Knight and Squire (Comic Review)

Knight and Squire

Knight and Squire

Though Knight and Squire were introduced in the 1950’s, for the past decade or so this British Batman and Robin has been solely the domain of DC’s mad genius writer Grant Morrison. I have to admit I was a bit worried when Paul Cornell began his Knight and Squire miniseries, as other writers’ followups to Morrison work have generally been embarrassing. I needn’t have worried.

For one thing, Morrison has left these two heroes surprisingly untouched. While they’ve been woven into his large DC epics, most notably the prelude to Seven Soldiers and throughout his exploration of Batman, they appeared and left without actually getting wrapped up in those convoluted plots. That leaves them with little more defining them beyond being a cheery, slightly silly British superhero team. Further, Cornell himself is British, and he’s used this miniseries as an opportunity to explore just what DC’s America-centric superhero universe is like across the pond.

Knight and Squire charactersCornell attacks this opportunity with Morrison-esque creativity, coming up with over 100 new characters for this six-issue series. While that’s partly a marketing gimmick, quite a few of them have become familiar, fleshed-out characters by the end of the story. Even the ones who just appear for a panel are still granted clever names and costumes, and help the result feels more like a bustling world than a simple gimmick. Jimmy Broxton’s art mostly fits the mold of competent, modern superhero work, but he has a playful inventiveness that fits well with Cornell’s vision. Designing multiple new characters every month is no easy task, but Broxton makes it look natural.

The world-building goes well beyond a lot of funny new characters, though. Cornell explores what it would really mean to be a British superhero, somehow mixing the gaudy costumes with a stiff upper lip and quiet reserve. In this world, most British heroes started as a self-aware reaction to the American scene, making it more a club than a frantic life-or-death battle between exaggerated personalities. The first issue sets the scene in a special pub with “truce magic”, allowing the heroes and villains to mix without fear of a fight breaking out. (It’s a relatively recent tradition by British standards, explains Squire. “It’s only been here since the Sixteenth Century.”)

The British nature permeates this, from silly jokes to serious villains (such as a cult whose vision of restoring England’s classic past highlights a dark, racist undertone to modern culture). From my American point of view, it rings very true. But then, Americans are used to thinking the world revolves around them. I suspect that a true Englishman might be surprised at how much time these people spend comparing themselves to the US.

Cornell’s real gift is for dialogue. It comes to the fore here, establishing both this new setting and the people within it. The superhero battles are actually the weak point of this series, the high points being when the action is incidental to the character-building. Of note, see Issue 1, with the pub and its truce magic, and issue 4, in which Squire has an awkward first date and we learn more about the history of both leads than Morrison ever provided.

The first four issues are lighthearted done-in-one stories, so it’s a bit of a surprise when the final two see the heroes collide with the more brutal American hero culture. Some fans have decried this turn to the “grim and gritty” clichés of modern superhero comics. It makes sense, though. “Grim and gritty” isn’t automatically bad, it’s just become the standard for lazy, uninspired writers. The England-meets-America confrontation makes perfect sense given the set-up of the first few issues, and it never sinks to violence for violence’s sake. Without giving too much away, there are some truly disappointing “grim” events, but the heroes’ ultimate goodness, and British-ness, sees them through. What makes most modern “dark” comics disappointing is that the writers forget that superhero stories should be about the good guys persevering due to their morality, not just suffering for it. Cornell gets this balance exactly right.

While Knight and Squire does suffer when it moves away from the characters to focus on plot, fortunately that’s not the focus of the series. Amazingly, this Batman spin-off managed to slip past the DC editors with its own feel, rather than the lazy “Batman in England” that I would have expected. What we got instead was unique and inventive worldbuilding. I expect to see many of Cornell’s creations appearing in other peoples’ stories in the near future. Even more importantly, I hope to see him back with these characters before long, introducing us all to this familiar yet surprising culture.

Grade: B

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