amy Reeder's "Madame Xanadu" series, but that's not her now. That was the best and most brilliant of her in the old universe, and this is a different take – only slightly different. And there's her relationship with Etrigan, which I kind of thought was a no brainer. The best things are the ones where you're surprised no one ever did it before, and you go "Oooooh, yeah." It's nice to also establish Jason as a character in his own right who's at odds with Etrigan. That was always there, but we're going to keep it going. I really like the opportunity to bring new character voices in. I think hopefully if you like all the seven and like all of their voices, that should be enough to bring you back. I always say it's "character, character, character" and one of the things we can do in comics is really get you close to a bunch of characters – especially in a team book. And that's what I like to do most of all.
So some of the seven we already know from comics: Vandal, Shining Knight, the Demon, Xanadu. Of the three brand new cast member left, we've already gotten to see what the Amazon Exoristos is like. What can you tell us about the other two who we'll be meeting more as we go?
There's Al Jabra who was at the bar, and who we'll show what he can do in issue #2. Then there's the mysterious figure on horseback who is the Horsewoman who'll ride into town next issue.
Well, if there's a setting to help reveal the ins and outs of characters in, I don't know if you could find one quite as crazy as issue #1's cliffhanger sets up.
"And then a bunch of armed dinosaurs burst in!" [Laughter] I actually wanted to keep that a secret, and everybody went, "NO! Don't be ridiculous! People will like that, and they might even buy the issue because of it." As it turns out, I think they were right.
This will be a slow boil book in some respects as these personalities clash and the big ideas unfold over this first big battle. But there are some signposts you've set up that beg to be asked after including the fact that Mordru's mistress is called the Questing Queen, which leads me to ask: what is she questing for?
And there will be an answer to that concretely in issue #4!
The other stand out is the map. Any time we've got a map in a fantasy story, it's a sign of things to come. And the destination here is Alba Sarum. This sounds significantly different from the Eastern European, classical fantasy setting we're already playing in. Will you be mixing in some other influences as you go?
Let me see. We've kept this a little murky because we didn't want to say to anybody "We have a book set in Medieval France in the 9th Century." And there's nothing in the book to indicate that because honestly, if that's the first line you hear about a comic, are you going to pick it up? No, we'd rather lead with armed dinosaurs, thank you very much. [Laughter] But if you pulled out from that map, you would see that we're in Northern France. Alba Sarum is basically where the various Frankish kingdoms would be around this point, and we are in a village of Goths, leading Etrigan to say in the next issue "I hate Goths!" whether they be the Ostrogoths or the Visigoths or any other sort of Goth. [Laughs] They are to the South of the Frankish kingdom. Basically, the globe of the DC Universe always has nations on it which aren't there in the real world, and I've just extended that idea back to Medieval times and created an idyllic city-state in Alba Sarum where we'll be going in the second arc to allow us to have some fantasy fun on a real map of Europe. There's lovely mythical Britain over there and maybe pre-European United States to visit at some point and all sorts of fun to be had. But it's really important to say that your geography and history lessons...you should look elsewhere for them.
At the same time, I really like that we know where this all is and when it is. There's a sign in issue #1 where the inn is called The Triumph At Rome, and that's because the Goths always regarded themselves as the people who beat the Romans, who sacked Rome and conquered it. The fact that – as Vandal Savage points out in issue #2 – they regarded themselves as just another bunch of Romans when they did so has not gotten rid of this Goth belief. And now I'm just talking about ancient history! [Laughs] I was ambushed by Paul Levitz coming off a panel in San Diego, and he said, "So when is your fantasy book set?" and I was able to tell him exactly where, which kind of took him aback. Paul is a great historical scholar, and he recommended two or three books right off the top of his head about that era. So I say all this just to say that we know where we are. But the amount of historical detail you'll need to know is zero.
You don't need to know the slight of hand to enjoy the magic trick.
Absolutely. And you don't need to know the geography of Gotham City to enjoy "Batman."
"Demon Knights" #1 is on sale now from DC Comics. For more with Cornell, see CBR's interview on "Stormwatch" #1.